This Week’s Hype: The Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe

Today The Atlantic has, via Quanta Magazine, some unadulterated, pure, grade A hype for the holidays: String Theory: The Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe. In a time when the credibility of science is under attack, does anyone else see a problem with telling the public that the “Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe” that science has is a “theory” for which we have no definition or equations, no experimental evidence, and no likelihood of ever getting any?

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40 Responses to This Week’s Hype: The Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe

  1. Mitchell Porter says:

    Meanwhile, if anyone wants a glimpse of the current status of theory and prediction in string theory, they might want to examine two papers which came out this week:

    https://arxiv.org/abs/1712.06623 … which presents an equation (page 3) for the fivebrane of M-theory

    https://arxiv.org/abs/1712.06894 … which exhibits “a full non-supersymmetric metastable SM-like 4D string model” (page 17)

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Mitchell Porter,

    I suppose they could do that, in which case (after a lot of work trying to understand some very complex constructions) they would see that the current status of “M-theory” is just as I have described it.

  3. Ian Lamm says:

    Having read that article, I couldn’t help but get a sense of faint – or not so faint – incredulity.

  4. Cédric Bardot says:

    To quote and paraphrase Mikaël Atiyah, String Theory is a “rich mathematical story” about the exploration or geometry with tools incepted by theoretical physicists.
    As far as a new paradigm beyond quantum fields, strings and branes have neither helped very much to better understand the detected standard model Higgs and its connection with higher energy or neutrino physics nor provided a helpful dynamical principle to explain the dark sector of the concordance cosmological model. Connes in a recent IHES video praised a famous string theorist (Veneziano) to stay sceptics about all conjectures and speculations but science sociology in France and the USA may be different just as science economies and policies are I guess.
    Of course Connes (and his physicists and cosmologist coworkers) defends his own view on the geometry-physics interaction offering an equation, a dynamical principle and a new model of spacetime expecting particle and astro-physics will probe the quanta of 4d spacetime that are waiting for the young guy or woman who will make the step further to a Matrix Model…

  5. Perturbative string theory is perfectly well defined mathematically and has equations. What does not “have equations” is non-perturbative string theory, due to not being constructed yet. Notice that the same is true for non-perturbative QFT, away from toy examples.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Urs,
    You continually post this same absurd crank comment here that QFT and string theory have the same status. It’s a waste of time to try and respond to someone who wants to continually mislead people by insisting that black and white are the same because they’re both shades of gray.

  7. This is about a technical fact which may be discussed exhaustively in a matter-of-fact way:

    Given a 2d SCFT of central charge 15 there is the formal power series of n-point functions of this SCFT integrated over the moduli spaces of super-Riemann surfaces. Perturbative string theory is by definition the S-matrix theory obtained by interpreting this power series as a perturbative scattering matrix.

    This may or may not be identifiable with fundamental scattering processes observed in nature, but it’s well-formed as a definition of a perturbative S-matrix theory.

    In fact perturbative QFT has a directly analogous formulation, where the Feynman perturbation series is equivalently rewritten as a formal power series of n-point functions of a 1d field theory on graphs. This insights is called the worldline formalism of pQFT.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Urs,
    This posting is about non-perturbative string theory which is supposed to explain everything about the real world, we know that perturbative string theory explains nothing about the real world.

  9. martibal says:

    Cédric, could you give the link to this IHES talk ?

  10. Brian White says:

    Peter,

    I’d wouldn’t expect Natalie Wolchover to hype string theory, and, having read the article, I don’t think that she actually did. The title The Atlantic used was hype, certainly, but I doubt very much she had any control over that. The original Quanta title was “Why is M-Theory the Leading Candidate for Theory of Everything?”, which, unlike The Atlantic’s title, is consistent with the text. That is, it’s an account of how string theory came to occupy its current position, not a triumphalist narrative.

