Not Even Wrong in the Financial Times

As a start on the project of reorganizing this weblog a bit to take into account the existence of the book, I’ve started using the “Categories” feature of WordPress. Postings about the book will be in a special category, all other postings will remain “Uncategorized”. If you don’t want to read any more about what is going on with the book, just access this weblog via the “Uncategorized” link over on the right panel.

This past weekend there was an article in the Financial Times by science writer Robert Matthews about the problems with string theory and the publication of my book. It’s not a book review, but more of a commentary, and is far more critical of string theory than I am. To give you an idea, here’s the lead paragraph:

They call their leader The Pope, insist theirs is the only path to enlightenment and attract a steady stream of young acolytes to their cause. A crackpot religious cult? No, something far scarier: a scientific community that has completely lost touch with reality and is robbing us of some of our most brilliant minds.

I thought the article was kind of over the top, but then I read Lubos’s commentary on it, entitled Robert Matthews: science-hater par excellence, which makes it seem rather moderate. He writes that a “senior physicist who is not a string theorist” sent him the article with the comment “a tendentious, malicious attack on scientists and through that on science itself.” I can see why someone unhappy with the article might characterize it as “a tendentious, malicious attack on string theorists”, but I don’t see any sense in which it is an attack on scientists in general or on science itself. The one thing I really don’t like about the article is the headline “Nothing is gained by searching for the ‘theory of everything'”, and the fact that at a couple points the writer implicitly identifies the search for a ‘theory of everything’ with doing string theory. I’m very much in favor of people continuing to search for a unified ‘theory of everything’, just think that string theory is a failed program for reaching this goal, something which needs to be acknowledged.

Doubtless the Financial Times will be getting various outraged letters from senior physicists, string theorists and non-string theorists, but I’d be a lot more willing to sympathize with their outrage at the article if they had ever expressed similar outrage at any of the extreme hyping and overselling of string theory that has gone on in the popular press over the last twenty years. Unfortunately I suspect that the next few years will see a lot of this kind of backlash against work on unified theories or on the use of sophisticated mathematics in fundamental physics. The theoretical physics community has done increasing amounts of damage to its own credibility because of the way string theory has been pursued and marketed, with the recent “anthropic string theory landscape” promotion providing a perhaps deadly blow. I’m afraid the near future will see de-funding not only of string theory, but of any other ambitious attempts to search for new ideas about how to unify fundamental physics.

One major source of continuing damage to string theory comes from the fact that by far its most active advocate on the Internet is Lubos Motl, and the fact that there is no evidence that his senior colleagues are willing to dissociate themselves from his behavior. Many younger string theorists are appalled by how he behaves, but too frightened of retribution to publicly say anything. Consider a recent review of my book posted on Amazon by a young string theorist:

Need cheering up? Get this book after reading the review below by Lubos Motl, then try to find out how he fabricated his “review”. I’m a string theorist by the way, which is why I’m hiding behind a pseudonym (I don’t want to be called a “science hater” by my seniors). This book makes a surprising effort to explain abstract mathematical concepts.

Very quickly after it (and any other positive reviews) appeared, it had garnered a large number of votes as not “helpful”. Someone out there seems to be spending their time watching Amazon for positive reviews of my book, then repeatedly connecting to the site with different identities to vote against any positive reviews and for Lubos’s review. Wonder who could be doing that?

Update: CapitalistImperialistPig asks a question that I’ve also been wondering about:

Why exactly was it you gave this to LM? Luboš, of course, is a very clever fellow, but he also believes practically every crackpot notion known to the modern world – or at least the right wing ones. If you want to discredit some writing, sending LM to do the hit is *not* the way to win hearts and minds. Of course Lumo did say she (or he) was not a string theorist so …

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29 Responses to Not Even Wrong in the Financial Times

  1. Kea says:


    I like the sound of your book. I think I will go and sit in the bookshop and read it.

  2. I think a letter from PW to the Financial Times would be particularly appropriate and effective. Note that Matthews is more than a little ignorant — from his website I see that he has dreams of resurrecting the Steady State Theory, based on his own elementary misunderstanding of deSitter space. He’s clearly a crank.

  3. woit says:

    No, Matthews is not at all “clearly a crank”. String theorists can try and engage in ad hominem attacks on him the way they do on anyone who challenges their beliefs, but it’s an ugly, unethical and unprofessional tactic. It’s also one that is getting really ineffective as it becomes clear to more and more people that it’s the only argument they have.

