More Landscape, and Peer Review

The anthropic string theory landscape seems to be having ever greater success in taking over fundamental physics and turning it into pseudo-science. It’s being promoted by no less than 2008 presidential candidate Wesley Clark, the following is from a transcript of his remarks to science bloggers at a blogger convention in Las Vegas:

Read Leonard Suskind’s new book, called “The Cosmic-” It’s called “The Cosmic Landscape And Intelligent Design” if you want to see something that’s overpowering. Suskind is the inventor of cosmic string theory, and what he does is he takes cosmic- he takes the idea of the universe. He says the universe is- see, what’s happening in intelligent design is people are saying, ‘Ah well, you see, the, the, the wavelength of, of, of the electron and Planck’s Constant and all these numbers are so odd. They don’t- they’re not even numbers, you know. They, they, they don’t balance each other. It’s sort of 1.- It’s like the figure of pi, 3.14159… Why would it be such an odd number? Why, why wouldn’t god make the universe, you know, symmetrical?’


Then they said, ‘well, because, you know, it’s like there’s only one on 10 to the 50th chance that the universe could have worked out in a way that mankind could survive. Therefore, you know, this must have been an intelligent designer who created this universe especially for us.’ What Suskind does is he turns it on its head. He says, “You know, if you look at string theory and the 9+1 dimensions” or 10+1 dimensions, and I’m not sure how he knows that time only has one dimension, but he does. (inaudible) would say I’m very arrogant for questions questioning this.


But what Suskind does is he turns it upside down. He says, “Look there are- there is an infinite number of universes.” He calls it a multiverse, and he says that however the motive forces, and nobody understands why quarks pop in and out of existence. Nobody understands it, but apparently they do. And apparently there are many, many universes, and we’re here in this one. And maybe there are others in which Planck’s Constant has a different number, in which the speed of light is not 186,200 miles per second. Who knows? We don’t know.

Commenter Patrick wrote into point out a review article on this from graduate student Joseph Conlon, published in the latest issue of Contemporary Physics (not available on the arXiv or anywhere else for free as far as I can tell). It’s entitled, “The string theory landscape: a tale of two hydras”, with the first hydra the non-renormalizability of gravity (supposedly slain by string theory), the second the prolifieration of vacuum states. Conlon seems to think that the fact that string theory can’t ever be used to predict anything is not a serious problem:

We started with a dream of a unique string theory compactification reproducing the structure of the Standard Model. This is a dream apparently shattered by the existence of the landscape. Granting the landscape and its existence, does this mean string theory is inherently unpredictive at low energies? If this is true, this is sad but no disaster. Quantum field theory, of itself, is also unpredictive.

I’ve written elsewhere about why this analogy with QFT doesn’t hold, but on the face of it there’s obviously something wrong, since we use QFT all the time to make detailed, testable predictions about the real world, something that string theory, according to Conlon, will never be able to do.

Talks from the plenary section on “naturalness” at SUSY 06 are online. The usual advertising job from Susskind and Linde, the one that seems to have impressed Wesley Clark. Wilczek gives a more substantive talk, and seems to have some interesting new speculative ideas about models near the end.

On another topic, I’ve been wondering what the current state of peer-review of hep-th papers is. Personally I think it has been several years since I’ve looked at any of the main journals that publish papers in this area, and I suspect this is true of many people these days. The Bogdanov affair several years ago showed that refereeing in this area had become pretty much a joke, with the brothers having no trouble finding five journals willing to accept utter nonsense.

Looking at the arXiv and SPIRES listings, which seem to contain publication information after submitted papers have been accepted, many papers (e.g. Susskind’s single-authored papers on the landscape), don’t seem to ever have been peer-reviewed and published. I’m curious what people think of this. How many hep-th authors have stopped submitting their papers for refereeing? Is the data on the arXiv and SPIRES an accurate reflection of this? Does the fact that an author’s preprints don’t have publication data for the last few years mean they weren’t submitted for refereeing, or could this be due to time lag in refereeing/publication, or incompleteness of the data?

Update: Courtesy of Google, there’s now an on-line talk by Washington Taylor promoting the Landscape to people working for the company. He gives the number of vacua as at least 101000. The number of well-known physicists out there promoting this nonsense to the general public is amazing (via Lubos).

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

77 Responses to More Landscape, and Peer Review

  1. island says:

    Inquisiter wrote:

    What Susskind says here is that the only alternative to ID is strings and landscape. This is complete BS. The truth is that ID is based on an argument that is inacceptable to scientific methodology; it is not scientifically verifiable.

    ID argues as follows: We have this creationist theory that explains the universe for those people who believe in it. Since it is not accessible to scientific disproof, it must be true.

