The String Wars

I noticed recently that George Johnson will be journalist in residence and giving a talk on Friday at the KITP in Santa Barbara about “The String Wars”. Somehow I don’t really think that it’s a good thing that this is now being perceived as a “war”. Johnson is the author of an excellent biography of Murray Gell-Mann and writes for the New York Times.

For controversy on the East coast, tonight the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute for Technology in Hoboken will be hosting a panel discussion and debate on The End of Science?, featuring John Horgan and Michio Kaku.

This week’s New Yorker has a couple letters to the editor responding to their recent article about the string theory controversy. One points out that particle theory and quantum gravity is not all there is to theoretical physics. The second is by Lisa Randall, and mainly concerned with claiming that there is now a healthy interaction going between string theory and phenomenology, with most particle physicists eagerly awaiting the LHC.

Update: Today’s New York Times has an Op-Ed piece entitled The Universe on a String by my Columbia colleague Brian Greene, in which he responds to recent criticism of string theory. As you might guess, Brian’s piece doesn’t really convince me to change my mind (as my book and Lee Smolin’s don’t seem to have convinced him).

Brian mentions the possibility of seeing supersymmetry or extra dimensions at the LHC, and possible effects of quantum gravity in the CMB, but acknowledges that these are not definitive predictions of string theory that can be used to falsify it. He also mentions the recent attempts to apply AdS/CFT to heavy ion physics, but these don’t address the use of string theory as an idea about unification.

He deals with the landscape only by making an argument I’ve heard him make before: that just having a unified theory of gravity and particle physics would be a big accomplishment, even it this theory didn’t explain any of the things about the standard model that one would like it to explain. Besides the fact that string theory still doesn’t provide a fully consistent unified theory (since it has no non-perturbative formulation), I’ve always found this point of view problematic. If string theory can’t make any definitive predictions about particle physics, it’s very unclear that one can ever test it, which is a huge problem.

Brian does, unlike some string theorists, acknowledge that it’s possible that string theory is wrong and will have to be abandoned, in particular if “future studies reveal an insuperable barrier to making contact with experimental data”. My argument is that if string theorists accept the existence of the Landscape, such an insuperable barrier appears. He describes string theory critics as calling for research on string theory to be dropped, which really isn’t accurate. Neither Smolin nor I have ever called for this, rather our argument is that research into alternatives to string theory needs to be encouraged.

Update: The George Johnson talk is now available here. It seems that many of the string theorists at the KITP are not very happy about my book and Smolin’s, although it’s unclear if any of them have read either of the books. Amanda Peet claimed that both books have many errors (invoking the NYT review by Tom Siegfried), while Johnson repeatedly told her that it would be a good idea for her to actually read one of the books. She also kept claiming that there is “a backstory” that explains why Smolin wrote his book, but she was dissuaded from elaborating on this when someone pointed out that the talk was on video and would be on the web.

The experience of watching the talk was pretty odd, since Johnson began by connecting to my blog and discussing the fact that I was discussing his upcoming talk. I watched a lot of the talk during commercials of an episode of Numb3rs, and during this episode “Larry” the physicist was working on calculations involving branes, and playing hooky from a string theory conference.

Update: Davide Castelvecchi has put up an interview with George Johnson on his web-site.

Update: Clifford Johnson and Lubos Motl have their own takes on the KITP video.

Update: It appears that there will be a second talk by George Johnson about this, String Wars 2. After the first one, I’m having trouble figuring out why anyone at KITP thought a second one would be a good idea.

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97 Responses to The String Wars

  1. Aaron Bergman says:

    One cannot expect the situation here to be better than in ordinary QM, but if it is no worse than it is misleading to say that different approaches lead to different theories.

    I can’t quite understand this sentence — perhaps it’s missing a word? Anyways, I think the point is that there are physically different theories of quantum gravity in 2+1D, ie, they have the same classical limit but different quantum predictions. For whatever reason this may be true, it would be very interesting to know how true it is in 3+1D (or more).

  2. Jean-Paul says:

    Johnson’s talk was completely disgusting. I did not know that he was the journalist who wrote the (in)famous article on “probing string theory”. Actually, he mentioned it, and seemed quite proud of it. The seminar was from “we journalists know…” to “you string theorists you know” how to fool the public. What was most striking that there was no mention or even speculation on what is the impact of sensational journalism on public who reads it. Both Johnson and the audience did not care at all about readers’ perception. No mention of the basic journalists’ obligation to be objective. Instead, contempt for “ignorant” public. Very cynic remarks on “to be sure” paragraphs with a very fine print “it’s just a hype”. The moral was: we journalist look for a story, and the more hype and confusion you physicists create, the more stories we can write.
    We are used to the sensational coverage of the entertainment world, but science writers are no better…

  3. Arun says:

    Started watching Johnson’s talk and was quickly reminded of Gartner’s Hype cycle, which should be familiar to people in the technology sector.

    I wonder if String Theory maps onto this cycle. Perhaps it is past the Peak of Inflated Expectations, but where it is beyond that point is beyond me.

