Not Even Wrong: The Book

There’s a project I’ve been working on for the last couple years that I haven’t wanted to write about here until it was further along, but now seems to be a good time. I’ve written a book, also entitled “Not Even Wrong”, and the British publisher Jonathan Cape is bringing it out in England, publication date March 16th from what I last heard. It will presumably appear later in the U.S., with the publisher here still to be arranged. Right now I’m putting some final touches on the manuscript, and hope to have a final version within the next week or so. You can take a look at the latest version of the cover art, and someone last night wrote to tell me that Random House in Canada has a catalog entry for the book.

The book contains material on several related topics, including a history of the standard model from a mathematically-informed perspective, a description of the history, current status and prospects of high energy accelerators and particle physics experiments, some of the history of recent interactions between mathematics and physics, a history of supersymmetry and string theory and attempts to use them to get beyond the standard model, comments on the notion of “beauty” in theoretical physics and on the sociology of how particle physics is pursued and supported, especially in the U. S.. There’s also a section explaining exactly what the problems with supersymmetry and string theory are, making the case that these are ideas that have failed conclusively, together with an explanation of what the whole “landscape” controversy is about.

The story of how the book came to be is roughly as follows. I started writing it in 2002, and had something pretty well finished by the end of that year. Early in 2003 an editor from Cambridge University Press heard about what I was writing and stopped by to see me when he was visiting Columbia. He got interested in the idea of having Cambridge publish the book, but I think he had no idea of how controversial this topic was. During 2003 the manuscript went through a couple iterations of refereeing at Cambridge. The first round of referee reports included a very positive report from a non-string theory particle theorist, a non-committal report from a mathematician who works on things related to string theory, and an extremely negative report from a string theorist.

I’d been quite curious to see how a string theorist referee would respond to the manuscript, since I was pretty sure all my facts were right, and I assumed that they would have trouble recommending against publication of something without being able to show that it said something incorrect. This first string theorist referee was described to me as a “well-known mainstream string theorist”. He or she dealt with the problem of not being able to find anything wrong with what I had written by claiming that arguing against string theory was like arguing against teaching evolution, and that “I think that you would be very hardpressed to find anybody who would say anything positive about this manuscript”, using this as an excuse for only coming up with one example of something incorrect in the manuscript. By now I’m pretty used to the tactic that was used to do this, but at the time I was pretty shocked by it. A sentence I had written was taken out of context and one of the words was changed from a singular to a plural, allowing the referee to construe the sentence in a way that allowed him or her to claim I wasn’t aware of some important developments in physics.

This experience convinced me that at least some string theorists were in far worse shape than I had imagined, suffering from the delusion that no one who knows what they are talking about could possibly criticize string theory, and willing to stoop to pathetic levels of dishonesty to maintain this point of view. I had off and on been worried that I was being too harsh in some of my criticisms of the behavior of string theorists, but after seeing this report I stopped worrying about this.

The Cambridge editor seemed to believe that the negative referee report lacked credibility, and that it even gave some evidence for the problems I was claiming existed in the string theory community. But for Cambridge to publish a book, a board of academics who act as advisors have to sign off on any decision. The editor felt that this round of referee’s reports would not be enough to convince them, so the manuscript was sent out to two more referees, both theorists who have worked on string theory. It took quite a while for these reports to come back, and when they did, one of them was very positive and recommended publication. The second however was quite negative. This referee found nothing inaccurate to complain about, but said that while he or she agreed with many of my critical comments about string theory, basically string theorists were the ones who should be evaluating the theory, and Cambridge shouldn’t be publishing the opinions of the likes of me. I couldn’t really disagree with this; string theorists are the ones who should be critically evaluating what has happened in the field, but the problem is that they’re not doing it.

At this point the editor still felt that he would have trouble getting approval to publish the book, and offered to try another round of referees, but this seemed to me a waste of time. String theorist referees were clearly willing to strongly recommend against publication even when they couldn’t point to anything inaccurate in the book, and the way the Press works, it was unlikely to publish something over the strong objections of some very prominent people. I then circulated the manuscript to editors at several other university presses. Two of them wrote back that while they found the book very interesting and well-written, a university press just could not publish something so controversial.

