The exchange between Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson, a science communicator from a planetarium, took place at the 2011 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate (107 minutes) two years ago. Members of the panel included Katherine Freese, Jim Gates, Janna Levin, Marcello Gleiser, Brian Greene, and of course the omnipresent pushy hippie crank called Lee Smolin.
In the 4-minute excerpt, Tyson prepares Brian for a purposefully blunt question. At this moment, the eternally diplomatic Brian Greene may already display a facial expression indicating that he knows what he should expect and he's a bit annoyed.
Tyson says that "you guys have been at the string theory for two decades." Well, this shows Tyson's remarkable ignorance of the history of science. String theory started 45 years ago, not 20 years ago, it became supersymmetric (super) 40 years ago, and it rapidly strengthened during the first superstring revolution almost 30 years ago. Almost 20 years ago, it began to undergo the second superstring revolution.
But let's get to the point. Tyson says something like
Einstein, working alone, went from special relativity to general relativity in ten years. It was a brilliant piece of work. Just four years later, there was an experimental verification of the new theory. Legions of string theorists are working for two decades and you're sort of not there yet. Is there not enough of you? Are you chasing a ghost? Or is the collection of you too stupid to figure this out?What a jerk, what a pack of malicious demagogy. Brian gives a perfectly sensible answer and mine won't be too different. Nevertheless, let me give you mine.
First, Tyson suggests that every theory takes the same time to be completed and the same time to be verified. Needless to say, this opinion shows that Tyson compares apples with oranges and he can't possibly have a realistic idea what science is.
The fact that two or three systems of ideas are called "theory" – special theory of relativity, general theory of relativity, and string theory – doesn't mean that they're equally large or comparable collections of ideas and equations. In fact, they're obviously not. Relativity is just a principled theory – observations based on symmetries that constrain the allowed laws of physics in a certain way. String theory isn't just about some cherry-picked constraints; it's an actual complete, detailed theory that predicts everything that may be predicted about Nature. Once string theory is fully understood, the search for the fundamental theories of Nature will be over. Given the uniqueness of this moment, it wouldn't be inappropriate if the research of string theory continued for 200 or 500 years or more.
A student with some required mathematical background may be explained the special theory of relativity on 3 pages and she sorts and clarifies the remaining calculations and principles on extra 10 pages by herself. A similar comment applies to the general theory of relativity.
If I exaggerate just a little bit, Einstein needed 10 years to realize that \(S\sim R\); the action is proportional to the Ricci scalar. A physicist with a modern background to understand physics really needs these three characters to define general relativity and she needs to solve several straightforward exercises to deduce its basic implications.
None of these comments holds for string theory. You really need something like 1,000 pages for an introduction to the subject. String theory is composed of dozens or hundreds of breakthroughs of comparable depth and importance as special or general relativity. Mr Tyson and other laymen probably don't understand this very fact and there are seven billion people who don't understand this very fact. But the high number of these morons doesn't give them the moral right to talk about the deepest theory that the mankind has ever had and probably will ever have and about those who have seriously contributed to it in this disrespectful way, especially if they're the kind of infinitesimal pseudointellectual dwarfs as Mr Tyson.
Also, I find it important to say the following comment. I have always admired Einstein and he managed to revolutionize physics several times, indeed. But he was almost certainly not the smartest physicist who has ever lived on this planet. And whether he was smarter or more creative than the top string theorists – or whether he was mostly more lucky, especially when it came to the timing of his life – is a question that doesn't admit an easy, immediate answer.
Well, I believe that 10 years to go from special relativity to general relativity is just too much and I would have been faster if I were in the same situation in which Einstein found himself after his miraculous year, 1905. For some other people I know, it could have literally been a question of days, perhaps. By using suggestive demagogic adjectives such as "brilliant", Tyson wants to outlaw the very discussion about these matters. He builds his case on the imbeciles in the audience and the expectation that Brian wouldn't have the courage to say that string theory is a much deeper and more ambitious project than just relativity. Fortunately, Brian didn't quite get intimidated (although his courage was arguably fortified by his physical absence in the hall).