    Actually, Lenny is wrongly admitting that the anthropic principle constitutes evidence for intelligent design if we don’t accept the landscape:

    Lenny also said:
    ‘The “appearance” of design is undeniable…’

    …’So if you don’t accept my theory’… … … is blackmail.

    It’s true that this is crap, but that’s only because cosmological evidence that we’re not here by accident does not constitute proof for ID without direct proof, since the default position in this case is that this is part of a natural goal directed process that includes intrinsic finality.

    ID theories that don’t include a deity are potentially falsifiable… but IDists don’t want to play that distantly plausible hand because the really do believe that godidit, regardless of what they may claim in public.

    At least Lenny has guts enough to recognize that the anthropic principle constitutes evidence that we’re not here by accident without a multiverse of potential to lose its significance in.. even if he is doing so strictly for selfish reasons. It is very bad for science that this is only a conditional admission which most refuse to even recognize does indeed exist.

  2. JC says:


    For something like calculating Einstein gravity perturbatively to 3 loops, the only reasons I can think of offhand would be things like:

    – the person is incredibly naive
    – they’re a glutton for punishment
    – they have nothing else better to do with their time
    – they’ve been under a rock for the last 40 years, and still think Einstein gravity is the “language of God”
    – they’ve been under a rock for the last 30 years, and have never heard of supergravity or string theory

  3. Joe Conlon says:

    Dear anonymous,

    I think the precision of the answer has to be proportionate to the precision of the question. I don’t know exactly which scenario you’re referring to, but the expression `our brane’ sounds like ADD or Randall-Sundrum style scenarios. Direct stringy brane constructions of the Standard Model – e.g. by the Madrid group -need 3 or 4 stacks of different branes to get all the gauge group factors. If the original model is to some extent ill-defined and not fully embedded in string theory, it is not fair to hold string theory to account for failing to predict out all the O(1) factors.

    This isn’t a criticism of these kinds of models: they’re interesting and fun. But I think the distinction between 0.5 and 1TeV here can be accounted for in the uncertainty of the model’s definition.

    Brane tensions are universal and are not affected by supersymmetry breaking. How they are perceived may depend on the local metric and so be red-shifted by e.g. warping.

    Best wishes

  4. Arun says:


    The point was that one does not have to have a more promising alternative to point out that a particular line of inquiry is not fruitful.

  5. anonymous says:

    dear Joe, yes I refer to ADD. As far as I understand, the tension of a stack of n branes is n times bigger than the tension of a single brane only if supersymmetry is unbroken. Otherwise there is a non zero force between the branes, and the tension is affected by the resulting “binding energy”.

  6. D R Lunsford says:

    Well, I know of at least ONE peer-reviewed and published paper, which exists also at CERN, that was removed from arxiv (my own). Any other examples?


  7. nc says:

    Another example: my paper on CERN, ext-2004-007, published in Electronics World, vol. 109, pp. 47–52 (2003), was removed from arxiv in a matter of seconds in 2002. (I don’t mind about getting on arxiv – after all it is American-funded and I live in Europe, but CERN now prevents external papers from being updated except via automatic arxiv feed. I can’t update it, because it now only accepts external papers automatically from arxiv. I can log in at the CERN server database, but that’s all.)

  8. Peter Erwin says:

    I got curious about what were the different (stated) journal-submission rates for different areas of the arXiv, so here’s a crude overview, mostly based on the May 2006 postings for each group.

    The percentage is the fraction of postings during May (or, for some areas with low traffic, Jan through May) which have no mention of a journal (submitted to or accepted at) or of a conference where the work was presented at.

    astro-ph: 15% (considering only the first 200 posts of May)
    cond-mat: 72% (ditto)
    gr-qc: 62%
    hep-ex: 17%
    hep-lat: 50%
    hep-ph: 73%
    hep-th: 84%
    math-ph: 80%
    nucl-ex: 27%
    nucl-th: 63%
    physics: 61%
    quant-ph: 79%

    Caveats: this is all based on what posters wrote in the “Comments” field, or on the “Journal-Ref” field if it exists. As Peter Shor pointed out, at least some people may not bother filling in journal info in the Comments field, or updating the Journal-Ref field, even if the paper is submitted or accepted at a journal.

    Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see the difference between the more experimental/observational areas (astro-ph, hep-ex, nucl-ex) and the theory areas like hep-th and quant-ph.

  9. Chris Oakley says:

    Peter E,

    I suppose that this shows that HEP theorists are a bunch of hippies who don’t care much for respectability. Or getting the number of spacetime dimensions right.

