Why physicists are rethinking the route to a theory of everything

New Scientist this week has a cover story I can strongly endorse, entitled Why physicists are rethinking the route to a theory of everything. It’s by journalist Michael Brooks, partly based on a long conversation we had a month or so ago. Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall, but I’ll provide a summary and some extracts here.

For a more technical description of the ideas I’m pursuing that are discussed in the article, see this preprint, which was intended to be a very short and concise explanation of what I think is the most important new idea here. This semester I’m mainly working on teaching and writing up notes for an advanced course for math graduate students about the Standard Model. I’ll be adding to these as the semester goes on, but have just added preliminary versions of two chapters (9 and 10) about the geometry of vectors, spinors and twistors in four dimensions. These chapters give a careful explanation of the standard story, according to which spacetime vectors are a tensor product of left-handed and right-handed spinors. They don’t include a discussion of the alternative I’m pursuing: spacetime vectors are a tensor product of right-handed spinors and complex conjugated right-handed spinors. I’ll write more about that later, after the course is over end of April (and I’ve recovered with a vacation early May…).

It’s well-known to theorists that the Standard Model theory is largely determined by its choice of symmetries (spacetime and internal). A goal of these notes is to emphasize that aspect of the theory, rather than the usual point of view that this is all about writing down fields and the terms of a Lagrangian. This symmetry-based point of view should make it easier to see what happens when you make the sort of change in how the symmetries work that I’m proposing. What I’m not doing is looking for a new Lagrangian. All evidence is that we have the right Lagrangian (the Standard Model Lagrangian), but there is more to understand about its structure and how its symmetries work. In particular, the different choice of relation between vectors and spinors that I am proposing is not different if you just look at Minkowski spacetime, but is quite different if you look at Euclidean spacetime.

The New Scientist article has an overall theme of new ideas about unification grounded in geometry:

… a spate of new would-be final theories aren’t grounded in physics at all, but in a wild landscape of abstract geometry…

That might strike you as outlandish, but it makes sense to Peter Woit, a mathematician at Columbia University in New York. “Our best theories are already very deeply geometrical,” he says.

There’s some discussion of string theory and its problems, with David Berman’s characterization “It can be a theory of everything, but probably it’s a theory of too much.” The article goes on to describe the amplituhedron program, with quotes from Jaroslav Trnka. After noting that it only describes some specific theories, there’s

Trnka thinks the amplituhedron approach might enable us to go even further. “One can speculate that whatever the correct theory of everything is, it would be naturally described in the amplituhedron language,” he says.

Turning to a discussion of twistors, there’s then a section describing my ideas fairly well:

Woit is using spinors and twistors to create what he hopes are the foundations of a theory of everything. He describes space and time using vectors, which are mathematical instructions for how to move between two points in space and time – that are the product of two spinors. “The conventional thing to do has been to say that space-time vectors are products of a right-handed and a left-handed spinor,” says Woit. But he claims he has now worked out how to create space-time from two copies of the right-handed spinors.

The beauty of it, says Woit, is that this “right-handed space-time” leaves the left-handed spinors free to create particle physics. In quantum field theory, spinors are used to describe fermions, the particles of ordinary matter. So Woit’s insights into spinor geometry might lead to laws describing the holy trinity of space, time and matter.

The idea has got Woit excited. He has spent most of his career looking at other ideas, thinking they will go somewhere, and being disappointed. “But the more I looked at twistor theory, the more it didn’t fall apart,” he says. “Not only that, I keep discovering new ways in which it actually works.”

It isn’t that Woit believes he necessarily has the answers. But, he says, it is good to know that, despite the long search for a theory of everything, there are still new possibilities opening up. And a better, if not perfect, theory has to be out there, he reckons, one that at least deals with sticking points like dark matter. “If you look at what we have, and its problems, you know you can do better,” he says.

Other work that is described is Renate Loll and causal dynamical triangulations, as well as what Jesper Grimstrup and Johannes Aastrup call “quantum holonomy diffeomorphisms.” For more details of the Aastrup/Grimstrup ideas, see this preprint as well as Grimstrup’s website. I can also recommend his memoir, Shell Beach.

The article ends with:

That said, when Woit – who has long been known as an arch cynic – is excited about the search for a theory of everything again, maybe all bets are off. Playing with twistors has changed him, he says. “I’ve spent most of my life saying that I don’t have a convincing idea and I don’t know anyone who does. But now I’m sending people emails saying: ‘Oh, I have this great idea’.”

Woit says it with a grin, acknowledging the hubris of thinking that maybe, after so many millennia, we might finally have cracked the universe open. “Of course, it may be that there’s something wrong with me,” he says. “Maybe I’ve just gotten old and just lost my way.”

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50 Responses to Why physicists are rethinking the route to a theory of everything

  1. Eric Weinstein says:

    Reading this weirdly filled me with dread, which I found odd. Why isn’t this a welcome relief?

    Perhaps it goes like this: I don’t think this is at all true. The story we tell about String Theory, Particle Theory, Loop Quantum Gravity, etc is just not true.

    To recapitulate the standard story it would go something like this. “In the early 1980s physics was focused on the ultimate prize: a theory of everything called Quantum Gravity. In 1984, physicists were astonished and became understandably excited from a stunning breakthrough that they had findally found the theory of everything in a new version of String Theory. Enthusiasm ran high for the first decade that we were close to a theory of everything in string theory when, unexpectedly, there was a second Superstring revolution, perhaps even more profound than the first! String theory became m-theory, strings became branes and everything looked to be going even better than expected. The only other real competitor was Loop Quantum Gravity which did not make as much progress in a race that seemed to come down to two horses where one held a seemingly insurmountable lead over the other. Shortly thereafter the picture of AdS/CFT changed everything yet again proving that Strings were indeed connected to everything we knew from the gauge theory of real physics. Meanwhile, experimental Physics then triumphed repeatedly, with the discovery of neutrino mass, a non-zero cosmological constant, the discovery of the Higgs and even of gravity waves. But along the way this marvelous new picture came with a cost: the world was even more complicated than we had ever imagined. Patinence and perserverance would be needed to stay the course over the coming decades. But now, finally after 40 years, some are starting to question whether there aren’t other avneues to be explored as well. Etc.”

