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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  • http://blueollie.wordpress.com ollie

    Well, I don’t know my head from my @ss about string theory (or about any serious physics topic for that matter) but I do know some mathematics.

    So I’ll just grab a bag of popcorn and enjoy the show. :-)

  • http://diracseashores.wordpress.com Moshe

    Wow, an actual scientist in NS, even a successful and influential one, isn’t that against editorial policy?

    OTOH, there is little to none in the way of actual physics in this article, exactly like the string wars…Probably the reason these had little to no effect on the “underlying climate”.

  • Mark

    Hi Sean,
    I always had the impression that the US string community has been largely dominated by formal stuff as well as AdS/CFT, string cosmology, black holes, etc. type of research as opposed to string phenomenology. Would you agree with that statement?
    I personally got very excited when Vafa turned his attention to string pheno and I’m very happy with the fact that some of the top mathematicians like Ron Donagi and Tony Pantev are also working in this area but I can only hope that more string theorists would follow these examples.

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  • Postdoc without a job

    I personally got very excited when Vafa turned his attention to string pheno and I’m very happy with the fact that some of the top mathematicians like Ron Donagi and Tony Pantev are also working in this area but I can only hope that more string theorists would follow these examples.

    Funny — I feel exactly the opposite.

  • Mark

    “Funny — I feel exactly the opposite.”
    Why?

  • Postdoc without a job

    Because we don’t understand string theory. We understand bits and pieces, but it’s not particularly likely that those bits and pieces are going to be related to the real world. The main thing that string theory has going for it is that it is a theory of quantum gravity. My feeling is that we should try to understand how it works and what it tells us about the usual problems of quantum gravity. Maybe, once we understand those things, we will know enough either to apply it to the real world or figure out something else that can be applied to the real world. But the idea that we’re going to get an experimental result from string theory as it stands now is rather implausible.

    (Another thing string theory has going for it is that it tells us a ton about gauge theory, and that has the potential to be extremely worthwhile, too.)

  • Ciaobella

    Witten is the pontiff of string theory; he should read the books the Woit and Smolin before he pontificates thereon. His mutterings about the “intellectual underlying climate” make it clear that he is at the top of an ivory tower that is very tall indeed.

  • http://damtp.cam.ac.uk Ben Martin

    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.

    Bullshit. Whether you, as a person who has his eye on an eventually-lucrative position within Caltech. will admit or not physicists have now moved beyond string theory for good. Good young grad students no longer seriously discuss string theory in their common rooms; recent postdocs are no longer interested in it; and funding bodies, those leviathans of tardy reactions, have recognised it for the intellectual cul de sac that it is.

    We don’t know what the next great contribution to physics is. But the one thing everyone of my generation knows is that it’s not string theory; hell, it’s probably not even any SUSY generalization thereof.

    String theory has lost. My generation no longer cares. Get over it.

  • hackenkaus

    It’s actually a pretty banal interview. Must be a slow news day.

  • Mark

    “The main thing that string theory has going for it is that it is a theory of quantum gravity.My feeling is that we should try to understand how it works and what it tells us about the usual problems of quantum gravity. Maybe, once we understand those things, we will know enough either to apply it to the real world or figure out something else that can be applied to the real world. But the idea that we’re going to get an experimental result from string theory as it stands now is rather implausible.”

    Well, I’m not sure if I agree with that. For instance, determining the metric of a Calabi-Yau has little to do with quantim gravity. Many problems to be solved in string pheno translate into some hard algebraic geometry problems and that is why they require input from people like Donagi. So, even if there is progress in, say, computing string amplitudes in twistor formalism, it will most likely have little impact on understanding string compactifications. By the way, if you have been following the recent work of Vafa and collaborators, one can construct successful realistic models in limits where particle physics is completely decoupled from the effects of quantum gravity and make quantitative predictions for the LHC. Ed Witten, dedicated his IAS 2008 summer school lectures to precisely this topic, so it’s not some BS of wishful thinking.

  • Postdoc without a job

    By the way, if you have been following the recent work of Vafa and collaborators, one can construct successful realistic models in limits where particle physics is completely decoupled from the effects of quantum gravity and make quantitative predictions for the LHC.

    Let’s just say that there’s some disagreement on this point.

  • http://www.perimeterinstitute.ca/personal/rmcnees/ Robert McNees

    Ben Martin said:

    “String theory has lost. My generation no longer cares. Get over it.”

    That’s funny … every day I overhear “good young grad students” talking about strings. Granted, I am at a research institute full of good young grad students, so the law of large numbers probably has a hand in this. But I hear that it happens at other places, as well.

  • Pope Maledict XVI

    The funniest thing about the string wars is the way the stringophobes like to tell us that [insert influential physicist name here] thinks that string theory is speculative, over-mathematical junk….and then they advocate, as an alternative, things that [influential physicist] would surely sneer at even more contemptuously. Be careful what you wish for.

    I sometimes wonder whether there was a “Hamiltonian war” when Hamiltonian mechanics was invented. Overly mathematical, there’s nothing in it that you can’t do with good old Newtonian mechanics, etc.

  • Jon

    I think the applications to gauge theories are underrated. Many seminal string theory papers (on TQFT, CFT, tensor categories, 3-manifold invariants and Chern-Simons-Witten theory, e.g.) are basically required reading for the theoretical study of topological quantum order. While the formidable experimental challenge of observing nonabelian anyons in 2+1 dimensional quantum systems has yet to have been met, this is a much more realistic and well-defined goal than that of experimentally confirming string theory. Plus, there are tons of practical reasons for realizing topological quantum order, not least of which are superconductivity and quantum computation.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu Peter Woit

    I agree with Ben Martin that the claim of no “change in the intellectual underlying climate” just doesn’t correspond with reality. What I hear from physicists in general about string theory these days is quite different than what I was hearing a few years ago. At this point, just about no departments are hiring string theorists to tenure-track positions, you have to claim to be a cosmologist or phenomenologist to get a job. This change over the past couple years is not due to any change in experimental data coming in (LHC results were a couple years away three years ago, they’re still a couple years away, and the big news from experiment about cosmology is now several years old).

    Unfortunately the backlash against string theory has taken the form of a backlash against “too mathematical” work, of the sort that Witten has been and continues to be the master of. While I disagree with him about the likelihood of string theory unification using extra dimensions ever working out, I think I’m actually much more sympathetic to his current research than the rest of the particle physics community is. “The End of Physics”, included a hostile portrayal of Witten, and a dismissal of the idea that abstract theoretical work could get anywhere. My own views (including those expressed in my book) are quite different, since I have the highest regard for Witten, personally and professionally, and continue to think that the sort of deep mathematical work he continues to do is one of the best hopes for the future of particle theory.

