A Particle Theorist’s Perspective on String Theory

There’s a new posting over at Cosmic Variance by JoAnne Hewett of SLAC about string theory, entitled A Particle Physicist’s Perspective. It gives a good idea of what I believe most non-string-theorist particle physicists think about string theory.

She does express some very controversial views, ones that are widely held in the physics community, but rarely publicly expressed:

I find the arrogance of some string theorists astounding, even by physicist’s standards. Some truly believe that all non-stringy theorists are inferior scientists. It’s all over their letters of recommendation for each other, and I’ve actually had some of them tell me this to my face.

and she describes string theorists as holding the arrogant belief that

String theory is so important that it must be practised at the expense of all other theory. There are two manifestations of this: string theorists have been hired into faculty positions at a disproportionally high level not necessarily commensurate with ability in all cases, and the younger string theorists are usually not well educated in particle physics. Some literally have a hard time naming the fundamental particles of nature. Both of these manifestations are worrying for the long-term future of our field.

I suspect that some of Hewett’s strong feelings about this come from being at Stanford, where the theoretical physics group is made up mostly of members of the looniest wing of the string theory enterprise. The logo of the new web-site of the Institute for Theoretical Physics there is a representation of the multiverse, and Stanford is probably the major center for landscapeology in the world (and perhaps in the multiverse).

My alma mater, Princeton, is rather different in that landscapeology is not popular, but the particle theory groups both at the university and at the Institute have only hired string theorists for the last twenty years, displaying the kind of attitude that Hewett finds disturbing.

While most string theorists demonstrate no more than the usual theoretical physicist’s helping of arrogance, it has certainly been my experience that some of them display a degree of arrogance that is pretty astounding. This includes some of the earliest and most prominent string theory bloggers, where the phenomenon is pretty much off-scale. When it comes to purely intellectual arrogance and confidence in one’s own beliefs, I’m no paragon of humility, but I don’t take the attitude that people who disagree with me are idiots who don’t know what they are talking about, an attitude I’ve encountered amazingly often from more than one string theorist.

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56 Responses to A Particle Theorist’s Perspective on String Theory

  1. woit says:

    Hi Bee,

    The problem with your suggestion that “stringers admit that they are mathematicians” is that, on the whole, the math community doesn’t agree and doesn’t want them.

  2. Aaron says:

    We’re inspirational to the mathematicians. They like us. We give them things to prove.

  3. secret milkshake says:

    Bee: their attitudes are awful, not the field. The fluff – not the stuff.

  4. JC says:


    Is there any particular reason why the math community doesn’t really want string theorists?

  5. woit says:

    Would you want Leonard Susskind ranting about the anthropic landscape in your department?

    Mathematicians are interested in some parts of string theory, e.g. conformal field theory, mirror symmetry, topological strings, etc. These are pretty well-defined ideas that have led to very non-trivial conjectures about interesting mathematical objects. Some people working on these things are happily working in math departments. Other parts of string theory, where no one knows precisely what the object under study even is (e.g. M-theory), or where there’s no new insight into interesting mathematics (e.g. most of the work on the landscape or string cosmology) aren’t things mathematicians want much to do with.

  6. Juan R. says:

    Ok Who! I agree

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

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