Discover Interview Online

There’s an extended version of the interview of me by Susan Kruglinski in the February issue of Discover magazine that is now available, for free, on-line.

Before anybody starts yelling about AdS/CFT or topological strings when they read the headline “No one has a plausible idea about how string theory can explain anything”, I’ll just point out that, yes, it’s certainly plausible that some day string theory will explain something about QCD, and it already has explained some things in mathematics. The headline is a summary of some things I say in the interview, and in context it should have been clear I was talking about the use of string theory to predict anything not already predicted by the standard model.

Update: Harvard string theorist Lubos Motl has posted his commentary on the Discover article. If you read the comment section there, keep in mind that he is deleting comments from anyone who disagrees with him. I encourage anyone new to the current controversy over string theory to read what I have to say, read what Lubos has to say, and carefully look into the scientific issues involved to make your own judgement about what is going on here.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

109 Responses to Discover Interview Online

  1. Not a Nobel Laureate says:

    In the absence of experimental data, people can and do hold very strong opinions. But until there’s experimental data, that’s all they will every be – opinions and beliefs.

    Reading this blog about these quasi-theological disputes reminds of my “feet don’t fail me now” thoughts as I sought to remove myself as far away from HEP as possible post-PhD. Haven’t looked back. Can’t imagine how people could find such a sterile field interesting.

  2. fh says:

    Regarding Lubos, I have had an extensive (email) debate about LQG with him in the past (as I was choosing what to persue). It seems his style has seriously deteriorated.

    On the Interview I have to say that it is certainly fairer, clearer and calmer then most of the anti string stuff one usually sees floating around these days. It’s well done.

  3. Hmm says:


    Since I advised Lubos not to waste his time debating you, I will take my own advice and interact with you here exactly once. There is nothing in my “attack” on you that is not objectively true, although admittedly without tact. I said you couldn’t make it as a research physicist or mathematician–this is true, looking both at your history of research and your current position. I said you have achieved your 15 minutes of fame by finding something you can do which doesn’t require creative talent in physics–this is also true. You aren’t being interviewed for Discover because of some great new insight or research direction you have opened up. I said you haven’t contributed anything positive to physics. Again, looking at your research record, this is simply true (perhaps I could have been nicer and said “very little positive” to physics). I said that I think you are pompous–ok this is a personal opinion, but frankly, if I hadn’t made any contributions to a subject, I wouldn’t attack it in the popular press of all places, and I would certainly tell my interviewer something like “you should know I haven’t really done any work in 15 years”, rather than a rather pompus sounding “I have thought about these problems for 20 years”. It is very hard to take you seriously, Peter, because as I said on Lubos’s blog, its not like you’re an iconoclast with your own brilliant ideas that people are ignoring–for heavens sake, you spent the 80’s working on lattice gauge theory. In your interview you were perfectly happy to give the impression that you were forced out of the field because of string theory, whereas it is quite clear you were forced out because you were working in not very interesting ways on peripheral problems. You should know that the field has a way of keeping iconclasts and contrarians with talent around. Many people not working in string theory continued on in theoretical physics or mathematical physics and made important contributions. Quite unlike what you and many of your readers think, theorists of all types value independent thinkers *with real talent* above everything else. By “with talent” I mean with the ability to generate non-trivial, surprising insights, in whatever area they work in. It is not nice to say but it is most likely you were forced out because you didn’t have “it” for creative research at a high level at the time. There isn’t any evidence in the usual currency of science–papers–to show you did. Its true that there have been geniuses who didn’t write many papers–Ken Wilson springs to mind–but (A) the few papers they did write before their breakthroughs still showed some real spark, and importantly (B) before making their breakthroughs, they weren’t going around giving interviews to popular magazines about their thoughts on subjects they didn’t know much about. They were *busy working hard*, on making their breakthroughs. You are no Ken Wilson. The other things I mentioned on Lubos’s blog were comments on your publications and citations. As I said their, this doesn’t represent everything, there are many cases where great works are ignored for a long while etc. etc., but over twenty years, *some* signal should show here. As I said, having 11 papers with a total of 220 citations does not exhibit any signal. Lubos makes the mistake of comparing this with Witten, but the real point is that this doesn’t even compare well with the record of a somewhat above average fresh PhD.

    I brought these things up simply because from the piece in Discover, or the Astronomy editorial a while ago, and certainly from your comments on this blog, one would certainly come away with the impression that you speak with some authority. It is quite shamelessly self-promotional of you to mislead people in this way. You are not a serious scientist, Peter–serious scientists write papers and debate in the literature and make real substansive constructive criticisms and propose new directions of research. You don’t.