    I tried to write the above as original prose in such a fashion that I can assure you there was almost no truth in what I wrote about theory in this time. Nevertheless it is written to be breathlessly repeeated by science journalists and program officers administering grants.

    We weren’t focused on quantum gravity in 1983. We were focused on different unification schemes and beyond the standard model programs. String mania wasn’t understandable enthusiasm broadly experienced by the community at all. Further, the String field didn’t simply progress, but instead actually invalided all of its own hyperbolic claims year after year (e.g. “There are only 5 theories it could be so it will be figured out quickly which on is right!” or “Branes are irrelevant: it’s just string vibrations that explain it all!” or “Gauge theory simply can’t do what strings can do as it is an entirely different paradigm!”). Loop quantum gravity wasn’t the only other competitor. None of this is true! In short, the whole String theory story is more or less a lie akin to that discussed as the “Enforced Forgetting” of the history and truth seen in Central and Easter European communist nations that was made famous by Kundera

    But most of all, I don’t believe for a minute that “Physicists and mathematicians are now finally considering whether there are new directions!” I think we are afrraid to tell the real story of a small group of physicists who went about savagely attacking all competitors through insult, aspersion, and gaining control of the narrative of the field as everyone else looked on and said “What the Eff is going on with MK, LS, EW, MD, JH, CV, AS, DG, LM, savaging everyone who would not kneel or lie prostrate before the Golden Calf of String Theory/M-Theory? This is pyschotic. There are many people with other ideas who are being destoryed. Why wont these people openly debate other experts who disagree with them vociferously? Why wont they face the critques of fellow String Theorist who left the cult as well? How in a supposedly scientific field did they become their own policeman, judge, judge, jury and assasins?”

    This is the story of a simple mass delusion like Qanon that lasted 40 years and which showed that science journalism, peer review, funding agencies and credentials do not actually work AT ALL. If they did we wouldn’t be here. I mean, this is so insane I don’t think it will ever make sense. It shows that we actually don’t have a theory of science. If we did, this would be impossible. It could never ever have happened.

    But to tell the real story about a competitor murdering band of around 10 leading individuals who somehow got near total control of the particle phyusics narrative and who used 4 decades to trash every competitor and critic, while aided by obliging science journalists who breathlessly repeated stories they could not understand, question or even check….that would call everything into question. EVERYTHING. And so we can’t tell that story. Because, in particular, it implicates the storytellers. The Kakus. The institute. The Overbyes, Harvard. The Wittens,. Princeton. The Susskinds. The New York Times. The Stromingers. It’s like “Murder on The Orient Express.” Too many are guilty.

    And yet, that is exactly what happened. We just watched a *tiny* number of zealots destroy the scientific integrity of a field essential to human progress and murder their competitors for 40 years by gaining control of the institutions rather than by succeeding in explaining the data, predicting new phenomena, correcting the past models and extending our knowledge.

    I’m up for a rethink. But for the future of science, it is essential that their be a reckoning. Thia was a form of delusion and actual evil. Not hyperbolic evil. But pure a pure backstabbing, anti-collegial, excercise in pesudo-scientific superstition and cultish fantaticism. StringAnon if you will. I’m sorry to say this. But while it may have produced a lot of mathematics, as physics it more cult than we can bring ourselves to admit.

    Let’s do the work. Let’s get clean and sober before we simply try to explain why we pissed away 40 years and millions and millions of dollars on a murderous cult that, if we are honest, simply does not share any of the norms of actual science.

  2. Eric Weinstein says:

    I apologize for numerous typos above (we are only given < 5 mins to see what we wrote properly displayed, and I couldn't finish in time given the length of the comment). I'm of course happy to correct them and repost for the sake of readability if that is possible Peter. Thanks.

  3. Pascal says:

    If Peter’s work is to lead to a theory of everything as the New Scientist suggests, what is the plan to incorporate gravity?

  4. Hazelnut says:

    Peter, I’ve read this blog for a long time and I’ve always appreciated that you were a critic without your own agenda. You’ve always been extremely careful and one of your main demands over the years has been for more rigour. So I expected if you were to declare that you had your own “theory of everything” it would be something special.

    As it stands I have seen a few vague blog posts, a slide deck and a preprint. Your fellow profilee Renate Loll has over a decade of work on CDT and dozens of publications. Her frequent collaborator Ambjørn started on this triangulation stuff in the mid 80s. Aastrup/Grimstrup have also been at this for over a decade and have published a number of detailed papers.

    Now, of course a rigorous TOE is going to be hard, but if you think you’ve got something, Peter what are you talking about “This semester I’m mainly working on teaching and writing up notes”! You’ve posted about some sort of mathy graduate course you’ve been teaching for years. Forget the notes and work out the implications of your big idea. Publish them. Relate them to something in the real world: what do you have to say about Majorana particles (seems related?), axions, dark matter, dark energy etc.? You’ve been flirting with this for years, sit down and do physics. If you’d rather hint at your ‘twistor unification ideas’ in puff pieces and on podcasts, then I supposed I misjudged you.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    I mention this in the last preprint. There I even write down a Lagrangian (well known one for GR in chiral spinor variables). What I haven’t done is reexamined the renormalizability problem in this context, there’s still too much I don’t understand to see if this will give something new about that.

