Hawking Gives Up

David Gross has in the past invoked the phrase “never, never, never give up”, attributed to Churchill, to describe his view about claims that one should give up on the traditional goals of fundamental physics in favor of anthropic arguments invoking a multiverse. Steven Hawking has a new book out this week, called The Grand Design and written with Leonard Mlodinow, in which he effectively announces that he has given up:

We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by logic or physical principle. The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take on different values and different forms in different universes.

Thirty years ago, in his inaugural lecture as Lucasian professor, Hawking took a very different point of view. He argued that we were quite close to a final unified theory, based on N=8 supergravity, with a 50% chance of complete success by the year 2000. A few years after this, N=8 supergravity fell into disfavor when it was shown that supersymmetry was not enough to cancel possible ultraviolet divergences in the theory. There has been a recent revival of interest as new calculational methods show unexpected and still not completely understood additional cancellations that may fully eliminate ultraviolet divergences. Hawking shows no interest in this, instead signing on to the notion that “M-theory” is the theory of everything. The book doesn’t even really try to explain what “M-theory” is, we’re just told that:

People are still trying to decipher the nature of M-theory, but that may not be possible. It could be that the physicist’s traditional expectation of a single theory of nature is untenable, and there exists no single formulation. It might be that to describe the universe, we have to employ different theories in different situations

The book ends with the argument that

  • Our TOE must contain gravity.
  • Supersymmetry is required to have a finite theory of gravity.
  • M-theory is the most general supersymmetric theory of gravity.
  • ergo

    M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find. The fact that we human beings – who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph.

    This isn’t exactly an air-tight argument…

    The book begins in a more promising manner, with a general philosophical and historical discussion of fundamental physical theory. There’s this explanation of what makes a good physical model:

    A model is a good model if it:

    1. Is elegant
    2. Contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements
    3. Agrees with and explains all existing observations
    4. Makes detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.

    The fact that “M-theory” satisfies none of these criteria is not remarked upon.

    The book is short (about 100 pages of actual text, interspersed with lots of color graphics and cartoons), and contains rather little substantive science. There are no references of any kind to any other sources. The discussion of supersymmetry and M-theory is often highly misleading. For example, we are assured that

    various calculations that physicists have performed indicate that the [super]partner particles corresponding to the particles we observe ought to be a thousand times as massive as a proton, if not even heavier. That is too heavy for such particles to have been seen in any experiments to date…

    With no references, one has no idea what these “various calculations” might be. If they are calculations of masses based on the assumption that the supersymmetry and electroweak-symmetry breaking scales are similar, they typically predict masses visible at the Tevatron or LEP. I suspect that the logic is completely backwards here: what is being referred to are calculations based on the Tevatron and LEP limits that require masses in the TeV range.

    As for the fundamental problem of testability of M-theory, here’s the only thing we get:

    The theory we describe in this chapter is testable…. The amplitude is reduced for universes that are more irregular. This means that the early universe would have been almost smooth, but with small irregularities. As we’ve noted, we can observe these irregularities as small variations in the microwaves coming from different directions in the sky. They have been found to agree exactly with the general demands of inflation theory; however, more precise measurements are needed to fully differentiate the top-down theory from others, and to either support or refute it. These may well be carried out by satellites in the future.

    This looks like one of many dubious claims of “testability” of multiverse theories, which tend to founder on the measure problem and the fact that one has no idea what the underlying theory actually is. Without any details or references though, it’s hard to even know exactly what the claim is here.

    One thing that is sure to generate sales for a book of this kind is to somehow drag in religion. The book’s rather conventional claim that “God is unnecessary” for explaining physics and early universe cosmology has provided a lot of publicity for the book. I’m in favor of naturalism and leaving God out of physics as much as the next person, but if you’re the sort who wants to go to battle in the science/religion wars, why you would choose to take up such a dubious weapon as M-theory mystifies me. A British journalist contacted me about this recently and we talked about M-theory and its problems. She wanted me to comment on whether physicists doing this sort of thing are relying upon “faith” in much the same way as religious believers. I stuck to my standard refusal to get into such discussions, but, thinking about it, have to admit that the kind of pseudo-science going on here and being promoted in this book isn’t obviously any better than the faith-based explanations of how the world works favored by conventional religions.