    Finally, I am writing this anonymously precisely because otherwise I would spend far too much time discussing these things with other people insteading of doing physics, which I will happily return to doing now. People don’t have to know who I am to evaluate my claims–for instance they can just go to SPIRES ( and check your publication record as I did. Really, I was only trying to encourage Lubos to not waste his time constantly debating you, but its clear he can’t be swayed. I myself have wasted enough time on this already. I leave you (and your readers) with the same thought I left with Lubos–spend your time doing physics. Physics is all that matters in this business invariantly, everything else is sociological junk. Don’t spend all your time on sociology, write papers! Do research! If you hate theories that don’t make predictions, work on ones that do, write up your ideas, post them on the arxiv. You will find (and I suspect you have already found) that this is infinitely harder than ranting every couple of days, even if it strokes your ego to have so many people chime in and agree with you. But making even small contributions to physics is ialso nfinitely more important and rewarding.

  4. andy says:

    The previous post had zero substance. This is probablyconsistent with the content of his or her “scientific papers.”

  5. Arun says:

    Hmm, it doesn’t take genius to identify bullsh*t when one sees it, and it is an abdication of responsibility to say that because one lacks genius, one should keep quiet about bullsh*t. Moreover, a contribution may be valuable even if it is not by a genius, much cited and with brilliant work. In fact, simply raising an alert on the lack of physical content of certain research programs may be a valuable contribution, especially in an age when skepticism is met with personal attacks rather than any reasoned argument.

  6. Arun says:

    Physics is all that matters in this business invariantly, everything else is sociological junk.

    I think that is exactly what Peter Woit is saying, where is the physics? string theory is sociological junk. (Actually, he isn’t quite saying that, but Hmm’s hyperbole deserves such a response.)

  7. Tony Smith says:

    Hmm, in an anonymous comment critical of Petet Woit,
    listed many reasons that Hmm considers Peter Woit to be “not a serious scientist”
    failed to address ANY of the following substantive points made by Peter in his Discover interview about string theory:
    1 – “… At this point they really don’t even have a plausible idea about how to ever make a prediction out of this, or how to use this in order to really explain anything about the world. …”
    2 – “… They are certainly using mathematics, and they are building models and writing down equations for them, but the models they are working with just aren’t connected to the real world.  There isn’t even any plausible way you could imagine that they are going to be able to connect that to the real world and to use these models to explain some experiment we are seeing. …”
    3 – “… The kinds of equations that they have now are the kinds of equations you would get in an approximation scheme to some underlying theory, but nobody knows what the underlying theory is. …”
    4 – “… There are some who have basically decided that whatever this theory is, it has infinitely complex possible solutions [known as the string theory landscape].  As for the dream that there’s going to be one solution of string theory and it’s going to be the real world, I think a lot of them have given up on that.  So they’re trying to pursue this idea that string theory really is an infinitely complex thing.  I think a lot of other string theorists are well aware that if you go down that road you really can’t predict anything and you’re in danger of leaving what is normal science. …”.

    it seems to me that most of Hmm’s comment should be dismissed as a mere non-substantive ad hominem attack.

    Hmm did make what might be considered a response to the following statement made by Peter in the Discover interview about string theory:  
    “… it has driven out other sorts of research.  The way in which it has been pursued has made it virtually impossible to work on other things in the field. …”.

    What Hmm said was:
    “… You should know that the field has a way of keeping iconclasts and contrarians with talent around. … By “with talent” I mean with the ability to generate non-trivial, surprising insights, in whatever area they work in. … If you hate theories that don’t make predictions, work on ones that do, write up your ideas, post them on the arxiv. …”.

    Although Peter’s blog is not the place to discuss details of my physics model,
    I will offer my own experience of being blacklisted by the Cornell arXiv as a refutation of Hmm’s factual assertions.

    Please do not attempt to discuss my physics model on this blog, as I will not respond to any comment making such an attempt, and I hope that any such comment will be deleted by Peter.

    Tony Smith

  8. D R Lunsford says:

    DB – I only meant that you should not claim a cowardice that doesn’t exist (you’re in here with the sharks!) nor downplay being smart, which you obviously are.


  9. Peter says:


    If you want to argue with or discuss anything I have to say in the Discover interview, I’ll be glad to do so. If you want to discuss my research work, I’ll be happy to discuss hep-th/0206135 or more recent things I’ve been working on along the same lines.

    On the other hand, if you want to discuss my credentials or my right to criticize what is going on in current particle theory research, before I’ll even consider that you’re going to have to begin by telling us who you are and what credentials you have that justify your behavior. Your argument that you don’t have time to do so doesn’t hold much water. Come on, how much time does typing a few characters take compared to the time you’ve spent today repeatedly attacking me at Lubos’s blog and now here?

