Who’s Winning the String Wars and Why Should You Care?

Part two of Gerald Alper’s piece at Smashpipe is now available there, with the title Who’s Winning the String Wars and Why Should You Care?, and some more substantive material than in part one. One of the great things about having a blog is that whenever anyone writes anything about you that you think might not be 100% correct, you can blog about it, and explain yourself ad nauseam. So, here are a few clarifications for readers of that article:

  • About the “horrible sentence”

    The Hilbert space of the Wess-Zumino-Witten model is a representation not only of the Kac-Moody group, but the group of conformal representations [transformations] as well.

    I don’t think it’s a bad sentence, it succinctly conveys the main point about the close relationship of the WZW QFT to representation theory. Like a certain number of things in the book though, it’s not intended for everyone. There were certain things I wanted to explain, and the way I went about this was to try to as clearly write them down as possible, in a way accessible to as many people as possible, but well aware that not everyone would understand everything. Unlike writing “the WZW model is related to mathematics like X is to Y”, where X and Y are things most people would recognize, you’re not going to get fooled into believing you understand something you don’t by what I was writing. Those who do understand the sentence will understand a real idea.

  • I AM VERY CONFIDENT that I AM RIGHT. No one has ever critiqued string theory with the level of detail that I have.

    Not sure exactly how I said this, but I suspect the “no one has ever” wasn’t intended to convey that this was a good thing. I’ve clearly spent too much of my life thinking about this. I also should specify that what I’m confident about is that current “string vacua” models don’t correspond to reality. They’re complicated, ugly, and don’t explain anything. My suspicion is that even Witten might not completely disagree with this, acknowledging that at our current understanding of string theory, there is no convincing model. I think a more accurate way of characterizing where Witten and I disagree here is with how promising it is to pursue this particular vision of unification. I am not at all confident that Witten or someone else pursuing it might not come up with something really new and successful some day. I just think it’s a relatively unpromising route to keep heading down, although I acknowledge it’s possible it might lead to finding a more interesting path. Doubtless Witten feels the same way about things I find more promising.

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30 Responses to Who’s Winning the String Wars and Why Should You Care?

  1. Bee says:

    I’ve summed up Witten’s thoughts here. 😉

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Bee,
    That’s really wonderful, hadn’t seen it.

    And congratulations on ten years of Backreaction, as well as its new sponsor!

  3. paddy says:

    Peter,
    There’s your problem. You lack Ms. Hossenfelders rhythm. And thank you for the link.

  4. paddy says:

    Peter,
    Sorry for two posts. After reading the Alber’s article it is my opinion you come off quite well. No need for caveats.

  5. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I hold you blameless, but I hated that “interview”. I learned ten times more about the interviewer than his subject, most of which was irritating. I learned precious little else about science or other scientists, beyond the obsequiousness their high IQs induce in Mr. Alper. Allegedly there were three-plus hours of fascinating conversation. I wish the fascinating parts had actually made it into print.

  6. MC says:

    Is there a part three? Because I see no interview in part two.

  7. jim says:

    Personally, I read your blog at least partly because you write clearly and honestly.

  8. Chris Oakley says:

    I second LMMI’s comment above.

    In regard to the “horrible sentence”, I think the point is just that Not Even Wrong (the book) is not really written for a general audience. It is more a book for people like me who already have a D.Phil. (or Ph.D.) in Elementary Particle Physics. I loved it, but admit that, not knowing anything about the WSW model, I cannot claim to have found the “horrible sentence” much more comprehensible than Alper or Holt did.

    Which reminds me: you need to update the non-paywall link to the Robert Matthews review of your book to this: http://www.cgoakley.org/qft/RM%20Strings%20FT.html

  9. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I’m also mystified by the critiques of your writing (both your own and others’) in this piece. OK, not a lot of flowery prose, but I tend to like it when authors resist the urge to sacrifice clarity and directness to show off their facility with adjectives and metaphors. Better still if they apparently lack the urge altogether. The visual presentation of the blog very much reflects the content, and I think that’s great: uncluttered, efficient, clear. Nothing remotely wrong with that. Nothing “rough-hewn” about it, either. Not being showy or self-indulgent doesn’t make one unrefined, for heavens sakes. It’s just different, and far too rare in online content, IMO.

