20 Years of Not Even Wrong

The first entry on this blog was 20 years ago yesterday, first substantive one was 20 years ago tomorrow (first one that drew attacks on me as an incompetent was two days later). Back when I started this up, blogging was all the rage, and lots of other blogs about fundamental physics were starting around the same time. Almost all of these have gone dormant, with Sabine Hossenfelder’s Backreaction one notable exception. She and some others (like Sean Carroll) have largely moved to video, which seems to be the thing to do to communicate with as many people as possible. There are people who do “micro-blogging” on Twitter, with the descendant of Lubos Motl’s blog StringKing42069 on Twitter. I remain mystified why anyone thinks it’s a good idea to discuss complex issues of theoretical physics in the Twitter format, flooded with all sorts of random stupidity.

Looking back on what I was writing 20 years ago it seems to me to have held up well, and there is very little that I would change. The LHC experiments have told us that the Standard Model Higgs is there, and that supersymmetry is not, but these were always seen as the most likely results.

My point of view on things has changed since then, especially in recent years. When I started the blog I was 20 years past my Ph.D., in the middle of some sort of an odd career. Today I’m 66, 40 years past the Ph.D., much closer to the end of a career and a life than to a beginning. In 2004 I was looking at nearly twenty years of domination of fundamental theory by a speculative idea that to me had never looked promising and by then was clearly a failure. 20 years later this story has become highly disturbing. The refusal to admit failure and move on has to a large degree killed off the field as a serious science.

The technical difficulties involved in reaching higher energy scales at this point makes it all too likely that I’m not going to see any significant new data about what the world looks like above the TeV scale during my lifetime. Without experiment to keep it honest, fundamental theory has seriously gone off the rails in a way which looks to me irreparable. With the Standard Model so extremely successful and no hints from experiment about how to improve it, it’s now been about 50 years that this has been a subject in which it is very difficult to make progress. I’ve always been an admitted elitist: in the face of a really hard problem, only a very talented person trained as well as possible and surrounded by the right intellectual environment is likely to be able to get somewhere.

My background has been at the elite institutions that are supposed to be providing this kind of training and working environment. Harvard and Princeton gave me this sort of training in 1975-1984 and I think did a good job of it at the time, but from what I can tell things are now quite different. 40 years of training generations of students in a failed research program has taken its toll on the subject. I remember well what it was like to be an ambitious student at these places, determined to get as quickly as possible to the frontiers of knowledge, which in those times meant learning gauge field theory. These days it unfortunately means putting a lot of effort into reading Polchinski, and becoming expert in the technology of failed ideas.

One recent incident that destroyed my remaining hopes for the institutions I had always still had some faith in was the program discussed here, which made me physically ill. It made it completely clear that the leaders of this subject will never admit what has happened, no matter how bad it gets. Also having a lot of impact on me was the Wormhole Publicity Stunt, which showed that the problem is not just refusing to face up to the past, but willingness to sign onto an awful view of the future, as long as it brings in funding and can be sold as vindication of the past. Watching the director of the IAS explain that this was comparable to the 1919 experimental evidence for GR surely made more than a few of those in attendance at least queasy. This particular stunt may have jumped the shark, but what’s likely coming next looks no better (replace quantum computing with AI).

The strange thing is that while the wider world and the subject I care most about have been descending into an ever more depressing environment of tribalistic behavior and intellectual collapse, on a personal level things are going very well. In particular I’m ever more optimistic about some new ideas and enjoying trying to make progress with them, seeing several promising directions. Whatever years I have available to think about these things are looking like they should be intellectually rewarding ones. Locally, I’m looking forward to what the next twenty years will bring (if I make it through them…), while on a larger scale I’m dreading seeing what will happen.

Update: For a place with extensive comments about this blog posting, see Hacker News.

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73 Responses to 20 Years of Not Even Wrong

  1. Joseph Conlon says:

    Congratulations Peter on the anniversary. I have always thought you wrong on substance, but wrong for the best of reasons, i.e. caring about the subject.

  2. Thank you for this blog which I have been reading for almost the whole 20 years.

    I am not a scientist and I do not have a mathematical education, but I am deeply interested in the physics and associated philosophical implications. Also, the sociological side is also very interesting, perhaps more so, and I think I understand it better.

