string theory lied to us and now science communication is hard

I want to make up for linking to something featuring Michio Kaku yesterday by today linking to the exact opposite, an insightful explanation of the history of string theory, discussing the implications of how it was sold to the public. It’s by a wonderful young physicist I had never heard of before, Angela Collier. She has a Youtube channel, and her latest video is string theory lied to us and now science communication is hard.

Instead of going on in detail about the video and what’s great about it, I’ll just give you my strongest recommendation that you should go watch it, now. It’s as hilarious as it is brilliant, and you have to see for yourself.

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61 Responses to string theory lied to us and now science communication is hard

  1. Sage of PHY6 Paths says:

    Douglas Natelson,
    I NEVER claimed that all people who do condensed matter or AMO or nanophysics go into those despite being more interested in hep. I know many people who are genuinely interested in those stuff though I am not one of them. But many people move from hep-th to applied physics very early in their career [end of undergrad or beginning of PhD] due to lack of opportunities. The opposite [people interested in applied physics moving to hep] will never happen due to lack of funding to hep.

  2. John Baez says:

    I enjoyed Collier’s string theory video a lot, almost as much as her video on crackpots where she points to my Crackpot Index as archaic evidence that physics cranks have always been the same. (What I liked most about her crackpot video is her answer to the inevitable question “but what if they’re right?”)

    For me the most cringeworthy mistake in her string theory video was her guess that the pion was a particle whose existence was predicted by the Standard Model. Kids these days! They don’t even remember Yukawa’s prediction of the pion back in 1935, the whole invention of the idea that short-range forces are carried by massive bosons, and the confusion caused by the muon???

    But anyway, it doesn’t really matter for her point.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    I’ve added a note to this comment
    about a job advertisement for a postdoc at Potsdam. While the problem I was referring to is a real one, this was not a good example, for reasons explained in the note.

  4. JE says:


    No matter how fair and well-meaning your note can be, the publicly-funded Max Planck Institute is proudly publicizing an award to a young researcher for “making string theory more calculable” on the webpage you linked to, on grounds that “String theories are candidates for a unification of Einstein’s general relativity and quantum field theory”, which does not sound to me like a new or very interesting idea in the 2020s. The award was “intended to motivate especially gifted early career researchers to pursue a future university or research career”, and the awardee completed his PhD in Hermann Nicolai’s department of Quantum Gravity and Unified Theories under the supervision of Axel Kleinschmidt.

    Hopefully they will now be exploring more promising and interesting ideas about symmetries, as you say…

  5. Peter Woit says:

    I’d be a lot happier if Potsdam and other places explicitly gave up on this sort of string theory research, and this job ad is not completely unproblematic, but the important question is that of what research activity by young theorists is getting funded. This particular case isn’t a good example of the problem (funding limited to bad, failed ideas), with the research program’s focus on new ideas about symmetries a good one. Would be better without the starting point being string theory/supergravity, but one can’t have everything…

  6. @Anonymous,
    Appalachia is not a bottom-line place. It is a story-telling place. And the nature and place and purpose of story-telling are absolutely central, not only to the particular disputes about the scientific method that are addressed here, but to every other aspect of 21st-Century life. Story-telling is such a fine thing that no one ever stopped to think what would happen if we had too much of it.

  7. Marion Delgado says:

    I watched this and my very first thought was “Peter Woit should see this.” I used to be a faithful reader of this blog, back in the day, and I never wrote about this, but I was already familiar with Sabine Hossenfelder and some others, but it was through “Not Even Wrong” that I discovered Scientific American’s John Horgan, and I am really grateful to the blog for that. Back before the day, I used to drag my academic friends to string theory presentations, and when they were critical, I couldn’t explain away their critiques, so I am also grateful for Dr Woit putting the objections in better words than theirs or mine and affirming them.

  8. SRP says:

    From Jim’s Symmetry link:

    “But to push beyond the Standard Model and toward a theory of everything, scientists need a foothold in the form of an unexpected deviation—which they have yet to find.

    “The Standard Model is too good,” says Peter Woit, a theorist and mathematician at Columbia. “Despite a huge effort we haven’t been able to come up with something better.””

    Sure, if one ignores the anomalies Krisch and colleagues found decades ago, at readily accessible energies, then QCD is fine. But as far as I can tell, understanding of this phenomenon isn’t much advanced since this review from ten years ago.

  9. Curious Mayhem says:

    The Angela Collier website seems to be down:

  10. bryan says:

    I finally got around to watching this video, and it really resonated with me for 2 reasons:

    1. This reminds me of how I felt reading popular science books in the 90s

    2. This is a wonderful demonstration of modern casual science communication

    For the first point, I felt I was mislead about the likelihood of ST being real. I remember reading Peat’s “Superstrings and the search for everything” for recreation in college when I was studying engineering. (Ironically, if I remember correctly, that books spends a good deal of time discussing Twistor theory). Anyway, I was pretty convinced as a layman that ST was likely true, and that SUSY would likely be discovered at the LHC. I think I remember Peter saying on this blog the likelihood from the professional physics community of SUSY detection at LHC was actually closer to around 10%, and I was confused why my impression was so different.

    On the second point, I think it is important for technical experts to understand this type of science communication. Playing a video game (in this case the classic roguelike “Binding of Isaac”) while talking is not a “joke” or meant to be disrespectful, rather discussing topics while streaming other content is a casual way to engage the audience. Look at chess #2 player in the world, Hikaru Nakamura. He considers himself now a streamer first, and a chess player second. He will have casual conversations about chess and pop culture while playing online. He just won the Norway Chess tournament and during the finals he was doing video confessionals mid-game to explain what he was thinking mid-game, doubts and all. This type of communication is making chess more popular among teenagers.

    This casual stream of consciousness talking on very technical subjects makes the streamer very vulnerable, but it allows the audience to understand their though process at a deeper level. Commenters here are complaining about the inaccuracies in her video, they would likely rather read a polished peer-reviewed paper with proper citations, but this is the last step in process and not the first. I believe most people would rather hear someone’s raw thoughts and ideas, where they’re not afraid to be wrong.

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