String Theory for Undergraduates

I hadn’t realized how many of the physics departments at the top universities in the US have instituted undergraduate string theory courses.  The only one I was aware of was MIT’s 8.251, String Theory for Undergraduates, taught by Barton Zwiebach, who developed a textbook for the course, A First Course in String Theory. 

Maybe now that there’s a textbook, that is what has caused other institutions to follow suit.  Caltech has Physics 134, String Theory, and Carnegie-Mellon has Physics 33-652, An Introduction to String Theory.  Stanford goes its competitors one better by having two undergraduate courses in string theory: Physics 153A, Introduction to String Theory I, and Physics 153B, Introduction to String Theory II. This last course even promises to explain to students how string theory is connected to particle physics. 

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119 Responses to String Theory for Undergraduates

  1. woit says:


    If you’re willing to put your name to the slander, lies and viciousness that you’re engaged in, I might bother to respond. But you’re unwilling to do that, presumably because you realize how deeply disgraceful and unprofessional your behavior is. It’s really pathetic.

  2. D R Lunsford says:


    [attack on Jacques Distler and conjecture that he is Hmm deleted].


  3. MathPhys says:

    Hmm, Clifford,

    What’s really boring is the continuing PR job of selling strings as “the theory of everything”. It’s been 22 years now. Can you tone it down a bit?

    The mathematics has been great, but that’s not physics. The extra dimensions, the compactification, the extended supersymmetries and the landscape are all suchsilly, naive ideas. We listened to these stories for almost 3 decades now (supergravity in higher dimensions is around since the late 70’s), and it’s not working.

    Please stop selling this science fiction to the public and to unsuspecting students as deep physics, because it’s not, and it has failed.

    By the way, I’m not in any way anti-strings. I would have loved to see the string program flourish as it contains everything I’ve learnt. But it’s not working. Something is wrong. So can we all be a bit more modest, please?

  4. woit says:


    Leave the crude personal insults to string theory partisans. I see no evidence that Hmm = Distler.

  5. Hmm says:


    (1) Well duh, of course the Landau pole is at an irrelevantly high energy. As James was also saying, these effects are practically irrelevant; its a question of principle. Indeed quantum gravity effects should swamp these as this is where the real UV completion is.

    (2) But in the absence of gravity, the theory does break down at a high-energy scale \Lambda. This means that there are uncertainties in predictions, of order powers of (E/\Lambda), which can’t be resolved without specifying the UV completion. And very basic issues can depend sensitively on the UV. Here is an example. One might imagine that just before the theory hits a Landau pole, it gets embedded in a bigger non-Abelian gauge theory; so that e.g. U(1)_Y gets embedded in an SU(N) which is asymptotically free. There is dynamics that Higgses the SU(N) down down to some subgroups. It could be (indeed it typically happens that) this dynamics has many symmetry breaking patterns, only one of which is SU(N) -> U(1)_Y. Some of the other patterns of breaking could correspond to vacua of lower energy. This means that our vacuum would be unstable to decay, with a rate that would be proportional to e^{-1/g^2_{UV}}. Or it could be that our vacuum is the lowest energy one, and this decay doesn’t happen. The basic question–is our vacuum stable–is a UV sensitive one, and the answer clearly has to do with the details of the UV completion, and can’t be predicted simply knowing the low-energy theory. And again this happens simply because the low-energy theory is not complete. There is no “rigorously defined” Standard Model where everything can be calculated.
    Of course in asymptotically free theories, non-perturbative effects are often dominated by IR physics e^{-1/g^2_{IR}} (like the eta’ potential in QCD) and are calculable. This is indeed an important point: the non-perturbative effects used in string theory modulus stabilization are these calculable ones which dominate.

    Oh, and quantum gravity kicks in at 10^18 GeV or earlier, not 10^20. As with Peter, my advice to you is to lean some basic QFT.

    MathPhys: For the record, I can’t stand the string theory “hype” peddled by Kaku, and am no fan of the elegant universe either; but none of the real leaders of the field do this. Why didn’t they spend time fighting the positive hype? For the same reason they ignore Peteres negative hype now. It is unimportant trivia; instead they are focused on their research. Likewise, to you and Peter I say again: instead of whining about sociology, write papers on whatever alternatives you want, no one is stopping you.