    For some reviews of the book showing a bit of skepticism, see ones by Craig Callender, Fred Bortz, and Roger Penrose. For much more credulous reviews, see for example James Trefil (who evidently has his own multiverse book coming out). The Economist has a news story about this, which assures us that Hawking is

    a likely future recipient of the Nobel prize in physics (if, as expected, his 1974 theory that black holes emit radiation despite their notorious all-engulfing gravitational pull is confirmed by experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN).

    Update: There’s a new posting at physicsworld.com by Hamish Johnston that brings up the issue of the potential damage caused by this to the cause of science funding in Britain:

    This morning there was lots of talk about science on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme — but I think it left many British scientists cringing under their duvets.

    Hawking explained that M-theory allows the existence of a “multiverse” of different universes, each with different values of the physical constants. We exist in our universe not by the grace of God, according to Hawking, but simply because the physics in this particular universe is just right for stars, planets and humans to form.

    There is just one tiny problem with all this — there is currently little experimental evidence to back up M-theory. In other words, a leading scientist is making a sweeping public statement on the existence of God based on his faith in an unsubstantiated theory…

    Physicists need the backing of the British public to ensure that the funding cuts don’t hit them disproportionately. This could be very difficult if the public think that most physicists spend their time arguing about what unproven theories say about the existence of God.

    Update: Today’s Wall Street Journal has a quite positive review of the book by Sean Carroll.

    Update: See here for John Horgan’s take on the Hawking book:

    I’ve always thought of Stephen Hawking—whose new book The Grand Design (Bantam 2010), co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, has become an instant bestseller—less as a scientist than as a cosmic, comic performance artist, who loves goofing on his fellow physicists and the rest of us…

    Toward the end of the meeting [in Sweden, 1990], everyone piled into a bus and drove to a nearby village to hear a concert in a Lutheran church. When the scientists entered the church, it was already packed. The orchestra, a motley assortment of blond-haired youths and wizened, bald elders clutching violins, clarinets and other instruments, was seated at the front of the church. Their neighbors jammed the balconies and seats at the rear of the building.

    The scientists filed down the center aisle to pews reserved for them at the front of the church. Hawking, grinning ear to ear, led the way in his motorized wheelchair. The townspeople started to clap, tentatively at first, then passionately. These religious folk seemed to be encouraging the scientists, and especially Hawking, in their quest to solve the riddle of existence.

    Now, Hawking is telling us that unconfirmable M-theory plus the anthropic tautology represents the end of that quest. If we believe him, the joke’s on us.

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    83 Responses to Hawking Gives Up

    1. Marcus says:

      Perceptive review in NYTimes:
      “…the real news about [the book] is how disappointingly tinny and inelegant it is.”

    2. Greg Sivco says:

      Excellent, Peter. This is the objective review we have been waiting for. I feel so bad for Hawking, whom I otherwise admire. FOX News’ review showed its usual stripes in choosing what had to be the ugliest picture ever taken of Professor Hawking in its horrible unfair and unbalanced review, presented as usual to engender its usual fear-mongering policy.

      Nothing more to add really, except for Roger Penrose’s excellent opening words in his review of same which you linked to, which are:

      “In The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking gives his perspectives on physical reality and expectations for future fundamental physics, ably assisted by the fine science writer Leonard Mlodinow. These issues are made accessible to general readers via apposite analogies. Nonetheless, I doubt that adequate understandings can arise in this way. This applies particularly to “M-theory”, a popular (but fundamentally incomplete) development of string theory …”
      … Roger Penrose, 4 Sept. 2010

      I get SO sick and tired of SuperStrings’ M-Theory being presented as “theory”, rather than the “idea of a theory” that it really is.

    3. Cale says:

      off-topic so i hope you find it interesting:
      sean carrol has made this talk here:
      in which he partly discusses the Boltzman brains problem but also talking about how baby universes can be created out of vacuum due to quantum fluctuations given endless amounts of vacuum and endless amounts of time. Does this immediately ring untrue to you for some reason?

    4. Yatima says:

      “The fact that we human beings – who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph.”

      This begs the question of “how close is that” and is there a metric space involved?

      Reminds me of a short story (by Alastair Reynolds I think) wherein *actual* understanding of the physical laws was made unreachable by the fact attaining full understanding immediately caused the understanding agent to collapse into a black hole, taking his knowledge with him. [That would mean “understanding” has to do with energy density, which would open novel ways of thinking about thinking. Turing Machines won’t do for that.]