Because Tyson doesn't really understand string theory at the technical level, as Brian pointed out, he can't know a legitimate procedure to estimate how much time it should "reasonably" take to complete string theory and/or settle its validity (recall the estimates of the length of the Emperor's nose). I think this task is hundreds or thousands of times more profound than just realizing that the Universe respects the laws of relativity. But no one can know the right ratio – not even the top string theorists – before all the things are settled.
Also, to think about the deadlines and quotas as methods to assign researchers to various disciplines of science is just preposterous in general. Young people in a certain quantitative, supersmart category focus on string theory simply because they understand that string theory is the cutting edge of physics where meaningful progress is happening and may happen with their help, too. People with some interest in the deepest laws combined with the competence are working on string theory because it hasn't been completed yet while it is the only game in town. It doesn't matter to them whether string theory has been around for 10 years, 20 years, 40 years, or 500 years. A theory's being the cutting edge can't be determined from some numbers describing its history.
Moreover, the experimental verification, as Brian also noted, is inevitably harder now simply because string theorists are wrestling with a problem that is much further from the everyday life experience – and therefore more profound in this particular sense. The reasons why it was easier to verify certain claims 100 years ago than it is today should be completely obvious to everyone who has at least some clue. If someone suggests that he doesn't understand these reasons and uses the comparisons to argue that string theorists are qualitatively dumber than Albert Einstein, then he's either an unprecedented moron or a hardcore jerk without scruples.
String theory isn't a completed theory yet but it has already made so many striking discoveries that they have already downgraded both the special theory of relativity and the general theory of relativity to cute and essential ideas among hundreds of similarly cute and essential ideas in physics. But even if we made a completely different conclusion – that relativity was a deeper discovery than all of string theory and Albert Einstein was smarter than any living string theorist – I don't quite think that string theorists should be ashamed because of this comparison. As Greene says, Einstein was a special genius and relativity was an extraordinary advance. So it can't be a mortal sin if you were less creative and achieved a smaller breakthrough than one of the greatest scientific breakthrough of the 20th century.
Number of string theorists
But let me discuss the claim by Tyson that there are too many string theorists. I find the stupidity of this claim totally unbelievable. To understand the Universe at the deepest possible level is – let's estimate – one of the three most natural motivations of life of a modern thinking human. If the mankind had the ambition to be a science-driven society, two billions of people should be consistently thinking about such issues.
Instead, the number of string theorists who are actively thinking about these questions in physics pretty much every day is almost certainly smaller than 2,000. Using a less inclusive counting, one could get down to 500 or so. But let me use the higher number, 2,000 in the whole world. That's more than 1 million times fewer than it should be.
If you have never been a string theorist, you probably can't even imagine how incomparably elite and reclusive status it is to be a string theorist. Even if we assume that there are 2,000 string theorists in the world – and it is probably an overestimate – it implies that there is one string theorist per 3.5 million people. An average nation – or the average U.S. state – with 10 million people (such as mine) may be expected to host something like 3 string theorists. You visit ever acre in a disk of radius 200 miles around you and ask every person what he or she thinks about the newest developments in cutting-edge theoretical physics and you will find roughly two people who will have something relevant to say.
Do I think that there are too few string theorists? I surely do. I don't know whether there's enough IQ among the humans on Earth for the number to be much higher but if I forget about this limitation, I surely think that the number of people who are actively thinking about string theory should be higher by a few orders of magnitude.
Just compare the number 2,000 of string theorists with some more ordinary occupation. For example, just the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S. has about 100,000 employees (tax collectors). You should multiply this number by 20 (because the U.S. population is about 1/20 of the world population) and obtain something like 2 million to get an estimate of the number of people in the world who are doing pretty much the same thing.
These 2 million people are doing a completely annoying, redundant, repetitive, uncreative work: they're just robbing the remaining folks on Earth and take a part of their income from them. A large percentage of these 2 million people is paid salaries that exceed those of an average string theorist. Again, the number of IRS-like employees in the world is something like 1,000 times greater than the number of string theorists. And I could enumerate hundreds if not thousands of occupations similar to the IRS employees that are comparably overbloated.
