String Theory Hype Fest

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 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.

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62 Responses to String Theory Hype Fest

  1. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks. Took a quick look. It’s an interesting example of what’s going on with string theorists. 90% of it was advertising for string theory, all decades old. The last 10% was the news that the speaker is moving on from string theory to something else: “generalized symmetries”.

    The problem with this very common situation is that, while string theory research is on the outs, hep-th research is in the same situation as it has been for many decades: almost everyone works on the same short list of “hot” topics. Today there’s a very short list of these, to see it is even easier than it used to be: just look at the list of “Simons collaborations”, the winners of their competition to choose the latest few hot topics. Basically now these are:

    1. “It from Qubit”: study toy models supposed giving gravity from quantum information considerations. This may have peaked and be on the way down, after it jumped the shark with the wormhole publicity stunt a bit more than a year ago.
    2. Amplitudeology a la Arkani-Hamed, or also the bootstrap: the revival of the failed S-matrix program of the late sixties.
    3. Celestial holography: Strominger is a talented fund-raiser.
    4. Generalized symmetries.

    Getting a job if you’re doing one of these is quite difficult. If you’re not doing one of these it’s impossible. Maybe one of them will give a big breakthrough in our understanding of fundamental physics, but no evidence for that so far. If the way forward is something other than 1-4, the field is in its usual position of making any young person working on the right way forward unemployable.

  2. Mark Hillery says:

    One wonders if space for different approaches could open up at places off the beaten track. This was the case with quantum information and foundations in the early days. It emerged from places like Wheeler’s group at UT Austin and Charlie Bennett and company at IBM, and not from the IAS or Harvard. An example of a very successful career coming from this era is that of Bill Wootters. Bill came from Wheeler’s group, where he was one of the authors on the no-cloning paper, and spent the rest of his career at Williams College, where he made fundamental contributions to entanglement theory as well as being one of the originators of quantum teleportation. Could something like this happen in high-energy theory, or is it out of the question?

  3. Eitan Bachmat says:

    Dear Peter
    I t seems to me that your view of hot topics and the choices of the Simons foundation is too localized. I think the more correct view is that what is promoted is the advancement of symmetries, dualities and generalizations as beatiful organizing and cross disciplinary concepts which are extremely effective in math and science. More generally, it seems that cross disciplinarity is strongly promoted. There is a symmetry based collaboration on the engineering of fusion, essentially an elaboration of Noether’s theorem, there is another about extreme wave phenomenon. Symmetries and symmetry breaking which is mostly classical, combining engineers, mathematicians and physicists, there is the homological mirror symmetry collaboration which is physics inspired pure math which has great results regardless of wether it has anything to do with actual physics and you can apply this analysis to most collaborations, There are a few pure math and a pure computer science collaboration, but these are the exceptions.
    Given this interpretation, its easy to understand the choices related to hep. They are by the more mathematically sophisticated and symmetry and duality producing members of the community and the more mathatically sophisticated topics.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Mark Hillery,
    Wooters and his career is an interesting case. From his CV online, after his Ph.D. at UT Austin he stayed on two more years as a “postdoc/instructor”, then went on to Williams, where he stayed the rest of his career. What he didn’t do was get one or more regular research postdocs and then a tenure-track job at a research institution. With the kind of work he was doing, likely he would have had no chance at such jobs, even with Wheeler’s backing.

    I remember looking into liberal arts college jobs like the Williams one, since these places might not care so much about whether your research program is in the hot hep-th area. But there aren’t so many such jobs, hard to get one without a leg up like backing from Wheeler.