    I think just about anyone who reads Lubos’s blog soon realizes he’s a fanatic, driven half-mad by his inability to answer honest scientific criticism. Lubos’s bullying behavior is execrable, but yours is far worse. Unlike him, you’re not just a bully, you’re also a coward. You should be deeply ashamed of yourself, and there is something seriously wrong with an academic field that at least tacitly supports the kind of behavior that the two of you are engaged in.

  10. Hmm says:

    Ok, I can’t resist making one last comment here. First–I didn’t respond
    to the criticisms of string theory in the Discover interview because that
    wasn’t the point of my original post to Lubos’s blog–which was really
    about trying to convince Lubos not to bother in these pointless debates.
    Peter, you recycle the same points over and over again, and the totally
    reasonable responses have also been recycled over and over again. I see no
    point in continuing this excercise. Suffice it to say that none of your criticisms are news to anyone working in the field, and there are even more besides the ones you mention, but the positive indications that this approach to unification and quantum gravity is on the right track outweigh all these things for the people who keep working on it–it’s not just that they have invested their lives in it, as you like to think–people in this field are willing to turn on a dime. Maybe everyone is wrong, but the way to convince them of this is not to repeat the same arguments they know anyway over and over, but instead offer any interesting non-trivial alternatives.

    Second–I didn’t resort to name-calling; while you and your readers did. I
    simply pointed out the factual aspects of your career as a research
    physicist–this is maybe not nice since it is rather undistinguished, but
    it is important for people to know this about you when evaluating your
    opinions. While you’re not strictly dishonest about it you don’t go out of your way to paint an accurate picture either–unlike Lubos I should say, who despite much much more impressive research accomplishments goes out his way to say things like “right now I am not one of the leaders in string theory” and so on. But why does your record as a researcher matter? Shouldn’t the fact that your questions are valid be enough to convince us to listen carefully to what you have to say about them? Unfortunately I think not–well you can do whatever you want on your blog, but I feel its very inappropriate for much more public forums. The reason is precisley because the field is in the midst of confusing (and also very interesting) times. Now, people who know, from experience, what its like to invent really new ideas know that the birthing process for these ideas can be difficult. They know from personal experience about the murkiness before the light when things fall into place. They have seen important ideas be jeered, be called unscientific, unfalsifiable, “not even wrong”, many times before. Thats why in a new confusing era, their opinions count for something, their wisdom is important. Of course different people with such experiences can have different takes on whether the current directions for the field are the right or wrong ones. For instance two of my heros in physics–David Gross and Steven Weinberg–have divergent opinions on anthropic reasoning and the landscape, and both their opinions certainly matter to me. But the fact that you have not been involved in any significant research means, Peter, that you have no particularly interesting insight to draw on into the direction in which things should break. You just repeat the same trivially obvious points over and over again, pretending that they are being ignored because they are “counter-establishment”, when in fact they’re ignored because they don’t add anything interesting or new to to the debate. Your readers should know that string theorists are perfectly willing to listen to outsider criticism. String theory isn’t a cabal trying to stomp out everything else, and string theorists are not afraid to ask themselves all the same questions you obsess about. They aren’t sticking their heads in the sand.
    As an example, Gerard ‘t Hooft is at all the major conferences, often telling stringers they’re full of it, and they don’t just nod politely, they listen to him, they think about what he has to say. Why? They know he is a unique intellect, who has been right before in amazing ways about things that were totally non-obvious. On the other hand, without any credentials of this sort, you repeatedly attack people like e.g. Weinberg and Wilczek for thinking about anthropic reasoning–does it *ever* occur to you that there is a reason these two Nobel Laureates, who invented large parts of the standard model and surely know something about what is science, are working on this? Is it really because they are so dumb as to not see your objections? Or might it be that, from past experience, they know that it sometimes pays to push through and explore strange ideas that other people freak out over? I find your arrogance in condemning these people (never mind Lenny!) absolutely breathtaking, Peter.

    Finally, I am not going to apologize for remaining anonymous. It has
    nothing to do with the time it takes to type out my name, it has to do
    with the time I would have to waste talking to people about why I
    posted, what I think about all this etc. My point here is *only* to point
    people to an objective source with which to judge your credentials. As far
    as me–I can tell you that I disagree with Lubos about almost everything,
    except that like him (and you) I very much dislike the anthropic principle
    and the landscape, though unlike you I don’t think the people working on
    it are morons who have given up on science–it might just turn out to be
    the way things are, though I think it is premature to abandon the hope
    that we can predict all couplings. Unlike you I like SUSY, and look forward to its discovery at the LHC. I am a fan of string theory. I acknowledge it may be on the wrong track with the Landscape and may be wrong altogether, though it seems more likely to me that it will figure in some unforseen way in the final story. I think people should explore alternatives, but there is a reason so many of the best people continue to be attracted to string theory–even with all the problems, much more seems to come out than goes in.

