The Landscape for Undergraduates

I was in a local Barnes and Noble today, and noticed that there’s a new, second edition out of Barton Zwiebach’s A First Course in String Theory, which is the textbook for MIT’s course 8.251 String Theory for Undergraduates. The new addition includes a 10 page section explaining the details of how to compute numbers of vacua in the landscape based on flux compactifications, and arguing that this provides an explanation of the value of the cosmological constant. Landscape ideology has now made it to the undergraduate level.

However, this only seems to be the case at MIT. A couple years ago I wrote about undergraduate string theory courses here, noting that there was an increasing trend to offer them, with MIT, Caltech, Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon providing examples. Recently this seems to have turned around, with Caltech, Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon not offering such a course this year. Somehow I don’t thinking adding coverage of the landscape to the textbook is going to encourage physics departments to teach this material to undergraduates.

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13 Responses to The Landscape for Undergraduates

  1. Shantanu says:

    Are there any published reviews for this book? Also how was Vafa’s

  2. Joseph B. says:

    Hi PW, I feel obliged to mention that at least one of those undergrad string theory courses that you mentioned 2.5 years ago was meant to be an `experiment’ in whether or not such a string theory course is feasible.

    It was initiated by undergraduates who were excited by Zwiebach’s book and ended up being pushed through despite the reservations of some of the hep-th faculty. Ultimately the course evolved into a de-facto string-theory-for-grad-students (i.e. a proper string course) taught out of Polchinski and the experiment as an undergrad course was generally deemed a failure. I believe the department hasn’t bothered removing the course title from their catalog, even though the course has not been offered since.

    So to be fair to [at least one of] the physics departments you mentioned, it’s not necessarily that the departments thought “Hey, let’s teach our undergrads watered-down-strings,” but rather that there was a lot of student interest and the department was willing to give it a try. In fact, the biggest proponents from the faculty were non-theorists who were working with undergrads to explore possible innovations to the undergrad curriculum.

    I just wanted to explain that the offering of such a course in the past should not [necessarily] be interpreted as representative of some deeper ideological agenda so as not to give the wrong impression of my old department… especially when it was largely an experiment initiated by naive (but enthusiastic) undergrads rather than the powers-that-be.

  3. Peter Woit says:


    This was the first I had heard of the second edition. One review of the first edition was in the September 2005 Physics Today.

    Vafa’s colloquium talk made a lot of dramatic claims, including putting up a detailed spectrum of what supersymmetric particles the LHC should see at what masses. But since it was a colloquium talk he gave few details, and nothing at all about the crucial question of how supersymmetry gets broken. It gave me a better idea of the general philosophy of what he is trying to do. They’re assuming particle physics and quantum gravity are decoupled, giving up on the idea that the properties of which compactification Calabi-Yau you choose have any effect below the Planck scale. Particle physics then comes from the choice of various branes, and I guess his claim would be that the consistent possible choices of branes give some testable predictions. The lack of detail in the talk made it hard to tell to what extent this is true. I took a look at one of his papers that features the particle spectrum he showed. There seemed to be a lot of assumptions going into that plot that were not mentioned in the colloquium talk.

    Joseph B.,

    Thanks for the explanation. It has been my experience over the years that much of the enthusiasm for string theory comes from students and non-theorists whose knowledge of the subject comes from the large number of popular books, articles, TV programs, colloquium talks, etc. about string theory that hype the subject and give a misleading impression about it. Maybe someone should write a book trying to correct that and provide a more accurate description of what is really going on with the subject…

  4. Robert says:

    Thanks for informing about the second edition of this nice and usefull book.
    Yes, the landscape is mentioned, as of course it should in a book about strings, but the main change in the more than 100 additional pages seems to be contained in three new chapters about

    A look at relativistic superstrings

    String theory and particle physics

    Strong interactions and AdS/CFT

    Great that this accessible text is prevented from outdating so soon in this rapidly moving field.

  5. I’m an old physicist with no expertise in particles, gravity, or strings and I read Zwiebach I with great enthusiasm. It’s development is exceptionally clear, too slow for theorists I imagine, but just right for me. There are lots of accessible (OK, easy) problems. By contrast, I found Polchinski rather impenetrable – it assumed too much that I had either forgotten or never knew. I think it’s a great book for someone like me who has no designs on being a string theorist but would just like to understand some of the concepts beyond the popular level.

    Its singular feature is that you don’t need a sophisticated knowledge, or indeed any knowledge, of QFT – and if you don’t have that you will learn a little QFT in reading it.

    I’m sure its not a course for every undergrad, but it might be a worthwhile option for those who can’t wait to learn QFT and GR first.

  6. woit says:


    The book seemed to me a good place to start for someone trying to learn how to quantize a string (except for the part about how to get particle physics out of string theory, which is fundamentally misleading: why go on like that about an idea that doesn’t work in a textbook aimed at impressionable undergraduates?).

    My problem is not with the book, but with the idea that a course based on it makes any sense as part of a regular undergraduate curriculum. Seems to me that students should be encouraged to learn QFT and GR first. There’s a long list of complicated speculative ideas that haven’t worked out very well that don’t belong in an undergraduate curriculum no matter how fond some theorists are of them or how much publicity they have gotten. By putting a subject in in the undergraduate curriculum, we implicitly say to students that this is a solid and important part of our field. There’s nothing in the Zwiebach book that would make clear to a student that this is material of a completely different nature than what they are getting in the rest of of their courses.

  7. somebody says:

    Peter, we are talking about ambitious, smart undergraduate physicists who are eager to see whats up at the frontier. Do you seriously think that these kids don’t have the cojones to see the pros and cons of string theory at the superficial level that it is discussed on this blog?

    “Indoctrination of the youth” works a lot better at an even lower level. Who watches out for the far less prepared readers of your blog (or Kaku’s books for that matter), who have to take your word (which I am sorry to say, is often misleading)?

  8. woit says:


    Well, undergrads with adequately-sized cojones can read the many sources of string theory hype and this blog, then make up their own minds. From what I’ve seen they’re doing that, and making a different judgment than you about who is being misleading. Women students are doing this too, same result…

  9. Peter,

    I don’t actually disagree, nor do I necessarily recommend it to undergrads, though come to think of it, I did recommend the course to my then undergrad son, who took it. So far as I can tell, it didn’t do him any more damage than the rest of the physics curriculum – at least he didn’t become a string theorist.

  10. somebody says:

    Peter, the point was that you started out implying that the students are being taken for a ride by this course. Now you agree with me that they are perfectly capable of making up their own minds about this.

    I have no further comments if you are not going to change your mind again. 🙂

  11. woit says:


    We’ve only agreed about the large-cojoned and female undergrads, there still are the ones with small cojones to be concerned about…

  12. Coin says:

    Joseph B.: Out of curiosity, would it be particularly unusual for a motivated undergrad to simply enroll in a grad-level string theory course?

    (In CS at least it seems to be considered no big deal for a fourth-year undergrad to take a low-level grad course, but I don’t know how things work in physics departments…)

  13. CWJ says:

    “Seems to me that students should be encouraged to learn QFT and GR first.”

    They are–at least, when I was graduate advisor in my physics department, and the current grad advisor deploys the same advice–but they don’t want to hear this. Especially the ambitious but less talented ones. The smarter students are much more flexible and more willing to listen to good advice, I find.

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