  4. Arun says:

    I’m halfway into the Johnson talk, and I’m not very impressed by the audience either.

  5. Who says:

    I disagree with your take on it, Arun. The talk by Johnson was informative and increased my respect for his professionalism as a science journalist. One got a sense of what journalists do to successfully communicate their interest in science to the public—and the constraints within which they work.

    Also the Q and A, the running dialog he had with KITP, really helped me to better understand the points of view of the string theorists in the room. And I think that Johnson spoke very well (and basically reassuringly) to their concerns.

    I found that I could not watch the video very well in STREAMING mode because it kept stopping—-maybe due to heavy traffic. So based on my experience I woul recommend that anyone interested in watching should DOWNLOAD the whole movie (in my case “quicktime”) file so that they can watch continuously and at their convenience.

    this conversation is extremely informative and interesting—-and, as I say, gives me the highest impression of Johnson’s cool, senses of humor, likeablility, and professionalism. One also gets to know KITP people much better, and their viewpoint and concerns. Instead of reacting scornfully, or churlishly, to this excellect video we should thank and congratulate KITP on contributing to improved understanding of all these issues. (sorry to disagree so strongly, Arun—I usually appreciate your posts very much.)

  6. Kris Krogh says:

    I agree with Who that Johnson’s talk was excellent. His standards for scientific objectivity are much higher than Amanda Peet’s.

    In the comments afterward, David Gross complains about Lee Smolin’s book. He says Smolin privately acceded to his argument that a background-independent version of string theory exists, but wrote the opposite. I’m hoping Lee will give his side of that.

  7. LDM says:

    I also enjoyed the Johnson talk…some comments (on the need for higher dimensions…) were very funny.

    It is unbelievable that one theorist had not read the books, but still had strong opinions about their accuracy.

    At one point, it almost seemed like there was an attack on Smolin and loop quantum gravity, which was a little strange, because the arguments against string theory do not rely on loop quantum gravity in anyway.

  8. Arun says:

    No need to be sorry for disagreeing strongly with my opinion. At most, I am put to the trouble of explaining what I heard.

    Of the persons who spoke and could be heard, Johnson was the best. I did appreciate his telling someone to read the book first. The crowd was dismaying, with its “Swollen” and its challenge to Johnson to poll the room on whether Smolin is a crackpot. Also, the (perhaps my misinterpretation?) that Smolin and Woit belong to the same category of marginal people as John Horgan. I too want to hear Smolin’s side of his alleged two-facedness.

    The whole thing was vaguely reminiscent of the discussions I have seen on the Pakistani GeoTV channel about Pakistan’s problems stemming from its bad image, the right PR formula is yet to be found. (I’m not Pakistani, fyi). Bringing string theory to the public cannot be called popularization of science, at least by the standards of my youth, where the popular science books (that were available to me) were always about well-established science. Kaku, Greene, etc., did the first disservice by hyping these in public, and if the string theory community did not feel discomfort then (did it?) it is a bit much if they protest now that there is a dehype. If Woit and Smolin were the first to bring string theory to the public, I’d agree that the ST folks irritation would be justifiable. However, from the POV of “what will the public think?”, Woit and Smolin are a correction to the backdrop set by Greene, et. al.


    If it is science we want to discuss and not PR, then the root problem is not yet addressed. Let’s agree that primarily nature and secondarily limited funding have reduced the ability of particle physicists to have the close interplay with experiment that they used to have. Then we need new criteria on how to objectively say that we are not wrong so far in any particular line of research. Perhaps it is there implicitly within the community, it now has to become more explicit. Then one will also know what to tell the public.

  9. Peter Shor says:

    Dear Hmm,

    Let me say that if string theorists routinely insult people who are trying to understand aspects of string theory, they are not going to get very many converts to their side.

    I am aware of the “universe is a quantum computer” contingent, and I am not ashamed to say that I am not very impressed with their reasoning (unlike some string theorists, who will never criticize each other in public).

    Best regards,

    Peter Shor

  10. Jean-Paul says:

    Arun, Kris and Who,
    With all due respect, I am afraid that you are missing the point. Johnson is a journalist. He can listen to tirades on background independence, attacks on the competence of Smolin/Woit but he cannot make his own judgment, and he admits it. Similarly, I would not discuss with him the issue of scientific objectivity. What I would like to hear is not a bundle of cynical jokes how journalists work, but a serious discussion of JOURNALISTIC objectivity and responsibility. When you write an article about “probing string theory” you would better ask 5 or so experts who would give you a wide range of opinions. Similarly when you write about a “crisis in ST”.
    Do you think that Johnson does a better job than somebody writing for the Enquirer? Certainly, science should be popularized, but at what expense? Is it OK to mislead the public? I wish Johnson could address these questions.