    Writing about the circumstances that led Stalin to power doesn’t in itself imply that you’re glad Stalin came to power, and in fact Wolchover is quite careful not to endorse string theory. To quote: “This basic sequence of events has led most experts to consider M-theory the leading TOE candidate, even as its exact definition in a universe like ours remains unknown. Whether the theory is correct is an altogether separate question.”

    Maybe that’s what you meant by blaming “The Atlantic, via Quanta Magazine” for the hype. In any case, agreed, the effect of the article is bizarre. When Wolchover says that there’s no empirical evidence for string theory, it’s plainly intended as a serious objection. But The Atlantic’s slapping on a title like “String Theory: The Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe” implies the objection doesn’t matter.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Brian White,
    I suspect this piece was an outgrowth of Wolchover’s doing an extensive interview with Witten, and the “experts consider M-theory to be the leading….” story line reflects accurately Witten’s point of view. It’s one I disagreed with and wrote a book arguing against a long time ago, and I think my side of that argument has held up very well, with nothing positive happening for the other side since (the landscape?), and all the claims about “predictions” for the LHC turning out to be wrong.

    I think that in cases like this, where journalists like Wolchover accurately report the point of view of a field’s most prominent and distinguished scientists, the hype problem generated is the fault of those scientists, not of the journalists involved. The problems with this article are exactly the same ones that have been in such articles for 30 years now: proponents of string theory try to make their case by going right up to the edge of untruth in a discussion of highly technical issues, journalists try and accurately report what they say, generating a misleading text, headline writers then turn this into outrageous hype. You never hear complaints though from the original scientists, the failure here for them is not a bug but a feature.

    In the case of this article I did write in to say something about the problems with the original article in its comment section. Yes, the ridiculous headline in the Atlantic surely was not Wolchover’s doing, but there’s a long history of exactly this kind of thing happening with headlines of articles like this for a long time, that it would happen here again shouldn’t have been even slightly surprising.

  12. JonW says:

    Peter, that doesn’t seem a very fair characterisation of the article. It seems to be more about how difficult it is to construct a theory of everything, and why it is that despite not making any predictions that have been (or could ever be) borne out, M-Theory at least makes it out of the gate in a way that other attempts at Theories of Everything don’t. The article is very straightforward about the theory’s shortcomings.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    JonW,
    I don’t think I was unfair to the article, which repeats misleading claims about string/M-theory, e.g.:

    “M-theory looks like each of the string theories in different physical contexts but does not itself have limits on its regime of validity—a major requirement for the theory of everything.”

    and

    “string theory’s status as the only known consistent theory counts as evidence that the theory is correct.”

    Despite some caveats and careful wording, the text gives the impression that it’s describing a consistent viable TOE, when no such thing actually exists. It’s not surprising that the Atlantic headline writer read it this way and wrote the headline accordingly.

  14. John Baez says:

    The version of the article that I see now, following Peter’s link, doesn’t have the title Peter said it did. It’s not titled “String Theory: The Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe”. It’s simply “The Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe.” Did they change the title?

    The picture above the title has a big fat “M” in the middle, and the article says:

    This basic sequence of events has led most experts to consider M-theory the leading TOE candidate, even as its exact definition in a universe like ours remains unknown. Whether the theory is correct is an altogether separate question. The strings it posits—as well as extra, curled-up spatial dimensions that these strings supposedly wiggle around in—are 10 million billion times smaller than experiments like the Large Hadron Collider can resolve. And some macroscopic signatures of the theory that might have been seen, such as cosmic strings and supersymmetry, have not shown up.

    So, Wolchover is saying that “most experts” consider M-theory a “leading candidate” for a theory of everything—while not claiming the theory is correct, and admitting the lack of experimental evidence for it, and even noting that its exact definition “in a universe like ours” remains unknown.

    The last caveat, which sounds odd at first, harks back to the previous paragraph in which she wrote:

    AdS/CFT gives a complete definition of M-theory for the special case of AdS space-time geometries, which are infused with negative energy that makes them bend in a different way than our universe does.

