Scott Aaronson on the String Wars

By Sean Carroll | December 21, 2006 3:04 pm

Scott Aaronson, well-known around these parts for thinking that a priori constraints on conversations with super-intelligent aliens are more important insights into the fundamental workings of the universe than dark energy and the holographic principle, is suffering from a bit of Stockholm syndrome. He has visited the Stanford high-energy theory group (intellectual hotbed of aggressive Landscapism), given an interesting talk on Computational Complexity and the Anthropic Principle, and discovered to his bemusement that string theorists are quite open-minded and reasonable people! When faced with an interesting new idea, they are even willing to consider it! And their objections to Loop Quantum Gravity seem to be based on physics, rather than just prejudice! Who would have thought? (Also linked from Not Even Wrong.)

So now, unable to choose sides in the Wars based on the likeability of the combatants, he’s offering his services to the highest bidder. Whoever offers him the best reimbursements, he’ll gladly shill for their viewpoint, at least temporarily. Why didn’t I think of this? Well, Scott, I can’t offer any hard cash, but I can promise that you’ll be treated even better when you visit Caltech than when you visited Stanford. (Even if you do think you are the second-funniest physics blogger.) We’re much more fun than those Northern Californians.

My real reason for blogging about this, however, is to get on the record that the phrase “The String Wars” is totally mine. I used it in an email, and George Johnson picked it up for his KITP discussions. It’s much more fun than the milqetoasty “String Debates” occasionally favored by those who prefer substantive engagement to showy fireworks. So anyone who makes any money off of this phrase, I want half.

  • John Sidles

    Just so people don’t mistakenly think EVERY post is ironic, my post to Scott’s thread that alerted people to an advertised tenure-track faculty position in quantum system engineering was completely serious (click here).

    What is quantum system engineering? Well, the right candidate won’t have to ask!

    One definition might be: the new engineering discipline of creating and teaching technologies that push against the bounds that quantum mechanics imposes on speed, accuracy, sensitivity, size, and power consumption.

    This is a “best athlete” advertisement … so be prepared to answer: (1) what will you will design that is useful? (2) what will you teach your students? (3) what kind of jobs will they get?

    If your own answer to these questions includes the word “quantum”, then you are encouraged to apply. It’s a good position, in a growing discipline, at a fine university, in a great city.

  • Moshe

    Hey, I believe I used “string wars” in various comments, and also others before me, just a natural allusion to various “culture wars” of the past. It is probably public property…

    It is amazing that it took so many words before someone wise like Scott found the winning combination, namely “then again, why do I need to pick sides?”

  • Aaron Bergman

    I’ll have you know I used the phrase on May 10. So there. And, er, neener neener.

    And, where’s my money?

  • Sean

    Yeah, but you guys don’t have blogs. When it comes time to cash in on the phrase, I’ll be deleting your comments.

  • NoJoy

    You’re going to need more bits than you think.

  • nc

    Scott quoted me a charge of $2,000,000 for one review article. I know my work is technical, but that sophisticated? Wow. (Perhaps there’ll be a mix up and I’ll pay him in Hong Kong dollars or monopoly money, or by a cheque drawn on a bank in a parallel universe.)

  • Jack

    Scott A asked: “Suppose there are two competing cosmological models. One model leads to a finite universe, the other leads to an infinite universe. Cosmologists are about to launch a space probe that will test which model is correct. But then philosophers come along and say, “Wait — you don’t have to bother! Obviously the infinite model must be the correct one — since in an infinite universe, we’d be infinitely more likely to exist in the first place!” The question I’d put to anthropicists is this: should the philosophers win the Nobel Prize that would have otherwise gone to the cosmologists? And if not, why not?”

    Any suggestions as to the answers to these questions?

  • Elliot

    O.K. I am officially claiming the phrase “Panthropic Principle” (c) 2006. I don’t know what it means yet but when I figure it out its all mine.


  • Chinmaya Sheth

    It seems even the Panthropic Principle has earlier origins, see:

    comment by “Peter H”

  • Elliot

    Ah yes Chinmaya, but he only uses the word “panthropic” not the words combined “panthropic principle” If you google the both words together in quotations this blog will likely be the first place you will find it.

    And besides this is all about stealing credit for fun and profit anyway. 😉


  • parktownprawn


    intellectual hotbed of aggressive Landscapism

    is my favorite phrase of the moment. I presume Sean can take full credit for it.