    And no,it isn’t the same old story from the 70’s. The strucutre is much deeper than anyone anticpated; with the idea of emergent space and holography making a stunning appearance first in Matrix theory and then in most convincingly with AdS/CFT. Gone is the statement that everything is a little loop of string; the best definition of the theory is back in terms of a QFT. But of course all these remarkable facts were discovered by string theorists. For the simple reason that when you follow non-trivial ideas, good things are bound to happen; when you sit around and whine from the sidelines, nothing will come of it.

    DRL: You guys all have a persecution complex, its quite remarkable. No I’m not Distler…

    Peter–you keep attacking my tactics but don’t address any of the substansive physics or other points I’m making. Its easier to do this rather than to address concrete points isn’t it? Just as it easier to blog away than to produce meaningful research. I too won’t interact with you again. Instead I await with bated breath your forthcoming research paper with concrete predictions for physics.

  6. ks says:

    I can think of numerous times when well-known non-crazy string theorists have answered your criticisms, on this blog and on others. The problem is that you choose to forget the answers and keep repeating yourself. So people have gotten terribly bored with the whole thing I suspect.

    “Voltaire, you had your 15 minutes of religion-criticism fame and now let us pray to god that he will forgive you”

    You shouldn’t be too worried about the blog of a single fighter. But when your church goes down, you might ask yourself less about the lack of cleverness but that of reason. People can clearly see the presence of the one but the absence of the other.

  7. anonymous says:

    I know that it is 10^18 or less, but unless it is much less, who cares?

    Vacuum decay is a good example of UV sensitive observable: I brought you a bottle of good wine to celebrate, in the eventuality that the earth will be eaten by a bubble of true vacuum.

    PS: my persecution complex tells that Hmm might be the author of fig. 4 of hep-ph/0607029

  8. Umm says:

    “… write papers on whatever alternatives you want, no one is stopping you.” – Hmm

    No, there is widespread censorship everywhere in theoretical high energy physics, inspired by a mainstream intent to pursuing abject speculation and sneering at critics without studying or responding to alternatives based on observed facts.

    Alternatives have a long struggle any road. They have to make checkable predictions and get those predictions checked, which requires a lot of work on money. But first they have to be published and then debated. With the field dominated by string theory at all levels from undergraduate up, alternatives are starved to death.

  9. MathPhys says:


    I actually agree with you that holography, emergent space, matrix models and AdS/CFT are all stunning ideas. It’s too bad that relatively few people work on these deeper aspects of string theory.

    I also agree with you that some of us have allowed the sociology of string theory to get us. I think that people like Motl, on the web, and Kaku on the popular books/lectures front, have done string theory enormous damage.

    Maybeb we should all cool it.

  10. anon. says:

    “It’s too bad that relatively few people work on these deeper aspects of string theory.”

    Funny, I thought almost everyone is working on this sort of thing. From Spires:

    The Large N limit of superconformal field theories and supergravity.
    Juan M. Maldacena
    Cited 4048 times

    M theory as a matrix model: A Conjecture.
    Tom Banks (Rutgers U., Piscataway) , W. Fischler (Texas U.) , S.H. Shenker (Rutgers U., Piscataway) , Leonard Susskind (Stanford U., Phys. Dept.)
    Cited 1575 times

    Anti-de Sitter space and holography.
    Edward Witten
    Cited 2818 times

    The World as a hologram.
    Leonard Susskind
    Cited 820 times

    “Relatively few” compared to what?

  11. woit says:

    If you were making any substantive physics points I’d consider answering them. You don’t have any answers to the substantive criticisms of string theory made here and in my book, and thus choose to deal with them by attacking my competence and right to make these scientific criticisms. This tactic is all too transparent. It’s not going to work, and is just going to convince more people that there is a serious problem with string theory, and the way it is being pursued.