    5. Marcus says:

      That review of the Hawking potboiler was so perceptive and sharply written that it put the reviewer, Dwight Garner, on the map for me. He’s good. I normally don’t read book reviews, but I’m going to start following his. He does non-fiction. As a sample here is his list of 10 favorite non-fiction books from 2009:
      What he picks, and the one or two-sentences he says about each, can give you an idea of what he’s like.
      Here again is the link to his review of “The Grand Design”

    6. Peter Woit says:


      Sean Carroll’s views on the arrow of time etc. are definitely off topic, but I was going to point out that, unlike me, he is interested in the God thing, and has a recent posting about Hawking’s book from that point of view, which has attracted a huge number of comments. People interested in that aspect of the book are encouraged to discuss it there.

    7. Anonymous says:

      Though Hawking is not a string theorists himself, through his numerous popular books starting from “A Brief History of Time”, he may be the single person most responsible for spreading the hype of string theory to the general public. As an iconic figure in front of mass media, his endorsement of string theory means a lot. I’m sure string theorists feel indebted.
      As for N=8 supergravity, at least according to Lubos, you can’t get any realistic phenomenology out of it. So finiteness may not be the only issue that affects people’s opinion of SUGRA.

    8. Christian Takacs says:

      I am not a physicist, I am not a mathematician, but I am a student of philosophy, history, logic, science, and the human mind. With all due respect, It seems that Mr. Hawking does not know the difference between Mathematics and Reality. They are not the same thing, and can’t be the same thing by their very nature …and by definition in any respected dictionary.
      For Mr. Hawking to be calling upon “infinite” unknowable, unobservable, unmeasureable multiverses to resolve any physics problem in this reality is ridiculous… unless his intended genre is actually fantasy or metaphysics.

    9. Joe Bob says:

      Does any serious physicist take Hawking very seriously anymore?

    10. chris says:

      What always irked me about Hawkings arguments is that they would rank rather highly on the crackpot index due to his frequent mentioning of Einstein.

    11. DB says:

      The real problem is that many very successful theoretical physicists become agents of negative influence when they pass the age at which they are capable of making fundamental breakthroughs, roughly the age of forty to forty-five. As they age, they become an embarrassment to the field.

      Einstein, post 1930, was the prime example and his malign influence is felt today in the obsession with TOEs and mathematical beauty. Dirac and Heisenberg showed similar symptoms in their dotage.

      Driven perhaps by a touch of megalomania, and stripped of their ability to recreate their past success they venture into the intellectually sloppy regions of speculative physics.

    12. Anon2 says:

      Hawking is just following the fashion trend set by Susskind’s “Cosmic Landscape” and Dawkin’s “God Delusion” in claiming that the scientific theory of string disproves God by providing a large landscape of parallel universes, so that fine tuning can be by anthropic self-selection (with no need for a prayer-deaf old man in a beard).

      More exciting news: Roger Penrose’s new book “Cycles of Time” is published in the UK on 23 September. Penrose hasn’t given up!

    13. Chris Oakley says:

      I was feeling depressed about the state of theoretical physics when I heard a voice say, “Cheer up! Things could be worse!” So I cheered up, and, sure enough, things got worse. Hopefully Penrose’s book will be better.

    14. BigG says:

      First, its always to good have alternative view points and people following paths outside the mainstream. And if the people who do this are respected physicists all the better.

      Second, all this critisism of Hawking and Einstein is unfounded. The same things were being said about Einstein in 1905. Further, in the early 20th century the same kind of people were saying there’s only mechanics and e&m; all that’s left of physics is to figure out this particular case or that. The use of the word ‘crackpot’ is highly over used. Yes, there are certainly people who are way out there but the same was said by the old generation of the new in the earth 20th century. Besides, how many of you who criticize Einstein or Hawking have ever written anything close to what they’ve done. I apologize for going off topic but its shameful to read this stuff. People who know how science works would never make the criticisms you are. Imagine youself 100 years ago defending strict determinism in the face of quantum theory.

    15. wolfgang says:

      >> the age at which they are capable of making fundamental breakthroughs, roughly the age of forty to forty-five.

      Planck was 42 when he discovered quantum theory in 1900.
      Born was 43 when he formulated matrix mechanics.
      Einstein was 45 when he wrote about what we now call Bose-Einstein statistics.
      Hahn was 59 when he discovered fission.
      Bethe proposed neutrino oscillations when he was 80.

