String and M-theory: answering the critics

Mike Duff has a new preprint out, a contribution to the forthcoming Foundations of Physics special issue on “Forty Years of String Theory” entitled String and M-theory: answering the critics. Much of it is the usual case string theorists are trying to make these days, but it also includes vigorous ad hominem attacks on Lee Smolin and me (I’m described as having an “unerring gift for inaccuracy”, and we’re compared to people who campaign against vaccination “in the face of mainstream scientific opinion”). One section consists of a rather strange 3-page rant about Garrett Lisi’s work and the attention it has gotten, a topic that has just about nothing to do with string theory.

Duff explains that his motivation for answering the critics is that we have been successful on the public relations front, supposedly responsible for the British EPSRC “office rejecting” without peer review grant proposals on string theory. I know nothing of this, but I think it’s clear to everyone that the perception of string theory among physicists has changed, and not for the better, over the past decade. One dramatic way to see this is to notice that at this point, US physics departments have essentially stopped hiring string theorists for permanent appointments (i.e. at the tenure-track level).

String theorists have a problem not just with the public, but with their colleagues. The main reason for this is not Smolin or me, but the failure of the string theory research program. Duff’s take on whether the landscape is pseudo-science is that string theory can’t even tell whether there is a landscape, and he is “doubtful whether the kind of issues we are considering here will be resolved any time soon.” On the question of the time scale for possible progress, he invokes the two millennia it took to get from Democritus in 400 BC to quantum theory early last century. His list of greatest achievements of string theory in recent years has just two items: applications to fluid mechanics and his own work on entanglement in quantum information theory. Given this, it’s hard to see why he’s surprised the EPSRC is cutting back on support for string theory.

While Duff has detailed complaints about exactly what Smolin wrote in The Trouble With Physics, he mentions my book without saying anything about what is in it (one suspects his policy of how to deal with it is that of Clifford Johnson and some other string theorists: refuse to read it). He does have some specific complaints about material from my blog:

  • According to Duff:

    he [Woit] wrongly credits me with having told author Ian McEwan about the Bagger-Lambert-Gustavsson model in M-theory, which he then proceeds to criticise.

    This is based on a book review about Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, where I wrote about M-theory references in the book that “McEwan seems to have gotten this from Mike Duff, who is thanked in the acknowledgments”. Since Duff is an expert on these topics and the only particle theorist thanked, this was an obvious guess, worded as such. In this review I wasn’t criticising M-theory, just noting an interesting occurrence of it in popular culture. My only criticism was of McEwan, for the minor anachronism of a topic from 2007 showing up in a book set in 2000. In a segment from the novel that I quoted, one character is expressing opinions about M-theory research which you could call critical, but this material was written by the novelist, not by me (and I’m still wondering where McEwan would have gotten this from, other than from Duff).

  • In two cases, Duff claims that I misrepresented his words on the blog. Both are cases where I wrote the blog entry based on information from someone who had heard him talk, since I didn’t have access to his words themselves when I first wrote the blog entry. In general I try to be very careful about what I quote, making sure it is accurate and in context. In these cases, what was reported here was clearly labeled as someone else’s impression of his talk, and Duff has some reason to be annoyed at not being quoted accurately, although it wasn’t me doing it.

    The first case was a posting about the debate in 2007 between Duff and Smolin (see also Clifford Johnson’s blog, which includes comments from Smolin), where one attendee described the scene following Smolin’s talk as:

    Smolin sat down. Duff stood up. It got nasty.

    The trouble with physics, Duff began, is with people like Smolin.

    The transcript actually shows:

    Good evening everyone. The trouble with physics, Ladies and Gentlemen, is that there is not one Lee Smolin but two.

    followed by an extensive description of Smolin as deceptive and two-faced, saying completely different things at the debate and in his book. From the transcript, I’d describe the “Duff stood up. It got nasty” part as completely accurate, the “The trouble with physics, Duff began, is with people like Smolin” much less so.

