Monday, September 03, 2007

Physics World: a testing time for strings

The new issue of Physics World is dedicated to a somewhat more science-oriented - and thus more friendly - look at string theory than what we have seen in 2006-2007 and what is arguably over.

A testing time for strings
They write, among other things,

But look into string theory in even a little detail, and it is clear why so many young physicists are lured into the field, as this month's special issue of Physics World reveals. First, although the details need to be worked out, string theory naturally unifies quantum mechanics and general relativity - two of the pillars of physics. Second, string theory is very much guided by problems in the real world - such as questions over the quark-gluon plasma and the entropy of black holes - no matter how remote these might seem.
The big article

More importantly, you should read Stringscape (PDF), Matthew Chalmers' new 13-page-long review of the history and the current state of string theory. There are many interesting things, including a "compliment" from Sheldon Glashow:

String theory is different to religion because of its utility in mathematics and quantum field theory, and because it may someday evolve into a testable theory (aka science).
Well, Glashow's attitude to string theory is different from bigotry because he is willing to refine his models - years ago, string theory was theology and now it is different from religion - and because his opinion could eventually evolve into a state-of-the-art high-energy theoretical physics (aka string theory). ;-)

Many other people have a lot of other wise things to say, except for one additional comment by Howard Georgi who suggests that the attraction of string theory is 40% caused by its content and 60% by the stellar intelligence of Edward Witten. I think it's complete rubbish. Witten is no God but rather Primus inter pares. For example, if Georgi actually knew how small a number of people jump on the latest Witten's "bandwagons" - which are actually fascinating deep discoveries that would deserve many more people - he might change his mind.

Swolin, a common term for two notorious crackpots coined in Santa Barbara, was renamed to Smoit, a competing term invented at Stanford. ;-)

Physics World is closer to professional physics than regular newspapers and even the likes of Nature and Science which is why they understand the situation better. Instead of "giants" such as Peter Woit, Lee Smolin, Sean Carroll, CommunistSocialistSwine, Lawrence Krauss etc., they offer the voices of Lenny Susskind, Sheldon Glashow, Gerard 't Hooft, Michael Green, Howard Georgi, John Ellis, Steven Weinberg, Juan Maldacena, David Gross, and Edward Witten. Of course, most of them are enthusiastic. But the recent dishonest, slanderous campaign in the generic media has had a devastating effect that goes well beyond the general public.

For example, a month ago or so, I was offered a job at the Perimeter Institute. Now, I view a private institute such as the PI to be the optimum arrangement of scientific research. But after some analyses who is there at the PI and how they think about science, the answer was, of course, No, thanks, your institute is literally overrun by cranks.

They effectively control the theoretical physics section of the institute and determine its atmosphere. A similar, mostly hostile atmosphere exists at most universities where bad physicists are more charismatic than the local string theorists and other serious theoretical physicists: that's because various Smoits have transformed physics in the eyes of the public into a dirty P.R. game with oversimplified concepts and emotions. The list of places that have been influenced doesn't include Santa Barbara, Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, and a few others but it is beginning to include many other schools that used to be good.

At any rate, you should read Matthew Chalmers' Stringscape which is one of the best popular texts ever written about string theory.
Matthew Chalmers also offers a lucid answer to 50% of Smoit, pointing out, among other things, the inconsistency of Woit's description of string theory that is supposed to be unfalsifiable as well as already falsified at the same time ;-)
In the following, October issue, the blog that all readers know very well should be featured. ;-)


  1. " ... your institute [PI] is literally overrun by cranks."

    "In other words, the VSL/LQG/#$# folks dictate what's normal and what's not."

    I don't think the above statements are accurate. There are 6 divisions in PI, and among those, 3 are stringy or at least pro string. Out of the remaining 2, I think only the Quantum Foundation people who might lean toward QLG. So, I don't think PI is overrun by QLG people.

    Furthermore, as far as I understand the divisions are running under different budgets. So, I can't see how QLG people can dictate what's happening in other divisions.

    I do agree that string people in PI are 'peaceful' and even lenient toward the QLG people (the opposite is not true). I think they are just trying to be the better men. I guess that is the only way to co-exist with QLG people: think of them as toddlers who don't want to take a nap, they cry and scream. You can't explain to them why they need to take a nap, and if you yell back at them, you're just going to make things worse. Instead, what every wise parents do is to let them cry and scream, because they'll get tired and fall asleep anyway.

    "... a string theorist from Pennsylvania who included, in the middle of his technical talk, a comment By the way, one can also solve these (divergence) problems 'nonperturbatively as in LQG'... my interpretation is simply that it had to be included regardless of the opinions of the string theorist because his senior colleagues just want it to be included."

    If by "from Pennsylvania" you mean a string theorist who belongs to a university in PA, then I think there's a point worth mentioning here. There is a university in PA where both string theorists and QLG people are in the same research group, and possibly running under the same budget. If this is true, then you might be right that the string theorist was under the pressure from his senior colleagues. I think putting string theorists and QLG people in the same research group is as unhealthy as putting nuclear physicists and high-energy phenomenologists in the same group.

    On the other hand, Gary Horowitz sometimes cited QLG people in his paper (and not in a negative manner), and I don't think he was under anyone's pressure.

  2. Anon, sounds like PI oughta hire a few daycare workers to better schedule the play, snack, and nap times for their LQG residents. And as long as I don't have to change their diapers, I might consider applying for this job.;~)

  3. Cynthia, what a great idea. I guess we should send the proposal to PI. Since they already have their own waitresses and bartenders, they should find no problem to hire daycare workers too.