      Just saying.

    16. Arun says:

      Imagine youself 100 years ago defending strict determinism in the face of quantum theory.

      You mean the “God does not play dice with the world” Einstein?

      The criticism of the physics here is that it has ZERO experimental or observational content, which is rather the opposite of the situation with quantum mechanics a century ago.

    17. younghun park says:

      From your writing, I don’t think Hawking gave up the unified theory. Like many physicist, he has had the dream on the unified theory, the theory of everything.

      I feel that the thing he gave up is the hope to reach one perfect
      theory by using current methods, supersymmetry, string theory and so on. He seems to ask us how the unified theory can be made.He seems to long us to find the key toward that theory.

      I have learned that physics aims at describing the nature by simple, very simple idea. I have fallen in love with physics due to that point.

      I believe that physics can advance continuously when it aims at the unified theory even if that is impossible.

    18. stan says:

      It is interesting to note that the timing of David Gross’ exhortations to “never give up” coincided quite closely with the cessation of his research output. Who’s doing the giving up here?

    19. BigG says:


      You’ve taken that quote out of context. Einstein was working within QM to find some kind of derterminism. My post was talking about those of the older generation who opposed it merely on belief or speculation, like those here are criticising Hawking.

    20. Giotis says:

      Why Hawking relates M-theory to the Multiverse? From what I read for the book in various places is like if M-theory directly implies and explains the Multiverse and the Multiverse concept could not be understood without it. This is not true of course.

      The KKLT model which triggered the multiverse frenzy is in the good old IIB. The counting of the flux vacua by Douglas which resulted the notorious 10^500 number was performed in IIB also. M-theory is not needed to derive the Multiverse and to say that M-theory (and M-theory alone) implies it (and thus explains why God is not needed) is simply wrong. On the contrary I may add direct compactifications of M-theory to 4 dimensions (i.e. on G2 manifolds) and its vacua are not well understood.

    21. Chris Oakley says:

      Hi BigG,
      Let me see if I have understood you correctly. Around 1905 Einstein explained the photoelectric effect – an experimental result – by proposing that light, as well as being a wave governed by Maxwell’s equations, was also a quantum of energy . Notwithstanding the success of the interpretation, some of the older generation of physicists never accepted this because they refused to try to wrap their minds around the idea that something could be a wave and a particle at the same time.

      105 years later Hawking is proposing that because a theory, or at least framework for speculation, called M-theory, something that he has never worked on, is incapable of predicting anything we need to adjust our definition of “prediction” so that it does, and if we cannot do that then we are just like those who could not accept wave-particle duality in the early part of the 20th century.

      Have I got this right?

    22. Mark Decker says:

      Your comment: “People who know how science works would never make the criticisms you are” is absolutely absurd.
      It is the very people who know how science should work (and haven’t lost their way) who are the ones making these critical comments. Don’t confuse the actual word “Science” with modern day individuals who have the credential to refer to themselves as “Scientists” as they spew endless nonsense.
      I like Chris Kennedy’s quote (on the majority of Theoretical Physicists today): “They have become heroes to the stupid and laughingstocks to those who know better.”

    23. MyrtleParker says:

      “This could be very difficult if the public think that most physicists spend their time arguing about what unproven theories say about the existence of God.”

      My estimation of Stephan Hawking has gone so far down because of this and his times article. Really sad.

      There really is very little difference between so-called scientists engaging in vapid anthropic/Multiverse/M-Theory speculation and religion.

    24. MyrtleParker says:

      Sean Carroll’s praise of Hawking and absurd statements that science understands the creation of the universe is equally shameful. Our knowledge of the laws of physics break down completely with the Big Bang. He should know better. Looks like he has really bought into the physicist as well known ego-hype-charlatan. Very sad.

    25. Interesting review! One thing is for sure, Stephan Hawking is a fascinating personality.
      Kind regards.

    26. DaveC says:

      Steven Hawking and Sean Carroll both have something in common with an increasing, perhaps even overwhelming, majority of theorists nowadays. They have never once had the experience of either predicting or convincingly interpreting the results of a good experiment (nor have they come up with any original mathematics themselves). Perhaps Hawking is one of the oldest of whom this could be said. After spending a career playing mind games with others in the same boat, and being praised for doing so, it’s not too surprising that they end up like this.