  • The second case has to do with a posting about a recent BBC program on superluminal neutrinos, where Duff discussed string theory explanations for this. Based on two e-mails people had sent me who had watched the program, I wrote that it “evidently featured trademark hype from string theorist Mike Duff about how string theory could explain this.” The first commenter, who had also seen the program wrote in “I watched this tonight and can confirm that it did include stringy hype.” Duff complains that

    I said that, although superluminal travel is in principle possible in the “braneworld” picture of string theory, in my opinion this was NOT the explanation for the claims

    It still seems to me that going on a TV program to claim string theory as a possible explanation for this kind of experimental result can accurately be described as “hype”, even if, since no one believes the experimental result, you express the opinion that string theory isn’t the right explanation in this case.

  • Duff is much less interested in the virtues of accuracy when he describes my words. I guess I’ve joined Smolin on his list of targets because of what I’ve had to say on the blog (see here, here and here) concerning his publicity campaign claiming a “prediction of string theory” about qubits (recall that he thinks this is one of the two main advances in string theory of this decade). He claims that “falsifiability of string theory is the single issue of Peter Woit’s ‘single-issue protest group'”, and that my argument about the qubit business “may be summarised as (1)It’s wrong (2)It’s trivial (3)Mathematicians thought of it first.” One can read the postings and decide for oneself, but I’d summarise the argument quite differently: Duff has nothing that can possibly be described as a “prediction of string theory” and it’s misleading hype to issue press releases claiming otherwise. The experimentally testable “prediction” is that “four qubits can be entangled in 31 different ways”, but if experimentalists make measurements of four qubits that show something different, one can be sure that the headlines will not be “string theory shown to be wrong in a lab”.

    Duff’s article contains an appendix about this, in the form of a “FAQ”, where he explains that he approved the text of the press release headlined “Researchers discover how to conduct first test of ‘untestable’ string theory” which is misleading hype by any standard. Initially someone who was successfully misled in the Imperial media team added the subtitle “New study suggests researchers can now test the ‘theory of everything’”, which was later removed. Duff claims that Shelly Glashow, Edward Witten and Jim Gates told journalists that they didn’t agree with this because of the “theory of everything” subtitle, implying that otherwise they were fine with the “first test of ‘untestable’ string theory” business (except for Gates noting that in any case this is just supergravity, not string theory). It would be interesting to hear from the three of them if they’re really on-board with this “first test of ‘untestable’ string theory”.

    What Duff and some other string theorists don’t seem to understand is that this sort of “answering the critics” is exactly what has gone a long way to creating the situation at the EPSRC that he is worried about. Unfortunately it has damaged not just the credibility of string theory, but of mathematically sophisticated work on particle theory in general. According to Duff

    Just recently, in fact, EPSRC completely abolished its Mathematical Physics portfolio.

    Update: Matin Durrani at Physics World (also a target of Duff’s ire) has a blog entry about this here.

    Update: Lee Smolin sent me the following comments on the Duff article:

    Maybe it would help if I provide some context for the debate Mike Duff took part in with Nancy Cartwright and myself in London in 2007. The occasion for the debate was the publication of my book TTWP in the UK and the reason for the debate was that I had insisted that, as the point of the book was to explore the role of disagreement and competing research programs in science, the best way to illustrate it was to have a debate. String theory was discussed in the book as a case study illustrating the issues and so it seemed appropriate to have a debate with a string theorist. I also insisted that in each of these debates a philosopher of science would be included to highlight the fact that the main themes of the book were longstanding issues in philosophy of science, having to do with how consensus forms within a scientific community on issues on which there is initially wide disagreement.

    There were two such debates in the UK, the other was at Oxford with Philip Candelas and Simon Saunders. That went very well, as Philip gave a strong defence of string theory that stayed focused on the scientific issues.

    Duff’s construction of two me’s is, so far as I can tell, a debating tactic to avoid addressing the key issues my book raises. He starts with

    “Who can dispute that the ultimate goal of a scientific theory is to make experimentally testable predictions? Who will challenge the need to keep an open mind and listen to unorthodox views? Who can disagree with the assertion that our current understanding is only partial and that the ultimate truth has yet to be uncovered? What Lee Smolin said in the London debate [29] was so uncontroversial that, had I confined my response [11] to these remarks, the evening would have would have fizzled out in a bland exchange of truisms.”