  12. anon. says:

    But Hmm did make a substantive physics point: moduli can be stabilized by gaugino condensation in the low energy effective theory, an effect that is calculable and well-understood. You don’t need a complete nonperturbative framework for string theory for this to work, you just need to know some things about the low energy effective theory based on perturbative string vacua. You might hope that nonperturbative physics somehow makes most of the landscape vacua decay very quickly, but there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to believe that. So, if we stick to physics, you keep saying that we need a nonperturbative formulation of the theory before we can address these questions. But you haven’t suggested how this nonperturbative formulation can make all these vacua go away. So, let’s have a physics discussion: where can the current analysis suggesting the theory supports all these vacua go wrong? If it does or does not go wrong, what does this mean for physics?

  13. woit says:


    Good, a substantive physics point.

    I find it funny to be simultaneously carrying on an argument with Clifford and with “Hmm” here. Clifford’s point of view is that we don’t understand string theory well enough to have to accept these flux compactifications as true vacuum states of the full non-perturbative string theory. From what I’ve seen of these constructions, fully fixing the moduli requires more than just gaugino condensation. But I’ll defer this question to Clifford, who is much more of an expert at this.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but again: I don’t know whether the full string theory has these vacuum states or not. Maybe yes, maybe no, most likely it’s still an ill-posed question until we have a real non-perturbative string theory. But it doesn’t matter, the point is that there are two alternatives here, both leaving string theory in a highly problematic, failed state as an idea about unification:

    1. The landscape exists, and string theory can’t predict anything, it’s a useless theory.

    2. The landscape doesn’t exist, for some unknown reason involving non-perturbative string theory. Then, despite what Zwiebach and others say, string theory is currently an empty idea and can’t predict anything, because we don’t even know what equations to solve.

    The bottom line is the same in either case: you can’t predict anything about particle physics in this framework, it explains nothing about the subject.

    I’ll leave it to Clifford and Hmm to sort out whether it’s 1. or 2. I’m not claiming to know the answer, half of the experts say one thing, half the other. Doesn’t really matter which it is though.

  14. woit says:

    Another thought,

    Hmm seems to be a colleague of Lubos’s, at least he’s in the Boston area. If he can’t get an answer out of Clifford, he can take the issue up with Lubos, who, from what I recall, also doesn’t accept the existence of the landscape as true vacuum states of the full theory. If these people do sort this out and come to an agreement about what the answer is, I hope they’ll let us know.

  15. D R Lunsford says:

    Sorry. I have to calm down about all this.

    I’m just reading “End of Faith” by Sam Harris. You could replace “Islam” by “string theory” and “Christianity” by “LQG” and “Judaism” by say “geometrodynamics” and the book would still make a lot of sense. These discussions about string theory seem as unreal to me as the calculus of virgin allotment in the eternal beyond. It makes one crazy.


  16. Aaron Bergman says:

    Or, as has been mentioned to you multiple times, it’s possible that the situation will end up like field theory wherein one can measure enough parameters to obtain predictivity with the others.

  17. Peter Orland says:

    Hi Peter,

    I can’t concentrate at my desk in Copenhagen, which is nearly as hot and
    humid as New York at the moment and lacks air-conditioning.

    It is reasonable that some people express their opinions
    anonomously. People looking for jobs in physics may not want to
    be too controversial. Why would anyone DEFENDING
    string theory would wish to so anonymously; what is the risk? Answer:
    because vicious vituperative attacks don’t make anyone look good.

    Other people seem to be questioning your qualifications. I’ll defend
    yours (maybe now they’ll come after me – since I am not a regular
    contributor/blog reader, I probably won’t find out). You’re a former physics guy who
    did some good stuff in lattice gauge theory, and now
    pursues math I know next to nothing about. I don’t see any grounds
    for these anonymous attacks.

    Regards From the Not Especially Frozen North,

  18. anonymous says:

    dear Aaron,

    what do you mean? All the physics we observed so far is described by a QFT with about 25 parameters. Are you hoping to predict the top mass or something like that?

  19. anon. says:

    Clifford’s point of view is that we don’t understand string theory well enough to have to accept these flux compactifications as true vacuum states of the full non-perturbative string theory.

