The September issue of Physics World is out, featuring a 13 page advertising supplement for string theory which is pretty much unadulterated hype. The same issue includes an editorial which takes the point of view that the only problem with string theory is that:
String theorists need to do much more to explain their field’s genuine links to experiment
String theory’s lack of falsifiability is minimized as a problem, and the fact that it “raises several philosophical issues, such as the role of anthropic reasoning” is listed as a point in its favor. As for those who complain that string theory predicts nothing, in particular nothing about what will happen at the LHC, they are told to just shut up:
With CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) due to switch on next year, now is the wrong time to slam string theory for its lack of predictive power. While not able to prove string theory is right, the discovery of supersymmetric particles at the LHC would give it a major boost…
The fact that string theory doesn’t predict supersymmetry visible at LHC scales is actually acknowledged in the advertising supplement by Kachru and Susskind.
The few quotes from string theory skeptics allowed seem chosen to be those that put string theory in the most favorable possible light (except for Phil Anderson, who is reduced to hostile spluttering by Polchinski’s claims that string theory may explain high Tc superconductivity). This allows the editorialist to conclude:
However, the richness of string theory that has become apparent in the last decade, and its increasing contact with the real world, gives theorists something to shout about. This is why our main feature on the subject, which started with fairly modest intentions, has ballooned into the longest ever to appear in Physics World. As the views of even many non-string theorists in the article make clear, the theory still holds all the potential it ever did to revolutionize our understanding of the universe.
The critique of string theory by Smolin and myself is pretty much completely ignored or dismissed, with Susskind quoted as having come up with a new insulting term for us (to him we’re “Smoit”, evidently he likes that better than the “Swolin” favored by those in Santa Barbara). The claim is made that
few string theorists think that the sometimes negative portrayal of string theory in the popular arena recently has had much of an effect other than to irritate people.
Amidst the endless misleading hype contained in the Physics World piece, there’s some that simply is demonstrably completely untrue. The most egregious example might be the discussion of Witten’s Fields Medal which claims that it was awarded him due to his work on string theory compactification spaces:
.. with the study of 6D “Calabi–Yau” spaces making Witten in 1990 the first physicist to be awarded the prestigious Fields Medal
The quotes from Witten himself don’t include any of the hype about connections to experiment. He describes string theory as something very poorly understood, with even the fundamental equations of the theory unknown, and no good ideas about how to find them, leading to the danger that even if his vision is correct, realizing it may just be too hard:
It’s incredibly rich and mostly buried underground. People just know bits and pieces at the surface or that they’ve found by a little bit of digging, even though this so far amounts to an enormous body of knowledge… 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. But despite that, what’s understood is a tiny, tiny amount of the full picture.. One of the greatest worries we face is that the theory may turn out to be too difficult to understand… [about the search for equations for string theory] This is certainly a question that interests me… but if I don’t work on it all the time, it’s because it’s difficult to know how to make progress.
Unlike Witten, many of the other string theorists quoted seem to have no problem with issuing streams of highly misleading hype claiming “predictions” of string theory. For instance, from David Gross:
String theory is full of qualitative predictions, such as the production of black holes at the LHC or cosmic strings in the sky, and this level of prediction is perfectly acceptable in almost every other field of science,” he says. “It’s only in particle physics that a theory can be thrown out if the 10th decimal place of a prediction doesn’t agree with experiment.
I don’t know how to characterize this kind of claim that string theory is as predictive as other scientific theories, just not able to get accuracy to 10 decimal places, as anything other than out-and-out dishonesty. If someone could come up with a legitimate, distinctive, testable prediction of string theory that gave even the correct order of magnitude for some experimental result, that would be a huge breakthrough.
Michael Green, while describing the landscape and its potential to allow for a small CC as “an enormous success” for string theory, is one of several string theorists characterizing the status of string theory as being just as good as that of QFT, with the landscape not a real problem at all, just a “supposed” one:
This supposed problem with a theory having many solutions has never been a problem before in science.
Several people promote the anthropic point of view, with Susskind describing it as the third superstring revolution, one that is even more of a revolution than the others. Polchinski adds
In terms of changing the way we think about the world, the anthropic landscape is certainly as big as the other revolutions
while Susskind’s colleague Shamit Kachru is described as “in the middle”, sensibly pointing out that it would have been a stupid thing for people to do, once they realized that the ratios of sizes of planetary orbits were environmental, to start claiming that “there is a deep anthropic lesson to be learned from Newtonian gravity.”
All in all, I think that the picture the Physics World article presents of the reaction of leading string theorists to the failure of the superstring unification project is a depressing one. Instead of acknowledging in any way this failure and considering what can be learned from it, on the whole they seem to prefer to abandon science for anthropic pseudo-science, to spout misleading claims of bogus “predictions” of string theory, and make indefensible claims that the lack of predictivity of string theory is not unusual for a science.
On the other hand, among string theory skeptics, I fear that the attitude of Howard Georgi is all too common:
I have been critical in the past of some of the rhetoric used by string-theory enthusiasts,” says Howard Georgi of Harvard University, who coinvented the supersymmetric extension of the Standard Model in 1981. “But I think that this problem has largely corrected itself as string theorists learned how complicated string theory really is. I am concerned about the focus of young theorists on mathematical details, rather than what I would consider the real-world physics of scattering experiments, but with any luck the LHC will take care of that by reminding people how interesting the real world can be.”
The problem with string theory is not too much mathematics and a lack of effort towards making connection to real world experiments, but that it is a wrong idea about unification, and thus cannot ever explain the standard model or predict what lies beyond it. The recent move among string theorists to hype bogus claims about connections to experiment, abandoning the search for greater mathematical insight into string theory as just “too hard”, retooling themselves as more salable “string phenomenologists” and “string cosmologists” is not a healthy trend. It is based on adopting the Susskind-Polchinski “multiverse” revolution in the received wisdom about how to do fundamental physics, slowly turning a once great subject from a science into a pseudo-science.
Update: Lubos is beside himself with glee over the Physics World article, see here and here (don’t miss the photo-shopped “Smoit” graphic of me and Lee Smolin). For something more reasoned, there’s a short piece at Wired.