    I was thinking about whether I should write something to the FT, but crap like this doesn’t encourage me. I guess at least tonight my feeling is that I’ll write into the FT that Matthews has gone a bit too far when senior string theorists start writing into other publications to correct their overhyping of string theory.

  4. Censored says:

    I wrote something similar to your post in Lubos comments section.
    But it was deleted.

    The consensus with his/her views might be less than what it seems.

  5. Chris Oakley says:

    The Matthews article is IMHO completely fair and reasonable. A TOE is, at the moment, too big a step to take for anyone, String Theorists especially, and he is right to point this out.

    Of course, as this is the first article to appear in the popular media that is strongly sceptical of ST, a lot of feathers have been ruffled, but most of what he says are things that String Theorists should have recognised themselves. It should not need an outsider to provide the bigger picture.

    As for the reaction to the article, I would pose the question, “With friends like Lubos, does String Theory need any enemies?”

  6. Lubos Motl says:

    Only a very unreasonable person could believe that the distasteful anonymous first-poster is a young string theorist. Much like all other positive reviewers of Peter Woit’s book, he is a crackpot with IQ around 72, about 1/2 what he would need to be a string theorist. Don’t be kidding. It’s completely obvious that all of these people are complete idiots who have never seen the book, who have no idea about physics, and who have no idea what they’re talking about.

  7. Santo D'Agostino says:


    Consider your statement:

    “… all of these people are complete idiots who have never seen the book …”

    Yet you have posted on Amazon a review of the same book (Not Even Wrong) and you also have not read it!

    Readers are buying the book, not a draft manuscript that has subsequently been revised and corrected who-knows-how-many times, as is completely normal in book publishing. Readers deserve a review of the ACTUAL BOOK, not a preliminary manuscript.

    Would you find it acceptable for journal referees to reject one of your papers based on reading a preliminary draft, and ignoring the final submitted version?

    I advise you to withdraw your review of NEW until you have actually read the book. If you don’t, consider the damage to (what is left of) your scholarly reputation.

    All the best wishes,

  8. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear Agostino,

    I have not only read it but read it in detail, and moreover I claim that every person with IQ above 80 must be able to determine this fact from my detailed review.

    All the best

  9. Santo D'Agostino says:

    Dear Lubos,

    In your Amazon review, you state:

    “I have read a different edition of the book than one offered here, and I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies in my review that this fact could cause. In fact, if any errors from the list below have been corrected, it was because of my feedback, so I think it is fair to list them anyway.”

    Since this is the first published version of the book, you have not in fact read a different “edition,” but rather an unpublished manuscript, correct? I understand that English may not be your first language, and that therefore you may have to look up the definitions of “edition” and “manuscript,” but being a man of very high IQ, you will quickly understand the difference, if you don’t already.

    My previous points remain. It is NOT fair to list errors in manuscript if they have been corrected in publication. Readers are not buying the manuscript that you read, they are buying the published book, and therefore deserve a review of the actual published book.

    All the best,

  10. Peter Woit says:


    It doesn’t matter which version Lubos is looking at. Besides the one Gev/Tev typo he found, his list of “errors” contains just his own errors, together with nonsense generated by making up a wild misinterpretation of something I wrote.

  11. Santo D'Agostino says:


    Yes, good point. You mentioned this in an earlier posting, but I did not attend to it when replying to Lubos.

    Your comment amplifies my point that it is inappropriate (indeed unethical) to review preliminary versions of a published work. I continue to call on Lubos to withdraw his Amazon review.

    Best wishes,

  12. island says:

    FYI: Robert Matthews also wrote an article for the May/June issue of NewScientist Magazine… a review of the 20 year span between the first and second edition of a collection of essays by physicists, published as “The New Physics”

    Physics: Are we nearly there yet?

    What major insights have physicists stumbled on in the last 20 years? Hardly any…

    Now, almost 20 years on, the publication of a second edition of The New Physics provides an opportunity to discover how all those exhilarating advances have panned out. To judge by the accounts assembled by new editor Gordon Fraser, the short answer is: they haven’t. Indeed, the impression is one of physicists not so much approaching a beckoning peak as wandering about in a thick fog.