    Indeed the constant theme of my book is the development of those “truisms.” What Duff does not explore is that in spite of the agreement there may be over these “truisms”, they have strong consequences for the evaluation of research programs in fundamental physics. Apparently we disagree about the implications for string theory. What Duff could have done is acknowledged these disagreements and explored the reasons for them. Instead he claims to attack my book, but it is striking that he does so, not by criticizing the text I actually wrote-but by attacking first the publicity blurb on the cover and then responses from journalists. As I have stated many times, the material on the cover was neither my text nor my choice and is more strongly worded than anything in the actual book. I hope it is obvious also that you cannot attack a book by pointing out inaccuracies in reviews.

    When he finally does get around to quoting from the book, he makes a few good points mixed in with distortions gotten by quoting out of context. Had he stuck to the good points he had we could have had a useful debate that would have shown the audience the role of disagreement among scientists faced with difficult questions. Had he done that, there would have been no need to construct a fiction of two me’s. I am happy to leave it to readers of my book to judge whether its text is or isn’t completely consistent with the “truisms” he asserts we agree about.

    There is one aspect of Duff’s rant which deserves correction, which is his attack on me related to Garrett Lisi. What Duff says is, “So when Lee Smolin described him [Lisi] as the next Einstein, the publicity juggernaut moved into overdrive”. There are several untruths in this short sentence.

    First, this refers to a Discover article of March 2008 which says, “With Smolin’s aid, DISCOVER has scoured the landscape and found six top candidates who show intriguing signs of that Einsteinian spark” of whom Lisi is one. This was, so far as I recall, based on a phone call with an editor at Discover following a piece I had written for Physics Today on the challenges faced by those who do high risk-high payoff research. I think anyone who looks up the full list of six will see that the editors were aiming to illustrate a wide range of approaches to fundamental research, of which Lisi is at one pole. And as they make clear-the choice of the list was theirs and not mine.

    Furthermore, the media attention on Lisi had begun and peaked already in November of 2007, sparked by a New Scientist article, following immediately the posting of his article on And while there was a very exaggerated media response-which I and others did our best to advise against-there was no “publicity juggernaut” ie no attempts by Lisi or anyone to seek publicity for him, no press releases, no publicist, no calls to journalists except to strongly advise the story was premature. I told everyone who asked not to write a story on Lisi because the preprint had just been uploaded and there had not been time for experts to evaluate it. Indeed, New Scientist had quoted me very much out of context, ignoring emails I sent them advising them not to write a story on Lisi’s paper before the experts could evaluate it. So the reality was the opposite of the impression created by Duff’s sentence.

    None of this is new, none of it is said for the first time. It is depressing to revisit these debates from five years ago. Most of us have moved on. At least I have, as readers of my next books, as well as the article I was invited to write for the same special issue, will, I hope, see.

    Update: The following is Garrett Lisi’s response to the Duff article. I should note that I’m not complaining about Duff’s listing of my titles. If you want to make up your mind who is right based on titles, Duff’s your man in this argument.

    Michael Duff’s article is full of deceptive half-truths. To attack the commentary on Lee’s book, while avoiding Lee’s actual arguments, is just one example of this fundamentally dishonest tactic. A similar example is his reference to Peter as “Computer Administrator and Senior Lecturer in Discipline,” as if Peter was not also a very knowledgable mathematical physicist. Duff then launches an attack on my work, once again focusing on a large volume of commentary by others rather than on my actual arguments. Also, Duff refers only to my first paper, saying it’s never been peer-reviewed and published, avoiding the fact that I’ve since published papers on the theory, including “An Explicit Embedding of Gravity and the Standard Model in E8.”

    Scouring Duff’s rhetoric, baseless statements, and ad hominem attacks in search of some factual argument supporting his attack on my work, I can find only this:

    “Nature (and the standard model of particle physics) has three chiral families of quarks and leptons. ‘Chiral’ means they distinguish between left and right, as they must to account for such asymmetry in the weak nuclear force. But as rigourously proved by Jacques Distler and Skip Garibaldi, Lisi’s construction permits only one non-chiral family.”

    This is, once again, a misleading half-truth, avoiding the fact that a chiral family of quarks and leptons can be part of a non-chiral representation space, as is the case in E8. I cannot credit Duff alone for this deception, as its source is Jacques Distler — a master of the half-truth — but I can blame Duff for supporting it.

    For anyone who actually cares about the state of E8 theory, I would recommend my recent papers. Apparently Duff considers the work sufficiently threatening to the string program that he needs to attack it in this dishonest manner. If string theory models are as twisted and misleading as the statements in Michael Duff’s paper, it’s no wonder they’re dying.

