La Faillite de la Theorie des Cordes?

It appears that the release of the French edition of Lee Smolin’s book (entitled Rien ne va plus en physique ! : L’échec de la théorie des cordes) has stirred up quite a lot of attention to the string theory controversy over there. A correspondant wrote to tell me that this month’s edition of the French popular science magazine La Recherche has the controversy over string theory on the cover (La theorie des cordes dit-elle le vrai?) and four articles on the subject inside. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the magazine or on-line access to the articles, but just to an English language summary. It’s hard to tell from this exactly what’s in the articles. One of them is an interview with the historian of science Peter Galison, who seems to describe string theory as having “initiated a new way of seeing, crucial for the future of physics.” No idea what that is about, but I hope it’s not about the string theory landscape….

The string theorists of the Paris region have a web-page, which recently has acquired a defensive section about La faillite de la theorie des cordes? It encourages people to read Polchinski’s review of my book and Smolin’s (my response to this is here), as well as papers critical of LQG. The same web-page also has links to other information sources about string theory, including to two blogs. Personally I don’t think Jacques Distler’s blog is much of an advertisement for the subject, but sending people to Lubos Motl’s is a pretty funny thing to do….

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21 Responses to La Faillite de la Theorie des Cordes?

  1. Jean-Paul says:


    Biographie de l’auteur
    Chercheur en physique à l’Institut Perimeter (Canada), Lee Smolin a été baptisé ” nouvel Einstein “.

    So French will take it seriously. They take anything written by Americans very seriously.
    By the way, there are no serious superstring defenders in France, so it’s a completely different battle ground than elsewhere.
    Unlike in Germany, students are able to escape to more interesting research areas.
    You will see talk-shows trashing strings etc — it will be really amusing…

  2. Bee says:

    Faites vos jeux, Ladies and Gentlemen, rien ne va plus.

  3. Coin says:

    It encourages people to read… papers critical of LQG

    Actually, I’d be curious what those are.

    What are the papers that critics of LQG would be likely to recommend on the subject? I lack the french skills to effectively tease this out from the link.

  4. Peter Woit says:


    To find the papers you just need to click on the links in the relevant paragraph. Don’t worry, no danger that you’ll hit a link that is not critical of LQG…

  5. SnarkFest says:

    Peter Galison was interviewed recently for the Scientists’ Nightstand (American Scientist). His acknowledged influences and recent reading are somewhat revealing.

    More on Galison from Steve Hsu:

    Both my friend and I are great admirers of Galison. After earning his doctorate in the history of science, he wrote a second dissertation in particle theory under Howard Georgi while a junior fellow at Harvard. Other than particle theorists turned science historians like Sam Schweber or Abraham Pais (see here and here), I can’t think of anyone more qualified to work on the (underdeveloped) history of modern physics.

  6. Who says:

    in case anyone is unfamiliar with *la faillite* the website name translates to

    The Bankruptcy of String Theory?

    and this is a damage control website concerned with defending the self-respect and self-importance of the string theorizing community.

    this must be that the idea of string bankruptcy is already current in
    people’s minds, so therefore the defenders wish to challenge
    this prevalent notion, so they put a question mark on it and call
    their site: String Bankruptcy?

    a kind of Enron case judging by this interesting French reaction.

  7. chris says:

    “Actually, I’d be curious what those are.

    What are the papers that critics of LQG would be likely to recommend on the subject? I lack the french skills to effectively tease this out from the link.”

    read this: hep-th/0501114

    really fun and good to see on what kind of shaky assumptions LQG is built, too. my personal favorite: the ‘pulverization’ of space to obtain vanishing inproduct of graphs on different support.

  8. Lee Smolin says:

    The issues raised by those Nicolai et al were not new and were well understood already in the LQG world many years ago. They are the main reason many workers switched to formulating dynamics in a path integral formulation in the late 90s, and they do not apply to those formulations of dynamics. They also do not apply to the currently studied approaches to the hamiltonian formulation of dynamics such as the master constraint formulation. Thus, the criticisms of that paper ignore roughly the last ten years of work in the field.

    There have been several responses to that paper, including arXiv:hep-th/0608210 and arXiv:0705.2222. This has also been discussed in previous blog entries, which I assume you can find by searching.

    The vanishing of the inner product between states of different support is not an assumption and not shaky, by the uniqueness theorem proved in gr-qc/0504147 and math-ph/0407006 it is a necessary consequence of the requirement of having a diffeomorphism invariant measure on functionals of a connection.


  9. I subscribe to La Recherche, and have read this article. There is not much in there that you won’t know already. I would guess that this is mostly a news article related to the French translation of Lee Smolin’s book, which was recently published here.

