Physics Strings Us Along

A commenter here wrote in to point out that Margaret Wertheim, a science columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has a new piece entitled Physics strings us along. She discusses Lisa Randall’s new book as an example of physics that has become completely unmoored from empirical evidence and instead “has become in effect a form of speculative literature” (much like John Horgan’s characterization of this sort of thing as “science fiction in mathematical form”). Wertheim notes that it is becoming hard to distinguish theoretical physics from religion and magic, supposedly less rational practices, claiming that “in recent years science itself has been showing increasingly magical tendencies”, concerning itself with “entire landscapes of universes for which there is no empirical evidence whatever. ”

She is writing a book about “the role of imagination in theoretical physics”, and she seems overly enthusiastic about how “Unchained by the fetters of verification, string theorists are free to dream, articulating through their equations vast imagined domains in which almost anything that is mathematically possible is deemed to be happening ‘somewhere.'”

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11 Responses to Physics Strings Us Along

  1. Chris Oakley says:

    I saw the article. I also saw one in a March 2005 Physics Today where they interview Kaku. Someone seems to have likened him to Jerry Springer. Unfortunately, though, it seems increasingly unlikely that String Theorists will ever host a Reality Show.

  2. Lubos Motl says:

    I was personally not too happy with this article either. But let me mention that a physicist mentioned in your article 😉 may have had a different opinion.

  3. Rob Scott says:

    Chris, according to the article there must be many universes where string theorists do indeed host Reality Shows, after all it is mathematically possible:) It’s just not this one.

  4. Egbert Humplebody says:

    It seems there’s another story in the news about how string theory can explain everything.

  5. Quantum_Ranger says:

    Rob Scott says “Chris, according to the article there must be many universes where string theorists do indeed host Reality Shows, after all it is mathematically possible:) It’s just not this one”.

    And thus, there is another Universe stringtheorists keep ignoring? This one!

    For if it is so that there are a multidude of Universes, then they have to admit that there is one Universe wherby the theory of strings does not exist?

    A stringtheorist who does NOT admit this fact, by their own scientific arena, methods of madness, must be ‘string-calculating’, inside this Universe, but the resulting evidence is elswhere!

    How can stringtheorists be so sure that stringtheory EXISTS in this Universe, and not in another perticular Unverse? by their own evidence of MW’s, the evidence appears to be that Strings are elswhere, even though the theorists themselves, appear at first glance, to be residing in the same referenced Universe as the Human Race?

  6. MathPhys says:

    I’m not shocked by the rise and rise of M Kaku in the US media, afterall, we have Jerry Springer. What I find shattering is that a salesman who starts every talk by plugging his most recent paperback, actually gets invited, along with respectable people like Vafa and Witten to conferences such as the Alexandria Einstein symposium.

  7. Ranger says:


    ALL TIED UP & STRUNG ALONG, a movie about String Theorists and their expansive theories which extend human ignorance, pomposity, and frailty into higher dimensions, is set to start filming this fall. Jessica Alba, John Cleese, Eugene Levie, Jackie Chan, and David Duchovney of X-files fame have all signed on to the $700 million Hollywood project, which is still cheaper than String Theory itself, and will likely displace less physicists from the academy.

    “As contemporary physics is about money, hype, mythology, and chicks,” Ed Witten explained from his offices at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, “The next logical step was Hollywood, although I thought Burt Reynolds should play me instead of Eugene Levy.”

    Brian Greene, the famous String Theorist who will be played by David “the truth is out there” Duchovney, explained the plot: “String theory’s muddled, contorted theories that lack postulates, laws, and experimentally-verified equations have Einstein spinning so fast in his grave that it creates a black hole. In order to save the world, we String Theorists have to stop reformulating String Theory faster than the speed of light. We are called upon to stop violating the conservation of energy by mining higher dimensions to publish more BS than can accounted for with the Big Bang alone, and I win the Nobel prize for showing that M-Theory is in fact the dark matter it has been searching for.”

    Greene continues: “At first my character is reluctant to stop theorizing and start postulating, but when my love interest Jessica Alba is sucked into the black hole, I search my soul and find Paul Davies there, played by John Cleese. I ask him what he’s doing in my soul, and he explains that the answer is contained in the mind of God, which only he is privy too, but for a small fee, some tax and tuition dollars, a couple grants here and there, and an all-expense-paid book tour with stops in Zurich and Honolulu, he can let me in on it. And he shows me God in all her greater glory, as he points out that we can make more money in Hollywood than writing coffee-table books that recycle Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, Feynman, and Wheeler. I am quickly converted, and I agree to turn my back on String Theory’s hoax and save Jessica Alba.”