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    67 Responses to String and M-theory: answering the critics

    1. Ms Quote says:

      I suggest you delete the last quote “According to Duff … EPSRC completely abolished its Mathematical Physics portfolio.” This is a ripe candidate for misquotes later on. Find out from someone in the EPSRC (if possible) to confirm this (and then cite them). Mathematical physics is a big discipline. It is unlikely to be cancelled in toto.

    2. Peter Woit says:

      Anyone who gets to the bottom of that post is likely to realize that “According to Duff” indicates high probability of inaccuracy in whatever follows. I’m guessing his claim does have some sort of relation to reality, presumably to this issue (in which case this is not just about mathematical physics, but mathematics in general)

      or more specifically to this statement from EPSRC

      If any readers know more about this and can point to authoritative information, I’ll add an update about this to the posting.

    3. Peter Woit says:


      Not really. Life is too short to pay much attention to claims about string cosmology. From what I remember there were plenty of claims made 10-20 years ago about how string theory explained 3 space dimensions.

    4. LHB Jr says:

      In the paper, he says that Smolin called Lisi “the next Einstein.” He fails to point out that Ed Witten is mentioned as a candidate for “the next Einstein” in the very same article, along with 4 other people with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

      Seems to me that calling somebody “the next Einstein,” and naming somebody, along with a handful of others, as a possible candidate for being “the next Einstein” are two different things.

    5. Clara says:


      Duff’s paper is so full of vague phrases and so empty of physics that to a casual reader it sounds like the rant of a typical unemployed who is jealous that other people have a job.

      40 years without results is a track record that no theory in physics has ever achieved, especially with so many and so smart people.

      Why are these people so obsessed to ride a dead horse? The obsession is barely understandable. There seems to be some religious drive behind it. You speak to many string theorists. Why are they doing this? What collective vision drives this considerable boy’s network into the wrong direction?

    6. Bee says:

      First I was thinking how awful this thing got published in a journal I previously considered to have a pretty good reputation, probably entirely without peer review. Now I’m thinking, this will make an interesting piece for the history of science 100 years from now. I’m sure future students will have something to laugh about that one.

    7. felix says:

      It’s incorrect to attribute the lack of job positions for mathematical physics to the influence of string theory. With or without string theory, mathematical physics is always a niche. For example, there is this beautiful research field of integrable models in statistical mechanics, started by people such as Onsager and Baxter. In addition to its obvious relevance to physics, it has connections with a wide range of mathematics including quantum groups, graph theory, topological quantum field theory, elliptic curves and so on. However, if you do a PhD in such a field, your chance of landing a job is even slimmer than a string theorist in this post-string hiring environment.

      In fact, string theory is serious mathematical physics, as long as you ignore the ultra-speculative part such as the multiverse. There are too many examples, one of which is the AdS/CFT correspondence. People can argue about how precisely real systems can be approximated by AdS/CFT, but if you take a mathematical physicist’s point of view and don’t insist on immediate physical applicability, AdS/CFT is definitely one of the most striking achievements in modern mathematical physics.

      By any reasonable standard, string theory has only created jobs opportunities for people pursuing mathematical physics, a field that’s often overlooked by funding agencies. The real sad part is that you have to rely on hype about Theory of Everything to get funding for mathematical physics. Just look at what we have got into after string theorists were no longer getting many job positions. The jobs are now going to “phenomenologists” who are never tired of writing a 10,000th paper on MSSM or inventing a new variant of a new model for dark matter every day. This is a group of people whose vision and whose standard of work, overall speaking, are infinitely worse than string theorists.

    8. Crackpotl says:

      I can remember good old pre-Woit/Smolin days, when 100% of popular articles on string theory were fawning and uncritical. And then Woit/Smolin started their vicious smear campaign, the result of which is that 90% of popular articles are fawning and uncritical of string theory, and 10% voice skepticism to varying degrees.

    9. piscator says:

      The comments on EPSRC are off-base, there was a much bigger issue with EPSRC than simply a narrow restriction on not funding string theory or mathematical physics. In its forthcoming (now current?) fellowships round, EPSRC at one point announced that the they would only consider mathematics applicants doing applied probability (I think that was it). That is number theory, combinatorics, analysis, algebraic geometry etc (and yes mathematical physics) – if you were a young postdoctoral/junior faculty mathematician doing any of these areas, you were de facto ineligible for funding.