    It’s even more the case now than in 1980 that you absolutely have to be working on one of a small number of hot topics to get a postdoc or a tenure-track job at a research university. Take a look at what successful candidates here
    are working on. From looking at quite a few examples, they’re all exactly the same few topics. Maybe an accurate way to describe these topics would be not by technical names but
    1. What Strominger is working on.
    2. What Vafa is working on.
    3. What Seiberg is working on.
    4. What Maldacena is working on.
    5. What Arkani-Hamed is working on.
    I don’t see anyone getting a job with a background working on ideas off the beaten track. What I find remarkable about the HEP theory community, faculty and funding agencies alike, is that they refuse to acknowledge that this system is broken and take steps to create a viable career path in which people could succeed working on less popular topics.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Eitan Bachmat,
    My comment was not about the Simons collaborations in general, but very specifically about the ones in hep-th, the complete list of which is as far as I can tell
    1. Celestial Holography
    2. Confinement and QCD Strings
    3. Global Categorical Symmetries (this one is not just hep-th, but cross-disciplinary with a large math and condensed matter part)
    4. It from Qubit
    5. The non-perturbative bootstrap

    Looking at the list, I wouldn’t describe it as embodying mathematical sophisticated mathematics (other than the cross-disciplinary 3.). Again, besides 3, symmetry not a big theme for 2 and 4. For 1. and 5, the interest in symmetries is only in certain very specific ones (conformal invariance/ specific asymptotic symmetries).

    My general impression of how the Simons Foundation chooses topics is that they focus on already active areas of research at elite institutions, and like to fund people who are already widely acknowledged as the best in their field. They also are interested in funding work that significantly involves computation, and, yes, cross-disciplinary work.

    What I know well is the pure math and hep-th areas. There, the pure math things they are funding are very successful and active research directions, maybe their money helps accelerate progress. On the hep-th side I don’t think their impact is positive, accelerating trends in an unhealthy subject is not a good idea.

  6. @Peter

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply anything untoward with my comment on the quote about Strominger, I just meant that’s it’s a really unfortunate sentence, given what we know now.

  7. Oskar Skalski says:

    I’m just a person with interest in physics without any background (other than what I had at my IT studies) and I was once enamoured with string theory thanks to Brian Greene’s documentaries on National Geographic. Then when I’ve delved more into the topic I saw all the shortcomings of this idea and how sometimes it is treated as almost a religion (vide Michio Kaku). But I try to follow every new interesting discussion on youtube (and WSF has some very interesting ones) so I’ve started it and then was a bit baffled with it. It seems like this guys are living in some parallel reality. What was more ridiculous all guests are proponents of ST and they didn’t invite any skeptics for the discussion to maintain some balance. Riger Penrose would be a good choice for example. I didn’t finish the whole discussion because it seemed that it wasn’t worth my time. They just regurgitate old points without taking some self-reflection about the topic.
    At least they didn’t invite Michio Kaku. It seems like he became a meme this days.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Oskar Skalski,
    The string theory community in general recognizes that Michio Kaku regularly puts out indefensible hype about their subject, but does nothing about this. The depressing thing about the panel discussed here is that it makes clear that the reason for this is that the leaders of the subject don’t have a problem at all with indefensible hype, they’ll participate in it given the opportunity. Among the endless Kaku nonsense, hard to think of a case where he went on the way Strominger does about the current state of string theory deserving an A+++.

  9. Shlomi says:

    It’s interesting that Strominger went from assigning ST “3 As, 2 Bs, 3 Ds and 2 Fs” in 2010 to A+ now! See
    What could be the reason for the seeming improvement?

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Grade inflation at Harvard in recent years seems to be even worse than I had thought…

  11. Peter Woit says:

    More seriously, that previous set of grades was given at a Harvard colloquium in front of his colleagues. If he had tried the “A+++” business there, everyone would have just laughed at him and if they thought he was serious, he would have completely lost credibility with his colleagues.

    On the other hand, at this kind of informercial, he’s assuming none of his colleagues are watching, or if they are, they’re in on the idea that it’s all right to lie to the public, in the service of retaining their support for your research.

  12. anon says:

    Sounds to me like a eulogy given at a funeral, praising the dead while carefully avoiding any negative speech (as Gross tried). Strominger gave a C back in 2010 when string theory was still kind of alive.

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