    There are two relevant preprints. My understanding of what is going on here keeps slowly improving. Things clarified a lot last fall when I realized there is a simple way of understanding what is different about what I am doing than previous work. I’ve tried to explain the idea in the preprint, in talks and in blog posts. There’s a lot of work to do to better understand it and its implications and I’m doing this. You’re comparing me unfavorably to groups of people who have been working on an idea for decades, but this is just me, I’ve been working on this particular idea for a few months by myself.

    I’m finding basically no one understands the spinor geometry I’m using well enough to understand the new idea here. To try and change this and to sort out all the technicalities of what is going on for myself so I can make progress, one of the main things I’ve been doing has been to write up the notes I just made available in chapter 9 and 10. Yes, maybe this does have implications for Majorana fermions, I’ve got a lot of work ahead to understand this.

    You misunderstand the course I’m teaching. Past courses were mainly aimed at undergraduates, trying to explain QM and representation theory in as simple terms as possible. This is for advanced graduate students, quite different. In a couple week I’ll be lecturing about the details of 4d spinor geometry, using the notes I’ve just written. This is something I’ve never done before and will be helpful to me as well as hopefully enlightening to the students.
    Later in the course I’ll be lecturing on the details of spinor fields in the standard model, including issues of neutrino masses. This will be an opportunity for me to look at that problem through the lens of the new ideas.

    I’m continually working on this. As long as no one else gets interested and it’s just me, it’s going to take a while to make progress. I’m not going to apologize for trying to explain to others why I think this is important and they should be interested too.

  6. Hazelnut says:

    Peter I am surprised you don’t see the irony of what you wrote here. I am sure people working on E8, large extra dimensions, strings, MOND, IUT… all think their work is important and want to explain it to others.

    The point is that ‘others’ you should care about are other physicists who have a chance of understanding your work and engaging with it constructively. You have for years now criticized string hype. Do you think a blog, a podcast or a popular article about new “Theories of Everything” is the way you’re going to interest other physicists in what you say are important and subtle ideas? How are you going to engage with your scientific peers? Why not, like your co-profilees, work out the consequences of your ideas in journals and conferences? Have you had any peer review of your preprints? When should I expect to read them in PRL?

    If your ideas are really as good as you think, you have spent a career building up to this, I don’t see why you would not follow your own advice and build your theory carefully, rigorously and with due consideration of skeptical colleagues?

  7. Peter Woit says:

    I am doing exactly what you suggest, other than your implication that I shouldn’t talk about what I’m doing publicly. The preprint
    was intended to explain as clearly as possible what I regard as a significant and important new idea. It was written to be readable by as many physicists as possible, and to be short enough to fit into PRL’s format, and was circulated last fall to various experts in advance, who gave me helpful feedback. It was submitted to PRL and recently rejected, on grounds I can’t really argue with, that this new proposal raises all sorts of questions that I don’t have answers to.

    In retrospect I think it was a mistake to try to write this up in this way and submit to PRL. The short format there makes it impossible to provide needed technical background. One thing that has become clear to me is that the usual story of spinor geometry, especially how spinors in Minkowski spacetime and Euclidean spacetime are related, is not widely understood. Because of this I spent a lot of time carefully writing down details of this, in the chapters 9 and 10 I’m pointing people to. Once I’ve finished the project of this class in a couple months, I’ll go back to writing a longer document, starting with those chapters, and working out more of the implications of the new proposal about spinors I’m making. At some point I’ll go back to trying again with referees somewhere, but I’m hoping to get interest and feedback from others outside that venue.

    As for conferences, well no one has invited me to speak about this at one. I’ve looked carefully for conferences where a talk by me would be obviously appropriate, haven’t seen any, would have tried contacting conference organizers if I had. I was invited to give one seminar talk about this recently, did so, and it’s online. The response to that talk from those in attendance was encouraging.

    So, it seems to me that I’m doing exactly what you want, other than not fast enough making progress to the point I could claim dramatic success at a theory of beyond SM physics. You also seem to think I shouldn’t be talking about some exciting new ideas until I have more of a finished product, but I’m not seeing the argument for that. Obviously I don’t expect professionals in the field to understand what I’m doing and evaluate it based on stories in New Scientist, but I have carefully written down explicitly the technical details of what I am talking about and made those publicly available.

  8. Hazelnut says:

    So you are engaging in the normal process of science, where you have had an idea, written it down, failed to get it published, and are still working on it. Your ideas are not fully baked, and there’s nothing wrong with that, 1000s of others are doing the same.

    The difference is that those others don’t get profiled in the New Scientist or invited on Lex Freidman’s podcast. This is happening for you based on your micro celebrity due to your book. Using that micro celebrity to promote your, admittedly, uncooked ideas seems very much on par with the various string hype people you’ve been criticizing for years.

    What would you say if some string person (take your pick) went on a popular podcast and had a glowing New Scientist profile written about them and their exciting new ideas about twistor string ads/cft etc.etc. You may say that these ideas have been out for 50 years and gone nowhere. Well your idea is hardly even an idea yet, by your own admission.

    Basically I think your attitude is hypocritical and you ought to be more humble. I think if you were applying the standards you’ve called for yourself, you should have declined to be interviewed for this piece and not spoken about your very preliminary work on a huge platform.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    We’re just going to have to disagree about whether I should speak publicly about what I see as an important new idea, even if its implications are not fully understood. Yes, the idea is not “fully baked”, but there is a great deal about it that I do understand and have worked out. I have by now had a very long career of working on my own ideas that initially to me seemed promising, but as I worked on them it became clear that they had serious problems. The last few years have been the first time that the longer I work on an idea, the more I see not new problems with it but a solid new picture that hangs together. As indicated in the piece, I’m well aware that maybe this is just because I’m getting gaga, but I don’t think so.

    I don’t think the New Scientist writer decided to write about this because I wrote a popular book over twenty years ago. As he makes explicit in the article, he was well aware that using my “microcelebrity” to make dubious claims about my own work is not something I’m known to ever have done over the years.

