Frenkel on String Theory

Curt Jaimungal’s Theories of Everything podcast has a new episode featuring a long talk with Edward Frenkel (by the way, I’ll be doing one of these next month). A few months ago I wrote about a Lex Fridman podcast with Frenkel here. While both of these are long, they’re very much worth watching.

While there’s some overlap between the two podcasts, some different topics are covered in the new one. In particular, one thing that happened to Frenkel since last spring is that he attended Strings 2023 and gave a talk there (slides here, video here). The experience opened his eyes to just how bad some of the long-standing problems with string theory have gotten, and starting around here in the podcast he has a lot to say about them.

It’s pretty clear that his reaction to what he saw going on at the conference was colored by his experience growing up in late Soviet-era Russia, where the failure of the system had become clear to everyone, but you weren’t supposed to say anything about this. He pins responsibility for this situation on senior leaders of the field, who have been unwilling to admit failure. As part of this, he acknowledges his own role in the past, in which he was often happy to get some reflected glory from string theory hype by playing up its positive influence on parts of mathematics while ignoring its failure as a theory of the real world. In any case, I urge you to watch the entire podcast, it’s well worth the time.

For a very different perspective on the responsibility of senior people for string theory’s problems, you might want to take a look at the bizarre twitter feed of stringking42069, which may or may not be some very high-quality trolling. In between replies and tweets devoted to weightlifting, weed and women, the author has some very detailed and mostly scornful commentary on the state of the field and the behavior of its leaders. His point of view is that the leaders have betrayed the true believers like himself, abandoning work on the subject in favor of irrelevancies like “it from qubit”, in the process tanking the careers of young people still trying to work on actual string theory. For a summary of the way he sees things, see here and here. Comments on specific people here and here.

This weekend here in New York if you’ve got $35 you can attend an event bringing together five of the people most responsible for the current situation. I doubt that the promised evaluation of “a mathematically elegant description that some have called a “theory of everything.”” will accurately reflect the state of the subject, but perhaps some of the speakers will have listened to what Edward Frenkel has to say (or read stringking42069’s tweets) and realized that a new approach to the subject is needed.

Update: Curt Jaimungal at the Theories of Everything podcast has a new episode, discussing quantum gravity with Jonathan Oppenheim. Around 1:10 Oppenheim has some comments about the current problem of few opportunities for young people to pursue new ideas in this field, including:

You know, it’s a multifaceted problem. I think part of it is that for whatever reason, people like to work on the same thing as everyone else. And I mean, we are social creatures, and we want to be part of the community. And so if there’s a big community doing something, then it’s very natural to want to be part of that community and do that research.

But it’s, I feel like it’s gotten to quite an extreme. It feels quite extreme at the moment, I feel like even when I was a student, you know, there were various researchers who, I would say, didn’t have a firm allegiance to say, string theory or loop quantum gravity, and you could kind of work with one of them and work on your own approach. Whereas I think now, for whatever reason, the landscape has just become a lot more divided into different communities who do different things, and it’s much harder to go off on your own. And maybe that’s just because it’s students’ worry that if they go off on their own, they won’t get a job. I think that’s probably a big part of it.

Update: Bringing together this and the last posting, if you’d like more Frenkel and more Langlands, there’s a new Numberphile video out.

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30 Responses to Frenkel on String Theory

  1. Z Y says:

    That’s a who’s who ensemble of ST at NY, a kind of last hurrah, have these four came together at a public/scientific conference panel before? Hopefully a video will be uploaded somewhere.
    The state of the matter is such, specially on laymen circles, that I reckon it will be disappointing if none of them at least show some reflection about the urgent need to explore new ideas outside of ST if we are going to make any progress at fundamental physics

  2. Peter Woit says:

    I assume a video will be available at some point. I can’t remember an event ever that brought all of them together, especially not to discuss the state of string theory.

    It is a remarkable group in the sense that each of them has played and continues to play a large role in the hyping of string theory, with most of them at it for nearly forty years. When Frenkel refers to those who have responsibility for creating the problem with string theory and for now doing something about it, it’s very much this group.

  3. Allen M. says:


    I have been reading your blog for a decade. To see you being vindicated in this way warms my heart.