    As you are aware, these don’t have to be “true” vacuum states. They just have to be very long-lived metastable vacuum states (which, as recent field theory studies have shown, seem to be much more common when searching for broken SUSY than are true SUSY-breaking vacua).

    So it seems to me that to doubt the landscape, one needs either:

    a) A rapid mechanism for these metastable vacua to decay.
    b) An argument that somehow they were never there to begin with.
    c) A cosmology that is guaranteed not to populate them.

    (Is there some other possibility I’ve missed?) All of these seem to me to be somewhat implausible, but references to suggest otherwise would be appreciated.

    Anyway, if the landscape really exists, you say “string theory can’t predict anything, it’s a useless theory.” But that’s not at all clear. As Aaron says, “string theory” might become the same sort of general framework that “field theory” is now. It might not predict every constant, but it might clarify some relationships between them which are not apparent in field theory. It might mean, say, that string theory can’t predict the cosmological constant, but can explain the SUSY breaking scale and associated spectrum in terms of it. This, as I understand it, is the sort of thing Tom Banks proposes. If it were true, wouldn’t it be fantastic? Surely ideas like that are deserving of further research, for their potential to connect LHC-scale particle physics with observations in cosmology? And if the idea is true, then the LHC could also falsify the framework. So, maybe we should try to understand if it’s true? If not, we might learn other interesting things along the way.

    It’s clear that there are a lot of unknowns, but you seem to take this as a reason to give up on the theory, whereas to me it seems possible that this theory does describe the real world, in which case it looks like much more work is needed to figure out what can and can’t be predicted. Giving up now just because not everything is predicted seems rather silly.

  20. anonymous says:

    …because nothing is predicted.

  21. Wasn’t the original idea of string theory that it was supposed to end up exactly field theory as in the E6 GUT? Then all the good stuff about the Standard Model becomes part of string theory? The stuff Peter is and has been interested in is the stuff you need in a good GUT. Even Lubos once mentioned in the context of supersymmetric GUTs that not enough people work on it. I don’t like supersymmetry but often it seems good non-supersymmetric stuff comes from people mostly interested in the supersymmetric part. I know Lubos at least used to like the traditional E6 GUT too. Lattice related ideas may also be more useful for string theory than people realize, need more people working there too.

  22. Peter, Others…..

    As I said in my first comment on this thread, we’ve had most (if not all) of this discussion before… the answers and comments have just been conveniently forgotten. I can’t do this again, as it is just. so. boring. Let’s spend even a tiny amount of time looking at what we said already. Several of the things asked here (of me and others) have already been gone over in this thread for example:

    August 14th 2005, people. August 14th. We’re going in circles. Sigh. (There are other threads like this…. use the search engine or the pingbacks that I was careful to put in, and you’ll find them.)

    I think I’m done here.



  23. anonymous says:

    Clifford, this time it’s you that isn’t adding anything constructive. All you’re doing is declaring how much better than the rest of us you are, how we repeat ourselves and don’t listen to your profound replies.

    Basically, you’re just producing the same argument that Lubos does – “Everybody who disagrees with me should shut up because I’ve explained with tremendous clarity why they’re wrong, and the people who don’t shut up are idiots.” You should either stop this pretentious posing (yes, saying things like “Sigh” and “really really boring, I’m afraid” is pretentious posing – you are trying to convey a style, an attitude that you think others will perceive as cool) or stop declaring yourself to be so much more reasonable than Lubos.

  24. woit says:


    Comparing the situation of the landscape to that of the standard model is just absurd. Clearly I haven’t been writing enough postings here explaining exactly what the problems with the landscape are.


    Well, you certainly made me regret staying up last night to try and write a serious response to you. I guess we now have the official response from string theorists to my criticisms:

    1. Peter Woit is an incompetent who knows no more than an undergraduate about this subject.

    2. Criticisms of string theory are just boring, so we won’t respond to them.

    You know, this is really pathetic.

  25. woit says:


    I’ve posted here many times about what the problems with the landscape are and why it seems very clear to me that it leads to an inherently unpredictive theory. If someone has a plausible idea about how to make even a single vague prediction using it, I haven’t seen this. Banks certainly does not have a real prediction.