    I’m not qualified to evaluate your own theoretical ideas, but I greatly respect you for insisting on contributing to the discussion, in an even-tempered way, in spite of often being labelled an “outsider” or “not an expert.” That says more about your critics than it does about you.

    I wish there were more blogs of this kind.

    To me, the huge issue here is, who is going to preserve us from highly placed liars?

  3. Art says:

    Let me add my congratulations to the pile. While I treasure your blog and course notes publications, I can’t help wondering if they’re the best use of your time, now that you have a significant new idea to develop. What balance do you think is optimum?

  4. Alessandro Strumia says:

    Congratulations. Yours is the best physics blog, after that Lubos closed his own. Because you said some truth that nobody wanted to hear about strings, and Lubos did the same about wider academia problems.

  5. Cormac McGuinness says:

    Congratulations Peter on 20 years!

    Still very much an avid and constant reader of NEW, having first read your American Scientist article in 2002 (https://doi.org/10.1511/2002.10.110). It has been a thorough and continuing education into the status within the world of HEP of experiment and theory and the ways in which the development of the latter has, in part stalled, due to the concentration on specific speculative theories. This has been of extreme interest to someone far from this field of physics. However shocked or disheartened by the program discussed and linked to above, I think you have reached and continued to inform a generation of physicists about asking the right questions about the approaches that are being followed.

    On a lighter, or a darker note if you will!, there is always the total eclipse to look forwards to. I presume you will be visiting some point on the path of totality !? Will it be a shorter road trip for you than 2017 ? (certainly shorter than 2006).

    I am sure we will all look forward to hearing about it and any other elements of physics or mathematics that you choose to highlight!

    Best wishes for the future and regards from Ireland
    Cormac (Mc)

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Writing posts for the blog doesn’t actually take a lot of time. Where I have historically wasted a lot of time is by trying to follow exactly what is going on in string theory and things that have emerged from it. It’s clear to me now that any minute spent trying to understand things like what “swampland program” research is, is a minute completely wasted, so I plan to do less of that.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Cormac McGuinness,

    Thanks! Definitely planning to try and see the eclipse soon, bringing along my 93 year old mother. Exact location to be determined only a day or two before the eclipse, based on what the cloud cover projections look like.

  8. Uair01 says:

    Thank you very much! I’m just an engineer, but I’ve followed your blog since your book came out. I can’t assess the mathematics, but I think you’re right, based on the sociology. I’m afraid that this is the case here: “The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.” But then translated to physics …

  9. John Baez says:

    Sorry to be late to the party. Congratulations on 20 years of your blog, Peter! I’m glad you’ve been persistently exposing the shortcomings of string theory – a much needed corrective to the hype. I think it really has had an effect. The triumphalism never ends, alas, but it’s taken less and less seriously by outsiders.

    The really sad part is how little progress we’ve made on fundamental physics since the 1980s. For anyone out there who wants to see evidence, check out my timeline here, along with the definition of “fundamental physics” that I’m using. Once I realized that this stagnation wasn’t going to end anytime soon, I quit fundamental physics (or more precisely, relegated it to the status of a hobby). It really hurt: the dream dies hard, especially after one has spent decades on it. But it hurts more to keep banging ones head on the same old wall! I am not optimistic about any of the new theories of fundamental physics that I see. Thus I’m really glad your blog has expanded to cover more lively and promising endeavors, like the Langlands program.

  10. PeterP says:

    Congratulations, Peter, for this lifetime achievement and keep standing tall under the tremendous pressure from we all know who. Ironically, your name and blog are now forever attached to the string theory. However, we all believe you are on the right side of history here.

    On a side note (or not so), I think folks still do not fully understand or grasp your idea and where it could lead that space-time and matter have opposite chiralities. If I may, you might keep elaborating and adding detailed calculations that would follow from it.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks! I’m working on exactly this now, hope to have something detailed written down by the end of the summer. In the meantime, my latest posting at least points exactly to where I think the missed possibility is in the standard discussion of the Standard Model.

  12. Santo D'Agostino says:

    Congratulations on twenty years of very valuable and appreciated service to the mathematics and physics communities! I have been reading your blog since the early days, and have learned a lot from it.

    Continued best wishes!

