# More Scenes From the Storm in a Teacup, VII

You can catch up on some of the earlier Scenes by looking at the posts listed at the end of this one. Through the course of doing those posts I’ve tried hard to summarize my views on the debate about the views of Smolin and Woit – especially hard to emphasize how the central point of their debate that is worth some actual discussion actually has nothing to do string theory at all. Basically, the whole business of singling out string theory as some sort of great evil is rather silly. If the debate is about anything (and it largely isn’t) it is about the process of doing scientific research (in any field), and the structure of academic careers in general. For the former matter, Smolin and Woit seem to have become frustrated with the standard channels through which detailed scientific debates are carried out and resolved, resorting to writing popular level books that put their rather distorted views on the issues into the public domain in a manner that serves only to muddle. On the latter, there is a constant claim that string theory and its proponents are somehow brainwashing and/or frogmarching young people into working on that area to the exclusion of all else. The authors seem oblivious to some simple facts to the contrary there: (1) that you simply can’t do that to genuinely smart, creative young people; (2) that even students who have string theorists as their Ph.D or postdoc advisors often work on non-string theory research topics (3) that they’re doing an excellent job of either driving young people away from working on some of their favourite alternatives – or from pursuing theoretical physics altogether – by failing to clearly explain their merits and by using the press to help turn this into a distorted spectacle.

I’ve summarized a lot of what I think in the latter part of this post.

There are two major problems with how live debates take place in the public sphere. One is that the average person listening to the debate cannot know whether much of what Smolin and Woit claim as facts are right or wrong (or anyone on the other side of the debate, for that matter). When someone disputes a claim that Smolin makes, he either rapidly degenerates his arguments into frustratingly technical (and often missing the point) details, or lists 10 papers to read that seldom turn out to have shown what he claims they have shown, and anyway totally derails the discussion in hand. You can find several examples of this in the discussion threads of the blog posts below and especially over on some debates on Jacques Distler’s blog. With Woit, there’s hardly ever any evidence that he has command of the issues he claims to know about (and upon which he bases very strong statements such as claiming that string theory can never make any contact with nature), and when pressed for detailed arguments seems always to be suddenly busy, dismissive, or (disturbingly often) deeply offended that he was asked to give concrete arguments at all. (You can see examples of this in the comment threads of many of the posts of a similar title below, such as IV, and VI.) To those who know the field, it is clear that there’s a failure to present credible detailed arguments, which somewhat undermines their entire position, but to the general public it seems like it might be a balanced discussion between proponents of equally well established and well developed alternatives. It is frustrating, but that is the beauty of their ploy of turning this into a public “David vs Goliath” attack. The press love that sort of thing (it is one of the few ways they care to present a science story), and the representatives of the Goliath or so-called Establishment position can’t help but come off as complacent at the very least.

The other major problem is that in many cases where there is a public debate in the media, in the presence of someone who would like to put the case in favour of string theory research, the case they present is nothing like as accusatory as when they have the platform to themselves, or on blog debates. What you get from them in those public live debates has mostly been a very reasonable set of obvious statements that nobody can disagree with: There should be diversity in research, freedom to pursue alternative ideas, better support structures for young people working on harder problems that may not be part of the mainstream, and so forth. So the listener is left with the impression that if there is a big debate or controversy, it must be that the string theorists are somehow against this, which is of course ridiculous. So the string theorist present says that they agree with the sentiments expressed, and there’s nothing left to talk about. (See an example here.)

Lee Smolin is especially good at that trick, and somehow manages to present himself as remarkably reasonable on the one hand, while on the other hand people who have read the book come away very frustrated by the attacking emphasis (and sometimes plain inaccuracies) within, and a very unpleasant characterization (some would say demonisation) of the string theory community. When it suits him, Lee’s even taken great pains to even distance himself from things in his own book at times, starting with the somewhat damning title and going forward from there.