  26. Aaron Bergman says:

    Comparing the situation of the landscape to that of the standard model is just absurd.

    Proof by assertion? You have no idea whether or not it’s possible to get generic predictions out of the landscape of vacua and neither do I. There’s no particular reason, for example, to assume that the landscape will uniformly fill the space of standard model-like theories or, say, weak susy breaking lagrangians. Your gleeful pessimism on the subject is hardly an argument.

    You know, this is really pathetic.

    I will have something to say at some point, depending on how things go with my current research. I regret to say (truly) that it won’t be terribly positive. Perhaps you wouldn’t expect any different (you seem to be finding ill in a lot these days), but I was hoping otherwise.

  27. Kea says:

    You know, the blue-ringed octopus is very poisonous to the Landscape…especially when it sheds it rings.

  28. Kea says:

    Here’s a nice picture.

  29. nigel cook says:

    “You have no idea whether or not it’s possible to get generic predictions out of the landscape of vacua and neither do I.” – Aaron Bergman

    Exactly! It isn’t science. So why are people working on it?

    “I can’t do this again, as it is just. so. boring.” – Clifford Johnson

    Yes, but that’s string theory! No physical predictions, nothing.

  30. fh says:

    Just saw this, well, there have been undergrad String Theory courses at my home university for a while (also conformal field theory and other more mathematical physics minded courses), but then, in Germany undergrad goes a bit higher then in other places.

  31. nigel cook:

    Exactly! It isn’t science. So why are people working on it?

    I disagree. String theory is a branch of mathematics which uses physical terminology and desperately wants to make a connection to the physical world, but wasn’t able to do that yet. String believers are honestly trying to calculate a number that can be compared to measurements. We shouldn’t discourage them from doing that. We should just keep in mind that their loud promise of 20-or-so years ago to revolutionize physics hasn’t materialized, and draw conclusions.

  32. D R Lunsford says:

    Eugene said

    String believers are honestly trying to calculate a number that can be compared to measurements.

    In the past many people honestly tried to deduce the parallel postulate, square the circle, and solve the fifth order polynomial equation with radicals. The point is, the structure of string theory seems incapable of producing any numbers comparable to anything. No one can answer Peter’s challenge. If anyone could, he’d probably shut down this blog on the spot. Given its extremely shaky physical motivation and structure, combined with its impotence, the only “honest” thing to do is move on.

  33. D.R. Lunsford:

    In the past many people honestly tried to deduce the parallel postulate, square the circle, and solve the fifth order polynomial equation with radicals.

    If somebody wants to prove the parallel postulate, let him do that. May be he’ll figure out a non-Euclidean geometry eventually. If somebody wants to do strings, no problem. The only real question is how much tax dollars (euros, pounds, rubles,…) shoud be invested in these attempts?

  34. D R Lunsford says:


    This is the main point – one has to use something else other than hope, reason, and persistence to get ahead. You have to recognize when you are going in the wrong direction. To use our example, Saccheri had everything at his hands to deduce non-Euclidean geometry. He even wrote a book, “Euclides ab Omni Naevo Vindicatus” (Euclid Freed of all Flaws), that came a hair’s breadth from a revolutionary idea – but, because he had a fixed notion in his head about what constituted progress, he missed his chance and became a footnote in the history of mathematics. Even Felix Klein, with his vast intuition, missed relativity when it was right in his hands. What is most needed is sound judgment and a prepared intuition, and the willingness to go in a new direction when the old one becomes a dead end. The judgment of string theorists is manifestly unsound. They are willing to be completely tangled up in absurdity. Hope and bluster is not enough.


  35. D.R. Lunsford:

    I am all for the willingness to go in a new direction. I am tired of people telling the same old story about how we have two wonderful theories – the Standard Model and general relativity – and the only thing left is to make them work together. If these theories do not want to work together, then either one or both of them are wrong. Let’s face it. Nevermind that they were tested in experiments/observations. Epicycles were tested in observations too.

    Sorry, Peter. I probably went too far off-topic.

  36. D R Lunsford says:


    Obviously the SM and GR in their own worlds is the wrong direction. So we agree.