  11. Lee Smolin says:

    Hi, to respond to David Gross’s claim mentioned by Kris Krogh above, I have been both clear and careful in the book. For example on p 240:

    “Thus many quantum-gravity theorists believe there is a deeper level of reality, where space does not exist (this is taking background independence to its logical extreme). Since string theory requires the existence of a background-independent theory to make sense, many string theorists have indicated that they agree. In a certain limited sense, if the strong form of the Maldacena conjecture (see chapter 9) turns out to be true, a nine-dimensional geometry will emerge out of a fixed three-dimensional geometry. It is thus not surprising to hear Edward Witten say, as he did in a recent talk at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara, that “most string theorists suspect that spacetime is an ‘emergent phenomenon,’ in the language of condensed matter physics.”2
    Some string theorists have finally begun to appreciate this point, and one can only hope they will follow up by studying the concrete results that have already been obtained. But in fact, most people in quantum gravity have in mind something more radical than the
    Maldacena conjecture.

    The starting point is nothing like geometry. What many of us in quantum gravity mean when we say that space is emergent is that the continuum of space is an illusion….”

    In more technical language, what has usually been meant by background independence is that no classical metric, field or global symmetry appears in the definition of a theory. Thus, by definition, formulations of a theory with asymptotic boundary conditions are excluded. This definition, and the motivation for it is discussed many places in the literature, for example in my recent hep-th/0507235. For a discussion of why the Maldacena conjecture does not satisfy what is usually considered background independence, see pages 23 and 24. There I am responding to various discussions with string theorists including David Gross, who insisted that string theory does not need a background independent formulation, because the AdS/CFT correspondence gives string theory a non-perturbative definition.

    However, in my most recent conversation with Gross, he argued instead that the AdS/CFT correspondence should be considered to satisfy a form of background independence. Recently others made the same argument to me. Their claim is that if the strong form of the AdS/CFT conjecture is true, a dynamical ten dimensional asymptotically AdS spacetime will have arisin out of a theory defined on 4d Minkowski spacetime with global Poincare symmetry. This does not satisfy the definition just given. But it is true that 6 of the ten dimensions transmuted from the space of scalar fields in the N=4 SYM theory to dimensions of space in the dual theory. In this limited sense a weak form of background independence will have been achieved. This is what I agreed to in conversation with David and others.

    But, as I thought I made it clear in these discussions, there is a big difference between this and what has usually been meant. Classical GR achieves this usual meaning, as do LQG, spin foam models, causal sets, causal dynamical triangulations, and not, at least so far, string theory.

    In a recent discussion, Brian Greene proposed a new terminology to straighten out the confusion. Brian proposes to use manifest background independence for what quantum gravity people and philosophers have up till now meant by background independence and background independence for the weak form satisfied by the (strong form of the) AdS/CFT conjecture.

    If it helps to distinguish between a strong or manifest form of background independence and a weak form, then I can agree to use this language. But I don’t see that changing the meaning of technical terms advances the issue. Brian and others (perhaps not David) agree that string theory should have a manifest or strong background independent formulation, and that it does not yet.

    By the way, each time I note that string theory does not have the property of strong or manifest background independence, this is more than anything a criticism of myself as, to my knowledge, few others took the problem of making such a formulation of string theory seriously enough to spend years working on it, as I did.



    Ps Just in case anyone thinks it is plausible that I and other people in LQG be considered crackpots, they can consult my cv which is at I didn’t listen to the tape, but if someone actually said that they should be ashamed of themselves.

    Indeed, what is remarkable to me is that no one in this or, to my knowledge, any other discussion of my book says something like, “On page x of Chapter 12, Smolin says A and that is false for this reason. This is not just because some string theorists have not read the book, because if no one at KITP has, I know of others who have read it in detail, and if they had found errors of fact they would have said so. I wouldn’t be surprised if this had happened, because in the chapters leading up to the evaluation of string theory I give in Chapter 12 a large body of technical results is summarized in non-technical language. It is very hard to do this and not get something wrong, even in one’s own field, and I worked very hard, and checked and double checked with experts to be sure of having the facts right. Of course, if anybody finds such an error I would be grateful.

  12. Arun says:

    Perhaps it would be best to download and listen to the podcast (15 MB, quicktime player would suffice to view/listen).

  13. Kris Krogh says:

    Thanks Lee!


    For me, there’s no distinction between scientific and journalistic objectivity. Isn’t there only one truth? By urging a string theory audience to read Smolin and Woit’s books, I think Johnson showed more concern for objectivity and the “scientific method” than many of the scientists he spoke to.

    Especially in theoretical physics, there seems to be an unhealthy tendency to decide issues on authority, instead of blindly weighing evidence. (Like the woman with the scale.) Just vote on the smartest person (or who’s a crackpot) and call their ideas reality.

  14. Lee Smolin says:

    Just to be sure, regarding David Gross’s comments, I also wrote on page 189 of my book: “…if the strong form of the Maldacena conjecture turns out to be true — which is also consistent with the present evidence — then string theory provides good quantum theories of gravity, in the special case of backgrounds with a negative cosmological constant. Moreover, those theories would be partly background-independent, in that a nine-dimensional space is generated from physics in a three-dimensional

    There is other evidence that string theory can provide a unification
    of gravity with quantum theory….”