  • Cave Monster

    I think Peter is right. Surely no one with an intellect capable of understanding the difficult maths of string theory has any business in a physics department. When will people realize that physics is about ego and pure dumb luck? I mean, any discipline that would allow its leaders to emerge through revolutions, vis a vis Newton, Einstein, Schrodinger, Heisenburg, Dirac, etc, is clearly about nothing more than passing fancies. The only true motto that can possibly be used by the physics community is, “I don’t know, I make it up as I go along.”

    Just imagine the cacophony that would erupt if we were to ever to allow logic, reason and math to dominate physics! Such dissonance can not be permitted within the university setting!!!

    So I appeal to my fellow troglodytes to really give string theory the proper thrashing it deserves since it has no proper place within the physics community at large; such nonsense should be left to bohemians!!!

  • NewEnglandBob

    Thanks Peter Woit for bringing perspective to this discussion.

    I have read several books in the last year (not yours, yet: picking it up later today) on both sides of this and outside the controversy (Brian Greene, Richard Feynman, Lawrence Krauss, Roger Penrose, Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner, Carl Sagan, Lee Smolen and Leonard Susskind) and I can see, as a layman, that the theoretical physics community has gone too far one way in the past but has backed off somewhat. Some feel (incorrectly) that the Standard Model physics community has become too mundane.

    I see this push back and pullback as healthy for the discipline, as there needs to be dissenting opinions and testable hypotheses generated.

    I am disappointed that Ed Witten would comment on books he has not read. Old mathematical constructs are what led to the beginnings of string theory and it is hilarious that some people object to further ‘mathification’.

  • TimG

    Cave Monster, are you responding to what Peter Woit said, or what you thought he would say?

    Peter wrote: “I […] continue to think that the sort of deep mathematical work [Witten] continues to do is one of the best hopes for the future of particle theory.”

    You replied: “Peter is right. Surely no one with an intellect capable of understanding the difficult maths of string theory has any business in a physics department.”

  • TimG

    Regarding Witten commenting on books he hasn’t read, clearly the interviewer asked him about the books and Witten replied, in effect: “Well, I haven’t read them, but I haven’t noticed these books having much impact on the string theory community.” What’s wrong with that?

  • http://www.columbia.edu/ Weeter Poit

    Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Each part of the sentence makes the other part more likely.

    The books clearly had no impact on Witten because he hadn’t read them. Witten’s environment has probably approached them in a similar way as Witten himself. They’re just not worth their time. They’re popular books, not serious scientific material, and the authors’ credentials don’t suggest that they will have something relevant to say about science.

    So I guess that most Witten’s colleagues only know the books from some simplified abstracts they have heard somewhere but they don’t affect their science in any way, much like thousands of papers that are being written every year but that are not technically sound or new. By the way, I have read both books and I can confirm that Witten’s decision that reading them would be a complete waste of time to be 100% accurate.

    The books may have affected a small part of the public but the public is not the same thing as the string theory community or the scientific community.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu Peter Woit

    I have no idea how much influence my book or Lee Smolin’s may have had on the decisions of people in the physics community to stop hiring young string theorists for permanent jobs, but I suspect that of far greater influence has been the juvenile nature of the reaction of many string theory partisans to the books (“Weeter Poit”? Jesus, can’t you be more clever than that??).

  • http://www.columbia.edu/ Weeter Poit

    Edward Witten was talking about the _intellectual_ underlying climate, which means the climate among the people who actually think and do research (i.e. scientists), as observed at moments when they think and do research, not about the inclinations of full-time bureaucrats and/or other people who are just acting as bureaucrats. The places whose bureaucrats don’t hire the right people, if they exist, will pay for these grave mistakes dearly in the future, especially if half of a generation of researchers in the key fields of physics will be absent. But that has nothing to do with the _intellectual_ underlying climate. The latter is determined by people like Edward Witten himself. He hasn’t read the books and it doesn’t look like he is planning to change anything about it. He’s surely not the only one.

    “Peter Woit?” Jesus, can’t you be more clever than that? 😀

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    “Weeter Poit”,

    The people who make tenure-track hiring decisions in physics departments at research universities are not “bureaucrats”, but research physicists themselves, often rather eminent ones. They are making their own judgments about the intellectual climate, specifically the intellectual health and vitality of different fields.

    I wouldn’t be surprised though if some of them in the back of their mind worried that if they hired a young string theorist, it might be someone like “Weeter Poit” who thinks they’re ignorant bureaucrats unable to appreciate the glory of string theory.

  • http://www.columbia.edu/ Weeter Poit

    At good research universities, decisions are being made by real experts who look at all the things seriously. That’s why most of these places hire a high fraction of string theorists. At worse places, the researchers are not that good or the decisions are made by bureaucrats which is why such places often end up choosing less relevant people. It’s as simple as that. At the worst places, they probably read the two books a lot.

    For example, Rutgers made the first offer now, to David Shih who has written many papers on string theory and who is currently a leader in supersymmetry breaking mechanisms. Patrick Meade studies similar things and was picked by Stony Brook. MIT recently hired string theorist Allan Adams while Harvard recently hired string theorists Xi Yin and Frederik Denef. Brandeis chose string theorist Matt Headrick. It is not guaranteed that every place in Kansas can make similar offers successfully. But whether we like it or not, average places in Kansas are not at the same level as MIT, Harvard, or even Stony Brook or Rutgers.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    “Weeter Poit”

    I see, so the way to recognize a good research university with real experts is that it “hires a high fraction of string theorists”. Guess there just are fewer and fewer good research universities all the time…

  • Ray Saunders

    Re The End Of Science – anyone remember Charles H. Duell (Commissioner, US Patent Office) recommended it be shut down because everything had already been invented – in 1899.

    Apocryphal or not, the quote attributed to Einstein iss still accurate:
    “Only the universe and stupidity are infinite – and I’m not sure about the universe.”

  • NewEnglandBob

    I stopped reading the nonsense spewed by “Weeter Poit” after this:

    They’re popular books, not serious scientific material, and the authors’ credentials don’t suggest that they will have something relevant to say about science.

    Wrong and Wrong and ignorant.

  • John R Ramsden

    As I understand it, string theory is tied up at least in part with the theory of Galois Representations, automorphic forms, and the Langlands program (see What is a Galois Representation?).