    The comparison to my critique of string theory makes so little sense I’m not going to bother trying to answer it.

    As for journal publication, I believe I could publish something about this in a journal, don’t though think that would prove very much. At the moment it seems more important to me to work on developing a better version of these ideas than trying to find the right journal/set of referees that would want to publish the current version. That an idea is published in some journal doesn’t make it a good or interesting one.

  10. Hazelnut says:

    The issue isn’t you speaking publicly, you surely understand the difference between a piece like this and, say, a conference talk. You surely know that if you hadn’t written the book back then you would not be invited on these podcasts or profiled like this based on 2 preprints with 5 total citations.

    You may not see the string comparison as apt, but if your part in this New Scientist piece was replaced with one of the scientists from the last Quanta article you talked about, you’d have something to say. While a journal publication might not mean much these days, it at least demonstrates your work has been reviewed by a couple of competent people and you just said the feedback from PRL was apt. Your reputation is exactly why I am surprised that this is how you are approaching things. Do science not PR.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    The sum total of time I’ve spent on the New Scientist piece that has been stolen from doing science is about 3 hours so far: one talking to Michael Brooks, one writing a blog entry, one arguing with you.

    To make the obvious point, I’ve never anywhere criticized anyone with new and different ideas who is trying to get attention for them. What I have criticized is well-entrenched bad ideas that come with the fullest backing of journal publications, conference talks, etc. that you think I should get before talking to the public.

    At this point I don’t think people are paying attention to what I have to say because of a book I wrote 22 years ago that now sells about 5 copies/year and that few under the age of 40 have actually read. Journalists pay attention more because of the blog, which many have found to be a reliable source of information. Mathematicians and physicists who look at the unrefereed blog can decide for themselves whether I know what I’m talking about. Some think so, others think I’m a dangerous incompetent.

    Most importantly, the technical details of what I’m talking about are out there, in a paper and a seminar talk, now with detailed background available if you want. I’m getting the impression you have no idea what this is all about, aren’t really interested in the science.

  12. Marty says:

    Hi Peter,

    I think there is some real wisdom in what Hazelnut is saying. His tone strikes me as that of a concerned friend who is trying to get you to consider a change of course.

    I defended you at various times during the “string wars” era, especially on this blog, against what I saw as unjustified attacks on your motivations and character. I have viewed you as someone who values intellectual honesty and humility. Yet I also find myself agreeing with a lot of what Hazelnut says, especially about your using “popular science” channels to promote work that, according to you, is the product of only a few months of effort and is very much in a preliminary state.

    I don’t understand why you think promoting your ideas through popular channels is a good way to interest the physics community. I can imagine how most physicists who hear of the New Scientist piece could react with something like, “Huh? Where’s the beef? Why is he going on about it?” What I don’t imagine is that their next reaction is anything like, “If it’s in New Scientist it must be very promising! I want to get involved!”

    While some people seem to think any publicity is good publicity, I doubt you’re one of them. But I think in this case premature publicity may work against you. It can lead serious-minded physicists to question your motivations, given the lack of an object record of significant, serious effort on your part to develop the ideas into a form they can evaluate. It would be reasonable for them to think, “Why take it seriously, since it’s probably just another hype and PR effort like others we have seen over the years?

  13. Peter Woit says:

    I’m really not understanding what you and Hazelnut are objecting to. Yes, of course, a story in New Scientist is not what is going to convince most theorists that they should take the idea I’m talking about seriously. For one thing, New Scientist has a long history of publishing breathless articles about bogus claims of string theorists.

    What happened here is Michael Brooks sent me an email telling me he was thinking of writing about unified theories and wanted to talk to me. He’s a serious science journalist with a Ph.D. in physics. What do you think I should have done? Told him, no, I don’t talk to journalists like you? My policy has always been to talk to serious journalists who want to discuss topics on which I think I have something well-informed to say. I many times have turned down requests to talk about other kinds of topics.

    So, we set a time to talk. A few years ago, my standard spiel about “do you think there will be a unified theory” would have been “yes I do, lots of reasons to think it’s possible, and I have some vague ideas of my own, although nothing solid I want to talk about”. But that’s not what I now think: I am deadly serious that I think I have a very specific and very important idea. So, what should I have done? Should I have refused to tell him what I really think about a scientific issue? Not telling people what I really think is not how I go through life.

    Should I have said “I have this idea, there’s a preprint and I’ve given a talk about it, but you should not pay it any attention until it is properly vetted by the powers that be and published in a journal”? By the way, obviously there are journals now that will publish anything, so can you explain to me exactly what the list is of acceptable journals that would vet my ideas in a way that would allow me to talk to Brooks about them?

    My comments about this particular idea being recent are giving a misleading impression. The funny thing here is that the very half-baked version of these ideas was published, very long ago, in a very reputable journal, see
    Nuclear Physics B303 (1988) 329-342
    The half-baked version of the ideas I’m talking about is 36 years old and properly published and vetted. But I’ve always been aware these were half-baked and I never promoted them as anything other than that.

    What changed is that a few years ago I learned more about twistors and about Euclidean QFT, and this convinced me that these ideas that I had kind of given up on actually were quite promising. I wrote a somewhat more baked preprint at that point. Then, late last summer, I realized that there is a very precise change you can make in the standard spinor geometry story that realizes what I had been looking for. I wrote that up in the recent preprint. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since last summer and the more I learn, the more I think it’s an important and precise idea (although working out its implications is a major project that will keep me occupied for a long time).

    So, what am I doing wrong here (other than wasting time answering comments that I should be spending working on this…)?

