Strings Strike Back

The February AAAS press event (discussed here) designed to get out the word that the critics are wrong and string theory is making predictions about physics that are getting tested has finally made it to Slashdot, via an article in Science News by Tom Siegfried.

Siegfried has been making his living selling string theory hype since at least the mid-nineties when he wrote quite a few articles for the Dallas Morning News with titles like “Physicists sing praises of magical mystery theory”. In 2000 he published The Bit and the Pendulum: From Quantum Computing to M-theory, which somehow manages to put together quantum computing, consciousness, and string/M-theory. His next book, in 2002, was Strange Matters: Undiscovered Ideas at the Frontiers of Space and Time, 300 pages of solid hype for problematic speculative ideas, with branes and superstrings playing a leading role. More recently, he has been at work hyping cosmic superstrings in the pages of Science magazine (see here) and trashing me and my book for claiming that string theory doesn’t make predictions (see here).

Most of the Science News article actually gives a reasonably sensible description of the story of attempts to use string duals and holography to study strongly coupled systems in 3 and 4 dimensions. But in the concluding paragraphs this story is shanghaied into service in the string wars, in a section entitled “Strings strike back” which begins:

In recent years it has become popular to criticize string theory as out of touch with reality. Popular books have been written by scientists, some prominent and others not so prominent, arguing that string theory makes no predictions that experiment can test, that its fundamental objects can’t be observed, that physicists have wasted their time on an enterprise that isn’t even scientific to begin with.

Such arguments leave an impression of utter unfamiliarity with the history of science. In times past, the same kinds of aspersions were cast against quarks, neutrinos, even the very existence of atoms. Superstrings are in good company.

You see, some critics of string theory are such ignorant idiots that they question the existence of superstrings even though any student of history knows that they are no more problematic than quarks, neutrinos and atoms. And experiments at RHIC show that string theory does make predictions, ones that have been successfully tested by experiment….

Update: I just read through some of the comments by Slashdot readers. The level of hostility towards string theory and string theory hype is remarkable.

Update: Commenter Hendrik points to a new piece from New Scientist where they have helpfully gathered together in one place all the outrageous string theory hype that has appeared in their pages in recent years.

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27 Responses to Strings Strike Back

  1. Tom says:

    Hi Peter, if you generalized the last sentence down to “The level of hostility is remarkable.”, it could be used to accurately describe the comments for ANY Slashdot story.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Tom,

    Good point. The level of hostility and ignorance in Slashdot comments is often remarkable. What struck me here is how one-sided things are in this case. At least among the nerd population that reads and comments on Slashdot, string theory has a big PR problem….

  3. Aaron Bergman says:

    I would say that slashdot commenters being against something is generally a sign that it’s on the right track.

  4. Anon says:

    I do not take sides in the “string wars” but I don’t really like his following statement.

    “Such arguments leave an impression of utter unfamiliarity with the history of science. In times past, the same kinds of aspersions were cast against quarks, neutrinos, even the very existence of atoms. Superstrings are in good company.”

    It smacks of confirmation bias. What about all the other theories that were correctly rejected?

  5. csrster says:

    Anon: yes, it’s the old “they said Einstein was mad” argument. They also said my uncle Morty was mad – but he actually was mad.

  6. Dennis Towne says:

    Yes, the level of hostility toward string theory is rather high among technical minded people and skeptics; I myself have shown the light to a number of technical and less-than-technical people.

    The critical, deciding factor for most of these people is in fact that disconnect from reality, from experiment. It’s one thing to have the standard model, which has predicted many things to ridiculous accuracy for decades; it’s another to have an idea which has clearly predicted very little, if anything.

    We might not be physicists, but we’re not stupid. We know how to glean the most likely truth from the things we see, and we know where to place credibility:

    1) The standard model is questioned, in that ‘corner case’ effects, near the edge of our testing regime, are not explained or predicted accurately. The vast bulk of data supports it. The few detractors of the standard model can only point to corner case failures. This would be considered ‘highly credible’.

    2) String theory, in general, predicts at best only ‘corner case’ effects, which are near or beyond the edge of our testing regime. The few strong detractors of string theory make legitimate points regarding its foundation, not its details; the vast bulk of string theory moderates agree with the detractors, but simply maintain that regardless, string theory appears the best path. This would be considered ‘less than highly credible’.