    Thank you for everything.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Allen M.,
    Thanks, but I’d much rather see something positive getting done about the problems with fundamental theoretical HEP research that I’ve pointed out, and unfortunately I don’t see that happening. Rather, the field shows little sign of facing up to its problems, instead just goes from bad to worse.

    If we’re in an analog of the end-days of the failed Soviet system, there’s no reason to be sure something better lies in the future.

  5. Hiro Kawabata says:

    Another event that may be of interest.
    On that may be more forward looking:

    “Puzzles in the Quantum Gravity Landscape: viewpoints from different approaches”

    Oct 23 – 27, 2023
    Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

  6. Alessandro Strumia says:

    Dear Hiro, the String King 42069 (Lubos 2.0?) account recommended by Peter writes that the conference you recommend is “crackpots”, see

    A problem in the quantum gravity community is the lack of criticism towards those theorists who make big claims based on weak logic. The conference you suggest has an unnecessary Code of Conduct that limits the open criticism needed to keep untestable quantum gravity serious, see

    Even worse, the registration page forces participants to endorse partisan political values and beliefs, such as equity and µaggressions. Most physicists might not know the hidden political meaning of these kind of words, designed to sound nice. As this political stuff has nothing to do with quantum gravity, I cannot attend this conference.

  7. Low Math, Meely Interacting says:

    Thanks for the pointer to Curt Jaimungal’s podcast. Among other content I find less edifying are some real gems, foremost this discussion. Frenkel is a remarkable human being.

    He rightly emphasizes his observation of a phenomenon described many times elsewhere (notably by you and Sabine Hossenfelder) in regards to this subject, namely the lengths human beings will go to avoid cognitive dissonance. For those with a passing interest in psychology, it’s a well-established fact that we see it all around us while being almost incapable of recognizing how profoundly it shapes our own thoughts and actions. It’s the mechanism that allows groupthink to propagate and overwhelm all collective rational thought. Every leader depends on it to stay focused, and every apparatchik to stay sane.

    I agree with you, Peter, that it’s the unique liability of the true genius that he or she becomes convinced their intellectual powers make them exceptional in ways they are not. Frankel shows great integrity and compassion in pointing out there’s no shame in being ordinary in this way. But rarely are we rewarded for admitting it, despite the good it would do the individual and their community.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Alessandro Strumia,
    It seems quite possible StringKing is a parody account of a clever young theorist making fun of string theory fanatics (e.g. the answer to all problems is to read Polchinski???).

    Given my allergy to moral posturing and those who want to enlist everyone in their self-righteous crusades, I’m not very sympathetic to having long codes of conduct like the Perimeter one and requiring people to sign them. If StringKing showed up in real life at a conference behaving like on Twitter (unlikely….) maybe you would need a code of conduct to deal with him.

    Your idea that this kind of code of conduct will interfere with appropriate scientific criticism would apply more to the last conference at Perimeter (Strings 2023), where Frenkel’s perception of a culture not allowing valid criticism I think was accurate. This next conference seems to me one more aware that all known programs have serious problems, that what is needed is new ideas.

    All, please no more comments about Perimeter’s code of conduct or attempts to carry on woke/anti-woke warfare here.

  9. Michael Weiss says:

    Thank you for sharing the link to Curt Jaimungal’s interview with Prof. Edward Frenkel. It is extraordinary both for its perspectives and for the insights it indirectly provides into a remarkable character. His life story beginning in the former USSR is inspiring.

    Returning to the interview, Prof. Frenkel’s emphasis on what he describes as “self-awareness” is pertinent not only to the scientific community, but to larger trends in our society more broadly.

    As an aside, Frankel’s candid comments on your courage (and that of scientist-observers Drs. Lee S and Sabine H; i.e., to have highlighted unfortunate sociological trends in hep-th more than 15 years ago), a critique sadly dismissed by some hep-th leaders at that time as “sour grapes,” surely must be an important validation, if years too late. This is as close to a thank-you as anyone can expect in this world.

  10. You dislike if people work on string theory. Do you also dislike if people stop working on string theory?

    I think the situation is IMPROVING. The old senior people stopped working on string theory, but they still say that they believe in string theory. It might be they are too embarrassed to say that their theory failed after dedicating decades to it and subconsciously think it somehow will come back as the main research topic again. They think currently progress is not happening in string theory so they temporarily work in semiclassical gravity or holography.