A friend of mine then put me in touch with a prominent New York literary agent. Her advice was that, if the manuscript was extensively rewritten to remove some of the more technical discussion, she thought she would be able to easily sell it to a trade publisher. I had mixed feelings about this idea, since if I removed some of these more technical chapters, I would be in the position of criticizing string theory, while not giving the details of what the problems with it were. I had also sent the manuscript to a few quite prominent mathematicians and physicists to ask them for advice about what to do with it. This led to some very interesting e-mail exchanges that I learned a lot from. Finally I heard from Roger Penrose, who offered to put me in contact with his publisher, Jonathan Cape. The editor at Jonathan Cape decided that they would like to publish the book, and that they were perfectly happy with it having some technical parts (which, after all, were quite a bit less technical than much of Penrose’s recent book, which has been a great success).

So, that’s the story until now of the book. I’m certainly curious what reaction it will get when it is published, and of course hope that it will stir up a serious debate on the issues currently surrounding string theory. I also hope the book will provide some explanations of what has been going on at the interface of particle physics and mathematics that a wide range of people will be able to get something out of, from members of the general public with an interest in science and math to professional researchers in both fields.

Update: Commentary on this here, here, here, and here.

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81 Responses to Not Even Wrong: The Book

  1. ppcook says:

    Dear Peter,

    Congratulations on finishing your book. It’s very important that important scientific debates are carried over to the mainstream public press. There are many popular science books that engage their readership with the mysterious implications of string theory, amongst others, but there are few that are willing to talk about the 30+ year struggle to get it to the shape it’s in now. It’s my opinion that popular science is very important, future scientists can get a beginner’s picture of the field they might wish to devote their lives to, and generally popular science books focus on the exciting and positive aspects of a story. Consequently all the popular science I have read about string theory gives the impression that it is all but a fait accompli and while I feel string theory is the best candidate to date, it’s important to emphasise that it isn’t complete, and that there is not a consensus amongst the informed (no matter how you define informed). So long as your opinions do not impinge on facts, which I’m sure from reading your blog they don’t, then you’re doing a very decent thing in taking the time to popularise your opinions about string theory. The truth will out eventually (either way), but besides this it’s important that the state of play is reported fairly, and I admire your stance of honestly presenting your doubts about string theory. There must be at least 3 anti-string theory popular science books now, versus 10+ or so in the implicitly pro-string camp; of course when it comes to text books the gap is wider ;).

    With regard to the pro/anti-Lubos debate, I must say that I also admire Lubos very much for almost all the same reasons that I congratulate you, i.e. honesty and a desire to communicate ideas. Keep up the good work.

    Best wishes,

  2. ksh95 says:

    Peter: Congrats

    Quantoken: Your comments are absolutely disgusting. Jealosy is the ugliest of all traits.

    Anti Lubos: I like Lubos for the same reasons I like Peter. They believe what they believe and they stick to their guns.

  3. Luboš Motl says:

    Concerning the spirals, Brian Greene had a similar picture on the first French edition of The Elegant Universe.

    See the other 25 or so covers of The Elegant Universe at:

  4. Wolfgang says:

    > [..]
    > I must say that I also admire Lubos very much for almost all the
    > same reasons that I congratulate you, i.e. honesty and a desire to
    > communicate ideas.
    Very well put. This is exactly my opinion.

  5. woit says:

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m glad to see that at least some people studying string theory recognize that the popular literature on the subject is rather one-sided, and that the other side of the argument deserves some exposure.

    After this project is done, maybe I’ll start work on the anti-string theory textbook (AKA, a book about mathematics and QFT…)

  6. The spirals (aka trajectories of charged particles) in Green book are to me a bit more strange, perhaps due to the enhancement. I am not able to were the big spiral starts and where it ends. Does it says what kind of collider it is?

    As for the event in Woit picture, I am whinking about a kaon, could it be?

  7. woit says:

    The original source for the image is:

    I’ll leave it to you to do the analysis…..

  8. cvj says:

    Dear Peter,

    I posted these two next comments on the thread about your book. They were addressed to you since you had a comment there, but I am not sure if you are rreading that thread any more, so I will put them here too. I hope you don’t mind. Come over to CV and give an answer at your leisure, and feel free to copy it here…or the reverse….put a pingback.

    So they follow.