  10. Bert Schroer says:

    G I,
    I could not react to your last weblog since I was offline for almost one week. After perfect agreement with your analysis and conclusions about the present situation in particle theory, there was one point of disagreement (which by the way also indicates to me that our agreements are not the result of belonging to the same area of mathematical physics as I, since most in that small community with profound knowledge about QFT would also disagree on that point) which I find worthwhile to return to:

    “I blame it on poor political skills, and the naivety of many of its members that the importance of the field would support itself. Some constructivists have learned the language of neighboring fields, and have remained very successful. Although we are complaining about the populist practises of the strings community, we have to acknowledge that their methods are working. They are getting recognition in the public, money, etc. More purist minded physicists shy away from such practises for ethical reasons, but in the 21st century, it might very well be that every branch of science needs a lobby.”
    I claim that any area in theoretical particle physics which uses the similar methods of lobbying and hype as the stringers and succumb to the temptation of hegemony of a certain doctrin in a still volatile area of particle theory will inevitably eventually also suffer from the same sociological diseases as string theory. In fact I predict that if the loop gravity (LQG) people allow themselves to be drawn into the use of these public relation methods and attempts of hegemonic control (as it seems the case at the present conference in Peking), they will before short or long have seized to be part of the solution and become part of the same problem. Looking forward to a kind of Amargeddon with string theory, they will only end up deepening the metaphoric confusion in particle theory.
    Exact sciences have the very distinguishing aspect of objectivity which sets them apart from any other human activity; this unfortunately creates some friction with the subjective activity of lobbying and appearing in front of an elected political committee to sell half-baked speculative ideas. Of course when large and expensive pieces of hardware and years of constructive planning are involved, as in experimental high energy physics, there is no other way. But if on the other hand one is facing a volatile theoretical situations as the one in post-standard model particle theory this, method is not compatible with securing a healthy future of particle physics, although it may be securing the material comfort and cementing the intellectual hegemony of a group.
    In this context I also vehemently disagree with a point which was made recently by Sean Carrol:
    “…people like string theory for intellectual reasons not for socio-psychological-political ones. It’s not a vast string theory conspirancy, funded by shadowy billionaires who funnel money through Princeton and Santa Barbara to brainwhash naïve onlookers into believing the hype. It’s trained experts who think that this is the best way to go…..”
    It is impossible to reconcile such a statement with what string theorists are actually doing. Take as an example the affair around the Maldacena conjecture as exemplified by the following citations from original papers:.
    Witten’s introduction of the Maldacena conjecture reads as follows:
    “Recently it has been proposed by Maldacena that large N-limits of certain conformal field theories in d dimensions can be described in terms of supergravity and string theory on the product of d-+1 dimensional AdS space with a compact manifold.”
    (Note the “proposed”)
    After more than two thousand citations the Witten passage changed to
    (citation from Berenstein, Maldacena and Nastase):
    “The fact that large N gauge theories have a string desrcipition was believed for a long time. These strings live in more than 4 dimensions….”.
    The process of “fact-manufacturing” culminates in the last of the 3 online Princeton talks by David Gross ( in which he answers a question coming from the audience (can string theory be proven wrong?) stating that string theory cannot be proven wrong because it is inoxably linked via Maldecena’s discovery to the Standard Model.
    What I find so incredible is that the audience in a place like Princeton (where Pauli and other critical minds spend many years) receives such statements with applause.
    No Sean Carrol (please check the citations if you do not believe me, I can provide you with the exact citations including the page number), these kind of mortal blows to an exact science whose hallmark used to be objectivity is not done as part of a conspirancy. David Gross is not the boss of a mafia scheme to derail particle physics. It is this selfdilusion which we are all prone to succumb to if we hear from all directions (as the result of the lobbying) how fundamental and important our ideas are (especially after their importance is so obvious from the material support they obtain and the hegemony they exert). But what is the difference for physics that there is no underlying willful misleading intention? And why did Sean ever think that smebody could believe that the influence of globalized capitalism consists in some billionaires exerting influence over the content of particle physics by giving money to universities in Princeton/Santa Barbara? The influence of globalized capitalism on the moral fabric of objective sciences goes via Enron and Worldcom and via Bush’s manufacturing of facts in order to be able to start a war: it is the manufacturing of facts which very ironically bind together the string theory in the US, in Teheran or (beginning right now) in China.
    I have many other documentable arguments for advancing my viewpoint, but if people like Sean Carrol want to see or define them as harmless for particle theory, then my means are exhausted. But then I do not understand at all what it is is he wants to dicuss in his weblog. Unsucessful attempts to get hegemonic control over particle physics always were tried (see the bootstrap S-matrix approach of Chew-Stapp and others) before, but they never reached that level of introctination and control as now.
    One does not get the full impression about the destruction of knowledge unless one really gets into contact with young people who went through that mindless string PhD mill, where one learns how to write impressive looking thesis with almost no knowledge of particle physics at all. My estimate is that a sizable fraction of young people who did this became meanwhile frustrated Jeckill&Hyde characters, the new proletariat created by their exploiting string theorist peers. The rest of the stringers fall like locust into other areas in order to devour everything and convert a banalized copy of what they can digest into string theory. For the last couple of years they have been trying to do this with integrable QFTs.
    In good times for theoretical physics, for example the times of Nernst, Planck, Einstein, Born, Heisenberg,…in Germany, there was no lobbying at all. Rather the excellent scientific quality at universities, research institutes and academies was achieved by the relentless work (largely outside the public domain) by state secretaries for science and culture of city and state governments, people with an impressive academic background and first hand knowledge who could officiate with a remarkable autonomy without depending on the result of political elections.
    Sometimes, when that did not work in due time, as it happened at the new (1919) founded University of Hamburg which remained for almost two years without a chair in theoretical physics, scientist applied a harmless trick. In this particular case the mathematicians Hecke and Artin inbited Albert Einstein for a public talk on a weekend (with Einstein perhaps not knowing what was the real purpose behind this) and some month later the chair for theoretical physics became a reality (with Wilhelm Lenz having Pauli as his assistant and Ising as his OPhD student).
    Although in the US such a system probably never existed, the second worldwar and the subsequent cold war created a situation where lobbying for survival in theoretical particle physics was not necessary and where the increase in once’s personal power and influence did not lead to the choking of other interesting points of views. The appearance of a metaphorical approach which gains a hegemonic control is a recent sociological deformation. The idea that a hegemonic control about the material and intellectual resources can be compensated by one individual who not only has to manage to reconquer the lost knowledge, but also (like a particle physics messias) comes up with an innovative idea which will direct particle physics out of the present crisis is utterly naïve.