  14. Hazelnut says:

    Look, sorry if I’m coming across as attacking you, I’m trying to be constructive but internet comment sections are not designed for it. I think we are just going round in circles here, and I just re-iterate what the commenter above says. Which scenario do you think is more likely: the popular science aficionados who have come across you recently are going to start working on Euclidean Twistor unification? Or you write up your work, publish it, speak about it at physics conferences and, if it is as important as you think, some physicists start to work on it?

    I am as cynical as anyone about academia, publication etc. but I am even more cynical about the idea of publication by podcast. It is simply not the case that outsider ideas will be rejected out of hand by journals, case in point Renate Loll and *strup from the New Scientist piece. Do you think that some ideas on your personal blog and a couple of preprints are going to inspire young physicists to work on this? It can be a pain, but do the work and the physics community (outside of elite American universities) isn’t as closed off as you think.

    As for my own understanding and motivations I left hep-lat/hep-th about 10 years ago for greener pastures, but would love to see it flourishing again.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    It seems you have no interest in the actual science here, but I’d encourage you to actually read the preprint instead of complaining about podcasts.

    And, no, I’m not complaining that my “outsider ideas” are being unfairly rejected by journals. I am every day “doing the work”, very much enjoying trying to better understand the implications of the idea you don’t want to know about.

  16. Marty says:


    I appreciate your sincere, thoughtful reply. You have explained your position well, and I can understand why you might feel exasperated that anyone would find fault with having an honest, public conversation with an intelligent interviewer, just because he happens to work for a popular magazine about science.

    You ask what you might have done differently that would satisfy “critics” like Hazelnut and me. Obviously it isn’t for me to say what you should or shouldn’t do, and I can’t speak for “Hazelnut,” but I’ll offer an opinion.

    For background, I too have been working on questions in fundamental physics that I think are very promising, work that is a continuation and evolution of my thesis work. My approach is somewhat different from yours — I’m not a Platonist; I think mathematical structures in nature offer idealized (but useful!) descriptions of underlying physical processes, instead of prior idealized mathematical structures (like preexisting manifolds) imposing constraints on fundamental processes — but that is irrelevant to this comment.

    What I think is relevant is that having worked alone, for a number of years now, with progress painfully slow too much of the time, I can empathize with your desire to get others excited, and maybe even get competent people interested enough to also work on your research program. In no way do I criticize that desire, nor your sincere efforts in that direction.

    But… (there’s always a “but”, isn’t there?) I personally would be very cautious in promoting my ideas to a general audience without having some very concrete results, developed in enough detail that experts can agree there is something interesting there. So when the subject of my research comes up with people I don’t know, I generally speak cautiously about it: if they are knowledgeable and interested, I’m comfortable going into more detail, and explain why I’m personally excited about it, but regardless of the “audience” I always emphasize that my program is still preliminary, requiring lots more work, and I’m not yet comfortable promoting it. (In fact, due to the many facets of the program, the interconnectedness between its facets, its ambitiousness and my personal sense of caution, I’ve not even attempted to publish on it just yet.)

    Anyway, that’s my own approach. It isn’t suitable for everyone, and it may not be for you either. It’s very much out of sync with the “modern” belief that it’s important to generate a lot of buzz to get the grant money flowing, but since I’m not relying on grants I can live with that. It’s important to me that I don’t have to worry I’m misleading people.

    And just to be clear, I think your discussing and even promoting your research efforts on your blog are entirely appropriate. The choice of whether to read or how to think about what you write is entirely up to your interested readers.

  17. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks for your comments. Like you, I’m not dependent on grants, getting buzz to get a grant is not anything I’m interested in.

    What annoys me a bit about this discussion is that way back when I lived through years of people telling me they wouldn’t read my book or take seriously my arguments about string theory, since what I was saying was out of sync with the conventional wisdom and the opinions of the experts of the field. Now I’m hearing that people don’t want to read a five page paper or take seriously my claims about a solid new idea until it’s been vetted by the same sort of conventional wisdom and same experts. Seems to me though that by now I have a track record people should take into account.

  18. Marty says:


    Well, I hope you aren’t interpreting my words as meaning people should not take your ideas seriously until they’ve been vetted by the sort of people who criticized you in the past for not publishing in the field you criticize. That would be very much at odds with what I was trying to say.

    In fact, back in the bad old “string wars” days I always thought arguments by your critics were bogus when they claimed you weren’t qualified to assess or criticize string theory, simply because you weren’t a “string theorist” or “active researcher,” even though it was obvious from the specificity of your comments that you had spent significant time and effort to learn about what you were criticizing.

    My “criticism,” if you want to call it that, is solely about the choice of medium for discussing your ideas. Since popular science media also have a vested interest in creating a level of buzz, I imagine it can sometimes work against the best interests of an interviewee…

    Anyway, I ‘m glad you have found a direction to pursue seriously. Now you just need a grant so you can hire a postdoc/researcher or two to help you make faster progress. 🙂

  19. Hazelnut says:

    Okay I’ll be blunt – only ‘publishing’ your ideas in preprints and blogs makes you look like a crank, using your position (as a Columbia professor, notable author, high profile blogger) to promote these unproven ideas in popular media makes you look like a hypocrite. Accusing people who are mildly critiquing you of having “no interest in science” is the kind of thing people used to say to you.

    For the record I don’t think you are a crank, I have read your preprint, understand the gist if not the fine details and my reaction to it was ‘huh’. When you have actually worked out some physical prediction or interesting consequences of your idea that might be interesting. It is your job to convince the wider scientific community not vice versa.

  20. John says:

    Our local public library has the New Scientist magazine on its magazine rack.


    The current issue on display is the Jan 20, 2024 issue so it will probably be a couple of weeks before the issue with this article appears in the library. So others interested in reading this article might want to check their local library to see if they have the magazine in their catalogue.