      Unsurprisingly this caused a major rumpus between the research council that funds mathematics and the UK mathematics community. I haven’t followed it all, and I don’t know to what extent this policy was bad communication and to what extent a not-so-secret desire to fund only ‘practical’ areas. I think if you dig around on Tim Gowers’ blog you can find the details.

    10. piscator says:

      In particular try this

    11. Nigel says:

      The Horizon “faster than light” BBC2 Horizon program used a political trick (maybe due to BBC editing, not necessarily completely controlled by Duff) of Duff first hyping superstring theory for ages using a loaf of bread to illustrate how a neutrino might take a short cut and arrive faster than light, and then at the end including a brief statement by Duff that he a rigorous scientist and wasn’t hyping anything.

      Horizon on BBC2 did the same trick using Sir Paul Nurse earlier this year in a different documentary which tried to lynch James Delingpole for asking questions in a different science. The trick is used by politicians over here. You first give a long subjective argument full of one-sided biased hype, then just when everyone is brainwashed, bored and changed channels, you inject a brief disclaimer to look objective.

      It’s the two-way bet used extensively by politicians, lawyers and the media here. Whatever happens, you claim credit. If you’re right, you’re right. If your hype is wrong, you highlight the brief disclaimer as “proof of rigorous objectivity”.

      Duff should stick to mathematical physics or defending non-mainstream ideas, not overhyped groupthink religion (disclaimer: this is just a suggestion, not a threat).

    12. Bobito says:

      Whatever one thinks of Lisi’s preprint, no article considering him a potential Einstein (whatever that means) should be taken seriously, as such a claim is not well-founded in anything he has written and distributed publicly.

    13. Carl says:

      First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.

    14. Carl says:

      @Clara: One possible explanation is our old friend cognitive dissonance. When someone has sunk their career and their reputation, and in some cases the careers of their graduate students, into a field of study that increasingly looks to be petering out, that person is likely to do everything in their power to avoid acknowledging the reality.

      Or as Hans Christian Andersen might have put it, when a child shouts out that the emperor has no clothes, it’s a lot easier to have the child tossed into a dungeon than to admit that you’ve been parading around naked in public.

    15. Mike says:

      Here is a link to Gordan Kane’s (and others) new paper talking about a predilection for the Higgs derived, it is said, from String Theory:

      I was curious whether you thought this was significant, or whether you thought that it could simply be a function of “backing into” the mass. By that I mean, noting the chatter about the potential predicted Higgs in the 124 to 126 range, and then, given String Theory’s notorious “flexibility”, choosing specific constraints and inputs that arriving at the projected Higgs mass?

    16. Joel Rice says:

      I’ve been reading Schweber’s “QED and the men who made it.” What a contrast to the speculation going on these days.

    17. Peter Woit says:


      That’s another topic to be addressed another day. Surely we’re going to see in coming days/months a long list of claims by people that their model predicts the right Higgs mass, whatever it is. Kane has been promoting a long sequence of susy/string theory models over the years that supposedly make “predictions”, evolving to fit whatever the latest data shows. If the Higgs really is at 125 GeV, it’s right in the middle of a range that for 10 years or more has been by far the most likely one (from LEP and precision electroweak constraints). Everyone making “predictions” has concentrated on finding models with a Higgs in this range.

      Anyway, this is off-topic. In Duff’s favor, unlike Kane he admits that string theory isn’t now able to make real predictions about the Higgs mass.

    18. Pheelios says:

      I am PhD student in conformal field (just finishing) in a UK mathematics department, I heard about the ESPRC cutting funding to string theory months ago from my supervisor who is worried about the funding implications it will have for him. The reason I gathered for the cuts was because prominent pure mathematicians in or related to the ESPRC hated string theory and thought the idea of a string theorist being let anywhere near a mathematics student was unacceptable. Personally I don’t see why string theory shouldn’t be funded from the pure mathematics budget, the only real benefits that either discipline confer to the average taxpayer is the mental training they give to their undergraduate and graduate students who then go on to apply it in the real world. As long as the level of teaching coming from a string theorist is the same as the level of teaching from a pure mathematician I don’t see why the average taxpayer should be too concerned about the level of rigour that either discipline applies to it’s own highly esoteric and detached research schemes.