  11. The Great Inquisitor says:


    Thank you for your reply. I very well understand how much you reject the idea of focused political organization among physicists to reinforce the impact of their research field. As we all know, this carries the danger of abuse, and anything that can be abused will be abused in due time (as string theory proves).

    I did not mean to imply that the same sort of irresponsible, aggressive propaganda should be used. However, string theory has pushed many areas of theoretical physics to the edge of extinction. My question is: Should one react or not ? Should one just accept the way things are, and wait until the bubble busts when Witten steps down (until which yet another generation of non-string theorists will leave the field), or should one try to get organized in an ethically responsible way. String theory is a relatively harmless illustration of the situation where a suppressed minority is forced to ask if, how, and when resistance is a moral obligation.

    I brought up the constructive field theorists because their area is probably one of those that suffered the most from the brain- and job drain induced by string theory.

    When I talk about lobbying, what I meant was (perhaps using an inappropriate choice of language) thatevery research field has a responsibility to organize itself in a way that the proliferation of its tradition is ensured. Every older generation of a research field carries a responsibility towards its younger generation of getting sufficiently organized (politically and otherwise) to ensure a good chance of survival. My question was how it happened for the example of constructive field theory that the situation has deteriorated so much, after a very excellent time in the 70’s.

    Of course, I couldn’t agree more with you that in fundamental science, lobbying practices should not have their place. However, I ask how one should react if a neighboring field becomes totalitarian, and begins to spread and metastasize like a cancer ?

    Did anyone read any of the articles in the “New Republic” and the “Nation” authored by Witten before he became a physicist ? As everyone knows, he studied political science, and was an aide for the McGovern presidential race. What is for sure is that he knows what he is doing.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    I have read the Witten article in the New Republic and the Nation. One is about visiting a commune in Taos, the other is about the New Left’s political strategy. Both were written when he was a teenager, and don’t show any signs of interest in Machiavellian political tactics. They’re both extremely earnest in a late sixties sort of way; Witten seemed to be a very young man trying to make sense for himself of what was going on at a period of dramatic change in the US.

    I think it’s a big mistake to lay all of the problems with how string theory has and is being pursued at Witten’s door. He’s responsible for a lot of what happened, but to a large extent he was just doing what every scientist should: work hard on the ideas you find most promising, and try and get others enthusiastic about them. The fact that he is so talented and has accomplished so much gave him a huge amount of influence, not any particular political skills on his part.

    At the moment the problem with string theory seems to me to not be Witten, but to be those much less talented than him who have devoted most or all of their career to string theory, can’t conceive of working on anything else, and are willing to fight to the death anyone who tries to get people to give up on string theory and work on other topics. Witten himself for the last year has not been doing string theory, but something quite different. If he continues to develop interesting ideas about gauge theory and mathematics, they may ultimately really lead somewhere important. At the moment I don’t see him going around giving talks about how wonderful string theory is, or engaging in anthropic pseudo-science, or any number of the other problematic things much of the string theory community is doing. He’s one of the few hopes for the subject, one of the few people capable of coming up with the kind of new idea the field needs to start making progress again. There are plenty of people around now whose behavior regarding this is highly problematic, I just don’t think Witten right now is one of them.

  13. The Great Inquisitor says:

    Dear Peter,

    In principle, I do agree with you; as is said in one of the superhero comics, “With great power comes great responsibility”.