By now, you should have understood why I consider proclamations about "too many people thinking about string theory" to be breathtakingly idiotic and malicious at the same moment. There are many people in the world and it's guaranteed that a vast majority of them has to do something rather ordinary. But if the mankind cared about knowledge, string theorists would arguably represent the most underrepresented occupation among all of them. How someone can turn this obvious fact upside down and complain about the allegedly too high number of string theorists – while being silent about 2 million tax collectors and everyone else – is just beyond me.
A deep hatred against science and against people who are smarter is the only conceivable motivation that people like Mr Tyson may have. What makes their comments that "there are too many string theorists" even more stunning and hypocritical is that the number of people emitting dumb criticisms of string theory is vastly higher than the number of string theorists – and many of them are actually making living out of this hostile, barbarian, intellectually worthless junk. Where does this overgrown group of dishonest parasites find the chutzpah to say that there are too many string theorists?
Does string theory produce crackpot alternatives?
At 2:10, Tyson says another stunningly idiotic thing:
The pace of progress in string theory is so slow that it has led to other ideas exhibited on this panel [which also includes Smolin]. Some people say that we live in the Matrix and Marcello is questioning the whole idea of a unified theory.Holy cow. How can the – high or low – pace of progress in string theory lead to the emergence and re-emergence of mostly stupid ideas that have nothing to do with string theory? The people who talk about our world's being the Matrix are not string theorists. They have nothing to do with string theory and frankly speaking, they have virtually no chance to become string theorists because they're just too intellectually limited for that.
How can someone attribute the existence of stupid ideas – which have existed for millions of years, since the humans ceased to be monkeys and probably well before that – to the numerical value of the pace of progress in string theory, a field that the "Matrix researchers" (not to be confused with Matrix theory researchers) have nothing to do with? It just makes no sense. A crackpot may say that the Matrix or Loop Quantum Gravity or any other idiocy are equal competitors to string theory. And many of them are saying similar things all the time. But just because a stupid person says such a thing doesn't make it true. These people are not string theorists. These people are not top theoretical physicists. These people aren't sharing the elite status with the less than 2,000 string theorists in the world. They're just random mediocre folks who are saying preposterous things and they can get away with it simply because there exists an even higher number of "consumers" who buy similar nonsense, partly because the "anti-string theorists" are populistically licking the rectums of the stupid listeners who are annoyed that someone is way smarter than they are.
When Brian told Tyson that Tyson can't possibly evaluate the pace of progress in string theory because he has no clue about string theory at the technical level, Tyson agreed that he had no idea about string theory at the technical level but he added:
That's why I invited this panel. And they're apparently thinking about other things.Great but what does it have to do with the pace of progress in string theory? Clearly, nothing. Most people have been thinking about other things than string theory – and most people are still thinking about other things than string theory – simply because string theory is way too demanding for them. Some members of the panel were downright cranks. How can you determine the pace of progress by looking at the activities of a randomly constructed panel of good scientists and not-so-good scientists? This "argument" makes absolutely no sense, especially because Tyson who has composed the panel doesn't understand cutting-edge physics at the technical level so he can't be expected to know who really belongs to a panel that could reasonably discuss questions of the cutting-edge physics.
It's exactly like saying
Look, I invited 7 pigs over here and they are primarily eating leaves, grasses, roots, fruits, and flowers. All of them are doing something else than molecular biology which proves that the progress in molecular biology has been so incredibly slow and the molecular biologists are probably chasing a ghost or they are too stupid. This slow pace of progress in the molecular biology has created the pigs that eat leaves, grasses, fuits, and flowers instead of research of molecular biology.WTF? Are you really serious, Mr Tyson? And please, give me a break with possible suggestions that the comparison of you and the pigs is inaccurate. The empirical evidence in your extempore is overwhelming that you're much closer to average pigs than to average string theorists.
Arrogant morons such as Mr Tyson is something I just can't stand.
By the way, I am just preparing The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene for the second Czech edition, after a decade. It's kind of amazing to see how I could still subscribe to every word of it, how every sentence plays a role, makes sense, and is stylistically and artistically exciting and optimized.