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.