    My question is what Witten has done to contain the damage his field is doing, of which he is undeniably too smart to be unaware of ?

  14. woit says:

    The GI,

    I do agree with you that Witten can be validly criticized for not having taken any responsibility for doing something about what has happened to the field. In particular I think it would be very helpful if he were to take some action on the issue of the anthropic landscape, perhaps pointing out that people who believe string theory is compatible with anything should give up on the theory and do something else, not start selling pseudo-science.

  15. The Great Inquisitor says:


    Yes. As the saying goes (approximately), “There are two lessons of history: History repeats itself, and humankind never learns from history.”

    Isn’t it ironic that the physics community, which has traditionally prided itself so much of supreme scientific objectivity is having this problem nowadays ?

    Perhaps, it would be worthwhile to analyze what precisely it is that this lesson is teaching, and what one should learn from it.

  16. Bert Schroer says:

    This time I have to agree 100% with G I even though he seems to come from a different area and may have slightly different reasons for his conclusions. It is really not the good intentions, the richness of imagination and mathematical talent of a person which is under discussion here. According to those criteria Witten is way beyond Heisenberg, Dirac, Pauli, name anybody from the pioneering days of QM. Without any question Ed Witten has been the most inspiring figure for a whole generation of young mathematically inclined theoretical physicists and even if this great attraction to people of the same age already showed up in his fighting for political liberal courses, it is of no direct relevance where his magic attractive personality showed up for the first time. A big difference to the previously mentioned physicists is that none became the guru of a group. Especially Pauli was respected and feared at the same time. But at no talk of Pauli (or any other one of the pioneers) everybody before the talk started was whispering in the corridors “What will Pauli (Witten) tell us ?” (concluding remarks by Ooguri at
    It is this kind of idolation which brings in a new element into rational science namely some sportish expectations which long for immediate fulfillment if possible coupled with some entertainment value.
    Peter, will you tell me that people nowadays are condemned to be gurus whether they want or not? If you want to tell me that even Pauli under such circumstances may have lost his critical objective abilities, you run into open doors with me, but of course the historical Pauli did not (you may say that he lived in a different Zeitgeist and I would add maybe one which was more conducive to particle theory).

    Take as a total contrast to the life work of Rudolf Haag. He felt already in the early 60s, when particle physics was still under the spell of the (most conservative) renormalization revolution that this will not be enough to really understand the inner working of the principles underlying QFT and that an additional step away from classical metaphorics towards a more autonomous understanding (similar to the liberation of geometry from coordinatizations) had to be undertaken before one can trust that the renormalizable/nonrenormalizable dichotomy has anything to do with the true conceptual frontiers carved out by the underlying principles. I learned in due time to appreciate that Haag’s contribution was one of the best investments into the future of particle physics. This was not always so, because after a short collaboration with Haag at the beginning of the 60s (In the after sputnik time I had a research associate position in Champaign-Urbana without yet having a PhD) I left that area because progress was too slow for my taste at that time. I entered the critical phenomena (Callen-Symanzik setting) and later I found a generic relation between winding gauge configurations and zero spinor modes in the Schwinger model which sucked me more and more into the mathematically quite sophisticated Atiyah-Singer theory. I wholly embraced the subsequent reign of Euclidean topology and differential geometry i.e. the Witten-Atiyah Atiyah Zeitgeist. But when at a stay at CERN in the 80s I saw all these wide-eyed youngsters who dropped the word “topological”in almost every sentence I woke up again and the increasing trend of metaphorical arguments in particle physics finally brought me back to the algebraic approach which meanwhile had acquired an impressive amount of conceptual maturity. I am mentioning this here because very often in this weblog one reads complaints about the lack of alternatives to string theory (or LQG if one focuses on gravity only). If I would never have met my teachers Haag and Lehmann, I probably would also be among those apologists of string theory.
    There is no particle physics setting these days which leads to results which are so markedly different from those coming from string theory or other mainstream ideas concerning issues of vacuum polarization (cosmological constant, black hole entropy) as those coming from LQP (local quantum physics). On the hep-th Tuesday listing you can convince yourself by looking at two updates which in this form I submitted to Class. Quant. Grav.
    Coming back to the issue raised by G I’s last blog contribution I would completely agree that somebody who has created a community has a critical responsibibility. To say that an important leading figure abstained from stringy physics (like Berlusconi abstained from sex before the election) is not enough.

  17. Peter Woit says:

    Bert and TGI,

    I agree with you that Witten has a lot of responsibility for the current situation. But it’s also true that one could make a very long list of Nobel prize winners and other people with positions of great responsibility in particle theory who have chosen not to say anything about the problems caused by the way string theory research has been pursued. I’ve always found it kind of ridiculous that I should be the one prominently making the case that this is a problem, when there are many, many people who are much more than me in a position where they should be taking some responsibility for this.

