I just finished watching the video here, which was released today. Since this was advertised as a panel discussion on the state of string theory, I thought earlier today that it might be a good opportunity to write something serious about the state of string theory and its implications more generally for the state of hep-th. But, I just can’t do that now, since I found the video beyond depressing. I’ve seen a lot of string theory hype over the years, but on some level, this is by far the worst example I’ve ever seen. I started my career in awe of Edward Witten and David Gross, marveling at what they had done and were doing, honored to be able to learn wonderful things from them. Seeing their behavior in this video leaves me broken-hearted. What they have done over the past few decades and are doing now has laid waste to the subject I’ve been in love with since my teenage years. Maybe someday this field will recover from this, but I’m not getting any younger, so dubious that I’ll be around to see it.
Most shameful of the lot was Andy Strominger, who at one point graded string theory as “A+++”, another only “A+”. He did specify that very early on he had realized that actual string theory as an idea about unification was not going to work out. He now defines “string theory” as whatever he and others who used to do string theory are working on.
David Gross was the best of the lot, giving string theory a B+. At two points (29:30 and 40:13), after explaining the string theory unification vision of 1984-5 he started to say “Didn’t work out that way…” and “Unfortunately…”, but in each case Brian Greene started talking over him telling him to stop.
Funny thing is, I think even most string theorists are going to be appalled by this performance. Already, here’s what StringKing42069 has to say
🤮 these old jagoffs have thrown an entire generation of strings under the bus. Fuq them.
Update: I haven’t seen any negative reaction to this hypefest from anyone in the physics community other than from StringKing42069. The Black Hole Initiative at Harvard features the event prominently on its website here advertising Strominger’s participation (he’s a PI).
I’m finding it hard to believe that any of the participants in this thought of it as anything other than an advertising effort useful to try and prop up public support and grant funding. In particular, Strominger’s “A+++” is easier to understand once you realize the extent of the grant funding involved, e.g.:
- The Black Hole Initiative that features this on its website: \$16 million from the Templeton Foundation, \$3.6 million from the Moore Foundation.
- The Simons Collaboration on Celestial Holography: \$8 million from the Simons Foundation.
- NSF Grant: \$400,000 from the NSF.
- DOE Grant: \$3.5 million from the DOE.
The abstract of the last of these is A+++ hype in tune with the WSF video:
Vigorous efforts made over the last several decades have advanced our understanding of the fundamental laws of nature beyond the standard model of particle physics. Further advances would potentially include unification of the forces, the reconciliation of quantum mechanics and gravity, a derivation of the standard model couplings, a universal explanation of the area law for horizon entropy, and a theory for the origin of the universe.
For a much older example of successful use of hype to extract grant funding, there’s this Jeffrey Epstein story I hadn’t known about until recently.