String Wars: The Aftermath

By Sean Carroll | April 9, 2009 12:32 pm

An interesting short interview with Ed Witten in this week’s New Scientist. Mostly straightforward stuff, but it’s always good to hear what smart people are thinking. Witten is spending the year on sabbatical at CERN; like many people, he was sort of hoping to be there when the first physics results from the LHC appeared, but reality intervened an that’s looking increasingly unlikely. Happily, CERN has developed electronic means of communication whereby interesting findings may be promulgated to researchers who are not within close physical proximity to the lab.

Longtime CV readers may be interested in Witten’s take on the String Wars:

The 1980s and 90s were dotted with euphoric claims from string theorists. Then in 2006 Peter Woit of Columbia University in New York and Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, published popular books taking string theory to task for its lack of testability and its dominance of the job market for physicists. Witten hasn’t read either book, and compares the “string wars” surrounding their publication – which played out largely in the media and on blogs – to the fuss caused by the 1995 book The End of Science, which argued that the era of revolutionary scientific discoveries was over. “Neither the publicity surrounding that book nor the fact that people lost interest in talking about it after a while reflected any change in the intellectual underlying climate.”

That sounds about right. For the most part, actual string theorists simply went about their business, trying to figure out what this fascinating but difficult theory really is. The irony is that a major point of the anti-string books was that the public hype concerning string theory didn’t paint an accurate picture of its more problematic features — which was true. But the backlash books gave the public a misleading impression in the other direction, leading to the somewhat amusing appearance of my own piece in New Scientist explaining that the theory was for the most part chugging along as before. Hype cuts in every direction, and it feeds on drama, not on accuracy.

There is certainly some feeling that the near-term growth area in high-energy theory is not string theory, but phenomenology (or arguably particle astrophysics). Certainly those are the people who seem to be getting the jobs these days. The explanation there is pretty straightforward: data! Or at least the promise thereof. It’s hard to do physics with little to go on other than thought experiments, but one gets by when relatively few real experiments are available. Increasingly, that’s no longer the case.

But it’s been a long time since we’ve had a good string-wars thread, so here you go. For old time’s sake.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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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