This Week’s Hype

I’m rather busy these days with a move to a new apartment, but maybe there’s time for a quick edition of “This Week’s Hype”.

A commenter on the previous posting points to Amanda Peet’s recent talk entitled String Theory for the Scientifically Curious. In the question and answer section, she responds to someone who asks her to comment on Phil Anderson’s claim that string theory makes no falsifiable predictions. She describes this claim as “absolutely fundamentally completely utterly wrong” and says that Anderson should “be smacked around the head” for saying it. She then goes on to a vigorous and extensive personal attack on Lee Smolin.

Her argument that string theory really is falsifiable is that a paper by Distler and collaborators shows this and has been published. The paper she is referring to is this one, which started off as a preprint with the title Falsifying String Theory through WW scattering, but was only published after a forced change of title to “Falsifying Models of New Physics Via WW Scattering”. One reason for this is that there’s actually nothing about string theory in the paper. Evidently Peet just saw the preprint, not the published version. If you want to know more about this particular piece of hype, see blog postings here, here, and here.

For more Amanda Peet in action, there’s a classic video from the KITP, blogged about here.

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17 Responses to This Week’s Hype

  1. chris says:

    that’s incredible.

    what an utter lack of respect and discussion culture. somtimes i wonder what the scientific community has come to.

  2. Felipe Zaldivar says:

    I was appalled for the level of aggression in A. Peet answers to people asking some questions after the talk. Is this really necessary? Has this field of Physics sunk to such level or is she just a “singularity” in the realm? I did not watch the whole video, but if someone is interested, see from 1:19 to 1:25 min in the video.

  3. H M says:

    She claims that Phillip Anderson has an agenda, there are not enough smart people working on superconductors and therefore he wants to attract potential string theorists (aka the smartest people in the world) towards Condensed Matter physics. Such arrogance seems very prevalent among string theorists.

  4. Fabio says:

    I’ve never known Peet to voice an opinion that didn’t come directly from one of her mentors. In this case she seems to be aping some of Lenny’s earlier personal attacks against Smolin. Of course, if you’re an insecure lesser figure in a field, loudly and publicly attacking apostates is an easy way to earn some plaudits from your peers.

  5. srp says:

    (I apologize if this double posts–there was a glitch the first time.)

    I was very confused by this post; a Google search quickly confirmed that the Amanda Peet I’ve heard of is someone you’d be very surprised to find had an opinion on string theory…

    It might be a good idea to say “Amanda Peet (not the famous actress)” just as a post about an actor named Ed Witten would be well-advised to tell the reader it was not referring to the more-famous one.

  6. Edward says:

    She’s hardly a lesser light, Fabio. That she has the same viewpoint as her supervisor and peers is, of course, a common phenomenon and not necessarily indicative of mindless parroting. As for her level of aggression, unfortunately this (and thick skin) is what is often required to succeed in physics, especially in the rarefied atmosphere of high-energy. Anderson is no less tenacious/vicious.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Edward,

    I’ve spent a lot of time in the “rarefied” atmosphere of academia, both in high energy physics and mathematics, and I’ve never seen this kind of public behavior (except from Lubos Motl, who didn’t last long, and a bit of it from Lenny Susskind).

    There’s a reason that serious academics don’t respond (in public) to substantive arguments about science by engaging in personal attacks on those they disagree with and saying that they need to be “smacked”. Doing this makes it clear to everyone in the audience that you probably don’t have a substantive response to the argument. Doing it and adding as your only substantive response that your claim is true because it was published in a paper in Phys. Rev, when a referee explicitly wouldn’t allow that claim to appear there makes it crystal-clear what is going on.

  8. hep-ph says:

    Anderson testified to the US Congress in 1987 against the construction of the Superconducting Super Collider and does deserve a good smack in the face, regardless of his views on string theory.

  9. onymous says:

    I wish people would stop talking about smacking Phil Anderson. Have you seen the man lately? He doesn’t look like he would hold up to much physical violence. But he’s pretty intellectually combative, so maybe fighting with words would be more productive….

  10. anon says:

    Hello Dr. Woit,

    Why does it matter whether or not the string theory makes falsifiable predictions?

    Suppose the latest version of general relativity fits all experimental evidence, and none of its predictions are falsified. Suppose the same were true of the latest version of the standard model of particle physics.