    This really will be my last interaction with this blog. I apologize for having offended you, Peter, but I re-iterate that your non-expert readers should know something about your scientific standing to help them evaluate your opinions in the future.

  11. Boaz says:

    A rhetorical question for Hmm:
    Is the concept of “scientific standing” really objective?
    Why not be honest about it and say that you and some people you know don’t think Peter’s that great.
    But then that begs the question of who you are and whether your own opinion on this matter should be taken into account.
    It really does seem unfair to attack someone’s credibility without putting your own out there for examination.

  12. Thomas Larsson says:


    attacking Peter’s scientific credentials completely misses the point. Peter should be viewed as the tip of an iceberg, probably containing the majority of the physics community.

    Perhaps it had been better if Discovery instead had interviewed Nobel laureates like Sheldon “string theory has failed in its primary goal” Glashow, Martinus “string theory is a figment of the theoretical mind” Veltman, Phil “string theory a futile exercise as physics”Anderson, or Bob “string theory a 50-year-old woman wearing way too much lipstick” Laughlin. Or perhaps with the founder of the string theory group at Rutgers, Dan “string theory is a complete scientific failure” Friedan.

    OTOH, all science journalists out there, it is not too late to make new interviews.

  13. a says:

    I think that everybody agrees with hmm that it would have been better if a honest criticism had come from inside. Unfortunately experts remain(ed) silent and outsiders tend to base their judgment on concrete results: on this aspect strings are very poor, and I doubt that the busy work of hmm will solve the situation. Doing physics is not only filling papers with equations, but also discussing which problems it is worth to address.

  14. ks says:

    I think that everybody agrees with hmm that it would have been better if a honest criticism had come from inside.

    Is it so? Why do we accept a critical public when we deal with politics but not with science? Why must critisism be constructive? If an idea/ideology does not work than it does not work. Showing this is an act of enlightenement and a public service. Demanding that Peter has to be an intellectual giant who produces new euphorias to the physics community is like forcing from a religious critic being itself a religious founder ( or from a political commentator being a politician ). Sometimes it should suffice being simply reasonable and well informed.

  15. secret milkshake says:

    I was born to into a communist country. I remember reading this kind of stuff back then: “Who are these so-called dissidents? They are all flakes and failures. We already have an honest, healthy and constructive discussion and it must be in its proper place. We need to have peaceful conditions for further continuation of our creative work.”

    When Motl wrote “we can’t make progress until we get this kind of human garbage lined up against the wall + shot” (he means his critics) he was yearning for the more direct approach.

  16. JE says:

    Hmm said,

    “…my heros in physics–David Gross and Steven Weinberg…”

    Any researcher in theoretical physics needs to know as much as possible about Gross and Weinberg’s great contributions to physics, but I don’t think that he/she needs to worship any “heroes”. It sounds puerile as an attitude towards research.

  17. fh says:

    The ad hominem attacks are besides the point of course, but I have heard similar criticism from people whoes standing as absolutely brilliant physicists can not be doubted.

    For those who obsessively count citations to judge scientific merit, I’m talking about people whoes number of citations is the same order of magnitude as Wittens, if scaled to the size of the field they work in.

  18. Nigel says:

    ‘…might it be that, from past experience, they know that it sometimes pays to push through and explore strange ideas that other people freak out over?’ – Hmm

    The word ‘strange’ is not useful because all new ideas are initially strange by definition.

    The mainstream string theory effort is not coming under criticism because ignorant outsiders object to new ideas being ‘strange’.

    It’s that the new ideas, as Woit says, have reached a critical mass and are a self-propagating excursion from the business of modelling and predicting measurable phenomena.

    It is interesting that a recipe based entirely on speculation, which produces untestable predictions, has become mainstream, and defends itself using the arrogance of dismissing critics as ignorant.

    String theory uses extra dimensions to vaguely ‘predict’ unobservable gravitons and superpartners that will unify other forces at an energy far beyond experimental confirmation.

    Why should tax-payers fund this?

    ‘… it seems more likely to me that it will figure in some unforseen way in the final story.’ – Hmm

    Sure it will. The guy who comes up with the right theory will have to include a lengthy analysis of string theory in his paper, just to prove he is not plain ignorant of string theory, to get it read…

  19. Christine says:

    “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” — Carl Sagan

    Any reasonable person — serious researcher or layman — will promptly recognize the value of Peter Woit´s contribution on how to improve our way of thinking over the (difficult) problem of quantum gravity, even if one does not agree with his opinions.

    Personal attacks can only be interpreted as some kind of psychological reaction to primitive fear, and only reveals some kind of immaturity for practicing science or any productive activity.