    19. Peter Woit says:


      I don’t know what’s going on in the UK, but my impression is that in the US, while many physics departments have become unhappy with string theory and are not hiring in that area, the situation in math departments hasn’t changed much. Mathematicians have always had some interest in the math coming out of string theory, and are unconcerned about whether it works as a theory of everything. However, for a math department to hire someone, they need to be convinced that what they are doing has interesting mathematical implications, and most string theory work doesn’t meet that standard.

    20. Bob Levine says:


      Do you actually find it plausible that objections from a few ‘prominent pure mathematicians’ would have so much influence with the ESPRC, when we’ve just been given a huge body of evidence (available in the links provided in this thread) that ESPRC has ignored virtually the entire mathematics research community in the course of gutting their fellowship programs so that only statistics and applied probability theory candidates are eligible for funding? Just about everyone who is anyone in the British mathematics community has signed one or another strong protests to the ESPRC about this radical new approach to setting funding priorities. It’s quite clear that what ESPRC intends to support exclusively are branches of mathematics which are perceived as having immediately industrial applicability, with support eliminated *across the board* for highly theoretical foundational research. This policy shift seems more than sufficient to explain whatever defunding of work in string theory has gone on, quite apart from ST’s failed track record.

      Interestingly, one of the chief complaints in the mathematicians’ response to the ESPRC fellowship cuts is that decisions at the agency are being made by people with no expertise whatever in the field; indeed, Delby seems to think that this is a *good* thing. It seems highly unlikely, given the the culture of the agency, that guidance from pure mathematicians on *any* point of policy would be taken seriously. So it might serve you well to dig a little deeper into the information you’ve received on this point before accepting it uncritically.

    21. One dramatic way to see this is to notice that at this point, US physics departments have essentially stopped hiring string theorists for permanent appointments (i.e. at the tenure-track level).

      Yes, but couldn’t this also be because of the bad job market in which nobody is really getting hired? I guess my question is, if they are not hiring string theorists, who are they hiring then?

    22. chris says:

      LHC phenomenologists.

    23. Peter Woit says:

      Curious Wavefunction,

      Hiring is definitely down across the board, but physics departments are still hiring theorists, just mostly phenomenologists. Dark matter or LHC phenomenology is popular. See


      for data.

    24. Marcus says:

      Chris, you might want to check that. What you say (LHC phenom’sts) doesn’t accurately represent what I see here:

      I see one offer to a string theorist (Baylor U. offer to Antonino Flachi) and a total of 10 offers marked “accepted” with two others apparently undecided because not marked “declined”.

      So 12 outstanding offers in HEP-theory as a whole. When I looked down the list I remember seeing quite a few cosmology/astrophysics people. You might want to make your own count. It seemed to me that these people were doing varied and interesting research, which could not all be lumped into “LHC phenomenology.”
      I’d actually be very interested to know how you or a knowledgeable HEP-theorist would sort the list of 12 out. We might learn something we didn’t automatically expect by looking at how North American physics departments are behaving.

      As a comparison, if you look back at the three-year period 1999-2001 the annual rate of firsttime HEP-theory faculty hires was about 18 per year, of which string represented about 9 per year—essentially half of first-time faculty hires in US and Canada. The change from 9/18 down to 1/10 or 1/12 is remarkable—makes me wonder if there is something wrong with the statistics. But I am relying on what a HEP theorist at U Toronto has posted here:
      You can see his reservations and caveats by visiting his site and form your own impression. (I have a pretty high opinion, but check it out.)

    25. jg says:

      Mathematical Physics is still funded by the STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council), funding for Standard Model and Beyond the Standard Model physics are 2nd and 3rd highest funded on the current list (~£84 million), Theory has another £19 million awarded

      I think 2012 will be tough year financially for the UK, it’ll be amazing if the Olympics break even. Come 2013, with better financial prospects and maybe LHC inspired promotion for particle physics the funding agencies may get generous again

    26. JC says:


      I guess one of the problems with string theory research is that its supporters make far too much claims about the real world physics based on a bunch of speculative ideas sugared with sophisticated mathematics.