    The text was finalized before David and I had the conversation he is refering to in July and, as you can see, the text is consistent with his memory of what I said. Shall I conclude that he also commented on my book without checking to read it first?



  15. Tony Smith says:

    Arun says: “… The crowd was dismaying, with … its challenge to Johnson to poll the room on whether Smolin is a crackpot. …”.

    Lee Smolin says: “… Just in case anyone thinks it is plausible that I and other people in LQG be considered crackpots, they can consult my cv which is at …”
    and goes on to say:
    “… no one in this or, to my knowledge, any other discussion of my book says something like, “On page x of Chapter 12, Smolin says A and that is false for this reason. …”.

    Kris Krogh says: “… Especially in theoretical physics, there seems to be an unhealthy tendency to decide issues on authority, instead of blindly weighing evidence. … Just vote on … who’s a crackpot …”.

    Since Kris Krogh is in the psychology department at UC Santa Barbara, which is the host institution for KITP where the talk in question took place,
    maybe he could shed some light on the psychology of why the KITP superstring community is relying on authority and on “vote[s] … on …. who’s a crackpot”,
    instead of
    on substantive discussion such as “… Smolin says A and that is false for this reason …”.

    If Kris Krogh were to prefer to defer from shedding such light himself (possibly saying something like he is a “Senior Electronics Technician” rather than a practicing psychologist),
    perhaps he could prevail upon some of the practicing psychologists in the UCSB psychology department to shed such light.

    Tony Smith

  16. Garbage says:

    Thanks Peter, it’s alright, I was trying to point out, in particular to Smolin and Shor who brought the subject in, that unitarity can be violated without outrageous consequences. I mentioned in my answer to anon a few papers they might like reading. I think these provide a very satisfatory solution to the problem of time and black hole paradox, and perhaps even more, of the measurement problem itself. The following is a nice review:

    thanks again.

  17. Aaron Bergman says:

    Lee —

    [emergent geometry]

    Some string theorists have finally begun to appreciate this point, and one can only hope they will follow up by studying the concrete results that have already been obtained.

    I don’t think the idea that spacetime would be emergent was remotely controversial. Even before AdS/CFT, there were various matrix models. I’d be surprised if there weren’t papers speculating along these lines well back into the 80s. Holography is certainly a sort of emergent geometry, and I think you’ll find that a fair fraction of string theorists believe that there is something fundamentally holographic about string theory.

    But it is true that 6 of the ten dimensions transmuted from the space of scalar fields in the N=4 SYM theory to dimensions of space in the dual theory.

    This is probably not a good way to think of AdS/CFT. It is true on the D-brane that the vevs of the scalars correspond to moving the brane around, in the AdS/CFT conjecture, ie, after you take the near-horizong limit, you have a five sphere and a five dimensional AdS. The fifth dimension of AdS corresponds to a RG scale in the field theory. The field theory can usefully be thought of as living on the boundary. Thus, the lack of background dependence in the YM field theory exactly corresponds to the fixing of the boundary of AdS. It’s probably best to think of this (minor in my opinion) background dependence as necessitated by the need to do something there to make sense of anything in AdS.

    I notice you mention CDT as a background independent approach, but last I checked, they fix a spatial topology (somewhat akin to fixing a boundary condition as in AdS/CFT). Has this restriction been removed and they sum over topologies now?

    By the way, each time I note that string theory does not have the property of strong or manifest background independence, this is more than anything a criticism of myself as, to my knowledge, few others took the problem of making such a formulation of string theory seriously enough to spend years working on it, as I did.

    How do you know? People have certainly considered it in the context of nonperturbative approaches. There’s not terribly much to say in the perturbative approach after all. What most string theorists are interested in is finding a general nonperturbative approach. It is only in that context that the question can be usefully addressed.

    I should mention that I just spent some time reading chapters 16-20 of your book in the bookstore (actually, I skimmed 17). I can’t help but wonder, especially with all the blind quotes in chapter 16, who are these people? They certainly don’t seem like the vast majority of the string theorists I know. Just to pick one example, the issue of whether or not string theory is correct or not is hardly verboten. Most of your list of seven facets of string theorists (which I confess to not remembering very well — perhaps someone with the book could summarize them again) didn’t seem particularly representative of the people I know either.

    When your book wasn’t angering me (for reasons we’ve talked about in the past and which I won’t get into here), it was immensely frustrating because you circle around some real problems but completely miss, in my opinion, the real issues. You base your solutions, it seems to me, on the idea that there exist these two types of people, the seers and the craftspeople. That seems to me to be fundamentally misguided. What we have are smart people doing their best to get by in the incentive structure that exists in theoretical physics. This structure rewards production. It rewards brilliant results also, of course, but there is a strong incentive to write lots of papers so as to get a job. Obtaining more seers is not a matter of identifying the iconoclasts (who in physics isn’t a bit iconoclastic, after all?), but a matter of figuring out how to make it less dangerous for a young person to devote a significant amount of time thinking about extremely difficult problems that may not get solved.