  37. stefan says:

    I’ve read some posts on strings and related material across various blog-sites around the Net; it seems that most physics-related researchers are tossing various views on the (assumed) correctness or incorrectness of the string-theory programme. I still wonder if this whole enterprise is pre-mature; after all, the “giants” of the field still contend that string/M-theory is still not fully understood. Then, shouldn’t the community focus more on understanding more rigorously the subject-matter? Wouldn’t it be a great service if we had more discussion(s) and debate on the mathematical aspects of our current Yang-Mills gauge theories… after all, this issue has genuine value since it is a requisite (and appropriate) problem of discussion. (One only needs to look through the Millenium Problems site at Clay Institute).

    How would everyone at this forum react to this suggestion. Your feedback would be most welcome.


  38. Pingback: A Stanford Physics Student in Berkeley » Blog Archive » String Theory for Undergrads Discussion

  39. Peter Woit says:

    Hi Stefan,

    I agree with you completely. There is still a huge amount we don’t understand about the gauge theories that are relevant to the standard model, and these problems deserve a lot more attention than they’re getting. At the moment, only one is getting attention, that is understanding strongly coupled QCD, and in this case only one possible approach to that problem is getting attention, that of string theory. I’ve been keeping a list of what seem to me important aspects of gauge theories that are not understood, hope to turn this into a paper or a series of blog entries at some point.

  40. Who says:

    Undergrad string courses = top of the market behavior.
    When it is time to sell off, professional investors will instinctively see lots of reasons for the small private investor to buy.

    As string research becomes less exciting, it gets attractive for former researchers to teach undergrad string, perhaps even (eventually) in the liberal arts colleges, but first of all in top universities. Stanford curriculum can serve to lead other venues. The pros will instinctively want to be as convincing as possible that their overstocked specialty should be taught to undergraduates—come up with lots of reasons: maybe even liberal arts-type reasons. Enriching the mathematical education etc. Because it will give the surplus research crew something to do they can consider useful.

    The undergraduates pay as usual, like the private investor, for the mistakes of their betters.

  41. Stefan says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the reply. I guess I’m not the only one with some reservations on how this whole string / M-theory enterprise is taking some of our brightest minds towards. I should however state that I’m nowhere near the position of a researcher (an undergrad, actually) to provide a detailed technical critique on strings / M-theory; but one doesn’t have to be Newton to understand that what is currently taking place is more speculative than science – at least as it is understood in the traditional sense of the term.

    I fear that with so much hype and hoolabaloo surrounding the “mother of all physics theories” some of the most creative and thoughtful minds of our generation are getting swept away by this whole issue/affair. I don’t mind string theory as a programme of study, the problem is how it is hogging up much of the landscape of theoretical physics with it suffocating stranglehold on research – much to the limitation (and disadvantage) of other well-motivated programmes. (I would rather term this SPECULATIVE programme as “string hypothesis” (!!) – it stays true to the terminology of science.)

    Anyhow, thanks for this forum… a whole lot of fun to read! 🙂
    By the way, do you know of any site / focus group specifically addressed to the mathematical aspects of gauge theories? If not, do you want to start a forum? I would love to become a member.



  42. James says:

    Peter, although I am a 12 years old elementary school kid, I can’t notice you not responding anything to this earlier post which I will replicate below. My question is whether you think that all the European universities mentioned below are run by some crazy professors who don’t know how to put together an undergraduate curriculum? Or how else would you characterize these aforementioned professors who are responsible for the string theory undergrad courses at these fine universities?

    It might be a shocker for you but several European universities offer undergraduate string theory courses and have been doing so for at least 15 years (that is what I am aware of). Examples: Amsterdam, Groningen, Utrecht, Brussels, Berlin, Budapest, Prague, Moscow and I’m sure there are plenty more.

    Mind the fact that there are loads of old professors for whom the phrase “string theory” means something from the 70’s and that is what they teach. It would be very difficult for you to convince them that this material is some new age hype when they were studying it 30 years ago.

    Of course there are European universities where the more modern approaches are taught to undergraduates under the banner “string theory”, e.g. Amsterdam and I suspect this area is where you actually target your criticism.