    As a software engineer, the string theory process so far reeks to me of software overdesign; by trying to reach too far, they have doomed the project. Incremental, small, and beautiful changes are the norm in software. Perhaps this is why Lisi’s work attracted such attention.

  7. Chris Oakley says:

    Incremental, small, and beautiful changes are the norm in software. Perhaps this is why Lisi’s work attracted such attention.

    I disagree. The reason that Lisi’s work attracted so much attention is that Lee Smolin said it was awesome, and he has a lot of influence. It is very far from being minimal and, like string theory, any beauty evaporates once one tries to apply it to the real world (although in neither case has this been successful). The point in its favour is that it is less arcane that ST.

  8. Joey Ramone says:

    I remember when Siegfried tried to get on the Ramones tourbus for some inside scoops.

    While the String Theory machine evolved (in an anthropic manner) to support and promote sycophantic, soulless, sellout, scienceless hypesters, we wanted to keep our rock’n’roll pure and clean. It spoke for itself. Hypesters could only damage our cred. We didn’t need to create careers for non-scientist hypesters who actually do a vast disservice to science while personally profiting by hyping antitheories which sap all the funding that ought be going to true scientists–to all the postdocs and grad students and young professors struggling out there.

    The only time I met Sigfreid was when he hopped on Michio Kaku’s time machine to sneak on the set for the music video for “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

    He’s dressed like a scientist/doctor (in a white coat) around 1:02 in the video and he’s bothering us. I almost called cut as it was creepy.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FxaJKm9sdI

    Sometimes people would do anything just to touch us, and then there are those who would do anything just to touch a string theorist, or be liked by one. We generally kept them off our tour busses and out of our videos.

  9. ohwilleke says:

    Compared to commentary on newspaper and political blog sites, the commentary at slashdot is downright calm and rational. If the same story were posted at the Denver Post, you would surely see complaints in the comments about how science is a conspiracy of liberal immigrants, and is based upon the non-biblical belief that pi is equal to something other than three. The really clever ones might complain that the numeral system used represents a false pro-Islamic bias. The main flaw of both sides of that debate is a lack of evidence or sourcing which isn’t necessarily customary in Internet comments as opposed to academic writing.

    Apart from Tom Siegfried, who isn’t the world’s best public face for string theory, string theorists have done a pretty poor job of popularization and P.R. in the past half a dozen years or so, despite being the dominant school of thought in academic theoretical fundamental physics. Given that almost all fundamental physics research is ultimately funded with taxpayer dollars one way or another, this is a very bad choice to be making by default. Quantum gravity advocates, in contrast, have done a decent job in that time frame of bridging the gap between expressing ideas in academic journals, and popularizing the gist of what is important about those articles to the educated lay public. The version of the story that can be told in half a dozen Science News sized articles matters a great deal to popular understanding, something that few physicists since Feynman have realy understood well — most people will never read the book length version, even if it is readable. Not enough people are writing stories that briefly summarize the most important half a dozen or so key experimental data points that make someone say “string theory, not something else” and most importantly experimental data that is suggestive of a resolution of the string theory v. LQG debate.

    There are also serious semantic issues going on in both Siegfried’s article and the larger discussion. It is very hard to tell how narrowly or broadly string theory is being used as a term. What components of the theory are definition (>4 multi-dimensionality, perhaps), and what are not (e.g., ironically, strings themselves as opposed to mathematially similar fine structures, and both LQG and string theory both involve what could be called strings although no one familiar with the discussion would ever describe LQG as a subset of string theory). In other words, it is not always easy to distinguish which parts of the theory are “moving parts” and which are a common core — something that is complicated by the fact that versions since rejected remain out there like ill considered blog posts, for all and sundry to see and recirculate without realizing that they are out of date. When one refers to superstrings, does one mean a supersymmetric theory, or simply that these strings being the ultimate cause of everything are especially cool. “String theory” has become the “cloud computing” of theoretical physics.

    One of the more insightful of the slashdot comments notes that there is not just one string theory, but instead many variations on the theme. As a result, new evidence sometimes merely sorts the stack of available sub-theories without ruling any overall approach out.

  10. Joey Ramone says:

    Yes ohwilleke, but should it really be all about PR?