  20. amused says:

    The fairytales of Hmm above shouldn’t be left unchallenged.

    1) “As an example, Gerard ‘t Hooft is at all the major conferences, often telling stringers they’re full of it, and they don’t just nod politely…”

    Indeed they don’t. I was at an informal talk by `t Hooft once, with Dijkgraaf also in the audience. `t Hooft was saying something negative about string theory and Dijkgraaf’s reaction was to get annoyed and walk out. Generally, string theorists regard `t Hooft, Glashow and co. as dinosaurs who made great contributions in the past but whose present day opinions on string theory are ill-informed and don’t matter.

    2) “theorists of all types value independent thinkers *with real talent* above everything else. By “with talent” I mean with the ability to generate non-trivial, surprising insights, in whatever area they work in.”

    Oh sure they do. That’s why the shortlists on the rumour mill pages are full of young people who are striving to demonstrate their originality and independence by developing new research directions and publishing their independent work in our top journal.
    In reality, there are few things that the powers-that-be despise more than the sight of young people trying to do original independent work. Such fools will quickly discover that their PRL publications count for nothing in competition with the smart youngsters who realised that success in this field requires one to ape one’s famous elders and ride their coattails as junior author on their papers. Lip service is paid to the noble ideal of supporting independent research, but in practice the powers that be only support their clones, since a clone of them is of course intrinsically better than a non-clone, irregardless of what the latter might have done. (And it is indeed amusing to see how some of these clones go dead researchwise once they get a faculty position and have to start being independent. Lubos is but one example.)

    3) “You aren’t being interviewed for Discover because of some great new insight or research direction you have opened up…”

    Perhaps Peter was being interviewed because he has done more than anyone else to provoke a critical discussion of the state of affairs in string theory? For many years the stringers have been promoting the notion that they are just so incredibly brilliant and are doing so wonderfully well with their reserach program. No need to put a damper on the exuberant hype of Kaku & co.; it will all turn out to be true in the end anyway, and in any case it is good that the public should know how brilliant these people are and how wonderful their work is. As `a’ mentioned above, ideally people from within the string community itself should have been the ones to call for a more balanced assessment. But there was no prospect of that happening, so it had to be someone from the outside, and Peter Woit was pretty much the only applicant for the job. Given that string theorist dismiss greats like `t Hooft and Glashow as ill-informed dinosaurs (come on guys, don’t try to deny it), it’s a bit ridiculous for them to complain about a lack in Peter Woit’s credentials. If there really is a shortcoming in Peter’s capacity to criticise string theory it will manifest iself through inaccurate/ill-informed/unreasonable statements that he makes. People who want to question Peter’s “right” to criticise string theory are invited to point out the occurances of such statements in the hundreds of pages he has written already.

  21. Thomas Larsson says:

    Indeed they don’t. I was at an informal talk by `t Hooft once, with Dijkgraaf also in the audience.

    Dijkgraaf, like the Verlinde twins, are former ‘t Hooft students, right?

  22. mhm says:

    “And it is indeed amusing to see how some of these clones go dead researchwise once they get a faculty position and have to start being independent. Lubos is but one example.”

    This is not fair. Lubos made many original contributions to the research of climate change. And he has done so without any credentials, because they are only needed when talking about strings.

  23. mhm says:

    “Motl wrote “we can’t make progress until we get this kind of human garbage lined up against the wall + shot”

    Mr. Milkshake, this comment just shows how intelligent and smart Lubos Motl is. Only he, Jacques, Hmm and the other super string theorists are able to think clearly about superstrings, because they are so smart. Their time is very valuable, because they need to think so much and write their blogs and comments.

    The laymen belong to “the stupid people” as Lubos once told us.
    They can only solve easy problems (like how to make an honest
    living). They should only do two things:
    a) buy the books about superstrings and admire the great thinkers.
    b) pay the bill

  24. a says:

    Dear mhm: in case your full name is Lubos Motl, it was already said that yours is the best trash show; but don’t you think it is a bit out of context in a serious discussion?

  25. anonymous says:

    “… Lubos made many original contributions to the research of climate change. And he has done so without any credentials…” – mhm

    But Motl’s definition of the word ‘hypocrisy’ has a special exclusion clause just for string theorists! They are allowed to vent views on climatic change without a single paper or citation in that area! This same principle allows they to ignorantly ridicule LQG, etc…

  26. woit says:


    I will take my own advice and interact with you here exactly once.

    Why did I know this was a lie the moment I read it?