    My observation is only to enlighten anyone who thinks that “string theory” is a large monolithic blob which can be commented on and criticised in one go.

    Hope this helps,

  43. woit says:


    Sorry, but responding to people who anonymously insult me just isn’t high on my priority list of things to do when I’m very busy. I was away for a few days and wasted much of the little free time I had responding to string theorists accusing me both of being incompetent and of being nasty for beating up on someone like yourself who clearly only had at best an undergraduate’s knowledge of the issues here.

    As for your comment, first of all it wasn’t a question; you’re claiming some facts are true, and I’m both dubious about some of them and don’t think they’re relevant at all to the implicit question in my posting of whether string theory is something appropriate to teach to undergraduates in the US.

    Some comments of my own:

    1. European undergraduates are more advanced and more specialized than U.S. undergraduates, often more comparable to a master’s degree program here.

    2. I just find it very hard to believe you that people are teaching courses on 1970’s style string theory at all these institutions. I strongly suspect you’re thinking of S-matrix theory sorts of things, which are not really string theory. But I don’t know, I may be wrong. It would be interesting if you had any links to syllabi of these courses so one could judge.

  44. JC says:

    Peter, James,

    Years ago I remember several older professors mentioning that at some places, they did have the equivalent of a graduate course on topics in analytic S-Matrix back in the 1960’s. This was in the days when that analytic S-Matrix bootstrap stuff was at its peak popularity. The most they ever mentioned about dual resonance models (ie. “string theory”) such as the Veneziano model, was a lecture or two typically at the end of the course. (That is, after the Veneziano model was first published in 1968). Before the Veneziano model was published, courses on analytic S-Matrix theory mainly covered the sort of topics in Geoff Chew’s 1961 book on the subject.

    Just like any other graduate course, there were some highly motivated undergraduate students enrolled. None of these particular older profs could recall there ever being an undergraduate course on analytic S-Matrix theory and/or dual resonance models, in those days. They all said that the attitude in those days was that if a motivated undergraduate student really wanted to know some “advanced topics”, they can just take the graduate courses, attend seminars, and/or read the original papers on it.

    Offering a string theory course aimed towards undergraduate students appears to be a first these days. Albeit, this may not be totally unprecendented. Over the years I’ve heard of folks teaching undergraduate courses on particle physics which involve calculating Feynman diagrams. In these courses, they just “quote” the Feynman rules and a prescription to work out tree-level Feynman diagram calculations (all without proof). They just assumed that interested students will eventually take courses on quantum field theory. Years ago when I first took an undergradaute course on particle physics, the professor didn’t even bother calculating any Feynman diagrams.

  45. shame says:


    There you go bsing again! You say to poor James “…someone like yourself who clearly only had at best an undergraduate’s knowledge of the issues here”. You’re really quick to pull the authority card aren’t you? As was clearly explained above, James’s understanding of the issues was correct and yours was just wrong. If he is only an undergraduate, all the more power to him. Quit bullying people who understand physics better than you do. If anything, as an amateur you should be grateful that experts take time to explain things to you, especially when you tend to be so hostile and rude.

    Oh, and we’re all still waiting for your electrifying ideas for new directions in theoretical physics. Preferably–a paper with some specific predictions that can be falsified. When can we expect it?

  46. woit says:


    Now, what’s your excuse for hiding behind anonymity to attack me? I think your behavior is deeply shameful, you know it, and that’s why you’re doing it this way.

    I wasn’t at all bullying James, I think I was actually being extremely polite in dealing with someone who came here to engage in nasty attacks on me from behind the cover of anonymity. The line you quote was a reference to Clifford’s attack on me as bullying a poor undergraduate. Clifford seemed to believe James is an undergraduate, but I have no idea what he is since he’s hiding his identity, and (like you), attacking my credentials by refusing to tell us what his are.

    And no, I’m not an amateur, but a professional with a Ph. D. in this subject. Are you? You certainly are behaving in an extremely unprofessional way here.