    But it’s not that easy, as standing in Greene’s way is Michio “king of pop-theory-hipster-irony-the-theory-of-everything-or-anything-made-
    you-read-this” Kaku, played by Jackie Chan. Kaku beats the crap out of Greene for alomst blowing the “ironic” pretense his salary, benefits, and all-expense paid trips depend on. “WE MUST HOLD BACK THE YOUNG SCIENTISTS WITH OUR NON-THEORIES!! WE MUST FILL THE ACADEMY WITH THE POMO DARK MATTER THAT IS STRING THEORY TO KEEP OUR UNIVERSE FROM FLYING APART, OUR PYRAMID SCHEMES FROM TOPPLING, AND OUR PERPETUAL-MOTION NSF MONEY MACHINE FROM STOPPING!!” Kaku argues as he delivers a flying back-kick, “There can be ony ONE! I WILL be String Theory’s GODFATHER as referenced on my web page!! I have better hair!”

    But Greene fights back as he signs his seventeenth book deal to make the hand-waving incoherence of String Theory accessible to the South Park generation, senior citizens, and starving chirldren around the world. “Kaku! Kaku! (pronounced Ka-Kaw! Ka-Kaw! like Owen Wilson did in Bottle Rocket),” Greene shouts. “It is theoretically impossible to build a coffee tables strong enough to support any more coffee-table physics books!!!”

    “Time travel is also theoretically impossible, but there’s a helluva lot more money for us in flushing physics down a wormhole. Nobody knows what the #&#%&$ M stands for in M theory ya hand-waving, TV-hogging crank!!! Get it?? Ha Ha Ha! We’re laughing at the public! We’re the insider pomo hipsters! Get with the gangsta-wanksta-pranksta CRANKSTER bling-bling program!!”

    How does it all end? Does physics go bankrupt funding theories that have expanded our ignorance from four dimensions into ten, twenty, and thirty dimensions? Do tax payers revolt? Do young physicists overthrow the hand-waving, contortionist bullies and revive physics with a classical renaissance favoring logic, reason, and Truth over meaningless mathematical abstractions? Does Moving Dimensions Theory (MDT) prevail with its simple postulate? We’ll all just have to wait!

    But in the meantime, how do you think it will play out?

    Will theories with postulates ever be allowed in physics again? Or will the well-funded, tenured pomo String Theory / M-Theory (Maffia-Theory) Priests send their armies of desperate, snarky postdocs and starving graduate students forth to displace and destroy all common sense, logic, reason, and physics in the academy? It must be so–for the greater good of physics, the individual physicist, and thus physics, must be sacrificed.


  8. Bryan says:

    On the topic of Dr Lisa Randall, I think it sad that Scientific American made fun of her in the Oct issue, pp20-22.

    The article is headed ‘The Beauty of Branes’ and has a big picture of her in front of a blackboard.

    Underneath the picture is the caption: ‘Lisa Randall: Warped Thoughts.’

    The article concludes by quoting her collaborator Andreas Karch of University of Washington: ‘I often don’t understand her. When she says things, they don’t make sense and I first think ‘she is crazy’. But I don’t say anything…’

    With friends like these, who needs enemies?

  9. Rainey says:

    um actually i dont think the article was making fun of her at all. the actual article, on pages 38-40

    concluded with the sentance:

    “But I don’t say anything, because she is usually right. Lisa just knows the answer.”

    Just pointing this out because if you read the above post Karch’s comment seems pretty patronizing. Add the final sentance and he just sounds ignorant.

    Usually taking things out of context “warps” their meaning…;)

  10. Bryan says:

    ‘…because she is usually right. Lisa just knows the answer.’

    This fear of pointing out potential problems ‘because she is usually right’ and ‘just knows the answer’ in my opinion makes Lisa sound patronising, which is why I left it out. It has nothing to do with the point being made, that someone senses a problem, yet does not have the courage to say so.

  11. Nigel says:

    I hate the idea of personally ridiculing string theorists just because they are wrong scientifically, but who gave the idea to Laughlin for the following analogy in the San Francisco Chronicle?

    “… skeptics suggest it’s the latest sign of how string theorists, sometimes called “superstringers,” try to colorfully camouflage the theory’s flaws, like “a 50-year-old woman wearing way too much lipstick,” jokes Robert B. Laughlin, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Stanford…”

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