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 …