  47. woit says:


    Looking at my logs, you seem to be at the KITP in Santa Barbara, and to have found your way to my blog via Lubos’s site (since your connection here came via his charming translation of my site into “jive”). You seem very concerned about my bullying behavior, just wondering if you have written in to Lubos’s blog to criticize him in a similar way, or if you think the way he behaves is fine.

  48. James says:

    For those of you coming late:

    Peter wrote “What is known about string theory is how to construct a (divergent) series, one that is supposed to be a perturbation expansion of some still unknown exact theory, and thus an asymptotic series in the string coupling for the true result.”

    To which I responded that the mere fact that there is no non-perturbative definition of string theory does not constitute a serious criticism. Clearly, the Standard Model has no non-perturbative definition (except for QCD but that is also non-rigorous) and it is a perfectly fine physics theory.

    I also emphasized that the lack of prediction and consequently the lack of experimental verification *is* a serious criticism of string theory. This valid criticism however does not mean that *any* criticism is valid.

    That was our short chat about physics. Now here is what Peter calls “insulting”:

    I wrote “Hope this helps you understand why string theorists and other high energy physicists do not respond to your book in a serious way and […] do not take you seriously over all. […] Even plenty of string theorists exist who are critical in a reasonable way, unlike you I am sorry to say. [….] Again, it is my intention to help you understand the reason for your considerable isolation in high energy circles especially since you yourself asked the question in one of your postings why there is no serious string theory reaction to your book.”

    Since Peter himself was wondering why string theorists are not responding to his book I truely believe that I am doing him a favour for giving a possible explanation. He is entitled to think that this explanation is wrong, but it can hardly be insulting. Now the fact that I do not consider him an expert in string theory can also hardly be considered an insult, since Peter himself declared this a number of times. My statement that he is not taken seriously in high energy physics circles is I believe factual. The basis for this statement is that I believe the following (somewhat vague) ingredients are necessary for being taken seriously:

    (1) Well-known high energy physics results in research papers
    (2) Presence as an invited lecturer at respected high energy physics conferences
    (3) Persuing a serious research program in high energy physics

    Peter, if you disagree that the above ingredients are necessary for the label “taken seriously by the high energy physics community” then what ingredients *are* the necessary ones? Or do you think that the above mentioned ingredients are applicable to you?

    It goes without saying that Peter is a high energy physicist with a PhD. It also goes without saying that he is entitled to express his views on any subject he chooses let it be high energy physics or string theory in particular and in any shape or form he chooses let it be a weblog. However I believe I am again doing a favour to you Peter by point out that this alone is *not* enough to be taken seriously by the high energy physics community and it is foolish to demand attention when you do not deserve it. It will only serve to increase your frustration.

    Please consider these comments as help expressed by a friend in the good faith that you will one day realize that the path you have taken is completely disconnected from the path of a high energy physics researcher. I truly hope that once you realize this you will go back to research and publish your results that will be serve as well as be appreciated by the community. Once that happens I am sure you will realize that the years you spent diverged from this path were completely lost years.

    Your friend,

  49. woit says:


    You’re just repeating your same incorrect argument that the status of string theory and the standard model are similar. It’s nonsense and I explained why, an explanation that you chose to completely ignore.

    If you want to discuss scientific issues, I’m willing to do so, although it would help if you would actually respond to what I write. I’m not about to waste my time dealing with ad hominem attacks, especially not from someone unwilling to put his name to them.

    As for my research results, they’re sketched in and I hope in the future to write up more recent things I’ve been working on. I certainly think it would be better if I did a better job of writing things up, but I don’t regret at all having spent much of my career working on ideas that are quite different than those pursued by most of the high energy physics community.

  50. James says:


    You say you are acting in a professional way. That is analogous to a prime minister acting professionally at the housewarming party of his nephew since the set of activities performed as the professional duty of a prime minister and the set of activities performed at a housewarming party do not intersect. Similarly, the set of professional activity performed by a physics researcher and the set of activity performed while posting to a weblog do not intersect.

    If we were in a religious context I would close by saying that I am praying for your soul but since we are not I merely repeat again that I hope one day you will again utilize your professional skills to the benefit of the high energy physics community in a form that is demanded by the profession of a researcher.

    Your friend,

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