Die Physik steckt in der Krise

The German weekly Die Zeit has an article this week by Max Rauner about string theory, the Landscape, and the controversy over whether this is science or not. My German is rather shaky, but as far as I can tell it’s an intelligent summary of the controversy, emphasizing Susskind and his new book, and quoting many of the usual suspects. The same issue also has an interview with philosopher of science Martin Carrier about the question of whether or not string theory is a science.

Update: Eli Rabett has put up a translation of the article into English on his blog.

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30 Responses to Die Physik steckt in der Krise

  1. SomeBody says:

    I love how the article manages to quote the number of universes both as 10500 and as 10 with SUBscript 500…

    The philosopher Reiner Hedrich (apparently asked to “bring order” to the physics debate in Germany?!?) has a cool soundbite. Translating freely from the article,

    »The Multiverse theory is reasonable in its logic”, says Hedric, “but not reasonable enough to be science.” The research program reminds him of the pre-Socratics of ancient Greece: it’s “a metaphysical contemplation of nature”.

  2. Wolfgang says:

    The only thing really new in this article is the comparison of quantum theory and general relativity to an old married couple sleeping in separate beds …

  3. Frisean says:

    Martin Carrier says: “Eine strenge Unterscheidung zwischen Wissenschaft und Metaphysik, wie man sie früher verlangte, macht man heute eigentlich nicht mehr.”

    translates to sth like “A strict seperation between science and metaphysics, as it was demanded in past, is not made today any more.”

    Can this be taken serious? I am a layman, but I doubt all philosophers and scientists will agree on that.

    The German term Wissenschaft means more than empirical science but I consider this statement to be very questionable. Maybe I am a little naive, but a Natural Science should ask for empircal evidence while metaphysics has not and can be entirely speculative or is this not true any more? Elsewise the boundries between metyphysics/religion on the one side, and empircal sciences on the other science become diffuse or even not existent.

  4. D R Lunsford says:

    Frisean – certainly it’s the most important topic. To me, string theory failed when it trivialized Democritus by introducing strings to begin with. That string theory fails as science is no surprise – what has not been much said is how utterly it fails as metaphysics, by completely failing to provide a sensible ontology. On this level, it’s “too ugly to contemplate” rather than being right or wrong.


  5. Quantoken says:

    Wolfgang said: “The only thing really new in this article is the comparison of quantum theory and general relativity to an old married couple sleeping in separate beds … ”

    I thought they were never married to start with.

  6. D R Lunsford says:

    Q – actually GR and QM have much in common.

    1) Ultimately both are based on g_mn.
    2) Both are stymied by the volume element (reducibility of metric, electroweak symmetry breaking)
    3) Both are forced to endure unacceptable physical ideas (singularities).
    4) Both have a hard time dealing with sources, and treat them as an external thing
    5) The Lagrangian seems ad-hoc (conformal weight of R, Higgs mechanism)

    There are five obvious ones – I could think of more.


  7. Chris W. says:


    Aren’t you willing to contemplate alternatives in fundamental physics to a Democritean ontology as starting point? Obviously the modern conception of the atomic constitution of matter is quite different than that considered by Democritus, although the latter is clearly a historical antecedent.

    Furthermore, the modern notion of physical fields as being fundamental, which evolved from Maxwell’s electrodynamics as it was freed from the assumption of an underlying medium (the ether), is something that transcends Democritean atomism. Of course atomism and field theory have been largely fused in the context of quantum field theory. Finally, there is the notion of spacetime itself as dynamical, which the ancients were hardly in a position to anticipate.

    That said, the ontological problem with string theory is arguably that strings are themselves merely a starting point, leading into a wilderness of higher dimensional structures and various (partial) formulations of M-theory. The upshot is an ontological shambles.

    Some would say that, in view of things like dualities and effective field theory, this is both expected and unavoidable; we should just get used to it. Someday I think this situation will be viewed by as an enormous joke played on us humans. In a sense, we have played the joke on ourselves; we’re capable of being too mathematically creative for our own good.

  8. Chris W. says:

    Physics and cosmology have always been, in part, a “metaphysical contemplation of nature”. However, that metaphysical contemplation has, at its best, spawned empirically potent, testable ideas. To me, the profound irony of our current predicament is that it evolved out of the most proudly empirical and anti-metaphysical movements in modern physics—the developments of atomic, nuclear, and particle physics (and arguably, condensed matter physics). (A further irony: Ernst Mach, the intellectual godfather of this anti-metaphysical attitude, never accepted atomism as having a proper place in physics, even up to the time of his death in 1916.)