    People are doing their damnedest to get by in a market where there are scarce resources, and, contrasted with your proclaimed dissident seers, the lack of respect you evince (to my mind) towards the people who are willing to work and survive in this framework is dismaying.

  18. Lee Smolin says:

    Dear Aaron,

    Just to address your last point. There is absolutely no disrespect involved. I just recognize that there are different types of scientific characters, who approach research differently and I emphasize that science needs several different types. I have a great deal of sympathy for the situation you describe, as I am much more like you in my skills than the people I am discussing here. I did fit into the incentive structure and did, as you put it, work and survive. This is because most of my work has been straightforward applications of QFT to gravity. LQG is after all, not radical, its just gauge field theory studied using techniques that are compatible with diffeomorphism invariance. It was also easier 30 years ago,.

    Nonetheless, I recognize that there are people who either decline to or are incapable of fitting into the incentive structure you describe. They are , as you put it, unable to “work and survive in this framework.”

    Some of the people I am referring to do not believe the kind of work that the incentive structure rewards will be able to solve all the problems we face, because they believe the current conceptual framework requires revision. For example they may see the necessity of first altering the foundations of quantum mechanics or obtaining a conceptually and mathematically consistent understanding of what an observable is in GR. You and I are not such people, but they do exist and when they do succeed they make crucial contributions to science. I gave some examples in the book, such as Barbour, Deutsch and Valentini.

    There is no incentive structure for such people to fit into, no matter how good they are and how important their work turns out to be, because they are working on problems either that were not clearly problems before they solved them or were not thought important. So in some cases they end up working outside the academy, in others they survive in small colleges or in math or philosophy departments.

    A philosopher I know recently said to me that sometimes you have to recognize that an important problem cannot be solved by you, because it requires a person with a different kind of mind. Related to this is the advice that you are most likely to succeed at anything if you choose to work on problems that are compatible with how you think best.

    All I am doing here is making the case that the progress of science would proceed faster if we made room for a small number of these individuals, who presently fall outside the incentive structure. This requires broadening the incentive structure a bit to recognize the fact that the progress of science requires a diversity of kinds of minds and skills. There is no disrespect meant or implied towards anyone.



  19. a says:

    unfortunately the word “war” that Peter does not like seems appropriate. So, why the first public scientific debate degenerated into a war?

    First, Peter’s criticism was perceived as a preventive war. Peter uses the word “failure” when some (little?) hopes remain open: maybe LHC will discover large extra dimensions, maybe some landscape statistics is peaked, maybe LHC will discover supersymmetry broken in some stringy way…

    Second, the string hype. A naive extrapolation suggests that without the preventive criticism, some string theorists would have mispresented as a triumph of strings whatever LHC will see.

    Third, somebody tried to close the traditional scientific channels to Peter’s criticism. Ten years ago this could have been the end of the story, but nowadays this attempt transferred a private debate into a public internet war.

    Fourth, Lubos Motl.

  20. Aaron Bergman says:

    Lee — I strongly disagree with that point of view. Just because someone is unwilling to work within the strictures that currently exist doesn’t make them any better than those who are willing to do so. It just makes them more stubborn. Or flaky.

    And I stand by my statement about the lack of respect you show. It comes across to me (and others, I would guess) in almost all your writing on the subject.

  21. ksh95 says:

    This “war” is exceedingly healthy. Never before have such specialized and technical issues been debated in such a public manner. Force the naysayers to answer their critics, make the orthodoxy defend their ideas. And at the end of the day we will find truth, or we will witness theoretical high energy physics turn into philosophy…..You gotta love it!
    Anyway, it strikes me as odd that the awe-inspiring, fabled and feared string theory propaganda machine is this ineffective. Woit and Smolin make substantive points and the machine calls Woit and Smolin poo-poo heads, babbles about conspiricy theory “back-stories”, and accuses the people of seeking fame…..weird!
    Even more queer is the fact that there exists an exceedingly convincing paper, in my opinion, explaining why string theory is the best(only) game in town. (the paper is recent and was mentioned on this and other blogs…I don’t have the time or desire to find it).

  22. LDM says:


    You complain about a perceived lack of respect.

    There are many physicists who simply do NOT respect what string theorists are doing in any way…who think it is wrong, and do not believe what you are doing is physics. Yet, string theorists still teach physics (and thereby influence a new generation of students), still have access to university physics resources, still consume tax dollars that would otherwise be spent on physics.

    Weisskopf said it is a privilege to be a physicist, and I would contend that the way publicly supported string theorists have over-hyped and misrepresented any successes of string theory is just an abuse of that privilege.

  23. Aaron Bergman says:

    You miss the point. This isn’t about respecting what people are doing; it’s about respecting the people. I don’t get angry when people attack string theory in an honest manner.