    So, she’s pointing out that AdS/CFT doesn’t apply to our universe.

    In short, this does not seem like outrageous hype to me. Could the article have changed since Peter saw it? Or does he just have a different attitude than I do? (The latter is quite possible: an article I wrote for Scientific American also featured in his This Week’s Hype.)

  15. Cédric Bardot says:

    @martibal

    “Why Four Dimensions and the Standard Model Coupled to Gravity”.(https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qVqqftQ92kA Peter had already mentioned it in a former post) The last 30 minutes are a rare occasion to watch Connes discussing with physicists (and philosophers) on some of the last results obtained using his spectral paradigm.

  16. Peter Woit says:

    John Baez.
    “String Theory: The Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe – The Atlantic” is the html title of the page, it appears for instance in the tab for the page in my browser.

    The text title and subtitle are
    “The Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe

    String theory is considered the leading “theory of everything,” but there’s still no empirical evidence for it.”

    and I think they make very clear the current version of the 30-plus year old string theory hype problem. For many years the hype problem was stories like this
    http://www.nytimes.com/2000/04/04/science/physicists-finally-find-a-way-to-test-superstring-theory.html
    from the New York Times, which told us that string theory was finally making testable predictions and was about to be tested (at the LHC, by LIGO seeing cosmic strings, etc.). Now that string theory has failed all these tests, the current string theory hype is that this doesn’t matter: as the headline says, string theory is the best explanation for everything, even though there’s no observational evidence for it (left unsaid is that there are no prospects for such evidence, the theory is permanently immune from confrontation with experiment). Don’t you see a huge problem with telling the public this?

    The headline and sub-title is all most people will read, but it’s true that the text contains caveats. Some of these caveats are however misleading. What is not made clear is the reason for no experimental evidence: there is no viable theory. Much is made of “consistency” of the theory, but this is misleading: consistency of what? Also a standard misleading phraseology is the caveat about the definition of the theory: “its exact definition in a universe like ours remains unknown”. The problem with M-theory is not that it’s an approximation, the problem is that it’s not a theory. It doesn’t make approximate predictions, it makes no predictions.

    Finally, the “most experts consider M-theory the leading TOE candidate” really should be rephrased in a less misleading manner as “most experts think M-theory sucks as a TOE, but that alternatives also suck, and many feel maybe M-theory sucks less”.

  17. Frank says:

    I for one, when I read the Quanta article first, thought maybe someone paid or scared Natalie (who has really good and well known credibility for physics writing), to defend String Theory against all physicists who think it failed 🙂

  18. Anonymous says:

    I usually prefer not to comment on string theory, so this is a brief exception. Natalie Wolchover (who received some Science Communication Awards, for example the 2017 American Institute of Physics Science Communication Award for Articles, https://www.quantamagazine.org/authors/natalie/ and https://www.aip.org/aip/awards/science-communication/science-communication-award-articles/natalie-wolchover) and Quanta Magazine have both an often well deserved high reputation. In my (albeit anonymous) opinion, and with all the due and well deserved respect for her (previous) news articles and reports, Wolchover’s latest article in Quanta Magazine is way below the standard such a high reputation demands. Seriously? After decades of controversy about string theory, Wolchover, as a journalist, should be very much aware of, all she manages is to quote some comments (with all due respect) from a Caltech theoretical physicist (one). Is it enough? I do not think so, if that high reputation is well deserved, both Wolchover’s and that of Quanta Magazine. So, please, both, Wolchover and Quanta Magazine, do better next time. Or else, please do not report on string theory and quantum gravity, if you can’t do that honestly.

  19. Peter Woit says:

    Frank,
    Unfortunately, as far as I know the business of writing about theoretical physics includes very few opportunities to collect payoffs. To understand that article, note that Wolchover here
    https://twitter.com/nattyover/status/943877616217575424
    refers to “my interview with Edward Witten, a conversation that felt a bit like talking to God about the secrets of the universe”.