      It’s hard not to see a big crunch ahead for physics, as generations are trained by people who haven’t had this experience, compounded with all the other overwhelming pressures on us nowadays to live and breathe hype, pretending our work will answer the mysteries of the universe, solve the energy crisis in one blow, allow us to simulate reality, or whatever, in order to get funded and attract students.

    27. Pingback: Hawking auf der Suche « Aus dem Hollerbusch

    28. neo says:

      Stephen’s (not Steven’s!) accomplishments speak for themselves. Why he has embarked on this exploitation tangent is beyond me. His approach seems to be the substitution of one form of theology for another.

    29. longchenpa says:

      so if an actual physicist who is hundreds of times smarter than you says things that go against your pet peeve, of course, something must be wrong with him.

    30. neo says:


      That is appeal to authority. Stick to arguments. No one is so smart that they cannot be wrong.

    31. BigG says:

      Chris & Mark,

      No you don’t adjust anything. My point is we don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know for sure if Hawking’s prediction will turn out to be true. Let him follow his own path. Why are so many people afraid? If his theory is proven its accept it, if not its rejected. The method will take care of the problem. The whole point I’m making is you don’t know. That’s what I mean by people who know science wouldn’t say what’s going on here. The only certainty in science is what was will most likely be overturned to some extent.

      I have two qurstions:

      1) can you predict the future
      2) what have you contributed to physicss besides criticism.

      If you want to voice a disagreement this is reasonable but the hostility is unfounded. based on the comments here I’m not sure you know how science works.

    32. Arun says:

      If his theory is proven its accept it, if not its rejected. The method will take care of the problem.

      What he proposes falls outside the “method”. That is the problem.

    33. Coin says:

      Actually, the NYT review linked a couple times above strikes me as darn weird. The author seems to spend more time expressing concern that a multiverse theory would potentially render God unnecessary, or concern that Hawking&Mlodinow think it would, than anything else about the book. In short he doesn’t seem concerned with whether the multiverse hypothesis is good science, he’s just upset by its perceived consequences– its theological consequences even? Now of course if H&M “started it” by bringing up atheism on every page or something then that doesn’t strike me as good science writing, but the NYT reviewer doesn’t give much indication that was the case– he just seems offended the subject was at some point broached and doesn’t seem concerned with the actual substance of the book. I feel like I didn’t learn much about the book by reading that review.

      A question, do we really know how much of this book was written by Hawking?

    34. Wavefunction says:

      On a related note, what do you think of Shing-Tung Yau’s new string theory book “The Shape of Inner Space”?

    35. Peter Woit says:


      I did read the Yau book quite recently and plan to write about it here very soon. About all I’ll say now is that I liked the book a lot more than I expected (the opposite of the case with Hawking’s).

    36. Mark Decker says:

      You ask: “Why are so many people afraid.”
      I don’t think they are afraid. I’m certainly not. And I don’t consider my statements to be hostile either. I think most people are responding the way they are out of frustration. I can understand why anyone who just wants to get a responsible discussion going on these matters sees the Hawking book as just another setback. However, I don’t see this as a setback. I think the lines have been drawn and there are two camps. The Greene-Kaku-Hawking, etc… camp who get all of the media attention including guest spots on CNN, shows on PBS, etc.. and the other camp, who are a little more responsible when it comes to investing themselves in certain theories. The latter camp, although more scientifically minded than the former, have been reduced to an underground movement. No big lights or fancy promises of extra dimensions. Just people who want to get to the truth. That’s actually fine with me. Let the masses be entertained with science fiction. As long as there is an outlet for the continuation of this underground movement (like Woit’s blog) I’m happy.
      Can I predict the future? No
      And to answer your other question: My criticism is my contribution to physics, and I think an important one.

    37. Marcus says:

      you miss the point of the first 1/3 or so of the NYT review, which took Hawking to task for “Godmongering”—getting books talked about by issuing provocative pronouncements about God. Pro or anti, doesn’t matter.

      To illustrate: Hawking and Mlodinow had a byline piece in the WSJ (3 September) with the heading
      *Why God did not create the universe*
      which was described as an excerpt from their book. The article contrasts modern science with primitive superstitions concerning natural phenomena, raises questions about why the universe is the way it is, and proceeds as follows:

      … Luck in the precise form and nature of fundamental physical law is a different kind of luck from the luck we find in environmental factors. It raises the natural question of why it is that way.