      I very much agree with what Phil Anderson said in his review about Peter’s book:
      “One may particularly cavil at the high level of hype around string theory, to the point of monopolising popular attention, and that the gigadollars of a number of philanthropists, as well as numerous physics department employment slots, are being farmed out to what is really an esoteric branch of algebraic geometry.”

    27. strong field physicist says:

      Yes, its all very well to attack the sociology of physics and physicists – as if physicists can stop being people or as if the mechanism Lakatos described long ago is some new found foe to smite, and its another to allow your name to be put to a complete debasing of perfectly respectable physicists like M Duffy.

      The thing is that you cant abstract your attempts to “correct” physics and physicists from the real life world of funding priorities we live in. We all know that that politicians prefer to fund banker bonuses and war machines (otherwise the politicians are quickly out of a job) than Science. So perhaps you could temper your sword so that it also strikes against the enemies of Science as well as the practioners of it

    28. Pechorin says:

      Peter, would you be willing to publicly debate Duff? I think the entire physics community would get a kick out watching you two beat up on each other. It might be educational, too.

    29. abbyyorker says:

      Well, Duff does make some good points. It’s not all rubbish.

    30. Peter Woit says:


      I don’t see the point of trying to argue about scientific issues with someone who engages in ad hominem attacks, so, no, unless someone wants to pay me a huge sum of the money.

      I have done public debates with string theorists in the past (one example was with Jim Gates in Florida a few years ago). People who attend such debates expecting fireworks tend to be very disappointed. Most string theorists and I actually disagree about far less than people think.

    31. Garrett says:

      Wow, if string theorists are that worried about me, they must be in even worse trouble than I thought.

    32. There are some imprecisions in the comments, which I would like to clear up. I work in the UK and know the situtation fairly well.

      The situation with the EPSRC and mathematical physics transcends String Theory. It so happens that the UK has a healthy hep-th community, many of whom work in stringy related topics and hence this decision does affect the stringy community in the UK, but it affects others as well.

      It should be mentioned that the hep-th community in the UK is to be found both in Physics and Maths departments. This traditional blurring between mathematics and physics has been one of the main features in UK science; think Newton, Maxwell, Dirac,… This makes the EPSRC decision not to fund mathematical physics even harder to explain. The EPSRC has decided to stop funding mathematical physics, but will still fund Mathematics proposals inspired by Physics. In other words, it will not fund a research proposal about the use of Mathematics (however sophisticated) to solve a Physics problem (and Physics, for the EPSRC, includes the formal end of hep-th as well), but it will fund a proposal where ideas from Physics are used to solve a mathematical problem. The distinction is crucial and it amounts to EPSRC not viewing Mathematical Physics as part of Mathematics, contradicting centuries of UK scientific tradition. To be sure, annecdotal evidence suggests that there are mathematicians who agree with this decision of the EPSRC, but equally there are many who do not.

      The situtation with STFC is that they have traditionally funded particle physics and in the absence of additional funding, they will not expand its remit to include mathematical physics per se.

      It is naive to think that the fault for this lies in the string theory research community, just as it is naive to think that the fault lies in its detractors. It’s a complex situation. EPSRC has re-invented its role from funders of research to sponsors of research. In other words, they wish to play an active role in deciding what research gets funded, a role which until recently was played by the scientists themselves.

    33. Shantanu says:

      Peter or others,
      someone should ask him about his reponse to other critics of string theory such as Krauss, Woodard, T’hooft, and many others.

    34. aa says:

      also this blog already seems like as public a debate as you can get

    35. Peter Woit says:

      Thanks José,

      That’s really a shame. As someone who thinks that the area in between math and physics is an exceptionally fruitful one, I was always pleased to notice that in Britain there seemed to be more overlap between the subjects than elsewhere, with people working on physics applications of mathematics often in math departments. A decision to try and reverse this in favor or enforcing rigid disciplinary boundaries is quite unfortunate.

    36. Peter Woit says:

      I’ve added to the posting a response to Duff’s article from Lee Smolin.

    37. Henry Bolden says:

      More about the Mike Duff controversy in the article by Matin Durrani:

      “String theorist sparks a spat”

      Disclaimer: No Brian Greene or Lisa Randall has been harmed in the making of this message.

    38. Anonyrat says:

      A future Frank Close writing the history of these times will have access to Duff’s preprint. But will the material on this blog still be available thirty years from now?