  13. Andrew Thomas says:

    Congratulations on 20 years of blogging!

    I remember fundamental physics seemed so exciting 20 years ago, with all the great blogs and – yes – even the string wars arguments. I don’t understand quite why you’re still so angry about string theory now as it seems to have faded away. The Strings conference seems to be on its last legs. In fact, everything seems so quiet now – I don’t understand it. Where are all the new physics books? We used to get something big every few weeks, now nothing. It was more fun in the old days!

    I hope Lubos is OK. I know he was your sworn enemy (well, most people’s sworn enemy) but it seems rather sad that he’s not around anymore.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Andrew Thomas,
    Unfortunately I don’t think fundamental physics was truthfully exciting 20 years ago. It was already in a very bad way, with a huge amount of outrageous hype to the public about “exciting” ideas like the multiverse. Now the hype level has died down and the public is more aware of the problems with string theory, but the situation of actual fundamental theory research is significantly worse than 20 years ago.

    What am I angry about? I’m looking back at a 40+ year career that started when the field was very healthy, and watched it be essentially destroyed and killed off. That the people who did this are holding public events assigning themselves grades of “A+++” is just disgraceful, and specifically aimed at making impossible any acknowledgement of what happened and any drawing of lessons for the future.

    I also hope Lubos is OK, but I’m pretty sure stopping doing the kind of blogging he was doing was good for him.

  15. Anonymous says:

    “I also hope Lubos is OK,”

    I was also concerned about whether Lubos is OK, and checked a little while ago to see if he was doing anything visible on the Internet. He seems to have a quora account that currently seems to be active:


  16. Jim says:

    I was reading Not Even Wrong the book when I was a graduate physics (HEP-TH) student; the university librarian had gotten it surprisingly. 6 years later I left the field with 2 MSc (in my country and the US). I left the field halfway through my PhD after realising what the job prospects were about, what was demanded from me (commitment & huge risk Vs the monetary component) and started doing quantitative analysis and later machine learning.

    It’s been 9 years now that I do data science, a very rewarding career which also allowed me in my free time to research and publish (in A&A) an article regarding a method that uses ML on GAIA data.

    I miss the days when I was innocent (in a sense) and naive (in a good way I’d like to believe) and wanted to pursue String Theory after QFT (my undergraduate thesis was an intro to QFT, later I did 4 grad courses on the subject). I was looking at the standard treatments of ST, charming as they were, but there was still an itch. Coming from you, Lee Smolin and Roger Penrose. I want to thank you since I was affected so much by your writings.

    Plot twist now:
    That being said, in an ideal world if financials were not an issue back then, I would still pursue these ideas, including LQG and twistors. As much time as needed. Just being at the forefront of knowledge without worrying about job prospects would have been the holy grail for me personally. I wouldn’t mind if there was only remote connection to physical reality by some of TOE candidates, that’s the idea frankly; understanding the concepts is rewarding on its own.

  17. DrDave says:

    Many have followed your blog, and you have made a difference. I am hopeful for the future as geniuses pop up every now and then.

  18. Paddy says:

    Congrats. But boy don’t we grow old too fast. At least some consolation knowing that our justifiable anger at certain things were there even when we were young.

  19. Marty says:

    Hi Peter,

    I am one of your longer-term regular readers of your blog. I continue to enjoy your articles whenever they appear, although they seem to appear at a somewhat reduced average rate compared to the early years.

    I found out about your blog in March 2004, about one week after you started it, thanks to this posting in Physics Forums by the user “selfAdjoint”. I had read prior posts of yours in Physics Forums, and because (unlike most string theory skeptics at the time) your posts seemed to be written by someone who had made real effort to understand string theory in the technical sense, I promptly headed over to your new blog!

    Without a doubt, your blog played a key role in cementing my prior skepticism about string theory. I had applied to several doctoral programs for entry the coming Fall, and (like so many who are interested in theoretical physics) wanted to pursue high energy theory. Your writings were very helpful in making clear, ahead of time, how important it was for future academic job prospects to work in a trendy area. Your writings also made it clear that the general approach of string theory was at least partly orthogonal to the approach I wanted to pursue (an approach that was unpopular then, and is still unpopular now), which was to work on models for constructing quantum fields in an emergent sense from a single underlying, fundamental non-quantum (but also non-classical) field. So when it came time to look for a PhD advisor, it was neither a surprise nor disappointment that there was zero interest by any of the theorists in supervising non-mainstream work that I wanted to do. Staying with particle theory would have required working on either particle phenomenology (which at UCSC meant supersymmetry) or string theory. I ended up focusing on cosmology.