    Since these are still largely (mostly?) shrouded in mystery, despite some spectacular results, it’s hardly surprising (on the above assumption) that the same can be said of string theory and therefore premature to write it off.

  • The Real Thing

    The Cold War is over. So asking to restart it only make sense if one is looking for entertainment. Likewise for String War.

    The String War was decided by evidence, results, and direction – well, lack thereof. The TTWP & NEW books played a large role but one of communication, at the terminal ‘nail in the coffin’ phase. They brought awareness and critical debates to a wide audience on the issue, opened many eyes, the result of which is growing decisions by professionals to seek other areas of research.

    Today, quantum gravity (and associated grand problems) are still stuck. Brave researchers continue to struggle mightily. It is even more daunting today as new approaches also met with almost insurmountable roadblocks. This means only one thing – whoever opens the true gate to solve the puzzle will enable a historical new chapter in human history. The discover will be hailed as ‘Einstein Squared’. This is no mere war. This is civilization.

  • The Next Einstein

    All of these people such as Peter Woit etc. are really fooling themselves by claiming that string theory has gone out of fashion as a result of their criticism and popular books. The only people who actually believe this are crackpots and others on the fringes of science who are engaging in wishful thinking. Almost all new papers on hep-th are string theory papers and most serious high-energy theorists work in string theory. It’s true that hiring has focused more recently on phenomenologists, but this is mostly because of LHC and the promise of data. Once new physics has been discovered at LHC, the hiring will again return to those working in fundamental theory.

  • ree ree

    “The Next Einstein” said:

    “All of these people such as Peter Woit etc. are really fooling themselves by claiming that string theory has gone out of fashion as a result of their criticism and popular books.”

    PW said:

    “I have no idea how much influence my book or Lee Smolin’s may have had on the decisions of people in the physics community to stop hiring young string theorists for permanent jobs, but I suspect that of far greater influence has been the juvenile nature of the reaction of many string theory partisans to the books.”

    TNE, please read more carefully. The difference between what PW said and what you claim he said is very great.

  • http://www.columbia.edu/ Weeter Poit

    “Guess there just are fewer and fewer good research universities all the time…”

    Of course that it’s largely true. A part of it is about the “concentration of intellectual capital”, something that takes place in the economy, too.

    In the mid 1980s, Princeton was already on its way to absorb most of the top theorists and become a leader in theory which remains true as of today.

    Later, Santa Barbara or Rutgers, the seemingly random 1.5th league universities, led the dramatic progress in the field during the middle 1990s. But it was natural for the 1st (Ivy) League places to regain the leadership. The most obvious method to do so is that they may usually make better offers so they attract the best people – i.e. the best string theorists and a few others.

    The 2nd league places must simply be choosing from the rest. There are not too many new people per year who have the ability to become good string theorists.

    “I see, so the way to recognize a good research university with real experts is that it hires a high fraction of string theorists.”

    It is not “the way” but it is certainly “a way”. Just draw the correlation graph between the general quality of a university, as evaluated by independent procedures, and the percentage of string theorists in its physics department. You will see a pretty nice increasing function. It is no coincidence.

    If you want to see a decreasing function, draw the number of copies of the two books available in the university against the general quality of the place. It’s no coincidence, either, because most of the scholars buy these books because they want to calm down their jealousy. Only a conspiracy may explain why they’re not equally successful, can’t it?

  • Follower

    Peter Woit said: “I think I’m actually much more sympathetic to his current research than the rest of the particle physics community is. ”

    You certainly got that right. Most of us wish he would resume his much-needed leadership role. Returning to actual physics from boring technical exercises with “GOING NOWHERE” painted on them in large letters would be an excellent start.

  • Cave Monster

    Ree Ree brings up a great point.

    There was this Cro-Magnon Og who was truly one of the most remarkable stone polishers to ever have emerged. One day he was summoned by Ug the Great about an opportunity to be Ug’s personal stone polisher (and no jokes by you mound builders, stone polishing is the highest skill of cave dwellers). I just happened to be passing through when Og was talking to Ug, and so just as a little joke, while Ug was looking the other way, I smashed Og’s toe with a sloth mandible.

    I have never seen Og get so mad!

    Needless to say, after Ug saw Og’s juvenile behavior of screaming and jumping, Og just didn’t have a chance at the position. Ug’s decision was valid of course; who wants to be seen with a Cro-Magnon that out of the blue starts raising a ruckus?

    As a side note, as a response to TimG’s question, the answer is yes, I commented correctly.

    I also must agree with Peter and Follower that the world would certainly be better if Witten was implanted with a remote so we could get him to work on the projects that interested us and not the projects that interested him.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu Peter Woit

    “Weeter Poit”

    OK, I get it, you’re parodying the attitudes of string theorists. Very funny.

    What gave it away was the claim that Princeton was a backwater, didn’t become a leader in theory until the mid-eighties when it started hiring string theorists. Sorry, but if you want to fool people, you can’t go over the top like that.

  • jamie

    To suggest that grad. students are not into string theory these days is either ignorance or an active effort to mislead the public. The reality is in fact quite the contrary: as Sean points out, senior people including (surprise!) “string theorists”, prefer to hire phenomenologists/cosmologists over formal theorists these days because of data from WMAP+LHC. But despite this, the number of students who want to want to work on fundamental theory seems unchanged, at least everywhere I know.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu Peter Woit

    jamie,

    I agree that there continue to be a large number of students who want to work on fundamental theory, but I do think that the number who, like you, identify “fundamental theory = string theory” has declined. Just about anywhere, I’m sure one can find students entranced with string theory, as well as ones who hate it. The ones who care about their job prospects though are going into cosmology and phenomenology.

    I don’t think there’s actually any evidence that WMAP data (now old news) or LHC data (non-existent) is what’s driving the job situation of the past two years. One significant effect of the LHC that I’ve heard about from several people is that the following argument is being made in faculty meetings: “string theorists keep telling us to wait for the LHC, which will discover supersymmetry and vindicate them, so, let’s not hire in that field now, but wait a couple years and see what happens.”

  • Alex

    Peter, has it ever occurred to you that the anonymous masses who are constantly whispering into your ear about the decline of string theory might not represent a truly unbiased sample of people in the field?

    The idea that the job situation is not being driven by the prospect of LHC data is completely divorced from reality.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    Alex,

    I’m as skeptical as anyone about anecdotal information, but I think that if you believe there’s not now a widespread perception among physicists and the public at large that string theory has fallen on hard times, you’re completely divorced from reality.
    Evidence about this comes not from anonymous masses whispering in my ear, but very public sources. For instance, I was just listening to the Science Friday broadcast last week from the ASU Origins symposium. It featured Ira Flatow asking Brian Greene what he thought about the perception that these were hard times for string theory. It’s not hard to find many other such examples.