    39. Peter Woit says:


      An interesting question, which amusingly enough I was discussing with Frank Close himself earlier this week (I was in the Bay Area at the same time as him and we met up). Perhaps some standard way of archiving blogs will emerge.

    40. Anonyrat says:

      Given that Columbia IAS has already lost a fairly widely cited published-online conference paper from 2002 – the webmaster searched, but sent me her regrets – I’m really concerned about the potential loss of information.

    41. Bernhard says:


      perhaps you could make a selection of articles with potential historical interest in a book that you can either distribute in pdf in this blog or even find an interested publisher.

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    44. james says:

      Duff does make a good point about how theres a dearth of any progress in quantum gravity, not just the popular theory. String theory is most definitely barking up the wrong tree, but, when it comes to uncovering the deeper mathematical model of the universe, who isnt these days. Anything new come out of LQG recently? Fundamental physics research thats destined to be wrong isnt neccesarily pointless. Maybe by barking up the wrong tree theyll tear down a branch. Who knows. It gives people something to do while we wait around for the next 1 in a 100 years einstein to pop out. Like Duff, I don’t really get the String hostility in this way. Is it really a battle over funding and prestige? It seems to me the next einstein wont need too much by funding. He’ll probably uncover the inexorable symmetry underlying the universe in a patent office with a pen paper.

    45. Aidyan says:

      There is nothing wrong in working on a theory that might turn out to be wrong. That’s history of science. When you don’t know what the truth is the only way is just to give a chance to this or that approach, theory or speculation. I’ve done this too for some time with so called non-extensive thermodynamics, and don’t regret it. But sooner or later you have to admit (especially to your self) that, if after decades and generations of physicists the concrete results are still lacking, then you are probably going in the wrong direction and that you must move to something else. String theorists have to be blamed, not for the theory in itself, but for their decade long insistence on something to the exclusion of almost everything else and with great waste of human resources. Duff”s comparison of the development of string theory with the history of Laplace’s black hole theory or Democritus’ atomism is fallacious. The latter were relatively simple ideas subsequently forgotten for centuries with nobody working on it, the former is a theory on which hundreds, if not thousands, of physicists have worked now on for decades without tangible results. If strings will succeed nevertheless that would be a unique historical case. My own rule of thumb for considering a theory worth of attention is to set a limit of a dozen, max 15 years, for it to proof itself to be at least partially true. Otherwise it is time to close down the puppet show and fold up the makeshift stage.

    46. Albert Z says:

      James says: “It seems to me the next einstein wont need too much by funding. He’ll probably uncover the inexorable symmetry underlying the universe in a patent office with a pen paper.”

      Perhaps he already has, but will anybody listen to a new paradigm that is radically different from prevailing assumptions?

      If everyone thinks they know the “one true path” to unification, will anybody consider an untried route identitied by a “nobody”?

    47. harryb says:

      Following up a few of the references in the main piece and responses, I note the summary quote ( lifted directly from the article “Stringscape” in PhysicsWorld Sep 2007, by Matthew Chalmers) by Ed Witten:

      “There is an incredible amount that is understood,
      an unfathomable number of details. I can’t think
      of any simple way of summarizing this that
      will help your readers.”

      This reminds me of the UK comedy act Armstrong & Miller Physics Special (see youtube) where the professor refuses to attempt to simplify his new take on string theory. The sketch was supposed to be ironic, but Onion-like, it seems parody is only a few paces of absurd realities.

      I think Peter’s site here is a refreshing skeptical zone in the arcane world of modern physics. If String Theory is indeed fundamentally correct, then its should have no problem with educated questioning.

      To the interested layman, Witten’s words are quite concerning – it’s as if to say there comes a point where those not fully involved in the deep details of string theory need no further explanation, but to take it on trust that a rarefied few (male) experts can handle it: the meaning of everything, the basis of the universe.

      The parallels are too blunt to spell out.

      In any event, questioning string theory or quantum loop gravity or whatever is the basis of normal science surely? I re-read Feynman’s Value of Science essay (1955) where he ends it with the plea: “to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed”

      If only.

      Still, I think this site helps keep that spirit alive and well thank goodness.

    48. Albert Z says:

      Nature, with the help of prudently skeptical experimentalists, keeps theoretical pipe dreams from wandering off too far into the swamp of pseudo-science. In the long run (and sometimes the very long run), that is.

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