  18. The Great Inquisitor says:


    I believe that a problem with Nobel prize winners speaking up is that in the last few decades, very few theoretical physicists with a strong mathematical background have won it. Those who did usually obtained it late in life, and might not consider themselves competent to judge over string theory. Some particle physics nobelists did speak up, like Richter or Glashow, but it is easy for string theorists to dismiss them as mathematically uninformed.

    Only when someone is very familiar with the mathematics of some aspects of string theory, it is possible to tell with certainty that something dishonest is going on. Mathematically less educated observers might either give string theory the benefit of doubt, or not feel threatened at all because their jobs are not at stake. So those people naturally in the position to speak up are mathematical physicists who work with the standards of rigor of pure mathematics.

    If one looks for people in this area in a position to openly attack string theory, one ends up with a very small list. It is not without reason that these people are fought by the strings community; they are the only ones who can see that the emperor has no clothes, and who are therefore dangerous for them. Those people have observed what happened to colleagues in their circle who dared to openly express their thoughts (take Jaffe-Quinn for an example), and have decided that a silent status quo is better for their survival than an open conflict. And there is little reason to doubt their conclusion as long as Witten and a few other strings people are indeed producing supremely important results for *mathematics* (not for physics; I dare to claim that among large amounts of magnificent results for mathematics, string theory has not produced one single true result for physics).

    I would like to make the following tentative conclusion what the issue with string theory really is about.

    The best present argument in favor of tolerating string theory (and the fact that a lot of half-wits are among the practitioners) is to consider it as a testing ground for new mathematical ideas. This would justify the inclusion of ridiculous physical ideas (of the type presently made tasty for the uninformed public) into the discussion because they might in the end have interesting mathematical structure. String theory becomes ethical at the moment where it declares officially that, despite its beginnings, there is nowadays no link to particle physics anymore; only some of its methods are remnants of particle physics.

    The true value of string theory is that of a mathematical experimental playground where methods of theoretical physics and geometry/topology are freely combined, to produce insights into topology, number theory, etc. This alone does justify its existence, but string theorists are extremely afraid of admitting that their field is not physics because they will lose a lot of funding and job positions in this process. However, I am sure that even then, there will always be excellent jobs for the best of them (but less jobs for the weaker ones; a statement which is true and natural for the rest of the physics and mathematics world). They would then still carry the job label “string theorist”, but would work in a “department of experimental mathematics” that needs to be newly founded.

    They would have the same working relation with number theorists and topologists as experimental physicists have with theorists; they generate interesting observations, but have to leave it to the community of higher mathematical rigor to produce theorems (actually, this is already the real situation nowadays). Those areas in mathematics will never give up their support of string theory because they are profiting from an extremely fruitful symbiosis (see the responses to Jaffe-Quinn from eminent topologists and geometers). They are experiencing a similar explosion of theoretical advancement as Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Pauli, Einstein, Dirac, Gell-Mann, Feynman, etc did during the physics revolution of the last century, thanks to the amazing observations of their experimental contemporaries.

    The real problem with string theory is that as long as they do not officially give up their claim of a link to physics, they are stealing a lot of jobs from true physicists; in fact, they have such an overflow of positions that they end up filling them with people of very objectionable quality. To be able to further afford this unethical luxury, especially the weaker string theorists invest large amounts of efforts to try to convince the uniformed average taxpayer that what they are doing is in fact physics (they are not capable of higher mathematics, so they focus on phenomenology, but phenomenology necessitates a link between strings and physics).

    So the Gretchen-Frage here is: Is it physics or not ? This is what the whole fight is about, because it determines the distribution of resources.

    Therefore, I believe the right strategy the physics community should use is to reach an agreement with the mathematics community to newly create interdisciplinary departments of experimental mathematics, which accommodate string theory. This would solve the conflict for everyone. In fact, the string theorists then won’t have to worry about the painful lack of physics anymore, and can be totally free in their model building. And even though they haven’t proven themselves worthy as a subfield of theoretical physics so far, they have massive credentials as a field of experimental mathematics. While they are doing physics a disservice, they are doing certain areas in mathematics a monumental service; they should move in with their mates.