    You write, “Apart from Tom Siegfried, who isn’t the world’s best public face for string theory, string theorists have done a pretty poor job of popularization and P.R. in the past half a dozen years or so, despite being the dominant school of thought in academic theoretical fundamental physics. Given that almost all fundamental physics research is ultimately funded with taxpayer dollars one way or another, this is a very bad choice to be making by default. Quantum gravity advocates, in contrast, have done a decent job in that time frame of bridging the gap between expressing ideas in academic journals, and popularizing the gist of what is important about those articles to the educated lay public. ”

    Instead of PR shouldn’t physicists concentrate on physics?

    It seems that equations such as F=ma and E=mc^2 have a way of generating PR on their own.

    We never used a PR firm–we just rocked out. And long after the Jonas Brothers and Britney Spears and Quantum Gravity PR specialists are forgotten, we will be remembered.

    It is funny how physicists are seeking to imitate pop stars as opposed to physicists who advanced physics such as Feynman, Fermi, Dirac, Einstein, Bohr, and Boltzman, who would have been embarrassed to devote their precious time to pondering PR strategies for untsetable antitheories.

    Life is short and if one pursues empty PR, one ends up with empty PR, which becomes more and more embarrassing for certain “physicists” as they age, causing them to engage in bizarre behavior, hyping nontheories to the press in most creative manners.

    I would advise everyone to rock out for truth, and so would Feynman.

  11. Hendrik says:

    String theory strikes back on a new front: check the article in NewScientist and in particular the Witten interview. Seems he hasn’t read your book yet.

  12. luny says:

    Aside from everything else, what exactly is the prediction that string theory made about RHIC?
    That viscosity over entropy density (eta/s) is 1/4 pi?

    Well, this is not anymore a prediction (see, for example,
    http://arxiv.org/abs/0812.2521 ): eta/s in theories with string duals can go to lower values to 1/4pi, perhaps all the way to 0 (or quantum mechanics could prevent this. But this was known way before string theory
    ( see,eg Phys.Rev.D31:53-62,1985 ).

    That eta/s is “low” in a strongly coupled theory? Well, thats a pretty obvious point that transcends string theory.
    It is cute that AdS/CFT reproduces many phenomena also observed in hydrodynamics, but there is NO AdS/CFT result that can be sensibly compared with data and used to make a prediction. NONE. Not one. If anyone disagrees, please give an example.

    AdS/CFT is,currently, a very interesting conceptual exercise. Perhaps tomorrow someone WILL extract predictions relevant to heavy ion collisions out of it. But it hasnt happened yet. And to claim it has is dishonest Public Relations.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    For those who can’t get enough, and want to follow yet another battle in the string wars (inspired by the Witten interview Hendrik mentions), see this posting at Cosmic Variance.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2009/04/09/string-wars-the-aftermath/

  14. Mitsis says:

    Peter,

    I do not understand your position on “string duals” fully.
    Is it not true that the string theory of AdS CFT is really the same as the string theory one would use for unification?
    Certainly the compactification is very different (the boundary of AdS instead of our flat space etc.) but the kinematics etc. and the whole formalism is the same – no ?

    So if AdS CFT turns out to work correctly it would be a good argument for string theory. Is this not true?

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Mitsis,

    The string theory side of AdS/CFT gives you gravity in 5 dimensional AdS space, not four dimensional space. For this and many other reasons you can’t use it for unification. The 4d physics of the theory is supposed to be N=4 SYM (no gravity), this may be a useful approximation to QCD, but it’s not a unified theory.

    If you believe in much much more general conjectures about gauge duals of string theories in different “string vacua”, then you could imagine that there are gauge theory duals of the kind of string theory used in unification. These would be 3d gauge theories, and looking for them is an active field of research. As far as I can tell though, if it is successful, all you will get is a different parametrization of the “Landscape”, an infinite number of complicated qfts, corresponding to the infinite number of complicated “string vacua”.

  16. Andrei says:

    String theory does not have a PR problem. On the contrary most of the media gobbles up any crazy thing someone like Witten cares to say. I think the problem with strings is that it is not new as some people misleadingly say. It’s been around for about 40 years. And in all this time it has proven itself to be nothing more then mental pollution. Besides there are much more interesting and much newer aproaches to quantum gravity based on superconductivity. I think it is time string theory was filed in the round file (garbage can) and other approaches given a chance.

  17. Dennis Towne says:

    Chris Oakley,

    When I talk about Lisi’s work, yes it’s less arcane, but the real hook can be found in his TED talk about it. It sounds plausible, it seems reasonable, and what little he predicts (the missing particles) make sense. But most importantly, his presentation -looks- cool, with nice symmetric/geometric visuals that people immediately understand.