    The younger generation is much different. People like Daniel Harlow, Geoff Penington, Sabrina Pasterski etc NEVER call themselves as string theorists. They just say they are high-energy theorists who work on quantum gravity etc. Among the young, only some swamplanders have hope that string theory will come back as the main theory. Young people who work on other topics like AdS holography (It from Qubit etc.), Celestial holography, etc don’t have much hope in string theory. I think they are just hoping a better theory will come in the future. They are also hoping this better theory will be holographic. These people will not say string theory is dead as it will hurt the senior people’s feelings. I think once the old generation retires, these people might rename the conference names from “strings 20xx” to “Quantum Gravity and QFT 20xx”.

    What they are doing now is AT LEAST better than still continuing to do the old string theory. I can’t say the progress is impressive, but at least it is decent. I hope that more new ideas come out in this decade. Also I hope the job market will improve in the future, in the past people like James Sully and Aitor Lewkowycz who did great research could not get a professor job. But instead of being more optimistic, you, Sabine and String King etc are very pessimistic.

  11. Alessandro Strumia says:

    Some sharp opinions by StringKing agree with what I privately hear from European physicists, for example during coffee breaks. By the way, coffee breaks is where dangerous doubts on string theory were discussed before blogs around 2000. During talks people said “thank you for the insightful talk, I have not fully understood a point at slide 3”, and criticism was never openly expressed. But, during coffee breaks, the same people said “I fell asleep at slide 3, wtf did he talk about?”. At the time, the main string topic was pp-waves, deadly soporific after lunch. That’s when joint seminars started being useless, and other physicists stopped attending technical string talks.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Alessandro Strumia,

    I’m pretty much in agreement with StringKing on his argument that the senior people in string theory have given up on the subject and are now pursuing trendy irrelevancies, and don’t doubt this is also what most informed people in the subject are thinking.

    The reason StringKing seems to me likely a troll/parody account is the pairing of an intelligent/well-informed take on current research in the subject with over-the-top stupid material about weed/exercise/bros/broettes and fixation on the idea that the way forward is to re-read Polchinski and pursue old failed research programs. Most likely explanation for this pairing is someone trying to make those still pursuing string theory look like idiots.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    Following up on my last comment. StringKing posts continually, except during typical sleeping hours in Europe. At the same time, his writing style is comes off as “dumb-ass American”. I’m betting parody account by a European theorist wanting to make fun of string theorists, specifically American ones.

  14. Andrew says:


    I’m not sure how much you care about the identity of StringKing, so if it seems this is getting a bit obsessive, feel free to ignore.

    I think it quite likely he is based in London, or at least the UK. He mentions participating in a half marathon this morning, and there happened to be one where I live (London) this morning, starting at approx the time he tweeted about it (sorry Xed). I only know this because I live close to the finishing line of the event and heard all the noise it created, I don’t normally follow such things.

    There were some other such events in Europe today, but not in the USA. He seems to me to be a native English speaker, doesn’t make the odd slip ups or strange word choices that good but non-native English speakers tend to make.

    Is he a troll? Of course anyone can look up half marathon dates, so it doesn’t prove anything, just circumstantial evidence. I take your point that he’s making string theory look bad, and why would a real string theorist do that, but the behaviour of a certain Czech blogger (only the most extreme example anongst many tbh) leaves me unconvinced.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    UK/London based seems quite possible, early on he was discussing UK string theorists in great detail, before those on the continent.

    Mainly curious whether my troll hypothesis is correct.

  16. Kurt Schmidt says:

    Joseph Conlon thinks that StringKing is from Tennessee or somewhere in the southern United States, since that account follows a number of Tennessee state politicians on twitter:

  17. Peter Woit says:

    Photino Birds,
    Your description of the situation as young people knowing very well that string theory is dead but “These people will not say string theory is dead as it will hurt the senior people’s feelings” agrees with what I’m seeing and what Frenkel was seeing, but I think both of us see something much worse going on than people not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings.