    Let’s see, your claim is that you have to remain anonymous because otherwise you would have to spend too much valuable time explaining why you are attacking me and what you think about string theory. Well, much of your comments are all about these topics, and you seem to be having no problem finding lots of time to go on about them at ever-increasing length. You evidently have plenty of time on your hands to make up nonsense I never wrote (e.g. that Weinberg and Wilczek are morons) so that you can continue to attack me. I think there are two much more obvious reasons for why you insist on anonymity:

    1. You’re a bully and a coward.

    2. You’re a string theorist wannabe, with no credentials at all in this field beyond having read a few popular books on the subject.

    There seems to me to be plenty of evidence in your by now many pages of comments for both of these.

    Thanks to many commenters who already did a far better job in writing in here to explain why my views might be worth listening to than I ever could. It’s encouraging to see that what I am trying to do here is widely understood and appreciated.

    I’d like to point out that much of what I’m trying to do is to not just go on about my own views or criticize those of others. No, I don’t call Steven Weinberg or Frank Wilczek “morons”, instead I as accurately as possible quote what they say, sometimes make some comments on what I think about it, and provide links to every place I know of where their own words are available. I believe this often provides useful information so people who can decide for themselves what they think. Even quite a few string theorists who are not at all happy with my views tell me that they find this valuable.

    One of the main reasons I went into science was that it is a subject not based on blind belief in authority figures. If you’re willing to put in the time to understand what people are saying, you can make up your own mind about what to believe. I hope this blog helps people do that.

  27. fh says:

    I like to think that hmm is actually Lubos talking to himself, if for no other reason than that it amuses me.

  28. woit says:


    Unfortunately I’m quite sure they’re different people and it’s a sad fact that Lubos’s fanatical views and behavior are not unique to him. For one thing “Hmm” has a native speaker’s command of the English language, unlike Lubos. My guess is that “Hmm” is the same person as “Michael” who every so often posts comments here about how incompetent I am. He seems to live in the Boston area and may have some sort of connection to Brandeis.

  29. J.F. Moore says:

    Pete Woit’s (or more generally, anyone’s) credentials are only relevant to the argument to the extent that the reader does not understand the issue at hand and must take on faith the position of the one making the argument. Anyone who takes the minimal time to grasp what’s going on, even at a very basic level, must admit there are some problems with superstrings, at the very least a huge dichotomy between the advertised power of the theory (esp. 10-20 years ago) and the actual power, if power is meant the way it is for almost all of science, as having the ability to make predictions.

  30. J.F. Moore says:

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to abbreviate your name like that, Peter. I blame my new bluetooth keyboard.

  31. anon says:


    I think Lubos is being quite successful in his main objective: intimidation. While it will hardly affect your behaviour, it sends a strong message to others who might be contemplating taking a public stance on various issues you discuss.

    Not quite effective as the “line up ’em up and shoot” technique he learnt in his native country, but he’s adapating it well.

  32. amused says:

    Thomas: yes, Dijkgraaf and the Verlinde twins were `t Hooft’s students. Not all of his students became string theorists though (e.g. van Baal), and conversely, not all Dutch string theorists were his students (e.g. de Boer).

    mhm: That was hilarious 🙂 It was supposed to be ironic, right? Or are you really LM?

  33. Tony Smith says:

    If Hmm is anonymous, Hmm’s qualifications must be judged based on material in Hmm’s posts, and I have only read Hmm’s two comments on this blog.
    it is possible to evaluate Hmm’s mentality to some degree by considering the following excerpt from those posts, in which Hmm said to Peter:

    “… I disagree with Lubos about almost everything,
    except that like him (and you) I very much dislike the anthropic principle and the landscape
    … I like SUSY … I am a fan of string theory. …”.

    I wonder if leaders of the conventional superstring community, such as Ed Witten, will ever realize that their community is ill-served by allowing such people as Hmm to act as their advocates,
    whether those leaders will ever speak out loudly against Hmm and others of that ilk,
    whether those leaders will continue, by their silence, to endorse them.

    Tony Smith

  34. D R Lunsford says:

    Tony, good point, in some ways ST is like a pernicious political idea , e.g. Maoism, that attracts every rogue on the planet.


  35. D R Lunsford says:

    Anon – he’s like the Czech hockey team – take enough shots and something will eventually go in!

    The way to beat the Czechs was to outskate them. At this point, LM has been outskated.


  36. Adrian H. says:

    As ugly and naked as it is, Hmm’s view represents one important aspect of the degeneration of modern intellectual life: this incessant placing of everyone and everything into league tables and rankings. It is a sickness, and it is usually pressed very hard by those charlatans who have worked up a good ‘reputation’ by doing minor incremental work that advances things infinitesimally. It is usually combined with sycophancy towards the ‘great and worthy’; and with maintaining one’s presence by skillful networking. It is the way to have a great career at the modern University.

    In this lattice structure of good and bad reputation it comes to seem natural that some people are entitled to express their opinion while others are not. Secret Milkshake likened this to the Soviet Union. But it is probably far more insidious than that, because it is self-imposed. People like Hmm have entirely internalised this worthless junk.