    The first part that is essentially an interview of Lee Smolin with a bit of historical background and context. The second part is an alternative viewpoint entitled “4 successes of strings”, these being: a quantum description of gravity, the possibility to unify all forces, better understanding of astrophysical phenomena, beginning of an answer on the nature of space-time. The third part lists various competing space-time theories, unfortunately omitting a pet favorite of mine (Nottale’s scale relativity), but referring to LQG, CDT and non-commutative geometry. Finally, part 4 is an interview with Peter Gallison on the criteria to judge a theory, where he essentially answers that a good theory is one we can apply, like Newton’s laws, even after we realize it’s wrong…

    About “faillite”, while “Who” is right that this word in French may translate as “bankrupcy”, it may also translate as “failure”, and that’s how I personally read it in that particular context (as I suspect most other French natives would).

    I have made a quick reference to that article in a recent post on my own blog, although this is not the main topic of the post. Peter, feel free to delete that last paragraph if you feel it’s off topic.

  10. Who says:

    That’s interesting Christophe,
    how would you translate this phrase in the French title of Smolin’s book which Peter gave in the original post?
    L’échec de la théorie des cordes

    Does *faillite* convey a different flavor from *échec”?

  11. Peter Woit says:


    “Echec” is more like “defeat”, or incomplete defeat, as in “setback”. The word comes from chess (“check”, but not necessarily “mate”).

    “Faillite” is well-translated as “failure” in this context (same root), but also specifically is used to mean bankruptcy (economic failure), so carries some of that connotation.

  12. Hi Who,

    Peter seems to know French pretty well. I would add that “faillite” also conveys a sense of lost credibility, and in that sense, it may be a better translation of the original intent.

  13. Who says:

    Thanks both Peter and Christophe. I was interested in how you hear that.
    Trying to understand the French context better I just checked and found Smolin’s book (which has a preface by Alain Connes) had salesrank 2021, while for comparison the two Brian Greene books in French translation had ranks 13,720 and 22,437. I could find no other string books with better sales than those two. So it appears that if a French reader picks up a book about string theory it is most apt to be the one by Smolin.

    Peter mentioned the etymology of *faillite* so I glanced in the the Petit Larousse (the Webster’s analog, not a French-English dictionary) which gives the primary meaning as the commercial one, bankruptcy in other words. Larousse explained the etymology by saying the word came into French from the Italian FALLITO. This has the primary meaning of bankruptcy in Italian, same root as “default” I suppose. It also has the secondary figurative meaning of failure. Thought you might like to know the French word does not derive from the French verb faillir “to err, to miss, to fail etc”, but instead was brought over from Italian and was originally applied specifically to commercial collapse: bankruptcy.

    I agree with Peter that *echec* has a much less drastic connotation. Setback is very good. To hold an enemy force in echec is to hold it “at bay” rather than destroy it. The word is more like “unsuccess” than failure or collapse.

    So the book subtitle merely suggests that string has stalled and is not making progress, while the website name uses the actual word for bankruptcy, connoting collapse and, as Christophe suggests, loss of credibility.

    It’s interesting how words sound to different people. Thanks again for “lending me your ears.”

  14. Peter Woit says:


    I don’t think it makes sense to compare sales figures for books that have come out recently with ones that have been out for a long time. I’m quite pleased with how well my book sold, and Lee’s sold even better, which is great. At least in the US though, I don’t think either of our books came anywhere near doing as well as Brian’s, and suspect the situation in France isn’t that different.

    In any case, no matter what the sales figures, the two books have done remarkably well in terms of getting attention for the issues that both of us were trying to raise, and providing a counter-balance to the overly optimistic story about string theory that was dominant until recently.

  15. Who says:

    My goodness! I see that the French edition of your book is due to be released in a couple of weeks—-3 October 2007.


    and they arent even doing hardbound first, they are going right to the paperback edition for the, as it were, mass market. Market should be ripe.

    Looks like old one-two punch. French Smolin comes out in April and French Woit in October.

    Hope you take some earthly pleasure in this, Peter.

  16. T. says:

    About “Même pas fausse”, yet another frenchman’s opinion:

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure “Not even wrong” can really be translated in french without conveying a childish meaning.

    This is because in france “Not even true” is a phrase that is really only used in playgrounds. It’s a 100% clue that the person who said that is a child. So “Not Even Wrong” has a very strong childish argument flavor, and is less powerfull than in english.

    But I hope I’m wrong and it will sell, cause the book is great.

  17. Who says:

    T. please give an example of a situation in which the phrase might be used.
    Peter sorry if this is off topic, I’m curious to know how the phrase comes across in French.

  18. T. says:

    mm, well it would go something like:

    Child 1: “You looser !”
    Child 2: “Not even true ! You’re the looser !”

    I insist that no adult would ever use “même pas vrai”, except if he deliberately wanted to look childish for some reason.
    So “Même pas faux” is funny and smart, but still is associated to an argument taking place between children. (in my humble opinion)

  19. I agree with T. It’s also associated in my mind with another childish phrase, “même pas mal” (I’m not even hurt), which a three years old would typically say after falling from the cupboard where he was trying to steal forbidden sweets.

    All in all, I find it’s a rather good title, but with a very different connotation from the original “Not even wrong”, even if it’s a litteral translation. Funny.

  20. Hendrik says:

    Another review of “The trouble with physics” just appeared on the ArXiv at:

  21. Coin says:

    Hm. Are book reviews on the ArXiv common?

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