    That it has some gaps and handwaving in the middle is irrelevant; it has everything it needs to sell well to the techie crowd. Only a solid “this doesn’t match reality, even though it looks cool” is likely to change that.

  18. Thomas Larsson says:

    “So if AdS CFT turns out to work correctly it would be a good argument for string theory. Is this not true?”

    But does it work correctly? In a recent discussion here, I became aware of the paper arXiv:0806.0110v2. Therein, the following statements are proven:

    1. AdS/CFT makes a prediction for some quantities c’/c and k’/k, eqn (5).

    2. This prediction is compared to the exactly known values for the 3D O(n) model at n = infinity, eqns (28) and (30).

    3. The values disagree. Perhaps not by so much, but they are not exactly right.

    This may be expressed by saying that the d-dimensional O(n) model does not have a gravitational dual (an euphemism for “AdS/CFT screwed up”?), at least not in some neighborhood of n = infinity, d = 3, and hence not for generic n and d. There might be exceptional cases where a gravitational dual exist, e.g. the line d = 2, but generically it seems disproven by the above result. In particular, I find it unlikely that the 3D Ising, XY and Heisenberg models (n = 1, 2, 3) can be treated with AdS/CFT.

  19. DB says:

    I note that Witten expects any useful new insights in String Theory to come from a younger generation. Well at least he’s realistic, unlike his wife. Theoretical physicists over the age of 45 rarely make significant fundamental contributions. Even the smartest are burnt out by then.

  20. Aaron Bergman says:

    this doesn’t match reality, even though it looks cool

    How about “it doesn’t look cool when you look closely at it and it’s not even a quantum theory”?

  21. Joey Ramone says:

    Trying to defend classic, epic physics at Discover’s Cosmic Variance blog would be like trying to promote the Ramones at a Jonas Brothers concert. I wonder if the same parent company owns both the Jonas Bros. and Discover as well as Disney and Miley Cyrus?

  22. Joey Ramone says:

    DB writes, “I note that Witten expects any useful new insights in String Theory to come from a younger generation. Well at least he’s realistic, unlike his wife. Theoretical physicists over the age of 45 rarely make significant fundamental contributions. Even the smartest are burnt out by then.”

    Well, no doubt that Witten’s a genius, but what useful “old” insights into String Theory came from the older generation, as far testable physics goes?

    Kudos to Witten for advancing mathematics, but it’s kindof like Milli Vanilli saying that they expect any useful new insights into lip-syncing to come from the younger generation.

  23. Chris W. says:

    Joey, you can go back to being dead now, thank you.

  24. Marion Delgado says:

    What do the leading actual string theorists say when someone asks them if Tom Siegried’s very strong claims are correct?

  25. Sumar Ongi says:

    Although not directly related to the topic of this
    post, there’s been a recent development in the
    field of SM extensions that, I think, shouldn’t go
    unnoticed.

    In the family of models known as Little Higgs
    Models, the naturalness problem is solved by
    making the Higgs be a pseudo-Goldstone boson of a
    certain global symmetry group that is
    spontaneously broken above the electroweak scale,
    where a sector of the model becomes strongly
    coupled. In fact, the Higgs boson is the lightest
    of those pseudo-Goldstone bosons, and is
    especially and naturally light due to the
    particular implementation of spontaneous symmetry
    breaking adopted in these models, the so-called
    “collective” symmetry breaking.

    The Higgs boson does not get quadratically
    divergent corrections to its mass because it is a
    pseudo-Goldstone, and it also remains light with
    respect to the global symmetry breaking scale
    (unlike the other pseudo Goldstones in the model)
    due to the collective symmetry breaking.

    A very recent preprint shows that this collective breaking
    mechanism is unstable under renormalization.
    Thus, unless the top quark couplings are fine
    tuned in an unnatural way, the Higgs boson does
    receive quadratically divergent corrections. To
    quote the authors of the preprint
    “This defeats the purpose of introducing the model
    in the first place.” The preprint goes on to show
    that this problem is generic, therefore affecting
    all Little Higgs models.

    All in all, it seems that Little Higgs models have
    been ruled out (so to speak).

  26. Sumar Ongi says:

    Well, as expected, the link came out wrong. It should be,
    http : //arxiv.org/abs/0904.1622

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