    For sheer stagnation, look no further than the chapter on superstring theory, authored by one of its originators, Michael Green. Over the last 20 years, superstring theory has transmogrified into something called M-theory, which is even more mind-boggling than its forebear. But it is still no closer to being a genuine scientific theory…

    And they say that Einstein wasted the last years of his life… uh huh

  13. hack says:

    That is really low, comparing physics hype from 20 years ago to reality! That just isn’t done in polite society.

  14. Matthews clearly is a crank. Three symptoms:
    1. Emotional rants against the “establishment”.
    2. Having Big Ideas — see his stuff about reviving the Steady State theory. He’s a genius, a true polymath. Not.
    3. Arrogance, manifested as indifference to the fact that he can easily be exposed — he thinks that de Sitter space has a timelike Killing vector, and is willing to display this elementary ignorance for all to see.

    It is of course no crime to be ignorant, but ignorant people should not publicly call into question people’s competence or professional ethics. If they insist on doing so, they should expect a robust response. In particular they should not whine about ad hominem attacks when they themselves are guilty of that very thing.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    I’ve really had quite enough over the last few years of string theorists who can’t answer any of the objections being made to the theory engaging in ridiculous, unfair, attacks on the competence of people who disagree with them, often in a cowardly fashion using the cover of anonymity. Instead of addressing what Matthews has to say on this topic, you go rooting around in his writings on other topics, looking for something you can take out of context and hold up as evidence of his incompetence. It’s disgraceful, cowardly, dishonest and completely pathetic behavior. Don’t do it here anymore unless you’re willing to stop being anonymous so that we can all go through everything you have written to check it for possible evidence of incompetence.

    And a string theory partisan accusing critics of string theory of arrogance? What a joke.

  16. Jayhog says:

    heh, what other crackpot theory does Luboš belive?

  17. anon says:

    Lamb chop of God, your three reasons apply to string theorists, but that doesn’t them all cranks does it? Not in the media.

    [String theorist name here] is clearly is a crank. Three symptoms:

    1. Emotional rants against the Feynman et al.
    2. Having Big Ideas — see his stuff about extra dimensions. He’s a genius, a true polymath. Not.
    3. Arrogance, manifested …

    Jayhog, Lubos believes in everything which gets him publicity.

  18. island says:

    I don’t think that it’s fair to level everything that’s wrong with the behavior of string theorists on Lubos, since there are other, more well-known proponents that are “Living Our Multiverse”… next-door to Alice.

    There are valid “quasi”-steadystate models.

    Remind me not to use exclamation points.

  19. Tony Jackson says:

    I’m a biochemist – so a long, long way from string theory- but not such a long way from previous interactions with Robert Matthews. I have found him infuriatingly dogmatic and not really interested in nuance. To be fair, he sees himself primarily as a journalist these days, and good copy to a tight deadline often has to place things in black and white. That said, and watching from the sidelines, I have a queasy feeling that he has indeed touched a raw nerve.

    Seriously, PW, please write to the FT and make your more subtle position clear. Apart from anything else, if you don’t, people who won’t read your book will assume Mathews is faithfully repeating your exact position.

  20. Juan R. says:


    No forget that standard string theory is a kind of modern “Steady State Theory”.

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

  21. Who says:

    The Sunday Times review of the book is out
    It is by John Cornwall, a 20th century historian known for his study of the relations between the 3rd Reich and the Vatican. He seemed to approve of the book’s prose style, among other things, which is a good sign.,,2102-2214707,00.html

    ===sample quote===
    …But is string theory true? Peter Woit, a mathematician at Columbia University, has challenged the entire string-theory discipline by proclaiming that its topic is not a genuine theory at all and that many of its exponents do not understand the complex mathematics it employs. String theory, he avers, has become a form of science fiction. Hence his book’s title, Not Even Wrong: an epithet created by Wolfgang Pauli, an irascible early 20th-century German physicist. Pauli had three escalating levels of insult for colleagues he deemed to be talking nonsense: “Wrong!”, “Completely wrong!” and finally “Not even wrong!”. By which he meant that a proposal was so completely outside the scientific ballpark as not to merit the least consideration.

    Woit’s book, highly readable, accessible and powerfully persuasive, is designed to give a short history of recent particle and theoretical physics. Ultimately he seeks not only to rattle but to dismantle the cage of the string theorists…

    the Harvard ranter had a kitten over this one

  22. Chris Oakley says:

    What gives the book its searingly provocative edge, moreover, is the fact that Woit isn’t even a tenured professor, but a mere mathematics instructor specialising in computer systems.

