String theory is ‘not even wrong’

“String theory, however, despite not having made a single testable prediction after more than 30 years of investigation, now seems to risk becoming a self-perpetuating intellectual monoculture in theoretical particle physics.

Aug 1st, 2006

“String theory, however, despite not having made a single testable prediction after more than 30 years of investigation, now seems to risk becoming a self-perpetuating intellectual monoculture in theoretical particle physics.”

Has string theory already passed its “sell-by” date? Are the legendary string theorists tying themselves up in knots to no avail? Are the emperors of particle physics not wearing any clothes? Perhaps the much-ballyhooed string theory is “not even wrong” in the famously scathing words of quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli who frequently applied those disparaging words in discussions with his colleagues?

To judge by the current tempest in a teapot surrounding string theory, all of the foregoing statements may have some value and some may even be correct. The roiling controversy surrounds a thought-provoking book on the state of quantum physics by Columbia University’s superstar mathematical physicist, Peter Woit (on second thought, make that “states.”) Entitled, not surprisingly, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics, the book was published in June in London by Jonathan Cape and will be available in the U.S. in September (Basic Books, New York, NY).

Naturally, the controversy has spread into the Internet medium referred to as the “blogosphere,” where anyone can publish anything with or without the respectability of credentials. On one side, of course, sits Woit with his frequently entertaining and highly respected blog, entitled, naturally, “Not Even Wrong.” And “reviewers” have been swinging at the book and each other on Amazon, the online bookstore. Go to Amazon.co.uk to see all the reviews. Amazon, of course, prints all the reviews it gets-without fear or favor. Not all of these amateur reviewers choose to give their real names-and for good reason.

Some of the big names do not hide behind a nom de plume (nom de key?). Here’s what Harvard superstar physicist and firebrand Lubos Motl had to say about Woit’s blog (and book): “It is designed to misinterpret and obscure virtually every event in physics and transform it into poison-and to invent his own fantasies to hurt science. This makes Woit’s blog highly popular among the crackpots.” For even more scathing comments, you can turn to Motl’s own blog at motls.blogspot.com.

On the other side of the coin, the book quotes Richard Feynman as saying in 1987, a year before his death: “I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and it is in the wrong direction.” As an elder statesman of physics, Feynman would have encouraged string theory research at least up to the point where it was clearly proven wrong.

In his blog, “Fourmilog,” Autodesk founder John Walker says, “String theory, however, despite not having made a single testable prediction after more than 30 years of investigation, now seems to risk becoming a self-perpetuating intellectual monoculture in theoretical particle physics.” Walker has a four-page review of Woit’s book on his blog that is well worth reading even if you don’t buy the book.

Check out, too, Walker’s highly eclectic Web site that he calls “Fourmilab,” (Yes, it’s a word play on “Fermilab” of WWII nuclear research fame but, of course, there’s no connection except that quantum mechanics is one of Walker’s many surprising interests). Apropos of nothing, I also recommend viewing of his fascinating short movie “The Four Seasons,” downloadable from Fourmilab (if you have a high-speed broadband internet connection).

Finally, I think you will get another more rational perspective from Christopher Oakley, a British physicist, who said: “This book is not the end of the story. It is, on the contrary, a beginning. It forms a basis from which the younger generation of scientists can decide what is and what is not worth examining. . . . To have an account of the state of the art free of hype and unwarranted self-promotion is a major contribution.”

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
jnbairstow@verizon.net

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