The beginnings (the first that I heard, at least) of breaking away from these frustratingly lame debates came when Lee Smolin debated Jeff Harvey (University of Chicago) on a Chicago radio show. I blogged a bit about it here and here and here. Sadly, although Jeff Harvey did a good job, given the circumstances, the debate did not really get as far with the content as would have been desirable before the show ran out of time. (We did have some excellent extended discussion on the latter two threads, including substantial contributions from Jeff Harvey and Jacques Distler, and on this thread, with substantial contributions by Mark Srednicki.)

Well, I heard a recording of an excellent live debate yesterday that I’d like to point out to you. It turns out that the format was just perfect. It is part of a series of lectures and debates hosted by the The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA), in London. (Audio on this page.)

Two things were different here. The first is that the audience in attendance and listening “at home” is not assumed to be afraid of a little sophisticated scientific discussion, so real content can be included – not technical details, but some actual content nonetheless. The second is that the format was better: There were three panelists who each got 20 minutes to state their case, followed by some back and forth discussion between the panelists, and questions from the audience as well.

The panelists were the physicists Lee Smolin (Perimeter Institute) and Michael Duff (Imperial College, London) and the philosopher Nancy Cartwright (London School of Economics (LSE)). It was moderated by the physicist Chris Isham. The other key thing here (and it was the most promising to thing about this to me) is that Mike Duff is a plain-speaking no-nonsense [Yorkshireman] Lancastrian who simply does not take any bullshit. I had high hopes that this would not be another lame debate.

I was worried during Smolin’s presentation, though. He gave a fairly sensible summary of the usual obvious points that nobody would disagree with – diversity in research, opportunities for young people, etc. It looked as if it was going to go the usual way. Mike would just have to agree with him, and then we’d be done. But he didn’t. He started out by saying something like (I paraphrase): “the trouble with physics is that there are two Lee Smolins. The reasonable one who we heard from just now, and the one who wrote the book”. And from there it just got better, as he brought along several specific things Lee said in his book and disputed those in his own very direct style, entirely sidestepping the “truisms” offered up for debate in Lee’s opening remarks. (I should say that Lee later cleared up one or two misinterpretations of things said in the book, and not for the first time distanced himself from some other things in the book by in turn blaming the copy editor, the publicists, or saying that they were not in the UK editions (as though that matters!). There were very many more major points of substance that Mike brought up about his claims, to which Smolin presented no answer, however.)

The philosopher, Cartwright, spent twenty minutes using a lot of fancy-sounding words and phrases (like “pessimistic meta-induction”) in very long sentences to say what was really pretty simple and could have been said in five: (1) Yes, it is very difficult to make objective value judgments about theories in a time when there are no experimental checks. (2) Both sides should be careful since the search for unification of the physical laws may be a red herring.

There was a lot of good humour throughout the entire event that made it especially good to listen to. I will not say that any points were made that you can not have read on this blog in the posts I’ve done or in the (often heated) discussions that followed, but I would say that it’s a rather good one to listen to for a summary of the two opposing views, and for the fact that Mike Duff does not pull his punches, giving the listener a rare chance to hear a senior person in the field make a relatively full case in rebuttal, for example making some very good points about how science actually proceeds, as opposed to how Smolin and Woit would like it to proceed. It should be put alongside Joe Polchinski’s excellent and detailed guest post on Cosmic Variance on the same subject (to which -strangely- Lee Smolin never responded, as far as I can tell).

Overall, I’d say that debate this is worth your time to listen to, which is why I’ve brought this tired issue up all over again. Here’s the link to the RSA’s page of lectures, you can easily find the audio for the debate there. It took place on the fifth of March.

-cvj

### 175 Responses to More Scenes From the Storm in a Teacup, VII

1. Mike Duff says:

Dear Cliff

Great Blog and thanks for the Smolin debate coverage, but you may have started another War of the Roses. I am not “a plain-speaking no-nonsense Yorkshireman who simply does not take any bullshit”. I am a Lancastrian who takes no Yorkist bullshit!