  10. Bernhard says:

    LMMI,

    I second your last comment very much. Peter, many of us that come here like your clear argumentation and sober conscious between what you know and what you do not. Don’t ever change it! 🙂

    There is also another thing that’s irritating in this interview which is a an obvious reverence to authority. The whole part on “Witten is the greatest string theorist who ever lived” makes that clear, just to give an example.

    Very little content in this interview and too pompous to my own taste.

  11. KJ says:

    The interview and this discussion of it nicely illustrate the difference between a mathematician/scientist and a journalist. When the former communicates, the primary goal is the efficient transfer of meaningful information. To the latter, the story and how it is told take precedence. It is no surprise that most readers of this blog prefer the former.

  12. Chris W. says:

    I was going to say some things about Alper’s style, but others have already expressed my reactions well. I also heartily endorse LMMI’s comments and the follow-ups on them.

  13. Scott Church says:

    I’m currently reading Lee Smolin’s book The Trouble With Physics and enjoying it very much. Regarding references to authority (e.g. “Witten is the greatest string theorist who ever lived…”) he tells a story about a talk Alain Connes gave at a symposium in Chicago in 1996. A little ways into the talk a prominent unnamed string theorist got up and left. A couple years later Connes gave the talk again at the Rutherford Laboratory and the same guy was there, but this time he sat through the whole thing with rapt attention and praised it later in his own talk. Shortly thereafter Connes ended up sitting next to him on a bus. He asked him point-blank… “How can it be that you attended the same talk in Chicago and you left before the end, and now you really liked it?” The guy’s answer was… “Witten was seen reading your book in the library at Princeton…!”

    According to Smolin, this sort of thing is not uncommon and he had many similar anecdotes. As an outsider I’m in no position to comment–certainly not as well as Peter and many others here. But if he’s right, the string theory community is on the verge of becoming a mega-church with Witten and one or two others as it’s high priests. To be fair, Smolin also said that this sort of thing is staring to change and he’s starting to see string theorists willing to admit that their field is “in crisis”. But even so, this strikes me as beyond troubling.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Scott Church,
    That story about Witten is well-known, but a couple comments

    1. There are far worse reasons for getting interested in something than finding out that Witten was interested. Paying some attention to what the best people find interesting isn’t a bad idea at all.

    2. Things have changed quite a lot, and it has been a long time since Witten’s enthusiasm for something has had much of an effect. The fact that Witten was working on geometric Langlands for quite a while didn’t seem to cause many physicists to get interested. Arguably these days physicists aren’t paying enough attention to his enthusiasms…

  15. Jeffrey M says:

    Scott and Peter,

    Well, first, I think Peter is right, it’s a good idea to pay attention to what the best people in your field are interested in. That said, I’ve never had a satisfactory explanation of why physicists are so enthralled with Witten. He’s clearly a brilliant mathematician, there’s a reason he won the Fields. My orals in grad school were to present a paper of his which was published in JDG. I spent several weeks trying desperately to understand it, finally went to one of my committee members, who pointed me to a book by John Roe which was essentially the paper, explained in much more detail. Beautiful beautiful stuff. But I’ve never figured out what physics result, confirmed by experiment, is Witten’s. He can’t be loved so much just for string theory? I think he was a postdoc at Princeton when I was there in the late 70’s, what was he doing then? I remember people talking about him (I was in physics back then, ended up in math after I transferred to Hampshire).

  16. Scott Church says:

    Thanks Peter… that’s good news! Smolin did make a point of emphasizing what a great physicist Witten is and how much he’s brought to the field (as though anyone would question that). I guess what worried me was that this wasn’t the only such anecdote he told, and the overall picture he paints is one of the string community treating Witten’s interests not as a matter of expertise, but as authoritative… Witten is interested, so it must be true. If that’s changed somewhat since the book came out (2007), wonderful! We’re not going to get very far if we start treating scientists as authorities rather than experts. 🙂

  17. Peter Woit says:

    Jeffrey M,
    Witten came to Princeton in 1980 (he had been a grad student there mid-70s). His reputation in physics isn’t really built on string theory: he was by far the most respected figure in the field in 1984, before string theory hit (his decision to take it up was influential for that reason). My popular book has a chapter where I try to explain what he was doing pre-string theory, why it was important both as math and physics.

    Witten really was just born too late. Basically there have been no Nobel prizes for theoretical developments post his grad student days, so you can’t hold it against him that he doesn’t have one.