    The “prospect for LHC data” has been there for quite a few years now: planning of the machine started about 25 years ago, construction was approved 18 years ago, and began 11 years ago. For a while, it was supposed to start taking data in 2005, four years ago. Sure, the LHC is one reason for the move to hire phenomenologists rather than formal string theorists, but that reason has been there for a long time, and doesn’t explain the dramatically worse job market in string theory of the past two years.

  • jamie

    Peter, I don’t know what you mean when you say that many students are calling something other than string theory (LQG? DSR?…) as the “fundamental theory” these days. This certainly does not match my experience at all, and I don’t even know what theory or theories you are talking about, basically because there are not many alternative approaches out there which are even moderately successful.

    Also, I think the burden of evidence is on you, if you suggest that the reason for hiring phenomenologists in the era of LHC is something other than the LHC. I honestly do not understand why it is useful to hire phenomenologists long before the LHC start up, even if the plan was in place for 25 years. The hiring increase in the last years is precisely correlated with the fact that people have been expecting LHC to turn on somewhere around 2005+.

  • The Next Einstein

    Woit said, “I don’t think there’s actually any evidence that WMAP data (now old news) or LHC data (non-existent) is what’s driving the job situation of the past two years.”

    If you want to make predictions about what LHC will see and get your guys in place, you do it before you have data not after. Apparently Woit has no idea how things work in the real world.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu Peter Woit

    I guess I’ll let “jamie” with his “I honestly do not understand why it is useful to hire phenomenologists long before the LHC start up” argue with “The Next Einstein” and his “If you want to make predictions about what LHC will see and get your guys in place, you do it before you have data not after. Apparently Woit has no idea how things work in the real world.”

    If either of you read what I wrote:

    “LHC results were a couple years away three years ago, they’re still a couple years away”

    you’d notice that the point is you can’t explain a dramatic shift in hiring that has taken place during the past two years in terms of a phenomenon that has not hardly changed at all for the past several years.

    By the way, do any of you people have real names? I’m sorry, but I can’t get over the idea that only an adolescent would write comments pseudonymous comments on a blog calling themselves “The Next Einstein” and telling others they have “no idea how things work in the real world”.

  • Haelfix

    I personally think there is no correlation with the rise of phenomenology hiring and the intellectual merits of string theory as percieved by department heads.

    The former would have occured in the era of the LHC even if string theory was going through another revolution.

    The drop off in jobs in string theory otoh, is more closely related to the difficulty of actually making progress atm. The easy readily solvable problems have been by and large exhausted, and its more and more difficult to actually solve things relative to what it was like in the 80s and early 90s. That doesn’t mean its a deadend, i’d say the immense majority of grad students and faculty in HEP are still very pro string theory.

  • M

    15 years ago the expectation was “Witten will reveal us the Ultimate Truth and LHC will measure details of supersymmetry”.

    As LHC is coming, we realized that string theory has no predictive power and now our best hope is making progress in the usual experimental way: LHC is finally coming we don’t know what it will find.

    String theorists smarter than string theory moved to phenomenology.

  • Giotis

    It seems strange to me that after so many years and effort, string theory could just fade away. It would be certainly one of the biggest fiasco in human progress. The fact that there are no experimental predictions right now doesn’t mean that you’ll have to abandon the entire theory especially if there are good theoretical reasons not to. I feel that the physicists often exaggerate regarding predictions and experimental verification. It reminds me what we engineers do sometimes using reverse engineering. If you don’t know how a system works and you don’t understand its basic principles you take it apart and you put it to the test to comprehend it. Generally reverse engineering is a bad thing since it reveals a complete lack of knowledge regarding the fundamental principles of the underlying theory of the system. In rough terms and if we assume for example that nature is that system then I could say that with LHC you just take it apart to find out how it works. That’s reverse engineering.

    So the point I want to make is that if you are confident about your theory (its basic principles and mathematical structure) stick to it even if you don’t make any experimentally testable predictions for the time being. If you are willing to give it up so easily, it means that you don’t know what you are doing.

  • jamie

    My impression matches that of Haelfix. Work on phenomenology/cosmology is likely to pay huge dividends, whereas work on string theory is chugging along at a lukewarm pace. This easily explains the hiring trends, even if you are too cynical to take the word of the people (including string theorists) who do the hiring. Woit’s claim that there is a “widespread perception among physicists” that “string theory has fallen on hard times”, is either ignorance or propaganda – at least if you are talking about physicists in the HEP community. This is what Witten (Woit’s hero) says in his quote, and this is what is obvious to anybody who is from within the community.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu Peter Woit

    “jamie”,

    When the biggest propagandists for a theory describe the situation as “chugging along at a lukewarm pace” or “it’s more and more difficult to actually solve things”, that’s a situation that non-propagandists describe as “having fallen on hard times”.

  • Big Vlad

    sheesh.

    Regardless of who is actually right, from reading the above it seems to me that Woit is the only one who has formed a coherent opinion and is capable of arguing it.

  • http://doctorstatic.com Vex Vuthor

    {[(-Slightly modded from my original; -this was a Michio Kaku -FanClub / yahoo-group Posting, -&, this -just the poem without the stringy backdrop jpeg-)]}

    THREE STRINGS FOR TEN-THOUSAND-THINGS UNDER THE SKY,
    SEVEN FOR DETERMINISTS IN THE HALLS OF STONE,
    NINE FOR MORTAL MIND DOOMED TO PI,
    ONE FOR THE QUARK LORD ON HIS QUARK THRONE
    IN THE LAND OF M-BRANE WHERE THE THEORIES FLY.
    ONE STRING TO RULE THEM ALL, ONE STRING TO FIND THEM,
    ONE STRING TO BRING THEM ALL AND IN THE QUARKNESS BIND THEM
    IN THE LAND OF M-BRANE WHERE THE THEORIES FLY.

    … Vex Vuthor /aka/ Doctor Static …

  • http://doctorstatic.com Vex Vuthor

    – OOps – -that’s: “THEIR HALLS”, dag-nab-it! [orig.= “Land of Michio”, BTW]

    THREE STRINGS FOR TEN-THOUSAND-THINGS UNDER THE SKY,
    SEVEN FOR DETERMINISTS IN THEIR HALLS OF STONE,
    NINE FOR MORTAL MIND DOOMED TO PI,
    ONE FOR THE QUARK LORD ON HIS QUARK THRONE
    IN THE LAND OF M-BRANE WHERE THE THEORIES FLY.
    ONE STRING TO RULE THEM ALL, ONE STRING TO FIND THEM,
    ONE STRING TO BRING THEM ALL AND IN THE QUARKNESS BIND THEM
    IN THE LAND OF M-BRANE WHERE THE THEORIES FLY.