Best regards,

Mike

2. Clifford says:

Oh, having spent a lot of my formative years in Preston, Lancashire, I’m hugely embarrassed by that mistake. I have a lot of respect for the â€œplain-speaking, no-nonsense, non-bullshit taking’â€™ aspects of both Yorkists and Lancastrians.

I now go and bury my head in shame for misremembering.

-cvj

3. Hmm says:

Mike–

You did an *amazing* job. Lee was revealed for the intellectual parasite and poseur that he is. Thanks; this may be the beginning of the back-backlash, which is of course the only way the press knows how to operate!

4. Blake Stacey says:

I suspect a spelling glitch:

note technical details, but some actual content nonetheless.

Otherwise, excellent post! I have often suspected that in some limit, press coverage of science reduces to one of two stories: “Scientists glimpse God” (e.g., COBE pictures of CMB) or “David versus Goliath” (String Wars, perhaps also global warming and creation/evolution).

5. Agosto says:

And Hmm’s writings, here and elsewhere, explain the otherwise inexplicable fact that many people who know better nevertheless *want* Lee Smolin to be right. No point blaming him for making string theorists look bad when they do such an outstanding job of it themselves……

Likewise, granted that the situation of string theory is nowhere near as bad as LS and PW pretend, that does not excuse our host’s claims that everything is fine and dandy. Come on, just look at how boring the hep-th arxiv has become!

6. Elliot says:

So are we to believe there is a Smolin duality?

7. Bee says:

Another summary of the debate

*yawn* I had been hoping nobody would pick up this topic AGAIN! Now I feel like I have to write something as well. Sigh.

The only thing I found really funny was one of the questions from the audience in the end (1:24 ‘I could tell you a lot more about my theory – NO!’)

Best,

B.

8. urs says:

And Hmmâ€™s writings, here and elsewhere, explain the otherwise inexplicable fact that many people who know better nevertheless *want* Lee Smolin to be right. No point blaming him for making string theorists look bad when they do such an outstanding job of it themselvesâ€¦â€¦

I certainly have the impression that a lot of people speaking up in this — how do we call it, debate? — are mainly, when one gets to the details, not so much annoyed by the theory called strings, but by how they find its practitioners to be very obnoxious.

As in: “yes, AdS/CFT is very interesting, but I just can’t hear those string guys be overly enthusiastic about it anymore”.

Sometimes I even have the impression that some of those most heavily criticizing the theory would be enchanted by some of its beauties, wouldn’t their disdain (for some reason or other) for those practicing it prevent them from getting to the point of soberly learning about it.

Strange situation.

The situation is indeed strange. Some string advocates (e.g. Urs Schreiber) even reject their own ideas (4D gravity requires anomalies, in analogy with 2D gravity) for purely sociological reasons (ogres like myself agree with him). But then again, why should anyone question string theory just because its one prediction, supersymmetry [Wittten 1984-2002] are close to being disproven at the LHC.

But just if anyone cares about mathematical facts rather string triumphalism, let me point out that the combination of background independence and locality requires diff anomalies in the form of the multi-dimensional Virasoro algebra.

10. urs says:

Thomas,

believe it or not, but I don’t change my convictions merely depending on whether or not you agree with me. I find it a little sad that this is all you got from the discussions we had, whose issues had been a little more sublte than that, as far as I recall.

Except that it might be take as illustrateing the point about that strange situation, this is also not really on-topic here, it seems to me.

11. Seems to me that, more frequently, their negative feelings about string theory influences their opinions about string theorists (obviously, someone who won’t own up to the fact that string theory is a catastrophic failure must be a rabid, dishonest partisan) than the other way around.

12. I am told that one Professor Candelas gave a good performance in a debate against Lee Smolin last Wednesday in Oxford as well, although unfortunately I don’t think it was recorded.

Congratulations to Mike (also, regards the family, if you can figure out who I am) for his performance too.