  • Thomas Larsson

    Yeah, but you guys don’t have blogs. When it comes time to cash in on the phrase, I’ll be deleting your comments.

    How do you delete comments on Peter’s blog? Don’t tell me, tell Lubos. :-)

  • Elliot


    the rumor going around is that your standard fee for mercernary lectures is exactly equivalent to the WSOP entry fee. Can you comment?

  • Cynthia

    Sean, if I’m not mistaken, Aaron preceded you regarding the use of the phrase, “String Wars.” Anyhow, I think the phrase “String Wars” is a bit misleading. Oh sure, there are a few battles brewing among the strings. But the actual war is occurring between the strings and the antistrings.

    Nevertheless though, you probably ought to receive credit for being the first to use the term, “String Backlash,” which–in my opinion–is a more accurate description of what’s actually taking place in the arena of quantum gravity.

    By the way, Aaron’s critique of “Not Even Wrong” is–by far–the best of the bunch.

  • Elliot

    The observation of significant numbers of people sitting in a large venue all focused on activity at the center of the venue, predicts the existence of a sports/entertainment phenomenon at the center of the venue.

    The fanthropic principle.

  • John Sidles

    A BibTeX quote whose concluding sentence (absent compelling experimental data) is predicts the future course of the String Wars:

    author = {W. H. Press and B. P. Flannery and S. A. Teukolsky and W. T. Vetterling},
    title = {Numerical Recipes: The Art of Scientific Computing},
    publisher = {Cambridge University Press},
    year = 1994,
    edition = {Second},
    address = {Cambridge},
    jasnote = {Section 14.0 ”If a statistic falls in a reasonable part of the distribution, you must not make the mistake of concluding that the null hypothesis is `verified’ or `proved.’ That is the curse of statistics, that it can never prove things, only disprove them! At best, you can substantiate a hypothesis by ruling out, statistically, a whole long list of competing hypotheses, every one that has ever been proposed. After a while your adversaries and competitors will give up trying to think of alternative hypotheses, or else they will grow old and die, and then your hypothesis will become accepted. Sounds crazy, we know, but that’s how science works!”}, }

  • Carl Brannen

    Seconding John Sidles on the future of string theory, the book Gravity’s Shadow gives a sociological analysis of a fight in physics I remember from my graduate student days, the search for gravity waves. From my reading of that book, which I highly recommend, I would think that string theory will survive until new graduate students are attracted to an alternative theory. And the attraction will be due to that alternative theory being more effective at making calculations.

    That string theory has survived so far is not due to some unusual absence of ethics among theorists. It has survived because of the absence of alternatives that produce good results. As far as matching up with experiment, (which is the driving force behind all physics), I’m convinced that link quantum gravity is as useless as string theory, but string theory got there first, and so gets more dollars. I would think that what destroys string theory will be something coming out of phenomenology, something that simply gives an easier way of calculating things.

  • Alejandro

    Sean, I used “String Wars” in the title of a blog post in June -and referring back to a post of yours, no less!

    So not only I have a priority claim on the meme (unless you can produce your email dated earlier) but also I can sue you for plagiarism because your title for this post is suspiciously similar to the one I used for that one… So all your money, and Scott’s, belongs to me now. Mhuahuahuhuahua!

  • Sean

    Alejandro wins. Okay, I hereby forfeit all the money I’ve made thus far off of “The String Wars” to Alejandro, and I’ll keep any future money. Sounds fair?

  • Aaron Bergman

    Excuse me. May predates June, you know. These are serious issues, after all, and I want my money.

    Tenure is an acceptable substitute, however. I’ll happily cede all my rights regarding this matter in exchance for a tenured position.

    Tenure-track may also be acceptable. We can negotiate on that point.

  • Elliot

    while you guys are arguing….

    The Panthropic Principle

    The existence of intelligent observers can only occur in universes where the physical constants are such that the ratio of the size (area) of the universe at the time of the emergence of those observers and whatever the local equivalent of the planck size (the smallest area where bitwise distinctions can be made) within that universe is very large.


  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    This post has you all beat. And they have real string images.

  • gbob

    Sean, you *sure* you want credit for this? I mean, when it comes to the inevitable “Dancing with the Stars 726: String Wars”, I think you’re going to be trying to hide.

    Then again, seeing Brian Greene trying to do The Hustle might be worth it.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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