    … Vex Vuthor /aka/ Doctor Static …

  • incognegro

    I read Lee Smolin’s book and one of the problems he had with String Theory is that it can never be disproved. Say, for example, when dark matter was first “detected”, the String Theorists revised their theory to accommodate it. It still didn’t make any useful predictions or produce any experiments whatsoever.

    Even if other theories make better predictions and have far more robust models, String Theorists will never let go of their theory simply because they believe it’s too pretty, to be wrong.

    To me, a layman, String Theory seems to be a collossal waste of time for a vast number of people far smarter than I. I can understand why they would be reluctant to let it go. But let it go, they must.

  • Jason

    To me, a layman, String Theory seems to be a collossal waste of time for a vast number of people far smarter than I.

    To me, another layman, this sentence makes me wonder why you think your opinion on the topic is worth anything relative to the opinions of people far smarter and more informed than you! Have you considered that these people might disagree with Smolin about whether String Theory is in principle testable?

  • Jeff

    Peter, I think it rather depends on what one means by “falling on hard times”. You seem to suggest that it means that string theory has fallen out of favour with physicists, who no longer believe it is the correct path to a fundamental theory. Jamie, on the other hand, is merely pointing out that it faces increasingly difficult challenges, without a clear way to surmount said challenges – this may be “falling on hard times”, but not in the sense you mean. If you think you’ve chosen the right path to a final destination, you don’t change your mind just because the path gets a bit boggy.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    Jeff,

    I’m not arguing that there aren’t many string theorists who are keeping the faith and still believe string theory will someday give a successful unified theory. What I am arguing is that fewer and fewer non-string theorists believe this, and the evidence for this is that fewer and fewer are willing to support hiring string theorists.

    If you look at the history of any failed speculative idea about physics, what you’ll find is that the proponents of the failed idea rarely publicly admit that it’s wrong. Instead they start making excuses about how it could still be right, but it’s just too hard to make progress. While some drift off to other things, and some keep working on the idea for the rest of their careers, their colleagues see what is up and stop being willing to hire new people who work on the failed idea. This is what is happening to the speculative idea of string-based unification.

  • Ja Muller

    Peter Woit wrote

    “If you look at the history of any failed speculative idea about physics, what you’ll find is that the proponents of the failed idea rarely publicly admit that it’s wrong. Instead they start making excuses about how it could still be right, but it’s just too hard to make progress. ”

    Can you give a historical example of something like this? I am having a tough time coming up with something that fits the bill that wasn’t a total crackpot idea that only a few people ever took seriously.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    Ja Muller,

    It is quite unusual for an idea that attracts a large following to be completely wrong. I’d be curious if you can think of a wrong idea that attracted a large following, and when it was shown to be wrong, its proponents publicly admitted this reality.

    Some cases I was thinking of are:

    1. Heisenberg’s unified field theory

    2. Chew’s S-matrix theory of the strong interactions

    3. Cold fusion

    2. is a complicated story interrelated with string theory. But, one aspect of the story is that in 1973-74 it became clear that QCD was the correct theory of the strong interactions, but there were quite a few people who for the next decade wouldn’t admit this. With AdS/CFT, some of the string theory ideas that grew out of this period did get connected to gauge theory and turned out to be useful. By analogy, I think it’s entirely possible that in the future some very different way of thinking about string theory and unification will have something to do with reality. The problem is that all known ways of doing this have failed, and that’s something proponents are not willing to admit.

  • jamie

    Woit: “With AdS/CFT, some of the string theory ideas that grew out of this period did get connected to gauge theory and turned out to be useful. By analogy, I think it’s entirely possible that in the future some very different way of thinking about string theory and unification will have something to do with reality. The problem is that all known ways of doing this have failed, and that’s something proponents are not willing to admit.”

    Wha..??? You just said AdS/CFT is useful!

    Either way, this is a purely hindsight-based argument. Hindsight is something we don’t have right now, by definition. What we do know is that work on string theory has given us new insights into black holes, gauge theories, quantum gravity, etc. Insights we did NOT have before. You and your idiot-army either don’t know enough to understand the significance of these, or they consciously ignore them. Mind you, I am not saying that string theory will ultimately turn out to be the final theory, but I do think it has useful lessons to teach us about the final theory, so it is certainly important to work on it, until we have the “final” theory.

    The problem with your book and blog is that they do not offer any way of making progress – all they do is call for a shutdown of string theory (which as you yourself admit above, has lead to useful things). What do you recommend as a better, concrete, alternate way of making progress? Lets hear it, dammit. Please pay attention to the word “concrete”. I emphasize it because revolutionary breakthroughs would of course be nice, but there is no algorithm for making them happen.

    I should probably stop, because arguing with your malicious, cynical propaganda is really making me angry and frustrated. But it is addictive precisely because I KNOW it to be bullshit.

  • Ja Muller

    Peter Woit,

    Fair point, I can’t think of a widespread idea that was falsified and very quickly recognized by its proponents. I mean there are things like Einstein and the cosmological constant but that was a pretty minor part of a successful theory and not a huge collection of information like string theory. (Though this is not that relavant since string theory seems so unlikely to be shown completely wrong by experiment or theory in our lifetimes) The main point I was trying to make is that if string theory does end up being left behind in the future without ever even having a precise formulation of what the theory even is, it will be a very unique situation. I agree with your last point as I think what is called string theory now is such a broad collection of techniques that it seems unlikely that 100% of it will be unusable.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    “jamie”

    Get a grip on yourself, whoever you are. I’ve many times pointed out what I see as positive things that have come out of research on string theory, from ideas about strings as calculati0nal methods for strongly coupled gauge theories, to a lot of ideas that have had a big impact on mathematics (“mirror symmetry” maybe the most important of these).

    What I see as a big negative coming out of string theory is the ideology that the way to unify particle physics and gravity is via a 10/11d string/M-theory. This is the idea that I think has completely failed. Not only has it led to nothing good, it has led a lot of the field into bad pseudo-science (anthropics, the landscape, the multiverse…), and this has seriously damaged the reputation of the whole subject.