  9. cvj says:

    Dear Peter,

    As a result of several discussions on other comment threads on this blog, I was under the impression that we’d all made some progress in sorting out what were well-posed disgreements you have with some approaches research in string theory, what were “gut-feelings? that you have (over which we can simply agree to disagree), what were misconceptions based on not being an active researcher in the field, and -very importantly- what were simply your misattributions of a minority view to that of the whole field. Recall that I spent a fair amount of time trying to clear these up. I refer you to the comment thread of the Landscape post, for example. I thought we arrived at some agreement that your views about what is actually going on in the field need a bit of re-balancing. If so, will these refinements be incorporated into the book before it is published? Or will your pre-cosmicvariance position be published? I do hope that these “finishing touches? might involve significant rebalancing some of your emphasis to reflect the outcome of the enlightening discussions that have taken place here. Otherwise, it will be a missed opportunity for you to put out a book that is a useful alternative view, and not just a view based on an exaggerated chariacature of research in string theory.

    I’d like to ask you to please make the effort. It probably won’t delay publication at all, and even if it did, it will be worthwhile: It will improve your book, and thereby enhance your reputation. If it comes across as an uninformed rant, however, you’ll do service to nobody’s cause at all, which would be sad, at the very least.



  10. cvj says:

    Dear Peter,

    I refer particularly to your comment # 67 in that thread, although it is worth reminding yourself about the discussion that led up to that point. Quoting you entirely:

    Peter Woit on Aug 15th, 2005 at 8:42 pm


    Sorry for harassing you into stating the obvious that once one has shown a theory is unpredictive, it’s wrong (or not even wrong…) and one has to give up on it, but I think this discussion was worthwhile, it certainly helped me clarify some things for myself. And it’s helpful to see that we share fundamental criteria for evaluating science. I’m afraid that I sometimes share what I take to be Lee’s perception that for some string theorists, the possibility that the idea of string-based unification is just wrong seems to be something they won’t even admit to be a possibility.

    No, I’m not going to take you up on your suggestion and devote myself to working on string theory. There are already many, many smart people doing this, and they appear to me to be doing a good job of slowly accumulating evidence that the string theory unification idea doesn’t work. I don’t think I could significantly speed that process up. I’ll stick to pointing out what other people have already found, and trying to develop what seem to me to be more promising ideas.

    The main thing this clarified for me is the whole issue of falsifiability. You and Sean are right that it’s a good idea to think about the analogy between the gauge theory and string theory frameworks, although I draw different conclusions from this analogy. I guess I do think that the difference is one of degree, but that differences of degree are crucial. Whatever theoretical framework one has, one can generally find some way of making it fit the facts. If it’s a good theoretical framework it’s easy, if it’s not you have to engage in all sorts of ugly contortions. Thus, in evaluating theoretical frameworks, a sense of aesthetics is crucial, and claims like those that Susskind is making that it doesn’t matter if things are really ugly are dangerous. I’ve been thinking a lot in recent years about this kind of “aesthetic? issue, and the connection to falsifiability is something I hadn’t thought about before.

    So, will the refinements of your views mentioned by you in the above be reflected in the book? (Not to mention other points I mentioned which you agreed with elsewhere on the thread?)



  11. cvj says:

    Link to comment thread of the Landscape post, in which many valuable exchanges were had:




  12. Scott says:

    I find it interesting that although I followed the discussion clifford is talking about I did not get the impression of peter substantially changing his oppinion at all, just admitting that not all string theorist are luny and or very worried about the landscape(something which I have no knowledge of him ever implying) and admitting that the falsifiability of a theory is obviously a matter of degree.

    personally I think String Theory is in more danger of being not even wrong because there is no actuall theory that meets all of the assumptions/conjectures that string theory is built on rather than having too many consistant theories.

  13. woit says:

    I’m copying here my response to Clifford over at There should be a better way of carrying on some of these cross-blog discussions….

    Hi Clifford,

    Yes, the discussion here has had an effect on some of the changes I’m in the middle of making, specifically the new insight into the falsifiability issue that discussion here helped me with is one of those changes.

    As for the other issues you mention, I should point out that I have a somewhat different point of view about parts of our discussion. In some cases what to you may have appeared to be a clearing up of misconceptions on my part to me seemed to be just my clarifying some things that I hadn’t written carefully enough, allowing them to be too easily misunderstood or misconstrued. In any case, the book manuscript is written more carefully and at greater length than my web comments, so it shouldn’t have so much of this kind of problem.