      Many people would like us to use these coincidences as evidence of the work of God. The idea that the universe was designed to accommodate mankind appears in theologies and mythologies dating from thousands of years ago. In Western culture the Old Testament contains the idea of providential design, but the traditional Christian viewpoint was also greatly influenced by Aristotle, who believed “in an intelligent natural world that functions according to some deliberate design.”

      That is not the answer of modern science. As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

      If it matters to you, it is clear they STARTED IT as you said in your post, and that they are USING theological provocation to get attention (e.g. from WSJ readers) and build sales.

      The reviewer, Dwight Garner, is not critical of the atheism *per se* but of the cynical potboiler aspect. He is just as critical of the seemingly “pro-God” teasing that Hawking used in his 1988 book. Godmongering can be worked either way. Ambiguous pronouncements aimed at firing up discussion.

      The NYT reviewer spent only about 1/3 of the article on the cheap theological provocation. He then ripped into the book’s other superficial potboiler characteristics.

      To make it clear that it was not simply the atheism *per se*, I will quote briefly from the NYT review.

      ==quote Dwight Garner review==
      In “A Brief History of Time” Mr. Hawking also dabbled in what the science writer Timothy Ferris has called “Godmongering.” Mr. Hawking… ended “Brief History” by declaring that the discovery of a unified theory of physics could help us to **“know the mind of God.”** It was a line that — cynically, some thought — allowed glints of fuzzy sunshine to warm the cold blade of his thinking.

      Mr. Hawking’s new book, “The Grand Design,” … has already made headlines … thanks to a **different sort** of Godmongering. This time Mr. Hawking has, we’re told, declared God pretty much dead…

      I read it as a kind of teasing which involves taking phony pro- or anti- *poses* that, partly because of their deliberate ambiguity, contribute neither to science nor to theological discussion.

    38. Marcus says:

      Since I quoted a few lines of the NYT review I should probably give the link:
      I gave it earlier but you’d have to scroll back quite a ways to find it.

    39. Chris W. says:

      For more on the discussion in the U.K. of Hawking and Mlodinow’s book, see this Physics World blog post by James Dacey.

    40. Anonymous says:

      Leonard Susskind also debunked Intelligent Design as an “illusion” based on the idea of string multiverse. The non-uniqueness of string theory is obviously our best weapon in fighting religious dogma.

    41. Anon2 says:

      Newton could have “gone anthropic” to predict gravity on the basis that people would have drifted off into space without it and would have been unable to move with too much. He could thus have done rough and ready calculations of the order of magnitude of the gravitational acceleration needed to keep most people’s (not string theorist’s) feet on the ground long enough for them to behave sensibly and thus exist.

      However, Newton didn’t waste his time on such pseudoscientific anthropic arguments. Lee Smolin made a comment here a few years ago (Not Even Wrong) claiming that every “anthropic” prediction is vacuous. E.g. Hoyle claimed to anthropically predict a significant cross-section for carbon synthesis in stars from the fusion of three alpha particles (necessary because of the beryllium bottleneck) in order to produce the carbon-12 for life. But all he was really doing was making a very rough and ready ad hoc prediction from a theory to explain the observed carbon abundance in the solar system.

    42. Nono says:

      The non-uniqueness of string theory is obviously our best weapon in fighting religious dogma.

      The only weapon to fight religious dogma is the scientific method. Take a look at the book “Facing Up” by S. Weinberg.

    43. notan says:

      “the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by logic or physical principle”

      Most of us are aware of the fact that the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by logic since, if they were demanded by ‘logic’ then this ‘logic’ could not be logic. To put it differently, if some theory gives you some information about the (laws of) nature it can’t be logic in any sense reasonable sense of the word “logic” (unless you think you could learn something about nature while staying in your bedroom).

      So we are left with

      “the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by physical principle”

      Then you should stop searching for physical principle and find another job.

    44. zanzibar says:

      RE: Bethe’s work on neutrino oscillations –

      I saw him talk on this when he was indeed 80 years old. I remember it being inspirational – deep physical insight and mathematics. Very impressive.

      I also remember watching the difficulty he had backing his rental car out of a space in the parking lot afterward. He was alone, and though I admired his independent spirit, I do remember a certain measure of concern I had for the other drivers who had to subsequently share the road with him.