    My main point has always been that string theory partisans need to stop hyping the entire subject, and start paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. The unification idea doesn’t work, mirror symmetry does. But instead of doing this, people keep publicly pushing the same failed idea, discrediting the subject completely. In the process they have somehow managed to discredit the whole idea of using sophisticated mathematics to investigate QFT and string theory at a truly deep level, convincing people that this was a failure caused by not being “physical” enough. Instead, it was a failure of a specific, “physical” idea: that you can get a unified theory by changing from quantum fields to strings.

    If you want concrete suggestions for what to work on, note that we don’t understand the electroweak theory non-perturbatively at all. There are all sorts of questions about non-perturbative QFT that we don’t understand. Sure, these are not easy problems, but then again, all the problems in string theory are now supposed to be too hard, why not instead work on QFT problems that are too hard? Personally I’m currently fascinated by the BRST formalism. There are all sorts of problems with it, and I have what seem to me some promising ideas about how to do better. If you don’t have any ideas yourself about what to do in this field, why not stop doing it, and do something else? The world is full of interesting work to be done, you can leave particle theory to others.

  • John R Ramsden

    With analytic continuation one can extent the domain of definition of a function from any infinitesimal patch, where it is defined by whatever means.

    By analogy, if string theory ever develops a model which overlaps with a range of observable phenomena, and these all agree with observations, then provided (as would presumably be the case) the whole thing is one rubic, united as tight as a drum, there would be no reason to doubt those aspects that couldn’t be observed any more than those which had been experimentally verified.

  • jamie

    Yes, when cornered, you have a way of saying that there are things in string theory that you find promising, and that you are only against the hype. Please get real. The truth is that your entire blog is a hate-parade aginst string theory, and an occasional fine-print statement like the one above, only emphasizes that you are a cynical propagandist. Granting you good faith is simply impossible in light of the kind of consciously misleading rubbish (aimed at unarmed laymen) that you write on your blog.

    And about your research advice for me: don’t you think it is more prudent if I took advice from somebody who has, you know, actually made it in academia??? Sorry if I am being harsh … thing is, I don’t respond kindly when I am being patronized…

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    “jamie”,

    You’re just becoming more and more of a frantic ranter spouting insults and nonsense.

    I have no idea at all who you are, whether you’re a high school student or a tenured faculty member somewhere (one remarkable thing I’ve learned the last few years is that, as far as anonymous commenting goes, you sometimes see similar behavior in both groups, especially when they’re on the losing side of an argument).

    So I don’t know whether you’re someone who “made it” in academia or you’re just hoping to. I do know that these days there are a lot of resentful and unhappy people in this business and that I’m not one of them, but am very pleased with where I’ve ended up and the extent to which I may or may not have “made it”.

  • jamie

    Peter, I cannot let you sidetrack the discussion into another direction yet again. So: what is this that you plan to accomplish with this BRST thing that you talked about? If everything went perfectly without glitches, where do wwe get? What fundamental problem do we solve? More bluntly, how on earth can a formalism alone be enough to discover new physics? Where is the dynamics?

    I looked around and found your postings on “BRST” and all I see is a fairly standard, if a bit formal, presentation of representation theory. I asked you for your favorite research program that can substitute string theory in our quest for high energy physics, and you give me a course on representation theory?

  • TimG

    “incognegro”, I haven’t read Smolin’s book, but what you’re saying about dark matter doesn’t make sense. Supersymmetry provides a dark matter candidate, and supersymmetry is incorporated into string theory for other reasons, not tacked on as an explanation of dark matter.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    “jamie”,

    I think you’re the one who is side-tracking the discussion from the topic here of the problems of string theory. Getting into what I’m doing with BRST and why is a long story, and actually at the moment, in another window of this computer I’m trying to write up a too-long-delayed document about this (the notes I posted online so far just are introductory parts). Once that’s done I’ll let it speak for itself. Here’s a very brief explanation.

    Mathematically, one of the main ideas I’m working with is to try and understand how BRST works in terms of something called “Dirac cohomology”. The idea of defining this “Dirac cohomology” and using it to study representations is a rather new one in the mathematics of representation theory, it’s not part of the standard presentation of the subject. At the moment I’m a long ways from understanding how these ideas work out in the interesting cases in physics where the symmetry groups are infinite-dimensional. But, I see a lot of interesting possible uses of these new ideas, for the simple reason that symmetries and representations are such an essential part of fundamental physics, that a new approach to them should lead to something new. The fact that this new approach has a version of the Dirac operator at its center is quite striking.

    If you want motivation more from the physical end, no one has really made sense of the BRST formalism for treating gauge theories outside of perturbation theory. The general assumption has been that this is a formal problem of no physical significance, but I suspect that’s not true. We’ll see. Anyway, I should get back to writing, I hope to have a finished long paper this summer, maybe something I can blog about earlier.

  • jamie

    Let me clarify that we are not talking about doing cutesy mathematical physics. We are not trying to cross the t’s and dot the i’s in what we already know. That is cool, but what we really want is to understand the unknown unknowns in high energy physics. So a substitute for string theory should also tackle the same difficult issues.

    You have sidestepped the crucial questions about your BRST program: “If everything went perfectly without glitches, where do we get? What fundamental problem(s) do we hope to solve when that happens? More bluntly, how on earth can mere formalism (for handling redundancies) be enough to discover new physics? Where is the dynamics? What is the physical input?”

    You haven’t answered these questions (not even partially), so your BRST thing is more like a brain-fart, not a research program, at this stage. On the technical side, I will reserve judgment about your so-called non-perturbative BRST, until your paper comes out.

  • also

    “jamie”, what has string theory done for you lately?

  • Neal J. King

    As someone who is far far removed and not well-informed about string theory, I would like to offer some historical perspective:

    In the early days of quantum theory, up until Heisenberg invented the rudiments of matrix mechanics, quantum physicists worked on all sorts of complicated models and half-baked theories that actually make no sense at all, from today’s point of view. Strange electron orbits, all kinds of classical perturbation theory, complex techniques from celestial mechanics: Anything that someone might possibly shed some light was enlisted. Up until months before his breakthrough insight, Heisenberg was still fine-tuning (and publishing) what seems to me like a Rube-Goldberg explanation for the anomalous Zeeman effect – a conundrum of notorious awkwardness at the time. Bohr and his collaborators in Copenhagen had just proposed a radical view of radiation, that got shot down almost immediately, and it seemed to take down with it quite a bit of what physicists thought that they had understood about atomic physics. It seemed a dark time for quantum theory.