    The reason young theorists don’t publicly say “actually Woit/Smolin were right in 2006, string theory was on its deathbed then and it’s dead now” is not that they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, but that they don’t want to end their career. A field where people can’t honestly discuss the scientific status of ideas because doing so could be career-ending is a very unhealthy one, and one not likely to return to health soon.

  18. martibal says:

    If the young people know that string theory is dead, why do they start a career in this topic ? Is is at this point impossible to make theoretical high energy physics in the US if not in string ? Here in Italy, or in Europe in general, we have often some students aiming at doing theoretical / mathematical physics and choosing to do algebraic qft, qft on curve spacetime, noncommutative geometry etc. Of course their job situation after the PhD is not easy (to say the least) but I am not sure this is so much better in string.
    Nobody put a gun against young master students in physics to force them to enter string.
    Maybe a problem is the fascination for big names: “Witten as the new Einstein” etc If so, then maybe the “best minds” (to take the terminology that string people like) actually do not go to string anymore, because the “best mind” might have understood that the star system is not a good indication of the health of a research area.

  19. André says:


    My impression is that the confrontation of students with current research is too little, too late. Hence, I think that the majority of PhD students at the beginning of their PhD only has a very limited understanding of the status of the type of research they are getting into.
    I think it would help, if the focus in teaching would shift a lot more from ‘things we understand’ to ‘things we don’t understand’.

    T.b.h., when I graduated and started my PhD in 2010, the main reason I didn’t end up in string theory was that by pure luck I attended a seminar on algebraic geometry, of which I did not understand the slightest bit, but which was taught by a string theorist turned mathematician who, in a private discussion, told me to read the books by Smolin and Woit before deciding to go into string theory. If I had randomly picked some other math lecture that year to attend just for fun, who knows, I might be preaching the word of Polchinski on used-to-be-twitter today.

  20. Peter Woit says:


    My impression is that a lot of ambitious young people interested in fundamental theory are making the mistake of assuming that this is a normal subject making continual progress. So, the thing to do is to work your way up through the historical progress of the subject, learning QED, standard model QFT, GUTs, Supersymmetry, supergravity, string theory, M-theory, AdS/CFT, it from qubit or whatever. Along the way, they’re getting a quick superficial intro to QFT + SM from a textbook or a course, then spending a long time working their way through things like Polchinski, not aware that what they are reading about is a failed research program. They are spending the formative years of their education devoted to developing expertise in failed ideas. When they start research they’re not well-equipped to have any perspective or expertise on possibly interesting areas to work in, are equipped to take whatever jobs are out there continuing failed research programs.

  21. martibal says:

    I would have understood the argument 20 years ago. I remembered reading Hawking’s “A brief history of time” that string theory seemed the logical step after studying general relativity and quantum field theory. Yet, during my studies I then heard people explaining what was he difference between tested science and speculative science, helping me to make my mind.
    But ok, let say the information was not so easily accessible at the time (in the 90’s, beginning of the 2000) and depending on which lab one were studying, there was a risk to be confronted only to the stringy ideology.
    But this is no longer true. Whoever makes a little bit of research on string theory will find some critics, will end up reading your book, or Smollin’s, will find this blog etc
    It is hard for me to believe that people starting a PhD in theoretical physics are totally immune to the critics against string theory. If so they are (at least partially) voluntary blind.
    When, as you said, they made their way to the “continuous progress” of the field, at some point they should realise there is no such continuous progress. For the example the idea of compactifying 6 or more dimensions: it may look very cool at the beginning, but quite soon one realises that the idea has been going on for years and is not settled. Which does not prevent to work on it, but being conscious that this is a highly speculative idea.

  22. P. Trinli says:

    Out of curiosity, could anyone expand in nontechnical terms on the issues with string theory that Edward Frenkel is pointing out? Specifically about the “Calabi-Yau turning singular”?

  23. Masoud Kamgarpour says:

    Frenkel’s comments on String theory deserves to be cut into a separate video for easy consumption. I really like his quick explanation of what the problem is from mathematical perspective:

    1. There is no way to know which six dimensional Calabi-Yau to pick.
    2. Even if you somehow pick one, the manifold changes over time.
    3. This changing manifold is bout to become singular and then doing any sort of computation becomes impossible (with current techniques).