      For a mathematical counter-example against youth, see E.T. Bell’s “The World of Mathematics”, chapter 12 – “Invariant Twins, Cayley and Sylvester” –


    45. Marko Amnell says:

      Anon2 wrote:
      “Newton could have “gone anthropic” to predict gravity on the basis that people would have drifted off into space without it and would have been unable to move with too much. He could thus have done rough and ready calculations of the order of magnitude of the gravitational acceleration needed to keep most people’s (not string theorist’s) feet on the ground long enough for them to behave sensibly and thus exist. However, Newton didn’t waste his time on such pseudoscientific anthropic arguments.”

      Newton was undoubtedly a great scientist but he was not a paragon of scientific rationality. Quoting Wikipedia:

      “In his Hypothesis of Light of 1675, Newton posited the existence of the ether to transmit forces between particles. The contact with the theosophist Henry More, revived his interest in alchemy. He replaced the ether with occult forces based on Hermetic ideas of attraction and repulsion between particles. John Maynard Keynes, who acquired many of Newton’s writings on alchemy, stated that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians.”[40] Newton’s interest in alchemy cannot be isolated from his contributions to science; however, he did apparently abandon his alchemical researches.[5] (This was at a time when there was no clear distinction between alchemy and science.) Had he not relied on the occult idea of action at a distance, across a vacuum, he might not have developed his theory of gravity.”

    46. BigG says:

      Hawking doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he criticizes philosophy. He also speaks about science as having proved something related to the origin of the universe. Like a lot of physicists he mixes up terminology. They should know better than to use meaningless terms like ‘theory of everything’ and ‘nature of space and time’.


      there is no method. It is as real as the nature of space and time.

    47. Phil Warnell says:

      Dr. Woit,

      You may find that Hawking is inconsistent with his theoretical preferences, yet he has now also apparently completely changed his philosophical standpoint, as coming to believe that science can dismiss the question why as being superfluous; whereas before he thought holding any opinion on such matters to be never the correct place for the discipline. It was not that long ago that he expressed this clearly in a critic he made in respect to Roger Penrose’s views when it came to such matters when he wrote upon Penrose’s invitation the following:

      “Roger Penrose and I worked together on the large-scale structure of space and time, including singularities and black holes. We pretty much agree on the classical theory of General Relativity but disagreements began to emerge when we got on to quantum gravity. We now have very different approaches to the world, physical and mental. Basically he is a Platonist believing that there’s a unique world of ideas that describes a unique physical reality. I, on the other hand, am a positivist who believes that physical theories are just mathematical models we construct, and that it is meaningless to ask if they correspond to reality; just whether they predict observation.”

      – The Large, The Small and the Human Mind- Roger Penrose (page 169)-Cambridge University Press (1997)

      It has long been clear to me that Hawking’s craving for notoriety has always been more important to him than the search for truth, scientific or otherwise. In such respect I think Sean Carroll’s assessment to be the best, which he expressed in the summation of the review you pointed to in saying:

      ”Answers to the great “Why?” questions are going to be subtle and difficult. Our best hope for constructing sensible answers lies with scientists and philosophers working together, not scoring points off one another.”

      In my view, if any concern is to be had with books such this, it is to wonder how they serve the public at large able to distinguish the difference between science and religion, when we find the self appointed spokesman for the one built upon doubt places his faith in theory which claims as being reasonable although not able to be tested. It also has me to wonder if Hawking would ever be willing as Penrose was to open himself up to the criticism of one of his peers. I think if science demands anything of its practitioners, that is beyond adherence to the scientific method, it is to at least endeavour to maintain the integrity of the discipline, if not their own.



    48. Loki says:

      Perhaps the ALS has caught up with him, and he has lost his ability to rationally convey or understand arguments.

      If this is the case, it would be a sad day indeed.

    49. Giotis says:

      I realize now after seeing the big publicity and the way the story is covered by large mainstream media (especially the Larry King interview) that this will have a huge impact in the long run. Hawking not only introduced String-M theory to the general public but more importantly he presented it as the celebrated undisputed theory which represents the climax of human knowledge. The uninitiated one is lead to assume that M-theory is the pinnacle of science endeavour and the only hope we have to understand the world. I’m sure String theorists are celebrating right now.

    50. Peter Woit says:


      The problem with your hypothesis is that the pseudo-science Hawking is promoting is rather popular in some circles, so you would need an implausible amount of organic brain damage to explain this phenomenon that way.

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