    Two points of interest, however:

    – Although many of the ideas dreamed up during the early phase of quantum theory were later to be tossed out, some large fragments and elements made the transition into the new quantum mechanics, albeit with a very different interpretation.

    – The breakthrough eventually came through people who actually were busily involved in the struggle, trying to make what progress they could. If you don’t play the game, you can’t win.

    So the exact nature of the modeling – the physical picture – may, from the perspective of 80 years from now, prove to be less important than we think today. Perhaps some relatively small detail may prove to be the magic button that opens the cave entrance.

  • MOTO

    “Instead, it was a failure of a specific, “physical” idea: that you can get a unified theory by changing from quantum fields to strings.”

    Except that this statement fails to recognize that strings represent certain types of irreducible fields

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu Peter Woit

    “jamie”

    You could make exactly the same argument that all methods developed over the years in physics to exploit symmetries are not “dynamics”, have no “physical input”, and thus are nothing but “brain farts”. I don’t agree.

  • Haelfix

    String theory definitely has helped with the nonperturbative aspects of field theory. In fact i’d say that along with supersymmetry and supergravity, the primary mover for nonperturbative physics in the last thirty years has come directly from research in s.t.

    This isn’t vacuous or wishful thinking, we now have webs of dualities that translate directly from one language into another and can probe the strongly coupled sectors of previously intractable problems. Moreover, powerful renormalizability and integrability theorems now exist, Seiberg-Witten elucidates all sorts of fascinating physics in a wide class of almost physical models and so on and so forth.

    Peter knows this of course, and its just a matter of personal taste whether or not one thinks this will continue to yield unanticipated research goldmines and if that says anything encouraging about the fundamental nature of quantum gravity.

    I have no stake in the process, but i’d guess that indeed it will continue, if perhaps at a slower pace than hoped for -shrug-

  • Shankar

    As a young Ph.D. student in India working on experimental/design aspects in Astrophysical instrumentation, I am very curious about the attitude of theorists in general and string theorists in particular about experimentation.

    In India, there is something of a “caste system” in academia, with string theory as the brahmins and experimentalists as absolute untouchables. While not everyone displays or even has this attitude, it is prevalent enough that opening of laboratories in India is a strict no-no.

    This is why, despite having leaders in experimentation like J.C. Bose and C.V. Raman, India still has no proper astrophysical instrumentation laboratory. Every time someone asks for money for a lab, eyes are rolled and one of the following is usually spewed:
    1. Indians cannot / should not do experiments
    2. India is a poor country (yeah right! Every year, 2 billion USD worth of money is returned unused by the Indian research community to the government, which is getting exasperated with scientists who say they cannot handle so much of money!)
    3. Theory is the only thing worth doing
    4. Experiments are useless
    5. All data is fabricated anyway

    I am not against any kind of theory, but this attitude has harmed me and my fellow experimentalists in a way perhaps unimaginable in the West.

    Just curious if the US might ever tilt this way…

    Shankar

  • jamie

    Neal J.King, you have hit the nail right on the head. Working on string theory is interesting because it involves all the various threads in high energy physics, and the solution to the challenges emerging in these threads can only be found by working on them. String theory is really nothing more than a structure that manages to relate all of the various ideas that have been useful in physics in the past hundred years. Scientifically, it is a huge fallacy to think that you can GAIN anything, by dumping string theory. Its like saying that we should ignore some of the connections we found between various existing ideas, in our future research.

    Shankar, what you say really does sound bad. But it should also be kept in mind that often, the way people try to fix a past error is by making a compensating error. So blaming theoretical physics and/or string theory for the situation sounds like a bad idea to me (not that thats what you are doing here, but it is easy to make that mistake). I am certain that even the string theorists in India will find your above comment (if true), absolutely reasonable. In the West, my impression has always been that experimentalists are the ones who get most of the money, partly because many of them can get industry support. But I might be wrong about this. Either way, I have certainly never heard of money being returned to a funding agency.

    Back to the flame:

    Woit says: “You could make exactly the same argument that all methods developed over the years in physics to exploit symmetries are not “dynamics”, have no “physical input”, and thus are nothing but “brain farts”. ”

    Again you try to mislead and subtly redefine the issue, like the politician you are. There is nothing wrong with working on whatever you want (assuming of course, you have something non-trivial to say). The problem is when you present it as an alternative to fundamental theory, while NOT addressing the challenges of fundamental theory at all.

    What is despicable about you is not even your visceral hatred of string theory, but your underhanded attempts at creating the impression to the general public that you have more influence in the HEP community than anywhere near what you have. If you do not like string theory, fine. If you do not like the string hype, thats even more fine. But when you try to create counter-hype which is much more malicious to science than anything the string theorists have ever done – by trying to hurt the public perception of theoretical physics itself, by lying to the public, eg., about the current status of string theory in the HEP community, by claiming to wage a scientific battle while actually waging a public-relations one – it is high time that somebody spoke up and called you out on what you really are.

  • also

    `jamie’ answer these.

    What is space?
    What is time?
    What is a particle?
    Why the quantum?
    Why relativity?
    Why the particular particles we have, why their masses, etc.?
    Why the cosmological constant we have, and what is it anyway?
    Is the 2nd law of thermodynamics really a law?
    Etc.

    How does string theory even begin to address questions that are actually fundamental?

  • Nigel Cook

    ‘The problem with your [Peter Woit] book and blog is that they do not offer any way of making progress – all they do is call for a shutdown of string theory (which as you yourself admit above, has lead to useful things). What do you recommend as a better, concrete, alternate way of making progress? Lets hear it, dammit.’ – jamie, April 13th, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    ‘“jamie” … If you want concrete suggestions for what to work on, note that we don’t understand the electroweak theory non-perturbatively at all. There are all sorts of questions about non-perturbative QFT that we don’t understand. Sure, these are not easy problems, but then again, all the problems in string theory are now supposed to be too hard, why not instead work on QFT problems that are too hard? Personally I’m currently fascinated by the BRST formalism.’ – Peter Woit, April 13th, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    ‘And about your research advice for me: don’t you think it is more prudent if I took advice from somebody who has, you know, actually made it in academia???’ – jamie, April 13th, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    First Jamie asks Dr Woit for advice, Dr Woit gives the requested advice, then Jamie says he doesn’t want advice from Dr Woit! It’s funny to see rhetorical questions backfire when answered honestly. Everytime a string theorist asks what alternative ideas there are to work on (as a rhetorical question, the implicit message being ‘string theory is only game in town’, they have to be abusive to the alternative ideas they receive in reply.