    Witten is a genius and an intellectually imposing figure, the article reflects his point of view. There’s a good case to be made that he’s our best theorist since Einstein, but it’s worth remembering that Einstein spent the last part of his life working at the IAS on a TOE that didn’t work out. I doubt there were many journalists in the 1950s who managed to get an interview with Einstein, then went down to Princeton to ask him: “Professor Einstein, isn’t it true that the TOE you have been working on for the past thirty years has been a complete failure, how do you feel about that?

  20. Philip Gibbs says:

    The article only claims it is the “best” theory of everything, not a “good” one. The word “best” could even be read as ironic. M-theory’s shortcomings are mentioned, e.g. the lack of empirical evidence is in the sub-title. Can anyone name a better theory of everything? What empirical evidence is there for any form of quantum gravity?

    We have seen hype before but I don’t see any here. The nearest it comes is “One philosopher has even argued that string theory’s status as the only known consistent theory counts as evidence that the theory is correct.” This is so loaded with caveats and other devices to weaken its impact that it verges on sarcasm. The positive things the article does say about its mathematical nature seem very balanced to me.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    Philip Gibbs,
    I think I’ll read your comment as ironic and sarcastic itself, thus agreeing with you.

  22. Art says:

    Why is The Atlantic publishing a Quanta article (as opposed to Quanta publishing it itself, or Wolchover writing directly for the Atlantic)? Is she under exclusive contract to Quanta? Enquiring minds want to know.

  23. Peter Woit says:

    Art,
    From Quanta’s website:

    “Quanta has partnered with major media outlets such as Wired and The Atlantic to help expand their science coverage. Syndication of Quanta articles has enabled these and several other popular publications — in English, German, Japanese, Spanish and other languages — to provide their readers with excellent coverage of math and science, free from paywalls. Quanta’s nonprofit-foundation-funded business model enables it to offer its content widely, at no cost, with only public service in mind.”

    Part of the deal seems to be that the major media outlets get to put a more exciting clickbaity title on the articles.

  24. Philip Gibbs says:

    Peter,
    If I said that string theory must be correct because it is the only known consistent theory, that would be absurd. If I said that string theory’s status as the only known consistent theory counts as evidence that the theory is correct, that would be highly debatable and controversial. If I say that one philosopher argued that, then I am merely making the unremarkable observation that a philosopher has said something open to debate. If I say that one philosopher has even argued that … , I am expressing incredulity that a philosopher has said something controversial. Surely that has to be sarcasm? Merry Xmas.

  25. Visitor says:

    Philip Gibbs,
    Most people don’t read as carefully as you seem to think. They are not looking for sarcasm, irony, nuance, subtlety. They expect a straightforward report about the subject under discussion. And, as far as I’m concerned, rightfully so. An article that needs to be carefully parsed and “deconstructed” to have its message grasped, is more of a word game than an informative explanation or report; i.e. it is a poor article.

  26. NoGo says:

    As a complete non-expert in the relevant things, I take issue only with the following words from the article:
    “This basic sequence of events has led most experts to consider M-theory the leading TOE candidate…”
    Is it really so? And most experts… on what? String theory? Particle physics? Physics in general?
    As a Wikipedia page would say, “quotation needed”.

  27. IMHO says:

    Visitor,

    Bravo! If we read with great care, parsing every word and phase like scientists are trained to do, we find a technically correct article whose nuanced meanings are arguably uncontroversial.

    However, I think we can all agree that the average Atlantic consumer sees a questionable headline that sets a narrative and creates a priori assumptions that aren’t necessarily accurate… But this is par for the course for today’s click-bait driven media, should we be surprised?

    At the end of the day, this double-entendre of an article, while factually accurate when read by many experts, is also misleading to the general public and suggests to a lay reader that M-Theory is well accepted, widely supported, and well on its way to becoming the final theory of everything… And I don’t think that’s completely true.