    I believe we do need to reconsider the metaphysics and ontological basis of physics, and how it supports the subject as a science. The trouble is, that’s hard; most metaphysics is indeed crap.

  9. Peter says:

    Please, keep the discussion here to the topic of the article I was posting about. Several people have complained to me recently that there’s too much rambling and anti-string ranting, unrelated to the topic at hand. I’ll be deleting a lot more such comments in the future.

  10. Geon says:

    “The only criticism of what I’ve been doing over the years that I would actually agree with is that I should have spent less time thinking about string theory and complaining about it and learning about it just to criticize it, instead of devoting time to more positive things that I should be pursuing. ”

    In my opinion, arguing over whether string theory is science or not or finding endless links on articles on this matter does not serve any good for the statement made by Peter. We all know for sure that philosophy won’t get us anywhere, so why not “Think your best thoughts, and devise ways to test them “? quote Feynman.

  11. plato says:

    Physics is in the crisis: The dream of the world formula burst, the new theories is hardly more examinable. Does it at all still concern in the cosmology science?

    Free love, LSD, anti-war demo. Leonard Susskind took part in all that “and still more”, as he stresses……

    Google has a translator

    It seems there is to be a connection between “earlier thinking” on Susskind’s part, to what has emerged from him, into what is given of science? I think this is right, so far from what is above?

    From outide the US, historical information would be gathered and formulated into German thinking conceptual based on language? It sets the tone? Can German concpetualization really get the feel of the man?

    If the attack is to come, must it not be on what has been preceded here in earlier idealizations with regards to “degrees of freedom” and “dimensional analysis?”

    Here I do not want to detour from article, so that is all I will say. How would charactor assissination support this article?

    I hope translator was helpful.

  12. Quantoken says:


    I must point out that you have been hypocritical that at one moment you complain about censorship on ARXIV and on Lubos’s blog. And the next second you turn around and threatened even more rigorous censorship on your own blog. That does not look good on you. To be fair I see nowadays Lubos is actually much more tolerate on different opinions than you do. What’s the point of having a discussion if no alternative opinions are allowed?


  13. AG says:

    quantoken you’re boring, go away.

  14. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    Here’s a full translation of the page, curtesy of google.

  15. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    Sorry for the double post.

    The article does mention that other theories were also very speculative in the past. It mentions the kinetic theory of heat and the atomic theory of matter and even copernicus gets a look in.

    Creationism was brought up in the article, but I think Intelligent Design was not.

    The article (translation) mentions:
    “It takes every now and then decades, to scientific pagings in the scientific community recognition is often still longer and, until it accepts the public. ….Sometimes revolutions are also broken off, and one returns to old conceptions.”

    Which I suppose is an accurate decription of how science works. There seem to be epochs, wherein certain theories are in vogue. Sometimes, these theories are verified, sometimes they are superseeded. I suppose time, or rather data, will tell if this is the case for String Theory too.

  16. Robert says:

    The article is not so much about string theory but about the ‘multiverse’, the idea that beyond what we see as our universe, there could be regions that are vastly different from ours since the fundamental constants are different. This might be realised in string theory but could as well be realised in other theories as well.

    If one believes in a “theory of everything”, that is a theory that does not have numerical parameters (like the electric charge [aka fine structur constant] or the mass of the electron) this theory should have a way to explain the numerical constants of the standard model of particle physics. One popular way to do that is to promote them to fields that happen to have these values.

    But this brings with it the possibility that these fields take different values at different places. And voila: the possibility of the multiverse. In this case one rather has to explain why these fields vary so little in the region of the universe that we observe.

  17. Frisean says:

    My point was about the article.(the linked interview in particular)

    And I still feel disturbed about the statement that one does not really distuingish between metaphysics and science any more. At first look, this is confusing and dangerous, also regarding the following statement within the interview, that intelligent design is not disputed to be science, instead merely claiming that its credibility is bad reagarding its capability to explain phenomana.

    If I stick to this notion, everything is science, althogh not everything is “good science”. What`s the benefit of using the term science then at all?

  18. The beauty of string theory for somebody in my profession is the very thing that gets criticized. I’m a reporter and columnist in Lewiston, Maine, but I’m also a novelist. Last month, my novel “The Pink Room” was pubished and it’s doing very well. I owe it all to the uncertainty of of the various theories and the creative leg room that presents to a person writing a science based work of fiction. The story is of a leading physicist who attempts to use the science of string theory to bring his daughter back from the dead. The idea is that the energy of the human soul seeps into one of the higher dimensions. It’s an idea that may be no more or less easy to disprove than the existence of those higher dimensions to begin with.

