More Scenes From the Storm in a Teacup, VI

A quick update:

  • There was a second installment of the discussion led by George Johnson about press coverage of string theory. He went back to look to see what exactly some of those early articles said… How much coverage was there to start with? When did it start? When did it begin get out of hand? Did it get out of hand? Is this all just part of a standard bubble that happens for any field that the press decides to cover, a sort of manufactured (my word not his) boom and bust cycle? All issues that were touched upon in the discussion. Note also that the discussion broadens out considerably -as it should, (finally!)- to talk about the broader issue of coverage of topics in physics and science in general. The positive and negative effects of press coverage on attracting the next generation of students was also discussed. The discussion (this aspect in particular) was especially interesting because of the remarks by a number of senior people in the audience who were able to talk about their experiences over the years having seen the cycles recruitment of students in their own departments. Worth a listen/look at the archive here.
  • Lee Smolin has written a “Dear Friends” letter in response to some of the things that have been pointed out about his book, and about other points he’s made publicly in various discussions*. He’s given over some time to write quite a bit, which in general is a good thing to have done. You can find it here.

I’ll leave it to you to form your own opinion about Smolin’s remarks (I’ve not had time to read it in detail yet), and start a discussion here. Maybe ask him some followup questions here, for example. To help with context and build a more complete picture, do read some of the earlier comments and discussions involving him -and questions put directly to him- on the threads that share the name of this post. (e.g., Here and here.) Put those alongside the discussion with Peter Woit and of the central thesis of Woit’s book too. They are inseparable.

My set of opinions on the issue is the same as it was before. Even though I’ve said it all so many times here, since blogs seem to have no memory, I will summarize a bit:

  • The bulk of the discussion is media hype, ironically, knowingly (in my humble opinion) exploited by the authors. I think this is harmful for the whole field of theoretical physics in this area. Once you take out the short term financial gain on the part of the authors and publishers, it does not help anyone. I don’t see how adding hype to hype combats hype. I’d really like someone to explain that to me.
  • The picture of research into string theory that they paint -and then attack- is an unfair charaicature, my main criticism being that they’ve overblown the focus, and virtually totally ignored a lot of valuable work that is being pursued by a rather large portion of the field -it does not fit very well with the negative picture that they are trying to draw, you see, so best leave it out.
  • They want to say that the discussion is really about the young people. They are being pressured and duped into working only on string theory, which they are sure (without offers of actual proof) will not succeed in saying anything about Nature. So they want to have a discussion about the distribution of resources. Very noble cause indeed, but carried out in the most manifestly ignoble way…. Why hide this admittedly interesting and valuable discussion inside the shell of a mischariacature and negative attack on the work of a huge number of people (including, for example in the case of Smolin, effectively ignoring and sidelining as essentially unimportant or irrelevant the valuable work of your colleague down the hall at the Perimeter Institute (see the exchange around here)), when the discussion is just not about string theory? The discussion is about the larger structure of academic careers and research priorities. If they really want to talk about that, why not write their books about that?
  • Perhaps most importantly of all. If they want people to work on alternative ideas, why not present these ideas to everyone – develop these research programs to the point where people will work on them because they can see their merits? Theoretical physicists will work on the best or most promising tools out there that will do the job. We’re fickle. We don’t care whether they are loops, strings, or whatever. Just that they get the job done. Show us something more promising than string theory and we’ll drop string theory like a hot ton of bricks and work on that. So, Smolin and Woit: Please do some research that will help us get the job done by providing us with real alternatives through the usual channels which are available to everybody. The job won’t get done in the media-assisted way you are doing it right now.

-cvj

(*Thanks Bee!)

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