    What Hmm dislikes about you, Peter, is that you are in effect speaking out of turn—not showing due deferrence to the great and the good. So you can be sure that he got where he is by toadying his way up the ladder. If we saw his publication record I’m sure it would look impressive. Until we looked more closely at just what the acheivement really is. Then it would look shallow and trite: merely dotting the i’s on the great men’s work.

    But it shouldn’t upset you, Peter. This is all part of what you are criticising in your blog every day. And I for one hope you keep it up.

  37. Peter says:


    I think you’re quite right about the mentality of “Hmm” and a few others like him. There’s been a lot of this in recent days due to the Discover article, but there was a certain amount of it since the beginning, when I first started publicly criticizing string theory.

    At the time I remember thinking that some of this kind of behavior was highly remniscent of the dominance displays of males in a group of baboons when an interloper who doesn’t fit into the hierarchy arrives in their midst. Lots of jumping up and down, flashing of teeth, loud screeching, displays of posteriors (or at least the string theorist equivalents….).

  38. anonymous says:

    I should say that this quote of Chomsky nails it on the head:

    “In my own professional work I have touched on a variety of different fields. I’ve done my work in mathematical linguistics, for example, without any professional credentials in mathematics; in this subject I am completely self-taught, and not very well taught. But I’ve often been invited by universities to speak on mathematical linguistics at mathematics seminars and colloquia. No one has ever asked me whether I have the appropriate credentials to speak on these subjects; the mathematicians couldn’t care less. What they want to know is what I have to say. No one has ever objected to my right to speak, asking whether I have a doctor’s degree in mathematics, or whether I have taken advanced courses in the subject. That would never have entered their minds. They want to know whether I am right or wrong, whether the subject is interesting or not, whether better approaches are possible – the discussion dealt with the subject, not with my right to discuss it.

    But on the other hand, in discussion or debate concerning social issues or American foreign policy, Vietnam or the Middle East, for example, the issue is constantly raised, often with considerable venom. I’ve repeatedly been challenged on the grounds of credentials, or asked, what special training do you have that entitles you to speak of these matters. The assumption is that people like me, who are outsiders from a professional standpoint, are not entitled to speak on such things.

    Compare mathematics and the political sciences — it’s quite striking. In mathematics, in physics, people are concerned with what you say, not with your certification. But in order to speak about social reality, you must have the proper credentials, particularly if you depart from the accepted framework of thinking. Generally speaking, it seems fair to say that the richer the intellectual substance of a field, the less there is a concern for credentials, and the greater is concern for content.”

    Lubos is clearly not doing his field any flavor.

  39. Adrian H. says:

    Yes, the my-publication-list-is-longer-than-your-publication-list does have certain analogies! 🙂

  40. Ignorant Layman says:

    Dr. Lubos Motl’s polemical invective which resorts to a scatologically laced ad hominen attack against his straw man of a crackpot who reads this blog, I think reveals much more about the good professor’s lack of professionalism than any amount of learned exposition might otherwise afford us wayward ignoramuses. I think he has hoisted himself on his own petard most ignominiously.

  41. D R Lunsford says:

    Adrian H, in other words, “Cites matters.”


  42. anon says:

    Popular voting systems like citations aren’t even democratic! Citations occur when people follow the mainstream ideas. So what? The mainstream was wrong on caloric, phlogiston, etc! It doesn’t matter how many citations there are, only if the facts are sound. Citation bureaucracy can work against real innovation.

  43. Ignorant Layman says:

    How about those embarassing expert pronunciamentos such as “Nuclear power will never work,” etc., etc.

  44. Juan R. says:

    Peter Woit,

    About tactics you are cited above

    1. The ad hominem attack. Attack your opponent’s credibility and right to say anything on the subject. This is Lubos’s main tactic today.

    He used this tactic here in his attack on Horgan. I have explained to him how splitting data from interpretation of data, e.g. via detecting the existence of quotes 🙂 . Lubos Motl in this blog often some of us use blockquotes instead of ” “. You can detect them because they are rendered in a different color, and indented by the console. For example this is a comment section on data and this

    This is a quote

    is data (quote).

    Peter Woit, if he can learn, i personally wait that in future he can openly critize either data used in some discussion or comments on that data but without resorting to the ad hominem attack.

    2. The straw man attack. Misrepresent or even misquote your opponent’s words, then attack them as stupid and ignorant for saying something inaccurate.

    Easily inverted thecnique! No problem with it unless that you cannot reply to the attack, but that is already next point.

    3. Censorship. When you can get away with it, by any tactic available, keep people who disagree with you from being heard.