    This is analogous to reading a tax bill that favors corporations, but then claiming that a title like the Middle Class Jobs Act in no way obfuscates things or influences opinion since a precise technical reading is all that’s required to glean the intended message.

  28. Paolo Bertozzini says:

    The official Facebook post of Quanta Magazine linking to the original article is textually as follows:

    “Edward Witten’s M-theory, which combines all known versions of string theory, is widely seen as the leading candidate for the “theory of everything” because of its demonstrated mathematical consistency in reconciling gravity and quantum mechanics.”

    Note the stress on “mathematical consistency” … of “M-theory” in reconciling QM and gravity. The author of the article might not be directly responsible for the form of post … but the delibarate intent of “propaganda” is quite clear to me.

  29. Philip Gibbs says:

    Paolo Bertozzini, The only things I find objectionable in that quote are the use to the tired phrase “Theory of Everything” and the sole attribution of M-theory to Witten. It was the culmination of the work of string theorists such as Hull, Townsend and Duff, with Witten being one of the last to concede the important of membranes. Of course, once he accepted it his contributions were phenomenal.

    Until someone finds a way to perform quantum gravity experiments with positive results that can tell us something new about quantum gravity, mathematical consistency is all we have, and it is a powerful tool. This is true for any potential theory of quantum gravity. It is a generic problem, not something specific to M-theory. The term “leading candidate” is relative. What alternative can be said to be better? Its shortcomings are clearly mentioned: lack of empirical data, lack of equations,questions unanswered, it might not be correct. The claim in the article is that it is still the leading candidate despite this and that this is nevertheless quite significant. These things do require a very careful reading of the article to tease out its “nuanced” meanings, as someone put it. They are clearly laid out in unambiguous terms. There is no hype or propaganda here.

    Sorry if this is getting repetitive.

  30. Pingback: As post-modern cosmology loses interest in evidence, science publications lose the interest of readers | Uncommon Descent

  31. Peter Woit says:

    Philip Gibbs,
    You’re just completely ignoring what Paolo Bertozinni wrote. His objection was specifically to the claim of
    “demonstrated mathematical consistency in reconciling gravity and quantum mechanics.”
    for M-theory.

    If, as you acknowledge, you have no equations for M-theory, there is no way you can have “demonstrated mathematical consistency” of the theory. All you can have is “conjectured mathematical consistency”, which is something very different. Claims of “mathematical consistency” are actually referring to calculations (e.g. in flat 10d spacetime) which are physically inconsistent with the real world. The article is completely misleading because it essentially says that M-theory is a theory of the real world with “demonstrated mathematical consistency”. This is an untruth, accurately characterized by Bertozinni as “propaganda”.

  32. Philip Gibbs says:

    Peter, I think you are interpreting the words “mathematical consistency” in a much stronger sense than intended in the article. When it talks of “demonstrations of mathematical consistency” it meas that there are some calculations combining quantum theory and gravity that give consistent answers in a non-trivial way. It does not mean that M-theory has been proven to be a fully consistent mathematical theory for quantum gravity. Such strong statements of consistency cannot even be made for QCD.

    The article is full of caveats including the fact that its exact definition is unknown. The statements about consistency have to be taken in the context of that information. Without the complete equations you obviously can’t have a complete proof of consistency for the calculation of all quantities, in which case that can’t be what they mean. When knowledge is incomplete, a consistent theory is one that is not inconsistent based on what is known.

    I think given the shortness of the article it does a good job of covering both the positive and negative aspects of the theory in an honest, complete and balanced way. I don’t see any signs of propaganda.

  33. Peter Woit says:

    Philip Gibbs,
    No one is asking for a “proof”, or an “exact theory”, an approximate theory understood at the level of QFT would be fine.