  21. Dom says:

    Having read this Blog for many years it seems to me that one of the default put-downs aimed at Peter from the string establishment is “Well why can’t he come up with an alternative idea?’
    It seems odd to then attack him for saying “well actually I am working on one” which is all I can see that he has done.
    If the attack then becomes “it’s so unfair that he uses his blog to publicise it” then his obvious response should be:
    “Why don’t you start your own blog then?”

  22. Felix says:

    The pearl-clutching about Peter talking to a popular science magazine is completely over the top. If a journalist asks to talk to you about a subject you’re known to be interested in, and you say ‘I’m working on something I think is extremely promising, nothing concrete yet, and who knows, it might be nothing’, what is morally objectionable about that? Comparing this to decades of string theory hype or the ‘black holes in the lab’ scandal is bizarre. Can anyone name a single string theorist who has said anything close to ‘Maybe I’ve just gotten old and just lost my way’ about their research interests?

  23. RichardT says:

    I think there is nothing wrong in discussing in-progress new ideas in any forum. If Peter gets to a point where he wants to publish something more, then of course he can.

    Criticising a decades old, well-entrenched set of ideas such as string theory is very different from attacking new and emerging ideas. I don’t see Peter doing the latter, which is why I don’t see any hypocrisy here.

  24. jack morava says:

    What Felix said.

  25. Peter Shor says:

    Peter, you say:

    Now I’m hearing that people don’t want to read a five page paper or take seriously my claims about a solid new idea until it’s been vetted by the same sort of conventional wisdom and same experts. Seems to me though that by now I have a track record people should take into account.

    It’s not just your track record that people should be taking into account; they should also be taking the track record of these “experts” into account.

  26. Peter Woit says:

    A serious question about journals, hope to hear from those who have thought more about this and know much more:

    Why publish a theoretical physics paper in a journal? Note this is not about mathematics papers, where there is a very good argument that this is the right way to get proofs checked, crucial to having as reliable a literature as possible.

    I can think of several arguments against journal publication:

    1. Everyone reads new physics papers on the arXiv, not in a journal. The only exception to this I can think of was the wormhole publicity stunt paper, published in Nature, not available on the arXiv (still to this day I think).

    2. Publication of a theoretical physics paper in a journal gives minimal information about its worth or reliability. See the example in 1, or look up the published works of the Bogdanov brothers.

    3. By publishing a paper in a journal, you are handing over rights to the content (yes, I know, exactly which rights is a complicated story) to some organization, often a profit-making one that has its own interests which are not yours and not those of the community.

    As for the arguments pro:

    1. Journal publication is a standard credential used by funding agencies to decide about grants, universities to decide about hiring, promotion, pay raises, etc. In my particular case none of these things are relevant to my situation.

    2. Feedback from referees can be useful in many ways.

    3. Publication in a small number of high profile journals is good for PR. See the Nature story above. PRL encourages people to have their institutions put out press releases when a PRL paper comes out.

    When I wrote the “Spacetime is right-handed” paper last fall, the main goal was to write something as short and as readable as possible that got the main technical idea across and explained why it was important and opened up a new way of thinking about unification. I did though have in the back of my mind the idea of submitting it to PRL, for reasons 2 and 3. Given some of the accusations in the comments above that I’m doing PR instead of submitting papers to journals, the funny thing is that the only case I can think of in recent years when I’ve done something motivated by PR was exactly this case of submitting that paper to that journal. It seemed likely that this PR move wouldn’t work, that the paper would not be accepted, but I honestly think it contains original and important ideas that fit precisely what PRL says it is looking for and trying to publish.

    There was the secondary motivation of hoping for useful feedback. There were two referee reports, one with nothing useful, the other with some detailed comments about the exposition which were helpful. Neither referee found anything wrong with the paper or argued that the idea was already in the literature. The reports both pretty much argued that the implications of the idea in the paper remain to be developed, so instead I should write a longer paper and further develop the ideas. I can’t argue with that, plan to do so.

    While that’s what I’m working on, when done I’m not seeing a decisive argument in favor of submitting the preprint to a journal. It will be much too long for a PRL announcement, so 2. is inapplicable as well as 1. Yes, there might be helpful feedback from referees, but I’ve found that there are experts in this field I know who have been willing to look at a paper and provide such feedback before I submit the paper to the arXiv as a preprint.

    Another part of the argument against submitting to a journal is that I unfortunately know very little about them. As mentioned above, I don’t look at them when they come out and see what they publish. I also don’t know their copyright and open access policies, or the exact nature of the organization behind them (how predatory on a scale of 0-100?). I’d have to do a bunch of research to gather information. Or, maybe a helpful commenter can point to the best possible option.

  27. Hazelnut says:

    I am sure all the other people who produce 1 preprint a year and refuse to even attempt to publish their work after a single rejection will soon have write ups in the New Scientist.

    Peter has made his career out of clutching pearls whenever some string theory booster makes a public statement. You know all the string guys are also genuinely excited about their own ideas, just as Peter is? And while attacking these entrenched ideas what did he suggest instead? High among the advice was a call for rigour and for physics to take some lessons from math. I wasn’t aware that mathematicians refuse to publish their work in reputable journals or go to conferences.

    If this was someone you were not a fan of, what would you think of this attitude?Peter’s reputation is as a critic not a researcher, so he cannot really lean on that here.

    And yes, you can and should say no to journalists sometimes. I have done it myself.

  28. Chris says:

    Peter, I think what you are doing is great. The workings of science and the iterative and generative process of coming up with ideas is something that should be shown to people (all people, not just a select few self-anointed ones). People like Hazelnut and Marty seem to be fine with the old ivory tower approach to things. It’s such an antiquated mindset.

    Keep doing what you are doing!

  29. B. Malpani says:

    Hazelnut wrote:
    You know all the string guys are also genuinely excited about their own ideas, just as Peter is?

    No, I don’t know that at all. And at this point in time, I can’t believe it at all. I think that they are perfectly aware of their colossal failure: how could anyone think otherwise?