    One thing you’ve properly taken me to task for is sometimes attributing to all string theorists views held only by a minority, or at least appearing to do so. To some extent this is hard to avoid. The sheer complexity of the range of different opinions is hard to do justice to in any piece of expository writing about these issues, so one has to oversimplify to some degree. I’m well aware that many if not most string theorists are eminently reasonable people I can agree with about most things, who don’t hold unreasonable or indefensible views. Some of my best friends are string theorists, and I never have trouble talking about the subject with them.

    On the other hand, there are a significant number of string theory partisans out there who seem to me to be unwilling to engage in rational discussion of the issues surrounding string theory, and often engage in the offensive behavior of assuming anyone skeptical about the theory is just stupid and ignorant. I’ve had a lot of this to put up with in the last day or so since publicly announcing my book project. These people are presumably overrepresented in internet forums, and range from fools hiding behind pseudonyms like F. Uckoff, to Harvard junior faculty, to respected senior faculty at major research institutions. I’ve just wasted some of my time trying to respond on Dave Bacon’s blog to Greg Kupferberg, a mathematician string partisan who holds the unshakeable belief that my objections to string theory are of the same sort as Intelligent Designers’ objections to the theory of evolution and that my only motivation is unwillingness to do the hard work necessary to learn string theory. I think Lubos Motl’s comments here and elsewhere speak for themselves.

    So, while I’m willing to believe that the majority of string theorists are reasonable sorts, that’s not so clear from what goes on on the internet, and some of my experiences somedays leave me feeling not especially charitable. While there are certainly some stupid comments left on my weblog by people bashing string theory, I’d like to think that if any of these were coming from serious people in respected positions (e.g. Harvard faculty members), I’d be taking them to task for their behavior and I can’t help noticing that this doesn’t seem to be something any string theorists are willing to do.

    About the landscape: my own view of the issue is extremely simple. Any theorist working on a theory who ends up deciding the theory leads to something that ugly and that unpredictive has to just acknowledge failure and do something different. I understand that there’s a wide range of opinions about this among string theorists, but don’t think this is a subtle issue. The book was largely written in 2002 before the landscape controversy got going, so material about it is kind of added on, and given the way I see this, I haven’t had the interest or energy to go into too much detail about the various issues that people often get into when talking about this.

    Finally, I don’t want to put you on the spot in public, but will soon contact you privately with a proposition about the issues you raise. Maybe you can help me out…

  14. Luboš Motl says:

    Dear Peter,

    if someone if being stupid or ignorant, then it’s important to point out this fact, especially if the person is arrogant enough that he wants to decide about the direction of theoretical physics as much as Cumrun Vafa or Edward Witten, to say the least.

    Let me emphasize that you don’t know even the basics of the theory and the idea that this is a good starting point for a rational discussion about string theory is simply stupid. You seem to think that because your superficial insults against the whole field are supported by a gang of incredibly dumb readers, you have the right to expect that the leading theoretical physicists will discuss with you as with a peer. But that’s completely crazy.

    It’s also important to say that F. Uckoff much like the senior string theorists you mentioned are very fine and smart people.

    Sincerely Yours

  15. Thomas Larsson says:

    It may be worth pointing out the Lubos Motl has proven to be quite ignorant about basic string theory himself. For the past five years, he has repeated, with the perseverence of a drunken parrot, that gauge symmetries are redundancies of the description. If he had understood chapter 2 of GSW he would have realized that this is not a general truth; the subcritical free string has a ghost-free spectrum despite its conformal anomaly. That consistency singles out 26D for the free bosonic string is just the lies-to-children (or lies-to-junior-Harvard-faculty) version of the no-ghost theorem.

  16. cvj says:

    Well Scott. Amusingly, Peter seems to disagree with you -see his post below yours- so it’s probably a good idea in future to let him speak for himself, don’t you think?


  17. Nigel says:

    Dear Luboš,

    You write above ‘if someone if being stupid or ignorant, then it’s important to point out this fact’ and then you say ‘you don’t know even the basics of the theory’. Right, see how you like this.

    Luboš, you don’t need to eat a whole cow just to decide if the meat is bad. ST is past its sell by date. People don’t need to sample the entire package to discover that it is poisoning physics. You just can’t grasp this, although you string theorists have plenty of hypocrisy.

    Notice that all I have to do is ask ‘what does ST predict quantitatively?’ If you say ‘wait a year and I’ll answer’ you’re wasting my time. Why should anyone study stuff which has led physics nowhere in over 20 years?