    His analogy with Israelites walking across the deserts was also spot on.

    Congratulations to Peter (and a few others) who saw the problem early on and stuck to their position despite all the difficulties. Swimming against the current is an extremely tough and courageous act.

    I think this “hyping” of one’s research is not unique to physics or AI. It has unfortunately become a feature of scientific endeavour. There are many reasons for this, but one definitive one is the grant process. When I first started on writing grants, I found to my distaste that I had to hype up my research. What was frightening however was that after a few years of doing this, I actually started believing my own BS! One would have to have a lot of self-awareness not to fall into this trap!

  24. Peter Woit says:

    P. Trinli, Masoud Kamgarpour,

    The “moduli problem” for string theory has been around and well-known since the beginning. Calabi-Yaus of a fixed topology aren’t rigid objects but come in moduli spaces. The theory has to somehow explain the dynamics of these spaces, and there has never been a satisfactory answer to this. Besides the problem of singularities Frenkel points to, even locally at a smooth point, the moduli parameters will fluctuate, giving lots of universal long-range forces, in violent disagreement with experiment. The whole “landscape” story is about Rube-Goldberg proposals (e.g. KKLT) to find dynamics that fixes the moduli values using branes, fluxes, etc. String theorists have been arguing for over 20 years about whether these proposals work. The bottom line though is that if they do work they have an ugly, complex, worthless, unpredictive theory. If they don’t work they don’t have a theory (mysteriously, this is the hope and dream of the “swampland” program). I’ve wasted too much of my life arguing with people about this nonsense, so, don’t want more discussion of this problem here. You can find hundreds of pages on the blog about it back in the early years of the blog.

  25. John Baez says:

    It was easy to see back in the 1980s that string theory was based on strange assumptions for which we had no evidence, so I was never tempted to seriously work on it. Perhaps it was easier to avoid getting into it back then: with essentially no internet, I was forced to learn physics by reading books and taking courses, so I knew general relativity and quantum field theory pretty well by the time I first heard of string theory. By now any young student has many more ways to learn physics – but they also have to wade their way through a mire of misinformation and downright disinformation.

    For me the hard part was realizing that quantum gravity is not a good problem to spend much time on: not right now, anyway. I was young, overoptimistic, and brainwashed into thinking that fundamental physics was still the most exciting part of science, the way it once was. So I spent about a decade on quantum gravity before I realized that other activities were more productive and could be equally fun. It wasn’t a total waste because at least I learned some math and physics. But I hope smart youngsters are smart enough to sidestep this quagmire!

    At least I hope they listen to what Frenkel is saying here.

  26. Alessandro Strumia says:

    Half of the moduli problem (long-range forces in disagreement with experiment) has been solved by LHC: supersymmetric particles much above the weak scale make moduli heavy. The other half is technical: finding local minima of a poorly known potential of many fields.

  27. Peter Woit says:

    Alessandro Strumia,
    One of the current big problems with theoretical particle physics is that a large part of the community won’t recognize that you are joking…

  28. Attendee says:

    Meanwhile, the Simons Foundation continues supporting famous string theorists engaging in an obviously ridiculous research direction:

    I wonder how this sort of proposal even gets positive reviews since privately a large number of string theorists mock this enterprise. But I suppose they act in unison when it comes to extracting funding dollars. I scratch your back, you scratch my back…

  29. Peter Woit says:

    Since supposedly NSF grants are hard to get, requiring very high evaluations from reviewers, I’ve never understood how grants for research topics most of the community thinks are completely misguided ever get approved. Vafa since 2020 has had an NSF grant for exactly the same topic
    expiring next year.

    The new Simons grant to Vafa is pretty unusual. They give very few of these “Targeted Grants in MPS”, see
    and it’s unclear how such grant proposals are evaluated. Vafa has been closely involved with the Simons Center and Simons Foundation for quite a while.

  30. Lee Smolin says:

    Dear all,

    The problem of the dynamics of the moduli fields in K-K theory was already understood clearly by Einstein who wrote to Ehrenfest in the 1920’s that “it is anomalous to replace the four dimensional continuum by a five dimensional one and then subsequently to tie up artificially one of those five dimensions in order to account for the fact that it does not manifest itself.”



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