    There’s a reason why David Green came up with the idea that we won’t be able to judge string theory for another 80 years – he wants to be sure that none of the string theorists are forced into that confrontation with their failure, or that their current critics can feel that they’ve been vindicated.

    Speaking strictly for myself, petty attempts to impugn Woit for his completely unobjectionable interview in New Scientist just serve to reinforce my extremely low opinion of the probity of string theorists, and underscore their desperation to avoid being confronted with their decades of failure.

    The intellectual and monetary capital, and careers, that have been squandered on string theory will remain squandered. Attacking Woit is not going to transform string theory from a scientific dead end into a success, sorry.

  30. JJ says:

    Peter has always allowed that string theory ideas are worth pursuing. His main point for decades has been that those ideas shouldn’t be allowed to crowd out all other foundational ideas, in the field or the surrounding public discussion. He has always addressed himself to both audiences. Now he lets it be known to specialists and the interested public that he’s got what he thinks is a promising idea. He doesn’t say it’s the only game in town, he’s not looking to replace one variety of hype with another, he’s not moving goalposts, he’s just putting a new idea in precisely the places he has always said there should be lots of them. What’s the problem again?

  31. Peter Woit says:

    Please, enough about the tedious subject of string theory. As far as I know, Hazelnut/Marty aren’t string theorists.

  32. FWIW, I’ve faced a similar problem: because of my role as a blogger and public commentator on quantum computing (and now also AI safety), I talk to journalists a lot, and often if they hear that I’m working on something new, they want to interview me about it, even if it’s still half-baked, and even if it doesn’t particularly deserve more attention than five dozen other things that my colleagues are working on. So then, should I refuse to talk?

    I decided on the following compromise policy:

    Don’t specifically SEEK OUT “unfair advantages,” which would give my research undue attention for non-research-related reasons.

    BUT: explaining whatever you’re currently excited about, with anyone who seems genuinely interested in it, is like 70% of the joy of science. So don’t abstain from that joy. If people ask what I’m working on, I should just tell them, along with my honest assessment of how solid or important or worth writing about it is.

  33. Mitchell Porter says:

    Peter: How close are you, to writing a lagrangian for standard model fields coupled to gravity, in your right-handed Euclidean space?

  34. Peter Woit says:

    Mitchell Porter,
    The problem isn’t so much writing down the Lagrangian, which will just be usual one for the Standard Model + GR. The real question is whether the use of chiral variables opens up a way of constraining the usual SM, explaining something new. The main problems here are that to get something new you probably need a new idea about the geometry of the Higgs, and I’m trying various things there. On the GR side, you have the usual problem that you are doing Euclidean quantum gravity, how do you understand analytic continuation?

    There’s lots of possibilities to think about, but my time for this is limited for the next couple months as I try to focus on the course and the notes for that (some of which involve working out background material useful for trying out some new ideas involving the chiral geometry).

  35. S says:

    From the article:

    “It isn’t that Woit believes he necessarily has the answers. But, he says, it is good to know that, despite the long search for a theory of everything, there are still new possibilities opening up.”

    I see this as perfectly consistent with a dedication to rigor and a desire to avoid hyping things that may not be true. How many of the string theory articles that Peter complained about over the years had any such disclaimer? From what I can remember, extremely few, if any. Rigor is one thing; we also need new ideas to be rigorous about. When they come, there’s nothing wrong with talking about them, even in public. I’ll join in the accusations of hypocrisy if we’re imminently treated to glossy hardcover books or magazine articles where Peter breathlessly explains to a lay audience what his ideas imply about the meaning of their lives, or we’re treated to weekly posts promising experimental evidence in six months over a years-long timeframe.

    Till then, all I see is a physicist who has a well-deserved platform being asked what he’s excited about, and answering the question. Good for him for being excited about physics after everything he’s seen.

  36. NoGo says:

    Hazelnut calls Peter Woit hypocritical. As fat as I know, this word means doing something yourself that you criticize others for.

    As a reader of his book and this blog, I don’t need a physics degree to tell that the gist of what Peter criticizes String theorists for is misrepresenting the state of their theories. Refusing to admit failure, claiming connection with experiment, insisting on “no other game in town”, pretending they have a coherent well-defined theory etc. etc. all boil down to misrepresentation.

    I don’t see any evidence that Peter misrepresents his work in the interview with New Scientist. He is quite clear about this being an idea he likes which may yet turn wrong and which is not yet fully developed and is not endorsed by physics community.

    I don’t recall Peter ever criticizing String theorists just for talking to the “secular press” or the fact they promote their work, his beef is with _what_ they tell the press and _how_ they promote their work.

    I find the accusation of hypocrisy completely bogus.

  37. Filip Hrdlicka says:

    It is a pity that the comment section focuses on just Peter’s part of the article and not on other mentioned ideas like Aastrup/Grimstrup ideas.

  38. Peter,
    Can I ask you a mathematical/physical question about your model? I am sure your readers would prefer this to yet more amateur sociology.
    The algebraic construction of twistors relies on a Clifford algebra for Spin(4,2), which can be either Cl(4,2) or Cl(2,4). I have heard your two talks and I have read your two preprints, and I still cannot figure out which one you use. So that is my question.
    It is not a frivolous or irrelevant question, because the corresponding question for spinors is whether you use Cl(3,1) or Cl(1,3). The former gives you real (Majorana) spinors and the latter gives you pseudoreal/complex (Dirac) spinors. The Standard Model is completely clear that the latter describes physical matter, and the former does not. It is therefore an important question as to whether your twistors are real or pseudoreal, and I am looking forward to your answer.

  39. Doug McDonald says:

    A question for Peter that I don’t fully understand (not just the answer, the question):
    is the “right-handed” in your theory purely a mathematical definition, or is it anchored to the real world through the weak interaction and how your theory fits into the rest of the standard model?