  24. Peter Woit says:


    I think this whole argument about who is dissing who is kind of ridiculous, more appropriate to teenage street gangs than serious scientists. In any case, given the attitudes and behavior of all too many string theorists, claiming that the problem with string theory’s critics is their lack of respect for others is really a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

    I think Lee has a point, but I’m not a huge fan of his “seers” vs. “craftspeople” distinction, since my own prejudice about the current problems of particle theory is that they are extremely hard, and making progress on them will require people who are some of both: iconoclastic enough to work on something different, with the technical skills and persistence necessary to get something beyond a vague, speculative idea. Particle theory needs new ideas and people ambitious and visionary enough to come up with them and pursue them (Lee’s “seers” if you will), but the most likely way for someone to come up with these ideas is by immersion in the difficult technical issues surrounding quantum field theory and the standard model.

    The great breakthroughs I’ve seen in math have come from people like Wiles and Perelman, who combined deep new insights, great technical skill, and seven or more years of dedicated single-minded work, during which they had nothing to show publicly for their efforts. How does one change the culture of particle theory to encourage this kind of effort?

  25. Aaron says:

    claiming that the problem with string theory’s critics their lack of respect for others

    I’m not claiming that. I never mentioned it in my review of your book, for example. This is a problem I have with Lee’s writing on the subject.

    As for the rest, I don’t disagree with your last paragraph.

  26. DMS says:

    Aaron Bergman Says:
    October 23rd, 2006 at 12:03 pm
    You miss the point. This isn’t about respecting what people are doing; it’s about respecting the people.

    While I appreciate the times you have clarified aspects of string theory on this blog(and I hope you get a faculty position soon…), I think you are way off the mark here. I have not read Lee’s book, but nowhere on the blogs have I seen him be “disrespectful” to string theorists. On the other hand, there have been numerous instances on blogs where some(and no, not just LM) do not show the same courtesy to either Lee and especially Peter Woit.

    And what I find bizarre is that neither of them are asking for string theory to be unfunded; they just ask for some other avenues of research to be funded. What is so wrong with this idea that gets some string theorists in apoplectic rage(when that could be directed to the “Rube Goldberg architects”, for instance)???

    Now I have copies of GSW, Polchinski, and Zweibach next to NEW on my bookshelf (I might even get the new Becker-Becker-Schwarz book IF it offers a new insight; getting bored with the same old discussion of the Polyakov action…). There is no contradiction. String theory has some astonishing successes and has offered some deep insights to mathematics(some of which I learn from this blog), even if it has failed miserably in its original goal.

    On the other hand, one is always free to dismiss outsiders as “crackpots”…

  27. Aaron Bergman says:

    Courtesy and respect aren’t the same thing, and I should probably leave it at that.

  28. Lee Smolin says:

    Dear Aaron,

    I don’t say that the people who are not working within the incentives you describe are better. I say only that the contributions of such people have from time to time been essential for the progress of science, and that this is one of those times. I do not see how an argument for greater diversity in academia is an argument against anyone. And I agree with Peter, there are a few people doing great work in ordinary QFT who are both visionary and unapreciated, and these are in the same category I called “seers.”

    I do take your complaint seriously as I do think that respect among people who disagree is essential for science to work. I apologise if you feel disrespected as this was the opposite of my intention. It was rather to bring attention and appreciation to a kind of scientist who is often disregarded and disrespected. I am sorry if this had the unintended effect of making you feel disrespected.

    While we are talking about disrespect, I hope you agree that to call serious scientists “crackpots” and to spread wrong information about their books without reading them, is outside of the bounds of acceptable professional behavior? No one is obligated to read a book or paper or comment on one, but if you do comment on a publication you have an obligation to have read it first. Do you agree?



  29. Aaron Bergman says:

    I do not see how an argument for greater diversity in academia is an argument against anyone.

    As best I can tell, you think that there are different sorts of people and that we need to find these out of the mainstream people and anoint them with positions to do their out of the mainstream things. In contrast, I think there are lots of smart people, and we need to broaden the mainstream that they work in. In particular, it would be nice to find a way to make it safer to work on longer term projects with less a probability of success. I just don’t think it’s an easy thing to do.

    As for the issue of respect, it has little to do with your attempts to “bring attention and appreciation” to other sorts of scientists. Without your book in hand, I can’t get into too much detail, but you could read this for a little example of what I’m thinking about.

    And, finally, I think you’ll agree that a tit for tat on who is disrespecting who else the most is hardly productive. As for myself, I did sit down and read a fair chunk of your book.

  30. Chris Oakley says:

    Re: Lee’s article linked by Aaron above.

    I was enjoying it until I read about the need for background independence. In particular, this:

    Meanwhile, many of those who continue to reject Einstein’s legacy and work with background-dependent theories are particle physicists who are carrying on the pragmatic, “shut-up-and calculate” legacy in which they were trained. If they hesitate to embrace the lesson of general relativity that space and time are dynamical, it may be because this is a shift that requires some amount of critical reflection in a more philosophical mode.

    … which seems to ignore the fact that there are several orders of magnitude between the levels of experimental verification for SR and GR.