    “Propaganda” is a good way to characterize claims to have a theory with demonstrated consistency, reconciling gravity and QM, when all you have is some not inconsistent calculations that have nothing to do with the real world. Running this under the title “String Theory: The Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe” takes it from propaganda to outrageous propaganda.

  34. Tim says:

    Just as another datapoint showing that things have gotten completely out of hand, there is currently a display in terminal D of the Philadelphia International Airport entitled “Supersymmetry in Nature” (I’m not kidding, I wish I were). Nothing in the description says anything about why the term supersymmetry is used.

    So anyone who has been busy searching for supersymmetry at the LHC … you’re just in the wrong place. It’s been hiding out at PHL, terminal D, gate 9-11.

    I’m sure String Theory can explain why it’s there.

  35. Peter Woit says:

    Tim,
    Thanks for the news. Looks like this is the explanation

    http://www.phl.org/Arts/Pages/Current/AndreaMarquis.aspx

  36. Kea says:

    Tim, I have regularly heard non science people on the street discussing how exciting String Theory is, ever since the big news from the LHC. Nobody seems to have heard about the Standard Model.

  37. Henry McFly says:

    1) no definition or equations
    2) no experimental evidence
    3) no likelihood of ever getting one

    Peter, your statements #1 and #2 are true for string theory, and they were simultaneouly true more than once in the history of particle physics for things other than string theory. I am not sure where you have proved statement #3 for string theory though. That would certainly end this whole discussion.

    It’s been 22 years since Witten’s M-theory unification and 20 years since Maldacena’s AdS/CFT correspondence. I think you would also agree that these were pretty big steps which justified pursuing string theory even without any empirical evidence. Now, I am wondering at what point after AdS/CFT do you think string theory became non science? 5 years, or 10 years after AdS/CFT? You started your blog back in 2004, so I guess it was 7 years after AdS/CFT. That sounds like a really short time for someone to be sure that a particular theory is not correct.

  38. Peter Woit says:

    Henry McFly,

    The M-theory conjecture does nothing to help with the problems of string theory unification, all it does is open up many more possible ways to produce models. AdS/CFT has nothing at all to do with the problem of string theory unification. You can try and argue that string/M-theory should purely be evaluated as an untestable theory of quantum gravity, and, as with this article, take your stand on “our untestable undefined theory of quantum gravity sucks less than the LQG people’s”. Up to everyone to evaluate for themselves the pros and cons of this argument, personally I think it’s a complete waste of time.

    My criticism was aimed at claims made for M-theory as a unification of the SM and gravity. I wouldn’t argue that it’s non-science, I’d argue that it’s bad science. Back in 1984-5 there were good reasons to try out the string theory unification idea, but the problems with it quickly became apparent, as people tried to come up with predictive models. We’re now thirty years on from the point it started to become clear this wasn’t a predictive unification scheme. I don’t think you can point to any analog in scientific history for, after 30 years of failure of an idea, press stories about it being “the best explanation”.

    As for prospects of testability of string theory unification, with the failure to find “predicted” SUSY or extra dimensions at the LHC, there are now no plausible proposals at all for how to get experimental evidence, and that’s what’s behind the ridiculous argument being made in this article.

  39. Sandia says:

    Without getting into the String Theory arguments, this article was pretty thin by Quanta Standards, short and nothing really new in it. I suspect it was a piece generated mainly to be distributed in The Atlantic as part of some content requirement agreement. In any case, I think the best way to describe String Theory is that it is a collection of theories of how Planck scale strings might behave, if they existed. The best way to describe M Theory is that it is a theory about what theories of strings have in common. That probably says what needs to be said.

  40. Marshall Eubanks says:

    RE: “It’s been … 20 years since Maldacena’s AdS/CFT correspondence. I think you would also agree that these were pretty big steps which justified pursuing string theory even without any empirical evidence.”

    As it happens, there is empirical evidence on this point. It shows that we do not live in an AdS universe, so, no, I at least would not agree to anything of the sort.

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