  19. Thomas Larsson says:

    If one believes in a “theory of everything”, that is a theory that does not have numerical parameters (like the electric charge [aka fine structur constant] or the mass of the electron) this theory should have a way to explain the numerical constants of the standard model of particle physics.

    Or the spin of the electron (in units of the spin of the photon).

    Spin, charge, mass, and anomalous dimensions are really quire similar – eigenvalues of generators of certain symmetry groups. Why shouldn’t they be explain similarly?

  20. D R Lunsford says:

    Geon – it’s doing a lot of “good”. Before his evaluation paper and this blog, the problems of ST were still under the rug where they’d been swept years earlier, and they would have stayed there. What Peter is doing is an absolute “good” IMO.


  21. D R Lunsford says:

    Frisean – perhaps I was not clear – yes metaphysics and physics must be clearly distinguished! But, the latter cannot proceed until the former is settled. They off each other as progress is made.


  22. A.J. says:

    Quantoken —

    There’s a very good reason for Peter to censor his blog: He doesn’t want it to degenerate into a forum for crackpots. Deleting advertisements for loony theories is good practice, just like deleting ads for porn sites. It keeps the signal to noise ratio high.

    Likewise, deleting anti-string raves and content-free personal attacks on people who don’t participate in these discussions (e.g. Ed Witten) is a good idea.

    Deleting well-reasoned, on topic comments from people who disagree with him is bad practice, of course. But I haven’t seen any evidence that Peter does this.

  23. anon says:

    Mark LaFlamme,

    HILARIOUS post. Satire best way to exorcise Motl.

  24. woit says:

    I’m deleting a series of comments from someone who hoped that string theory would help him communicate with his wife after she passed away, and someone making fun of this. This is not funny, but sad. Please no more of this kind of thing here.

  25. I hope no one feels I was a part of the earlier discussion involving the man who hoped to contact his dead wife. The novel “The Pink Room” is completely genuine and doesn’t hold a position one way or the other on the reality of string theory. I have such a tenuous grasp on the science, I could be swayed one way or the other by a well placed argument. I’m enjoying the exchanges in here so far. Read about Mr. Woit’s views last night in Discover. An amazing piece, really. And Discover typically seems to love string theory. It’s a credit to them that they allowed such a dissenting voice.

  26. D R Lunsford says:

    Chris W – I did answer your question but it got deleted. I wasn’t ignoring it. Perhaps you should post the (very intersting) question on SPR.

    Or here’s an idea – Peter could create sci.not.even.wrong and we could discuss it there. Or on alt.lubos.shutup.shutup.shutup.


  27. D R Lunsford says:

    Mark LF,

    It’s a credit to Peter that his clear voice is being heard even by sensationalists.


  28. xpinor says:

    Isn’t the 10500 a remarkable tracer for the competence of science writers? Is it really unreasonable to expect somebody who writes about physics and string theory, in particular, to be able to recognize the origin of this number and recover the original meaning? What kind of judgment of the subject matter can be expected from anybody who isn’t?

  29. woit says:


    In general I don’t think you can blame the 10500 business on science writers. The problem is that lots of the software that magazines and newspapers use doesn’t properly deal with sub/superscripts, thus the problem. Even this blog sometimes has this problem, someone is complaining in another post that their superscript appeared fine in a preview, but then got mangled when the comment appeared.

  30. Dear colleagues,

    I’ve got the printed Issue of the german ZEIT on my tabletop (this happens since I am a german physicist). I want to assure you that the 10500 typo is NOT in the printed issue, just in the online version.
    Dr. Max Rauner studied physics in Boulder, Colorado and usually knows well what he talks about.
    DIE ZEIT is a recommended weekly journal for “science, politics, culture and business”. Its authors are usually domain experts, urged and assisted by the editors to use “plain language”. Customers / target Group are decision makers in the fields aforementioned. Editors are e.g. the former german chancellor Helmut Schmidt and the former german minister of culture Michael Naumann. Congratulations, Peter.
    Prof. Reiner Hedrich takes part in biochemistry and physics workgroups on a regulary base. His project is designed to “sort” the arguments in cosmology discussion, not to “bring order” to the discussion as SomeBody translates it (sounds different?).
    Apparently the German Science Foundation considers the whole controversy “f****d up beyound any recognition” (never found that term so fitting than with cosmology:-) and asked someone to explain the state of the art in plain words before adressing politicians where to throw the research money into.
    If you have any further questions concerning the translation or cultural background, feel free to ask. My email adress is found on my website.


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