  19. Bert Schroer says:

    G I,
    Your proposal to convert string theorists into experimental mathematicians and to create a group of experimental mathematics within a mathemaics department would indeed be a first step to get particle theory back on track, but unfortunately it is not realizable. There are too many string theorists whose professional knowledge of mathematics is completely insufficient; no mathematics department would want them. The few excellent individuals who have a profound knowledge of modern mathematics at their fingertips would of course be highly welcome (and I am certain that their impatience if it comes to prove theorems would be no obstacle especially if the word “experimental” is added), apart from the fact that mathematicians will loose their illusion about the magic power of physics by learning that all their golden castles which have been inspired by string theory were in fact constructed on the ruins of particle physics.
    Actually there are already such groups in mathematics with the effect that they are entering joint research projects together with the stringers outside, and given the pro-string opinion in many decision-making comitees and with referees of research projects, this renders the situation of genuine mathematical particle physics even more precarious.
    The situation in this weblog develops into a very interesting direction; unfortunately I can only occasionally contribute. But since the problems you raised will be with us for a long time (even if string theory will be recognized by leading theoreticians as a failed theory, there will be the long-time problem of damage repair) this may not be a bad thing.
    Among the topics which I very much would like to publically discuss with you in future weblogs are
    1) Did the metaphoric kind of thinking which is the hallmark of string theory start already before, and if yes, where and when did it start? This is a problem on which I expect considerable differences in opinion with Peter, but on the other hand I am convinced that his prime motive is to stop the damage of string theory and not to plead e.g. for the resurrection of gauge theory a la Atiyah-Witten or to continue with the standard model within the limitations of the present Lagrangian framework.
    2) How widespread is the system of “colonial exploitation” by more senior string theorists who distribute serialized little pieces of computations to their young innocent and unsuspecting PhD students without providing an overall view of particle physics, and how many cases are there where students who insisted to apply their greater conceptual and mathematical knowledge were actually removed resp. their support was cut so that they did not disturb the smooth computational grinding of the others? I know personally about two cases.
    3) How big is really the damage with which have to cope even after the failure of string theory will be eventually recognized by a majority (many positions taken by individuals who know particle physics only via metaphoric glasses and social constructs and whose social success has deprived them of any intellectual modesty which is a prerequisite for a re-orientation).
    4) How can one prevent the metaphoric mode of arguing entering other problems of particle physics (string-like arguments without string theory)
    5) How can one stop the erosion of already acquired good solid knowledge of particle physics, and in particular how can one prevent that those few young researchers (who had the courage to resist the work on merchandize with a fast spoilage date) from having non career chances as compared to any candidate who hides successfully behind big Latin Letters?
    Such discussions need time and should not be rushed through. T G I, I propose to you that you scan occasionally this weblog for contributions from me or other more serious contributers to this subject, as I will do the same. As long there is no special place for such exchanges of opinions about more long range aspects concerning the crisis of particle physics, this place could serve this purpose.

  20. The Great Inquisitor says:


    Thank you for your kind reply. I would very much like to continue this discussion in this forum.

    As to your question concening the damage string theory causes to physics when it goes down the drain:

    I think that it is fair to say that the weakest element in string theory is string phenomenology, where a bridge is sought between string theory and physics. This is the area that will ultimately bring everything down. People will get impatient with the loud, naive, irresponsible, and low-quality physical predictions made by the mathematically weakest string theorists. When they fall, they will endanger both the existence of string theory, and the reputation of theoretical physics (which they have already damaged enough). String theorists will then have to make up their mind if they want to fall together with them, or disassociate from them, and consequently, from physics. In the long term, a future in an experimental mathematics department of the mathematically most able string theorists might be their only strategy of survival.

    String phenomenology has a very poor scientific track record and life prognosis; it’s the sickest part of the area. When string phenomenology goes down, traditional physicists must recognize the opportunity of the moment, and wake up from their decades-long silence. That would be the moment to toss aside their self-restraint out of intimidation, and openly disassociate from string theory. If they remain lethargic, they might go down together with them, because the public eye is not capable of distinguishing string phenomenology from serious theoretical physics.

    What happens afterwards ? We should perhaps learn from the fate of the former communist countries. There will be chaos for some time, small fragments of groups will attack one another, despite of their equal insignificance, and eliminate one another. Then, when the dust settles, the seeds that have survived the storm will grow fast in fertile grounds. More often than not, new golden eras have grown on the ruins of their preceding culture after those have completely disintegrated. Cultures, economies, research fields, obey the same lifecycles as organisms. They are born, grow to maturity, florish, then become either decadent or old and tired, and disappear (maybe Oswald Spengler’s “Der Untergang des Abendlandes” might be inspirational for this discussion).

    We have to ask whether string theory emerged from theoretical physics completely coincidentally, or whether theoretical physics was already in a state of demise and decadence, and string theory was the logical fate that was waiting for it.

    The danger and blessing of theoretical physics and mathematics is that they provide spiritual food for atheists and agnostics. It has been reported that Jane Goodall, who had been studying chimpanzee cultures for decades in Africa once observed a group of apes discovering a waterfall for the first time in their lives. The reaction of these primates was a self-forgotten dance, a celebration of exhilaration and awe, it was a spiritual experience for them. The insight derived from there was that higher primates have an instinct for spirituality, it is not a rational decision that compels people towards their spirituality. People need a sense of awe and wonder in this world. Organized religions serve that purpose for the masses. However, for the most mathematical and logical minded persons, only mathematics and theoretical physics are elaborate enough to calm their need for spirituality.