    This is very ancient! Already guys as Newton were censured by their colleagues. A modern example of censure are ArXiv blacklists, or sistematic rejection of hot topics by some leader journals (e.g. some journals do not acept critical papers on relativity). Another examples are blocking of funding of rival schools, rejecting of position for rival scientists, heavy peer-review, etc.

    The natural solution to this point is the re-grouping:

    – Newton and colleagues re-grouped and published alternatively.

    – ArXiv blacklisted scientists launched new preprint servers.

    – People critizing some aspects of relativity publish in alternative journals.

    – Searching alternative ways for research funding

    – Etc.

    4. Intimidation. I’ve heard from many, many physicists that they agree with many of my criticisms of string theory, but are afraid to be publicly associated with them because of repercussions for their career.

    Very related to point 3. In fact, may serious studies on revolution on science and alternative ways suggest that best position for launch an alternative or revolutionary way on science is from an independent position, e.g. some emeritus position in some university, chair in a new funded institute, etc. This way you can simply neglect intimidation, so usual in archaic universitary schemas.

    This is the reason that I can openly publish criticism on string theory. Those physicists could openly critize that nonsense called string theory if they received alternative careers to actual ones.

    It is just a question of time and politics, not a problem that string theory was difficult to evaluate. No real problem with this…

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

  45. D R Lunsford says:

    kshe – right, it isn’t obvious to me how this applies. Like I said -confused-.


  46. Boaz says:

    anonymous quotes Chomsky as saying

    Generally speaking, it seems fair to say that the richer the intellectual substance of a field, the less there is a concern for credentials, and the greater is concern for content.

    I think that Chomsky is missing an important piece here. I think that the depth of the relationship of a field to society as a whole is equally, if not more important (regarding receptivity to outsiders’ ideas and criticism) than wealth of ideas and substance. Math is a traditional field that is almost universally recognised to be valuable. Math departments have the dual role of developing new ideas in addition to preserving existing knowledge through teaching. And the value is shown by its inclusion in curriculum from elementary school through college. I don’t know Chomsky’s ideas about the connections between mathematics and linguistics in detail, but I would guess that they do not threaten the existing relationships that mathematicians have with society at large. His views on politics, on the other hand, do threaten the relationship that that group of academics has with society. Political scientists and historians to some extent retain clout by the perception that they advise government and society on some major policy issues. If the value of that advice is being attacked, so is their place in society.

    So there seem to be two issues: one is whether a given criticism goes to the heart of a field’s relationship with society, and the second is whether that relationship is strong enough that it can take the criticism in stride and improve the health of the relationship. Sensitivity to criticism can mean a fear of it all falling apart.

    I think that Lubos does indeed see the position of string theory in society being attacked by Peter and he is responding. So I don’t think that it necessarily implies a poverty of ideas, but rather an insecurity of a precarious position. If Lubos felt more secure in his own position and in that of string theory, he wouldn’t worry so much that a little criticism would cause the whole thing to collapse.

  47. Adrian H. says:

    ”Cites matters.” Very nice.

  48. mathjunkie says:

    Citation sometimes can’t tell the importance of a research paper. I found that some researchers intentionally increased their number of citations by quoting their published papers in their future publications but their peers cited those published works only very few times.

  49. Jimbo says:

    Congrats to Peter for an excellent Discover interview. Basically what he’s been saying for several years to the community, is now getting a vastly wider audience, and will ultimately trickle down to the intelligent lay person, who has seen the glitzy NOVA string special, & other stringy hype, & cause that person to slap themselves on the forehead & say “Hey, the superstringers have definitely broken lock with the scientific method & have gone off into their own little world of mathematics, marketing it as reality”.
    We cannot really blame Susskind, Witten, Green, Schwarz, Maldecena, Polchinski, Greene, et al. for this sad state of affairs. It is Dirac, their godfather, who justified the stringy crusade with his aphorism, “It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations, than truth”. Gell-Mann, added fuel to the fire with his “Anything not expressly forbidden is compulsory”.
    As Peter points out, this is all fine for mathematicians. However, as many theorists still stubbornly believe, physics is an empirical science, which for 300 yrs, has set a higher standard of reality than mere aesthetics.
    Lastly, without appealing to reality by consensus, I think the blogs should start a head count in the anti-string camp, perhaps with an arxiv `call-to-arms’ note, & ram it down PhysicsToday’s throat. Just to drop a few names on record for starters: Feynman, Glashow, Veltman, well, you get my drift…

  50. D R Lunsford says:

    Jimbo – you’ve misinterpreted what Dirac meant. He’s undoubtedly spinning like a new pulsar in his grave, over what has happened.

    If only he were alive. I feel like we need one of our elders to return from the undiscovered country, and start kicking ass.


Comments are closed.