    I have to say that criticism of String Theory will be seen as more legitimate if it is not combined with an advertising campaign for a particular alternative.

  31. egbert says:

    Aaron said, about Lee:

    As best I can tell, you think that there are different sorts of people and that we need to find these out of the mainstream people and anoint them with positions to do their out of the mainstream things. In contrast, I think there are lots of smart people, and we need to broaden the mainstream that they work in.

    I think a part of the problem is that there is disagreement about what counts as mainstream. It was once the case that, for something to be mainstream science, it had to satisfy the usual conditions of making predictions and so on. Now string theorists have not yet made a prediction from string theory but hope to, and they insist, forcefully, that what they are doing is mainstream (without saying what the new criteria for mainstream science are), and are quite explicit about the fact that they do not regard any other approaches to quantum gravity as mainstream.

  32. Kris Krogh says:

    Lee wrote:

    “Some of the people I am referring to … believe the current conceptual framework requires revision. For example they may see the necessity of first altering the foundations of quantum mechanics or obtaining a conceptually and mathematically consistent understanding of what an observable is in GR.”

    It’s also possible the foundations of GR may need modification to agree with quantum mechanics. I agree with Chris Oakley that GR is not so well tested, and it hasn’t been shown the world is background independent. I predict the results from Gravity Probe B will shed some light next April.

  33. Aaron Bergman says:

    I clarified what I meant by ‘mainstream’ there in the sentence right after the ones you quoted.

    Nobody working in quantum gravity has made any prediction, so perhaps it’s all out of the mainstream by your thinking.

  34. egbert says:


    Thanks for making references to my thinking. The sentence you say provides a clarification of what you mean by mainstream is:

    In particular, it would be nice to find a way to make it safer to work on longer term projects with less a probability of success.

    Less than what? Longer term project than what?

  35. jeremy says:

    On the way back from a recent trip to Cambridge, MA, sitting next to me on the plane was a middle age lady reading NEW. Curious, I made an effort to start a conversation. A friendly chat revealed that she was going home after visiting her child who is studying physics in one of the universities in Cambridge. Her child is planning to go to graduate school for theoretical physics and now is very worried what to do after reading the “black book” and the “blue book” (her own words, it took me a few seconds to realize what she meant, but not before she pulled out the “blue book” from a bag). As a mother, she wants to find out the details that made her child worry, although she knows little about physics. Is there a “war”? I don’t know. For a brief moment, I could almost smell gunpowder. As for the rest of my trip, it was very pleasant indeed.

  36. Kea says:


    You should have told the lady that it couldn’t possibly be a better time to go into Theoretical Physics, with so many great ideas in development.

  37. Chris Oakley says:

    I have “The Elegant Universe” and “Not Even Wrong” next to each other on my bookshelf. I have surrounded the bookcase with detectors in the hope of seeing some interesting new quark states when they annihilate. Unfortunately, though, nothing yet has happened. I wonder if this is because I did not actually pay for Brian Greene’s epic, having got it as a present?

  38. Thomas Larsson says:

    Is there a “war”? I don’t know.

    It is the third string revolution.

  39. Ari Heikkinen says:

    Well, if anyone read that piece by Brian Greene, he’s pointing out the same things he’s wrote in his books and other pieces (and I apologize for the quotes in advance, but I feel I can’t make my point without posting them here, so I’ll make them short) like:

    “Nevertheless, mathematical rigor and elegance are not sufficient to demonstrate a theory’s relevance. To be judged a correct description of the universe, a theory must make predictions that are confirmed by experiment.”


    “Nonetheless, should an inconsistency be found, or should future studies reveal an insuperable barrier to making contact with experimental data, or should new discoveries reveal a superior approach, I’d change my research focus, and I have little doubt that most string theorists would too.”

    Now, I’ve read again and again from some critics accusing that the advocates plain “lie” about the theory and some even claim they “falsify its results” to keep it going, but atleast of what I’ve read of the more prominent figures over the years they’ve basicly gone along Brian’s lines here.

    And I also tend to agree with this:

    “But to suggest dropping research on the most promising approach to unification because the work has failed to meet an arbitrary timetable for complete success is, well, silly.”

    I think both the advocates and the critics (atleast the sensible ones) are right on atleast the points that other research shouldn’t be abandoned in the name of string theory and also that it would be silly to abandon all that tens of years of promising research on string theory simply because the work hasn’t met some arbitrary timetable.

    I guess some progress is made when the fiercest critics and the foremost advocates can atleast respectfully disagree without calling eachothers crackpots. Now, if they could just go on with their research and start writing interesting papers again to prove their points would be even better.

  40. Tony Smith says:

    After downloading and listening to George Johnson’s KITP talk about the books of Peter Woit (“Not Even Wrong”) and Lee Smolin (“The Trouble With Physics”) at the following excerpts (transcribed from my hearing, with George Johnson denoted by “Johnson” and various audience members denoted by “KITP” because I am not sure of the various audience voices) seemed to me to be interesting:

    Johnson – I don’t think anyone would call Lee Smolin a crackpot.