  40. Peter Woit says:

    About those upset that I’m talking to the press about spinors instead of following the rules and talking only to physicists in carefully vetted venues (invited conference talks and refereed publications in the right journals). I realized that this is very familiar, it’s exactly the reaction I got nearly 20 years ago when I started getting quoted in the press about the problems of string theory. What I was saying then I think turned out to be quite accurate. We’ll see what the future holds for the ideas I’m talking about now, but I’m optimistic about their prospects.

  41. Peter Woit says:

    Robert A. Wilson,

    Short answer is I don’t know. One difference with Clifford algebras is that the twistor story is very chirally asymmetric. One is making a choice of convention: points are right-handed spinors. Changing convention, what’s space-time and what’s internal geometry interchange.

    That the different choice of convention (metric signature or def. of Clifford algebra) changes the nature of spinors and twistors is something mysterious. If what is going on gets properly understood, perhaps the two different things one sees here will both appear, playing different roles.

  42. Peter Woit says:

    Doug McDonald,
    It’s a mathematical fact that spinors in 4d come in two kinds, a convention to call them “right” and “left”. What I’m proposing is very much related to the real world, basically that you can describe what appears in Minkowski spacetime as spacetime geometry just using one kind (“right” by convention), that the other kind are essentially the spinors of weak isospin.

  43. Peter,
    Chiral asymmetry is to do with what happens when you restrict to the even part of the Clifford algebra. One can of course change conventions as to which half of the splitting is left-handed and which is right-handed, and which half you use for spacetime and which half you use for internal symmetry. But that isn’t what I’m talking about. What is going on in the Dirac/Majorana spinor question is perfectly well understood, apart from some residual questions about neutrinos. I do not think it is in the least mysterious. Dirac spinors describe observed physics, and Majorana spinors do not. The same seems to be true for twistors, as far as I can see – pseudoreal twistors describe observed physics (three generations of massive fermions), and real twistors do not. If you disagree, then I would like to know why you disagree, because you probably have a deeper insight into the physics here than I do.

  44. Peter Woit says:

    Robert A. Wilson,
    Again, I really don’t understand the possible physical significance of this issue. The place in physics it might be significant is in the story of right-handed neutrinos and neutrino mass terms. What I’m trying to understand is the relation between different real forms. In terms of the Clifford algebra you’re getting two possible different real forms to associate to Minkowski space-time. Maybe they both play a different role, but that is pure speculation.

  45. Eleni Petrakou says:

    For what continuing the “amateur sociology” discussion is worth,
    Previous comments showed in detail why Peter’s behaviour has nothing to do with either hypocrisy or unfair advantages. But as a science journalist I’d feel like clarifying a couple of points to any interested earnest critics, assuming those exist in here.
    For one, informing people of ongoing, potentially interesting, work on open questions is among the top objectives of a physics journalist. Everyone that knows about science knows that almost all of this work will lead to nothing, and this has nothing to do with reporting on it. What has to do with integrity, however, is presenting ongoing work as something else, usually a lot more successful.
    Also, on a more practical side, journalists working on a topic will search for people involved in it. If word of mouth or a google search or prior knowledge provides names then, yes, we’ll go for them. If needs be we’ll look beyond them, but talking to the already known experts is in no way immoral.
    Having to spell this out pains me, but reporting unresolved opinions is totally fine; and it has nothing to do with monopolizing grants because of having very resolved and failed opinions.

  46. Yes, indeed, my question is about real forms, specifically whether you are working in SL(8,R) or SL(4,H) to describe the chirality of twistors. I understand that you don’t yet have an answer to that, but that you are looking at real forms of SU(4), where the corresponding question is to distinguish between SL(4,R)=Spin(3,3) acting on a Majorana spinor, and SL(2,H)=Spin(5,1) acting on a Dirac spinor. But then I can’t reconcile this question with properties of twistors acted on by Spin(4,2)=SU(2,2), or with your embedding of U(1) x SU(3) which requires real form SU(4) or SU(3,1).
    So you will surely eventually have to address the question of SL(8,R) or SL(4,H), and when you do, it may be useful to note that SL(4,H) contains SU(2) x U(3), but SL(8,R) does not.

  47. Alex says:

    I wasn’t able to read the article because of the paywall, but it seems there’s no mention of Connes’ Spectral SM?

    It really baffles me how little attention it gets. People would be very surprised if they knew how well developed and understood it is by now. Whenever anyone asks me about the unification problem, I always mention this approach as the best we have at this moment in time. In my opinion, of course…

  48. Bruys says:

    I don’t understand the criticism of Peter for allowing someone to write about his ideas in New Scientist. What a boring world it would be if no-one discussed their ideas!

    Peter has been critical of people making unreasonable claims for String Theory, not for discussing String Theory ideas – there is no hypocrisy being practised here.

  49. zzz says:

    “I have read your preprint, understand the gist if not the fine details and my reaction to it was ‘huh’. When you have actually worked out some physical prediction or interesting consequences of your idea that might be interesting. ”

    you are all over the place here, is this an interested “huh”? or not ?
    because (again) you are immediately contradicting your criticism,

  50. Peter Woit says:

    I think “huh?” is a pretty universal reaction from physicists to that paper. The argument for a different relation between vector and spinor geometry is hard to comprehend if you haven’t thought a lot about the usual version of this. I tried to write something short and as comprehensible as possible, but don’t think that succeeded very well. Next there will be a much longer version, we’ll see if that helps.

    In the paper I try and point out how this different relation opens up possibilities for a new way to do unification. To me, these seem very promising and something that no one has looked at before, but time will tell. It’s perfectly sensible for people to decide they want to ignore this until it’s further developed, but I’m still seeing no argument for why I shouldn’t keep trying to explain these ideas to anyone who will listen.

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