Bitter emotions and obsolete understanding of high-energy physics (1 star)
Peter Woit is the owner of a well-known blog that provides high-energy theoretical physics with the same service as William Dembski's ID blog offers to evolutionary biology: 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 example some of the reviewers of this book. The book is not identical to the author's blog but it is not too different either.
Parts of this book are fun to read, although they will be too difficult for outsiders. But the text is definitely not a trustworthy source of knowledge about physics. The book can basically be divided into two parts. The first part of the book describes physics from the early 20th century to the 1970s or so. This part covers some standard material as well as some points that have not yet appeared in the popular literature. The early chapters also honestly explain that the author has not done any important work in high-energy physics himself and that he has been isolated from research (and researchers) for the last 20 years. Because of these reasons, I originally rated the book by two stars.
As the focus of the presentation shifts to modern physics since the 1970s or so, an expert recognizes that the author misunderstands some very elementary questions.
The book contains a lot of very embarrassing errors. Let me mention a few examples. Woit originally wrote that the center-of-mass energy of the LHC beams would be 14 GeV, instead of 14 TeV: this error has been corrected after long debates in which he didn't want to admit any flaws. He incorrectly argues that the neutrinos with electroweak energies interact very weakly. He thinks that higher-dimensional rotations are associated with one-dimensional "axes". He misunderstands how SU(2) can be embedded to SO(4). In his description of the history of supersymmetry, he forgets Pierre Ramond. He writes that the supersymmetric vacua predict a higher vacuum energy than the non-supersymmetric ones.
Also, Woit seems to misunderstand that all of our knowledge of theories such as QED comes from perturbative expansions when he attacks the perturbative method as such. He also misunderstands what "background independence" means. At one point, the author also claims that the primary evidence supporting scientific theories is an authority (Edward Witten in his case). Even more seriously, he builds his case upon e-mail messages from undetermined sources that supported Woit's viewpoint. Most of these e-mails were obviously written by cranks.
Authorities play an important role and the author quotes many outsiders in high-energy physics who have criticized string theory. But he never mentions names like Weinberg, Gell-Mann, Hawking, Randall, Arkani-Hamed - famous and active physicists who are not string theorists but who believe that it is the right direction. Books by Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, and others were much more balanced in this respect. The book is a gigantic spin zone.
Woit conjectures the existence of singularities in some integrals that appear in string theory and that are known to be non-singular. Woit does not distinguish a family of theories from one theory with a massless scalar field (a modulus). He does not mention Andrew Strominger and Cumrun Vafa when the black hole entropy is discussed. Woit incorrectly believes that the "beauty" of a theory is the same thing as an experimental verification.
The author repeats poisoned remarks about string theory too many times. The second part of the book could be reduced by 60 percent or so. Moreover, most of the statements in the second part of the book are supported by no technical arguments, neither in the book nor in scientific literature. The problematic statement that string theory makes no prediction is repeated hundreds of times, and in many particular contexts, such a statement becomes not only boring but also patently false. The author is not aware (or denies) the actual mechanisms that are considered to be solutions of various puzzles - for example the doublet-triplet splitting problem.
The book is also full of inconsistencies. In one chapter, he argues that the alternatives to string theory in the field of quantum gravity should be supported. In the following chapter, he argues that they should be suppressed - the work of the Bogdanoff brothers is one of his examples. Woit's knowledge of the history of the subjects he discusses is extremely superficial, too. For example, Leonard Susskind is painted as the discoverer of the large number of vacua in string theory. Quite obviously, Peter Woit has no idea about the "discretuum" described by Bousso and Polchinski and many other concepts that have been discussed for years.
Peter Woit also offers a highly obsolete view on many concepts in theoretical physics such as the gauge symmetry; he is obsessed with the old-fashioned idea that all of physics follows from a gauge symmetry principle. He thinks that the gauge symmetry is uniquely determined by physics because he is apparently unaware of dualities and all other phenomena discovered in the last 20 years that show that his preconceptions are wrong and that gauge symmetries are only associated with a particular description of physics that does not have to be unique.
The book is called "Not Even Wrong" but the readers should know that most of the book is wrong after all. I can only recommend the book to the people who dislike theoretical physics - or at least theoretical physics of the last 20 years - and who want their opinion to be confirmed by a semi-serious source. The readers who want to learn what physics is all about may want to avoid the book because it could make them very confused. As far as modern physics goes, the author is a layman. The topics he raises have nothing to do with the actual discussions that take place among the scientists.
... [End of review] ...
A seventeen-page-long review of the book is here. An analysis of typical reviewers is here.
Comment by Lenny Susskind, one of the most original scientists of his generation:
- You’re talking probably about some of the books and blogs that have come out in very very big criticism of [string theory]. Well, I think one would have to say that some of it is due to a certain kind of grumpiness of people who... um...
- Well, for example, there’s one fellow who failed as a physicist, never made it as a physicist, became a computer programmer, has been angry all of his life that he never became a physicist and that physicists ignore him, so he’s now taking out his revenge by writing diatribes and polemics against string theory.
McCutcheon's book is completely wrong - and in a few days, we will officially announce the winner of the $13.08 grand prize. But there are books that are Not Even Wrong. One of them has been written by Peter Woit - and I am apparently the first one who found its page at amazon.com. He explains that the whole book is full of a bitter criticism from a person who does not know what high-energy physicists are talking about but who wants to criticize them nevertheless - which is how Peter Woit apparently envisions the ideal combination for a science writer. ;-) Using this strategy, he concludes, among other things, that supersymmetry and string theory "have failed conclusively".
If the blog is a realistic guide how the book looks like, then it is roughly a 2-star book. But of course I would have to see an actual copy of the book to give you a more accurate rating. ;-) I have nothing against the publication of silly books - except that the internet may be enough and many trees could be saved. As you can see, my opinions about the book are exactly opposite that those of Sean Carroll: I believe that Woit's criticism of the Landscape is a legitimate one (which is the real reason why he did not get 1 star from me), but his dislike for string theory as a mathematical structure is grounded in an uninformed and unscientific judgement. ;-)
Peter Woit probably can't write a scientific book on current high-energy physics, not even a popular one. The publisher apparently realizes it; this may be the reason why the book has been included in the category: Social Science - Popular Culture.
Peter also argues that the string theorists among his referees - who did not like the book, with one exception - did not have too many explicit arguments against the book and did not find too many undisputable errors. One should not believe everything that Peter Woit says; but in this case, I tend to believe him. It requires a certain amoung of training to learn all these silly pseudo-arguments that most critics who are unfamiliar with the subject are typically using. In many cases, it is incredibly difficult for some of the leaders of our field to comprehend that some critics of string theory really believe XY - because XY is often dumb beyond imagination.
The first educated referee - apparently a physics bigshot; my guess is Andy Strominger himself - mentioned that arguing against string theory is like arguing against the evolution. In my opinion, that's a bit exaggerated - but it is not too exaggerated! ;-) In both cases, the main reason to be convinced about the validity of the theory is that it is the only known (and conceivable) scientific theory that is compatible with some of the most fundamental observations, such as the existence of diverse species, their related characteristics (and DNA codes); or the existence of gravity as well as other forces described by quantum field theory. In both cases, a specific enough alternative that someone proposes is more or less guaranteed to be silly. But once again, yes, I do think that at this moment, the evidence in favor of evolution is stronger than the evidence supporting string theory.