    On another blog, reference frame by Lubos Motl, I read the statement that string theory is the only mathematically consistent way to unify those theories. Suppose a correct, extensive mathematical proof of that statement is given, covering every last mathematical technicality. Perhaps it will appear soon on that blog, or maybe I missed the reference to it.

    Then, wouldn’t string theory be correct and a great achievement even without having any falsifiable predictions that are specific to string theory, and not to the pre existing models it unified?

    If stars and particles must be made of the same matter, and if the Lubos Motl assertion is proven, then wouldn’t it be logically mandatory that string theory is accepted even if it does not introduce any new falsifiable predictions?

    This is probably a dumb question and I have only a basic, introductory level, familiarity with physics at this time. It’s just that “no falsifiable predictions” is one of the main complaints here, but the people who promote this research don’t advertise new predictions, they advertise the prospect of less contradictory models for existing predictions that already fit empirical evidence.

  11. Anon2 says:

    anon, a lack of falsifiability is actually a BONUS to theoretical physicists, allowing them to sleep soundly at nights, safe in the knowledge that their theory CANNOT be falsified.

    Woit just doesn’t grasp the fact that BEING FALSIFIED is not good for business if one is a theoretical physicist wanting fashionable non-falsified research on one’s CV.

  12. Giotis says:

    Well she may be a little harsh but she has her own unique authentic style. I like this, we don’t have to do PR all the time. Our world is too hypocritical as it is and we need authentic people like Amanda Peet to speak their mind.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    anon,

    There’s nothing wrong with unfalsifiable theories, they just tend to not be scientific theories, but something else. And no, string theory at this point does not provide a mathematically consistent unification anyway.

    The weird thing about the Amanda Peet attack on Anderson over the falsifiability issue is that most string theorists would acknowledge that, in its present state, string theory doesn’t make falsifiable predictions. The controversy is not over this, but over the question of whether there’s reason for optimism that string theory unification may someday make predictions. I see no good reason to expect this, string theorists typically are more optimistic.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Giotis,

    I have no problem with Amanda Peet speaking her mind if she wants to. The problem is with what’s in her mind….

  15. anon says:

    I was under the impression that string theorists wanted a logically consistent way of getting the same predictions one already has from GR and particle physics. I thought they were concerned about GR and QM contradicting each other, not with either one of them coming up short when it comes to fitting experimental data. If GR and QM already count as scientific and falsifiable if wrong, then a model that gives the same answers as them should also.

    Ad hominem responses and impugning motives are not what one is supposed to do. However people still do them. It might be a case where the audience gets only what the lecturer thinks the audience has enough background to understand.

  16. Giotis says:

    “I was under the impression that string theorists wanted a logically consistent way of getting the same predictions one already has from GR and particle physics.”

    Anonymous you are right of course but the issue here is that String theory has so many components you can manipulate that practically you can come up with any physics you want in 4 dimensions. Moreover the attempts to derive the 4D physics we know seems too contrived from string theory perspective although I would say this is a subordinate issue. In any case if there was a natural *unique* solution of String theory that would produce the 4D physics we know then of course nobody could seriously criticize String theory regardless of any new falsifiable predictions. It would be truly a triumph that no one could deny since the real purpose of a unified theory is to explain our world in the deepest fundamental level. But unfortunately this is not the case at least so far.

    Note though that for many people this plethora of solutions is a blessing more than a curse. It gives for example a natural explanation to certain puzzles of nature like the small value of the cosmological constant and the presumed fine tuning of our Universe in general.

  17. chris says:

    reading some of the comments here i really wonder if there is not even a consensus within the physics community any more about threats of physical violence being inacceptable.

    i mean seriously: we all know the game of shaping the future of research by the economic stranglehold on postdocs. so is this not enough? now physical violence comes into the game again? i am totally appalled.

    “Anderson testified to the US Congress in 1987 against the construction of the Superconducting Super Collider and does deserve a good smack in the face, regardless of his views on string theory.”
    apart from the fact that this could have saved billions of $ from being pumped into a doomed project: what is it that you want to express with this statement? that scientists should not speak their honest opinion lest they get beaten up by the opposing mafia-gang of their peers? or that a democratic decision on science project funding is a nuisance that should be done away with?

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