    KITP – … Would you like to take a vote on that? …

    Johnson – Did you read the books?

    KITP – Me? No. No.

    KITP – I think that what bothers me is that people in the media are reading these books and thinking that what’s in them is true. …

    Johnson – I think that you should read at least one of the books.

    KITP – You know, if you know Lee [Smolin], it’s because he wants our money. It’s because he doesn’t have it that he wants to cut us down. …

    KITP – It is clear that a lot of people are upset with ths book and feel damaged by it. …

    KITP – these criticisms … the ones that are correct are the ones that are “of issue” that are being discussed within our community.
    That [blog] is really not the right forum or the right set of antagonists to discuss … the problems we face in the current stage of string theory
    I still think that the right attitude is not to engage in this kind of blog war … or public debate with marginal figures. …”.

    It is striking to me that:

    1 – The KITP superstringers regard debate about superstring theory, NOT as a debate about physics, but as a fight over money;

    2 – The KITP superstringers regard the funding they receive as “our money”,
    when in fact all their USA government support is taxpayer money, and therefore is as much my money as it is theirs;

    3 – The KITP superstringers concede that some of the criticisms are “correct”
    they say that even “correct … criticisms” should be discussed ONLY “within our community”
    should NOT be discussed in blogs or public debate with “marginal figures”;

    4 – The KITP superstringers describe even well-credentialled people such as Peter Woit and Lee Smolin as “marginal figures”
    (perhaps in the eyes of KITP superstringers everybody outside “our community” is “marginal”).

    I will leave it to readers (perhaps even some with Congress/NSF/DOE influence) to draw their own conclusions from the above statements coming directly from the mouths of the KITP superstringers.

    Tony Smith

  41. TheGraduate says:


    This is a horrible transcription and very, very inaccurate. I strongly suggest to anyone that reads this to be aware that these are isolated quotes from different speakers.

    I do want to stress that the spirit of the conversation is accurate in my opinion but the combined effect of representing several speakers as one speaker and omitting large amounts of the conversation both within quotes and between quotes is to render the whole transcription a gross distortion of what actually occured.

    Your inclusion of “…” just does not do justice to the huge swathes of conversation between some of the quotes.

  42. Tony Smith says:

    TheGraduate says that, in my comment 91, I was “… representing several speakers as one speaker …”.

    That is NOT true.
    I explicitly said that my transcription was with
    “… various audience members denoted by “KITP” because I am not sure of the various audience voices …”.
    each line beginning “KITP” contained excerpts from a single speaker.

    It is true that I did not quote the entire hour-long talk, but I DID include a link from which the entire hour-long talk can be downloaded by anyone interested in hearing the exact context of each excerpt.

    i am happy that it is the opinion of TheGraduate that, from my comment 91, “the spirit of the conversation is accurate”.

    As to whether or not the excerpts I quoted “render the whole transcription a gross distortion of what actually occured”, I leave it to the readers to download the entire talk and decide for themselves,
    bearing in mind that my stated purpose was NOT to transcribe the entire talk, but only to list some “excerpts” that “seemed to me to be interesting” and to comment on them.

    Tony Smith

    PS – If TheGraduate, or anyone else, can identify each of the various KITP audience members that I denoted by KITP, please feel free to do so. I would be interested in knowing who they are.

  43. TheGraduate says:

    My point is really just that bad quotes leave people with wiggle room later.

  44. Tony Smith says:

    Lubos Motl, in his “take… on the KITP video” posted yesterday (28 Oct 2006), said:

    “… David Gross and other famous physicists …[hold an]… opinion [that] is a qualified extrapolation of the old good times in which the foes of science were irrelevant, an era in which the enemies of well-established physical theories … could be humiliated or ignored by the scientists, according to the scientists’ choice.
    But if you listen to David Gross more carefully, you can tell that he is not so certain that his assumption continues to hold.
    We arguably live in the first decade of the human history in which … online technologies including the blogosphere have made …[the failure of his assumption]… possible. …”.

    It is interesting to me that:

    1 – Lubos considers that it would be “good” if “enemies of well-established physical theories … could be humiliated or ignored by the scientists”; and

    2 – Lubos laments that “online technologies” make it difficult for “the scientists” to “humiliate… or ignore…”
    those who offer alternatives to “well-established physical theories”
    (and are therefore perceived by “the scientists” as “enemies”).

    Maybe that explains Lubos’s ad hominem attacks on physicists who don’t blindly follow the “well-established physical theor[y]” of superstrings (for example, calling the books by Peter Woit and Lee Smolin “the two slanderous books” and talking about “the intellectual dishonesty of the authors of the books collectively referred to as Swolin”, and calling me a “moronic crackpot”).

    Tony Smith

  45. woit says:


    The funny thing here is that Lubos considers string theory to be a “well-established physical theory”. Thinking that one’s pet theory for which there is no scientific evidence is well-established physics sounds like crackpotism to me…

  46. Pingback: Not Even Wrong » Blog Archive » String Wars, Part Deux

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