    When string theory emerged, it gave theoretical physicsists who were in the 80’s starving for that sense of awe and wonder after a decade of no real new fundamental insights in their field. Many theoretical physicists were at that time unaware of geometry and topology, and when they were first brought into contact with those mature mathematical areas, for instance through the work of Witten, they lost themselves in the intoxicating beauty of it.

    As I stated in my first contribution to this weblog: As Dostoevsky describes in his piece “The Grand Inquisitor” in the “Brothers Karamasov”, there are very few human needs besides that for food which absolutely cannot go unsatisfied. The need for spiritual wonder is one of them. The pursuit for satisfaction of this need has brought humankind art, science, and all the nearly divine accomplishments that our race can claim its own; on the other hand, the satisfaction of the same need has also led to the deepest morass of tyranny, fanaticism, genocide, and totalitarian hell humankind has experienced.

  21. The Great Inquisitor says:

    Just as a remark, here is a link to excerpts of Oswald Spengler’s work (here translated as “The decline of the West”). Bearing in mind that it was first published in 1918, it is baffling how well some parts match what we are watching every day.

    And if for some readers here, it might turn out of interest, here is the segment of Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamasov” I was alluding to

  22. Bert Schroer says:

    G I,
    by the way I have mentioned the impact of Oswald Spengler’s work in particular on the development of QM in my polemic article
    I think you find a quite realistic description of the actual postmodern Zeitgeist in the work of Theodor Adorno:
    He is the one who had to understand how rationality can breed in its midst the most extreme form of irrationality. In his case the motivation was to understand Auschwitz, that is really the hardest problem; all other genocides and ethnic cleansing are not that hard.
    There are many elements in his thoughts which can be applied to science as well.

  23. Hmm a friend tried to read Adorno to me while sailing between Valencia and Salerno, and even in this quiet situation I was unable to grasp it 🙁 On the contrary I find easy to follow, for instance, things as touchy as the view about Time of Agustin Garcia-Calvo, so perhaps it is really -literally- a language problem and one needs to read Adorno in German.

  24. Aaron Bergman says:

    in fact, [string theorists] have such an overflow of positions


  25. Bert Schroer says:

    Alejandro Rivero,
    you are right and this is the reason why Adorno is less known in the English speaking philosophical and sociological world. The German language has this extraordinary possibility to synthesize new words by juxtaposing already existing ones. This makes reading difficult but at the same time one is able to highlight nuances and concepts which transcends existing ones. For example this conceptual flexibility was very helpful for Einstein in presenting the special theory of relativity with that masterful clarity. The issues treated by Adorno are extremely subtle and complex.

  26. Bert Schroer:

    1) Did the metaphoric kind of thinking which is the hallmark of string theory start already before, and if yes, where and when did it start?

    The Great Inquisitor:

    We have to ask whether string theory emerged from theoretical physics completely coincidentally, or whether theoretical physics was already in a state of demise and decadence, and string theory was the logical fate that was waiting for it.

    These are exactly the questions which I would like to see asked and answered. Shall we learn something important from the rise and fall of string theory (besides the trivial fact that some individuals sometimes make unscrupulous claims)?
    Shall we reconsider the entire culture of theoretical physics? What is the role of experimental verification and mathematical proof in a physical theory?

    If we forego this chance now, we are destined to repeat the same mistakes with some other “theory of everything”.

  27. The Great Inquisitor says:


    Thank you for the weblinks. I have read your article with interest, and if time permits, will try to become more informed about Adorno’s work.


    I think these are really key questions, and what you are asking is also central to it all.

    Maybe we should not forget the roots of the tradition of Western Science. Science has been the vehicle that pulled western civilization out of the hell of mindless superstition enforced by the Church some centuries ago. Objective experimental verifiablility and mathematical provability, identified as the most appropriate and solid cornerstones of science, have made it possible to leave behind the terrors of that time. Today’s technology-centered western civilization owes its stature to those inquisitive and irrepressible minds back then who defended scientific methodology against Christian oppression.

    Theoretical physics has been one of the absolute crowning achievements of this long struggle. But look at what string theory is making of it.

    A small remark: My first contact with this forum was only a couple of weeks ago, and I have also not been more familiar with the competing one by Motl. I know that Peter does not want any more comments on this, but if he allows, just one observation: I read that he has been an Assistant Professor at Harvard since 2004. Did anyone observe that since then, he has only produced an extremely meager scientific output (a few short, multiauthored papers), way below the average for his field ? Being in prediction mode today, my prognosis is that he will be history very soon; he is burned out, has become psychotic due to the pressure to perform mathematically beyond his capacities, and is wasting very large amounts of time on his blog, on which he has become addicted.

Comments are closed.