    Now I don’t have a postdoc in ST so I’m not ‘intellectual’ enough to comment, or well qualified enough to be serious, or just perhaps too juvenile in sticking to simple, testable ideas which work 🙂
    Best wishes,


  18. is a picture of the machine where the picture was done. The BEBC was not a old machine as some post could suggest; it worked during the seventies.

  19. Scott says:


    Actually it is not that surprising that three different people would have three different perceptions about what transpired, I just figured that while you waited for peter’s responce, I would point out that you were describing your perception and not neccessarily peters by stating my own perception (which was much closer to peters that most of discussion was just clarification of what you both thought). I find it interesting that you thought I was trying to speak for peter instead of just pointing this out especially when i started the comment by saying “I find it interesting…”

  20. ” [..] Peter Woit thinks that superstring theory is not a scientific theory in the usual sense, being incapable of making concrete, testable predictions and he announced that he is finishing a book with the same title as his blog: Not Even Wrong. [..]”

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  22. Who says:

    I followed the link given here to The Statistical Mechanic, to see what more Wolfgang had to say about the book, and found a strong recommendation of Capitalist imperialist Pig, and this link:

    to the “Bad Vibrations” blog entry by said Pig.
    Gist: Pig tried to have a conversation about Peter’s book and it ended unsatisfactorily. Pig then reflected on this.

    Wolfgang’s recommendation of the Pig blog is as follows:
    “One of the better blogs is written by CapitalistImperialistPig. He usually has an independent, yet sane, point of view and discusses mostly US and world politics, but sometimes also physics and other stuff.”

  23. anonymous idiot says:

    Who says: I read the colloquy between Pig and Lubos slightly differently. Pig teased Lubos – Lubos said “you are stupid, stupid, stupid, and an idiot moron,” whereupon Pig retreated to his own blog and bitchslapped LM.

  24. Nigel says: :

    Luboš resorts to the argument that Witten is best to judge if ST is right, as he is the most qualified in ST. (By the same argument, the best way to find out if a criminal is guilty is to ask him.) Luboš then repeats Witten’s misleading claim (disproved by Penrose) that ST is proved by predicting graviton right (see my home page for quotes).

    Quantoken replies to Luboš: ‘Einstein says there is no distinction between acceleration or gravity attraction. If gravity is exchanged by a boson called graviton, then the two cases can in principle be distinguished by observing whether any graviton has actually been absorbed by the object or not, breaking the equivalence principle.’

    I think that gets rid of gravity nonsense coming from the ST lobby! 😉 So now we know ST is as vacuous as cold fusion. 🙂

  25. pablo mora says:

    Dear Peter,

    I found it very interesting your ‘enigmatic and delphic’ comment on the’quantumpontiff’ blog about Chern-Simons theory, which provokedan furious andoutraged answer from LM.
    In fact i am interested in CS gauge andgravity theories in higher dimensions. I would very much like it if you can elaborate on that, either in your blog or a personal e-mail.Thanks,


  26. A Theorem, You Say? says:


    do you mean anything specific by “it is not a theorem now, but may be so next year”? (re: canonicity of ST).

    If so, what did you have in mind? Is there some specific conjecture rather than a warm fuzzy feeling about the majesty of string theory?

  27. woit says:

    Hi Pablo,

    Sorry to be enigmatic, but what I had in mind probably won’t help you. Right now I’m way behind on everything I’m supposed to be doing, but once the new semester here gets going, this fall I hope to spend time writing some long postings about things like the Chern-Simons idea I mentioned. People sometimes quite legitimately complain that there’s too much negativity on this weblog, which is probably right, and I should be spending more time writing about positive ideas that I find interesting.

  28. MC says:


    Your cover art closely resembles that of my copy of “What is the World Made Of: Atoms, Leptons, Quarks, and Other Tantalizing Particles” by Gerald Feinberg (1977). Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a picture of it online to show you.

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  30. woit says:

    Hi MC,

    Thanks for letting me know. I think the Columbia library has several copies of this (Feinberg was on the faculty here), so I can take a look at one of them on Monday. Maybe it’s just that many bubble chamber photos look alike, maybe both used the same CERN image. In any case I know where the Cape designer got the image and it wasn’t from Feinberg’s book. But if they’re too similar I’ll let Cape know and they can decide if they want to do something about that.

  31. woit says:

    Took a look at the Feinberg book. The cover may or may not be the same CERN bubble chamber, but definitely is a different picture.

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