    (from the Sunday Times article)

    I don’t quite get this: Peter has done HEP theory up to post-doctoral level, teaches advanced courses and pursues his own research. These are also what tenured staff do, and at the same level – except that they probably know less about computers – so why the “mere”?

  23. knotted string says:

    I think what is happening is this. The first discussions of string theory occur in chapter 9. Before that you have a hundred pages describing the facts, experimentally validated theoretical physics.

    This is probably why reactions are delayed. After you read the facts and see what the real problems with the Standard Model are (chapter 8), it is then obvious that mainstream stringy stuff simply isn’t dealing with these problems. Then when you start the last section of the book, you are just swamped with stringy problems.

    Page 177: supersymmetry can only be checked by using electroweak force strengths to calculate the strong force: it is 10-15 % higher than observation (which has an experimental accuracy of around 3 %). So the only precise check discredits it.

    Page 179: supersymmetry suggests a vacuum energy density 10^56 to 10^113 times high.

    Page 181: Gerard ‘t Hooft: ‘… I would not even be prepared to call string theory a ‘theory’ … just a hunch. … Imagine that I give you a chair, while explaining that the legs are missing, and that the seat, back and armrest will perhaps be delivered soon; whatever I did give you, can I still call it a chair?’

    The abstraction issue is the cause of the Bogdanov brothers affair: it is disgusting that the state of physics is such that peer-reviewed Classical and Quantum Gravity and also Annals of Physics published their papers on the basis of evidently non-scientific reasons and later had to apologise for making an error.

    Page 223: ‘The main thing the journals are selling is the fact that what they publish has supposedly been carefully vetter by experts. … The referee’s report reproduced earlier shows clearly the line of thinking at work: ‘… Nothing published in this whole area makes complete sense … maybe there’s even an intelligible idea in here somewhere. Why not just accept it?”

    At this point the reader must take a walk in the fresh air to try to remain sane. Probably Peter will delete this comment for being too long, but I just can’t see how this situation can sort itself out ever.

  24. island says:

    Pauli had three escalating levels of insult for colleagues he deemed to be talking nonsense: “Wrong!”, “Completely wrong!” and finally “Not even wrong!”.

    What the heck? I thought that Pauli used only one single phrase that came from a too-philosophical meeting with David Bohm… ?

  25. Santo D'Agostino says:

    Update on my comments of 6 June, 2006, directed at Lubos Motl: I have posted similar comments to Lubos on his own blog today (in response to his outrage that the Sunday Times would print what he calls John Cornwell’s malicious attacks). My comments were deleted and I am now banned from his blog.

    Lubos has never responded to my statement that it is unethical to publicly “review” a book that one has admitted not reading. Instead he continues to insist that he did read the book “as a job,” but he claims not to be able to reveal the details.

    To repeat: In his Amazon review, Lubos admits to reading a different “edition” of the book. However, there is only one edition published so far, so one infers that he read a draft manuscript, not the actual published book.

    It is unethical to review a draft manuscript and claim that it is a review of a published work.

    I continue to call on Lubos to do the honorable thing and withdraw his Amazon review.

  26. Pingback: Not Even Wrong » Blog Archive » Not Even Wrong in the Sunday Times

  27. woit says:

    It’s certainly true that my academic status is not as high as that of a tenured professor, and it’s quite reasonable for Cornwell to point that out. He also calls me a “humble maths instructor”, which I have no problem with, although, depending on your interpretation of what “humble” is referring to, some might strongly disagree with that.

  28. Chris Oakley says:


    Yes but this whole thing is annoying. If they said a “mere janitor” (like Good Will Hunting) or “mere lab assistant” then fair enough, but the fact is that you are just as qualified to have research ideas or to talk generally about the subject as any one of your tenured colleagues. I hate the way that the academic system tries to turn itself into a hierarchical priesthood. The reality is that research is a free-for-all where the good ideas stick (or at least, ought to stick) regardless of who they originated from.

  29. mark adams says:

    As a layman whose daughter has just finished a physics degree at Imperial, I’ve been getting a fuzzy glimpse of her ex-boyfriend’s work at at Fermilab and Cern. Plenty politics, plenty bs but in a noble cause he thinks. The SHC will establish…..In commodities’ trading and oil refining I’ve nearly always dealt with known and unknown unknowns. Your manner passes my smell test for discrimination.

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