  18. Jeff M says:

    Peter

    I wasn’t holding against him the lack of a Nobel prize. We math types disdain the Nobel 🙂 I just never had anyone talk about what he did in physics. Anyway, as I said, he’s certainly a brilliant mathematician, or he was. Funny I thought he was at Princeton when I was there, maybe I remember people talking about him from when he was a grad student and how great he was. By 1980 I was at Hampshire…

  19. curious says:

    My suspicion is that even Witten might not completely disagree with this, acknowledging that at our current understanding of string theory, there is no convincing model. I think a more accurate way of characterizing where Witten and I disagree here is with how promising it is to pursue this particular vision of unification. I am not at all confident that Witten or someone else pursuing it might not come up with something really new and successful some day. I just think it’s a relatively unpromising route to keep heading down, although I acknowledge it’s possible it might lead to finding a more interesting path. Doubtless Witten feels the same way about things I find more promising.
    ^

    So uh have you ever spoken to Ed Witten about this?

  20. Peter Woit says:

    curious,

    No. But I think there’s a reason he doesn’t these days work on “string phenomenology” models. If he thought there was a convincing model, I think he would be working on that.

  21. Justin says:

    “Doubtless Witten feels the same way about things I find more promising.”

    By this you mean he “does” or “does not” feel that these other things are promising?

  22. Luca Signorelli says:

    Peter,
    I’m no scientists, but a former professional journalist and editor of a major magazine in Italy. And this interview is dreadful. Unprofessional, badly written, confused and tedious. As others have noted, the author is so enamored of himself he forgets he was supposed to write about you. A hack job if I’ve ever seen one, which I’ve wouldn’t ever allowed to print had I’ve been the editor. Sad (albeit hardly your fault)

  23. Thomas Larsson says:

    Actually, I think the sentence is a bit horrible, but for a different reason and because I have struggled a lot to formulate sentences like that myself. I would say that the Hilbert space carries a representation, or that the representation acts on the Hilbert space, or that the Hilbert space is a module for the Kac-Moody group, thinking of a representation as matrices and of a module as the vector space on which they act.

  24. Peter Woit says:

    Justin,
    My guess is that he doesn’t find promising things that I do, again, with the best evidence that he doesn’t work on them.

  25. Or he thinks he has done the math-phys that was his job to do, setting up the right theory, and others are to work out the phenomenology.

    In the recent words on Gordon Kane,

    at 21:23 in https://videoonline.edu.lmu.de/en/node/7485 and referring to Acharya-Witten, Witten-Atiya and Witten’s work on M-theory on G2-manifolds:

    Witten sort of took the attitude: well, the whole thing is set up, we are done, this is the right answer. He went off and did mathematics after that. But this is where we began.

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Urs,
    In the same talk Gross took the unusual step of intervening and pointing out that almost no one in the theory community believes Kane’s claims about using this to make predictions. I strongly suspect Witten would agree with him.

    Witten’s Ph.D. thesis was on phenomenology and he’s written many papers over the years on phenomenology, not mathematics. I see no reason to believe that he believes in the kinds of claims Kane is making, but just doesn’t want to work on any of that himself, preferring to stick to things like Khovanov homology.

  27. John Baez says:

    “The Hilbert space of the Wess-Zumino-Witten model is a representation not only of the Kac-Moody group, but the group of conformal representations as well.”

    This sentence would be less horrible if it said “group of conformal transformations”. That, at least, is a thing!

    I see that in your book you indeed said “transformations”, not “representations”. Whew!

    So where did the typo first creep in? I see it’s in Alper’s description of Holt’s complaint.

  28. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks for pointing that out John!

    I’m a bit disturbed that I read that and repeated it on the blog without noticing the problem…

    Checking, it looks like the typo is Alper’s. I realize that I wrote about it here
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=464
    and way back then the typo wasn’t there.

  29. lucy m says:

    I read because I see a man with integrity and a cause I believe in. The fact he’s stuck to it, all these years through good times and bad. It was never going to win friends or boost his career, much nearer the reverse than that. I just feel so damn rare in our time. Also he virtually never publishes my comments and Groucho Marx yes sir!

  30. Daniel Kagan says:

    Wow is this interview bad. Why does the author spend so much time talking about a review of Peter’s book, rather than the book itself? This article illustrates the differences between bad journalism and good journalism, rather than the difference between scientists and journalists.

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