  • Pingback: Quantum gravity evidence « Gauge theory mechanisms()

  • iPost (formerly Hartford Wheeler Dealer)

    I read Not Even Wrong, and not Trouble With Physics. It was, in my opinion, not well written; and was no longer in print when ordered. Anyhow, I then found the author’s WordPress-based blog and made some comments, only to experience unsanctionable difficulty–as people have their own problems.

    In reading through the comments presented here, it is obvious that I am not alone in seeking increased knowledge about BRST and Dirac Cohomology, though. :-) Yet, amidst plenty of separate commentary posted about “History,” there is no reason to anticipate that writing skills that would formally be displayed can rival those expected of a even a business person.

    It is nearly evident that string theory has been forestalled–regardless of whether its adherents are leading anyone toward foisons.

  • Pingback: The String Wars and the end of masculinist science « A Fistful of Science()

  • http://fistfulofscience.wordpress.com/ JR Minkel

    Sean I’d love to get your take on my post above. I think there’s a bigger cultural point to be made about the String Wars and if anyone else has made it I haven’t noticed.

  • Truth

    I don’t know how jamie would answer, but here we go…

    “What is space?”
    A 3 dimensional real basis imposed by the S-dual nature of the electromagnetic field.

    “What is time?”
    The fourth basis imposed by the antisymmetric nature of the dominating electromagnetic interaction.

    This point really needs to be hammered home. All knowledge and information we obtain and share with the rest of the universe, including knowledge of particles and other fields, is transmitted via the electromagnetic field and its gauge boson. Everything we know is derived from analysis of perturbations of the electromagnetic field we are immersed in.

    The dimensionality of spacetime as we observe it is entirely dictated by the electromagnetic field, and the electromagnetic field defines the 3+1 dimension spacetime of our macroscopic experience.

    It should also be pointed out that our ability to sense the fourth dimension is entirely because we are part of a large N system. If the system is only composed of a few particles, then coherent states can emerge and time becomes undiscernable.

    “What is a particle?”
    The standard answer is that a particle is an excitation of a field. I would probably add that the stable particles we normally think about are the non-dissipative states of an excitation.

    “Why the quantum?”
    The quantum world arises in phase space and is due to the linear dual relationship between position and momentum.

    “Why relativity?”
    Because the electromagnetic field imposes a linear relationship between space and time.

    “Why the particular particles we have, why their masses, etc.?”
    Still working on that one.

    “Why the cosmological constant we have, and what is it anyway?”
    The cosmological constant is a factor that tells us about the rate of dissipation of an out-of-equilibrium system

    “Is the 2nd law of thermodynamics really a law?”
    Yes, for all macroscopic systems.

    “Etc.”

    “How does string theory even begin to address questions that are actually fundamental?”
    The identification of dualities is perhaps the most important contribution string theory has made to date. The fundamental importance of string theory is that provides a framework to deal with the problem of our inability to effectively deal with uncountable infinities.

  • Mark

    “What is a particle?”

    An M2 brane wrapped on a vanishing 2-cycle?

  • M

    Shankar,

    I would say that while US is very strong in astro and cosmo, US particle physics already tilted in that direction (SSC, string theory, model building, Witten deification…) but is now recovering.

  • Marion Delgado

    I like a metaphor that occurred to me lately. Strings are the stones in “Stone Soup.” In the end, as Connes cited string theorists saying “… if some other theory works, we will call it string theory.”

    It may be all the hype from the string people was useful in keeping funders interested in particle physics. It may also be that when all the congruances between string theory and observation involving other methods are worked out, nothing that absolutely required string theory will be present.

    I am reminded of the controversy over the theory of fuzzy subsets of real sets (known mostly for its fuzzy logic component) when it started out – that it was simply a reformulation of already existing math. I hope that string/brane/M theories can at least give people a convenient way of showing another perspective on problems in mathematical physics. That doesn’t make the current “sociology” good but it may be a useful quality of string theory.

  • also

    `Truth’ thanks for your responses.

    I see that you have some reasonable answers,
    and I see that you have some string theoretic answers.

    However, the reasonable answers are not string theoretic,
    and the string theoretic answers are not reasonable.

  • Neal J. King

    Here’s a link to something a propos:
    http://abstrusegoose.com/137

  • Truth

    Don’t get me wrong, I like string theory and I think that its important, but we have to look at it as a means to an end (just like any theory). My answers were not intended to be string theoretic, just reasonable.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    “jamie”,

    I’m not claiming that I have the answer to the puzzles that remain for fundamental theory, just that the speculative conjecture that string/M-theory in 10/11d can solve these puzzles has, after a quarter century of work by thousands of very smart people, been shown to be a failure. I personally think a deeper understanding of our current best fundamental theories is the most promising thing to work on now, so that’s what I do. Those who think that research direction is a “brain fart” should do something else.

    It’s just an undeniable fact that the public in general, and physicists in particular, have come to recognize that there has been a huge failure here. 25 years of hype have blown up in string theorist’s faces, as it becomes clear that not only has there been zero progress on string unification, but the whole project has degenerated into pseudo-science (the landscape).

    Your idea that the way to deal with this is more hype (“String theory is really nothing more than a structure that manages to relate all of the various ideas that have been useful in physics in the past hundred years”) and “calling me out” as “despicable.. underhanded… lying..” has already been tried during the past couple years. These tactics have been far more effective than anything I’ve ever done in convincing physicists and others that string theory really is in serious trouble.

  • J.F. Moore

    Ray Saunders Says:

    Re The End Of Science – anyone remember Charles H. Duell (Commissioner, US Patent Office) recommended it be shut down because everything had already been invented – in 1899.

    This is simply incorrect. Duell did not make any such recommendation, in fact he and many other Patent Chiefs were concerned at times about the exponential growth of patent applications and how to handle them.

    It’s one of those tales that people like to repeat to “prove” a fairly empty point. Try just sticking with Lord Kelvin next time.

  • amused

    jamie wrote above:

    “There is nothing wrong with working on whatever you want (assuming of course, you have something non-trivial to say). The problem is when you present it as an alternative to fundamental theory, while NOT addressing the challenges of fundamental theory at all.”

    No, the problem is when you claim that what you are working on is so interesting, important, crucial, or whatever, that it must absolutely be pursued at the expense any other topic in formal theory, and then aren’t able to justify that claim to meritousness in any tangible way. If what you folks are doing is so wonderful then go prove it by filling up the pages of Physical Review Letters with all your great advances. Considering how important your work is, it should be a piece of cake for you! :-)

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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] cosmicvariance.com .

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