    Interestingly but unfortunately, the only other physics grad student I knew at UCSC who also read your blog decided to go ahead with string theory anyway (I urged him to reconsider, but he believed going with the trend was best…). He worked with a well known string theorist, but unfortunately it didn’t go as hoped — the approach he pursued at the urging of his advisor didn’t work out, and he ended up not getting a postdoc. I think his advisor felt bad about how things worked out for him.

    Anyway, this is just one bit of anecdotal evidence that you have provided a real service to others through this blog. Hopefully you continue to find blogging a worthwhile use of your time. I miss the time when you posted more frequently — sometimes posts now are weeks or even more than a month apart — but understandably it takes your time and energy, especially when you don’t find much of personal interest to discuss.

    I think your moderation style has worked well on the whole, for instance keeping pointless discussions from becoming even more pointless (especially during the string wars). There have been times I wished you would let a discussion run longer, but at least you made clear when you didn’t feel you had the expertise or interest to moderate a wandering discussion.

  20. Z Y says:

    Congratulations on the 20 years. I’m curious if you still consider
    “Why does the vacuum state break electroweak gauge symmetry?”
    As the The Holy Grail of Physics nowadays

  21. Peter Woit says:

    Yes, that’s still the “Holy Grail”. Since I wrote the posting 20 years ago, there has been the major development of the discovery of the Higgs. At that time it was possible that the LHC would tell us about something else than the Higgs, but that did not happen. So, we have nothing new from experiment to guide us on this question.

  22. JE says:

    Hi Peter,

    Congratulations for your bravery, resolution and patience during these 20 years!

    In the early days of this blog (“The Thin Line of Theory” thread, back in Jan. 2005) –at the height of the Quantoken-Lubos/ST-LQG wars– I commented that string theory might turn out to be nothing more and nothing less than a highly sophisticated human invention enabling many theoretical physicists to keep busy while another physicist came out with a sound theory of quantum gravity in which they could work.

    I added that it was a well-devised survival tool that would end up being a marginal subject at math departments only when a simpler theory could unify GR and QFT, and that the LHC would make no difference (because it is NEW) even though no superpartners would be found across its energy range.

    The latter happened to be true. The former has not yet happened.

    Back then, much like Marty and other commenters, I was discouraged from pursing my own ideas by potential PhD advisors instead of going mainstream with them. As I was more interested in pursuing these ideas than in engaging with them in string theory or noncommutative QFT to get a PhD (partly thanks to this blog), I left academia and kept working on my stuff in my spare time.

    As to what has not yet happened, experimental confirmation of any future new insights in particle physics will probably involve matching precision measurements in HEP and cosmological observations, because they will likely have cosmological effects that should fit with these observations. No need to reach higher energy scales in particle colliders, imho.

  23. Giovanni Ronchi says:

    Dear Prof. Woit,

    I am a math high school teacher in Milan who got his Master’s degree three years ago with a thesis on the homotopy theory of differential graded categories, and an avid reader of your blog

    My initial interests to study math were motivated by physics. I later discovered the wonders of algebra and wanted to deepen my understanding of category theory, algebraic topology and algebraic geometry

    Part of the motivation for the study of those areas has been the use of categories and homotopy theory in the works of Schreiber, Fiorenza et al. (which I couldn’t and can’t understand, tbh)

    From your blog I understood that:
    a) Speculative ideas in physics papers can be vary far from verifiable and/or in accord with our current data
    b) String theory is not as promising as Greene and Kaku present it
    c) The math I focused on is not as important for physics as I thought reading the n-Lab (my mistake, not nLab’s)
    d) Fundamental theoretical physics is not making fast progress eventhough hype is ever-present in scientific headlines
    e) The link between representation theory and fundamental physics is greater than I expected (I have just started reading your book)

    For these and many more ideas you shared I thank you and wish you other 20 years of happy blog- and non blog- life


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