–IP

13. Clifford says:

IP:- Wow! What was the occasion of the debate? Part of a series or just a one-off organized by the agents and other people wanting to sell more books? I would have paid money to see that debate though, and Philip’s wit and sense of humour is priceless… If anyone knows of a recording, please let me know.

Thanks.

-cvj

14. I think it was organised by the agents, but not sure. I can make inquiries. 😉 I really wanted to be there too but was completely snowed under with deadlines. Real shame. I have had to satisfy myself with second hand reports from people who did make it. You can probably get some info from the man himself.

(Ooops, my comment 12 above should read “regards to your family, Mike, if [etc]”)

–IP

15. Kea says:

Sigh. I can’t wait for the handle to fall off the teacup, so all the jerks who are fighting over it can watch it tumble into the abyss.

16. Lee Smolin says:

Dear Clifford,

It is unfortunate to read that you would still rather discuss the discussion than read the book yourself and critique the actual arguments made in it. But as you raise the discussion again I should clear up a few things.

First, why were there these debates in London and Oxford? Because I insisted that I would not go on another book tour except in the context of a debate with a senior string theorist, in this format. I also asked that a philosopher be there to critique the debate from their perspective. In the future I will continue to use this format except in cases where no string theorist is found who agrees to join it.

Why did I want a debate? Because the purpose of my book was not to â€œdemolishâ€ or â€˜attackâ€ string theory but to raise some issues and present a clearly argued viewpoint towards them. My hope was that people who disagreed would study the argument I made and reply with arguments of their own based on the science and the resulting debate would be healthy for our field. A major theme of the book is also the role the disagreement and competition between research programs plays in keeping science progressing, and what better way to present this to the public then by having a debate.

Why did I not respond better to the few substantial points Mike made? Because in the 3 minutes I was given I had to respond to personal attacks he made. For example Mike repeated a misquotation that, by leaving a word out, reversed my meaning. He made this mistake in his review in Nature Physics, and in an email exchange in late October we already discussed this. The problem at first was a copy editing error, which was corrected as soon as I saw it and never made it into print. For those who have not reviewed books let me explain that reviewers are often sent unedited proofs, together with a warning that they are unedited and to check the quotes with the publisher before using them in a review. Mike ignored this standard procedure, perhaps once was excusable, but why did he choose to open his presentation by mis-reading a quote he had been told explicitly was the reversal of the text of the published book-a copy of which he was holding?

I was similarly shocked by his quoting from the US cover copy when he had been explicitly told by the UK publisher that I had insisted that the copy be changed to remove the parts you and other colleagues found objectionable. I did this because-as discussed on blogs at that time-I did regret the language the publicist used and so I did insist that it be changed. Given that this had been explained to him before-hand, why did he nonetheless read the discarded cover copy, without telling the audience that it was no longer used at my insistence?

In Oxford we did have a great debate because Philip Candelas wasted no time insulting me or reading from discarded ad copy or journalists but used his time to defend string theory on the merits. I imagine the audience got the idea that there are important issues that physicists honestly disagree about which, again, was the whole point of my book.

Finally, have I backed away from anything in the actual book? Not so far. I still insist that I am the reasonable person I sound like when I talk, and indeed many reviewers have commented that the book is fair and balanced. The other, unpleasant, version of me Mike conjured up is a construction of a few journalists and people who prefer to waste our time making ad hominum attacks on an invented image rather than to discuss the actual scientific issues raised in the book.

Thanks,

Lee

17. Mark Trodden says:

Confusing Yorkshire and Lancashire! Tut tut! You clearly need to spend more time hanging out with your Lancastrian physicist friends 🙂

18. Lee Smolin says:

ps you are right that I have not responded to Joe’s review. Please do not construe this to mean that there are no replies, only that having had my say in my book, and his having replied in a reasonable and professional manner, i did not think it was necessary to enter into an exchange-which would largely consist of my pointing out how his points were already addressed in the book. i would be happy to discuss the scientific issues he raises, but only in a context in which the reply would continue to be professional and focused on the scientific issues.

Thanks,

Lee

19. Clifford says:

Yes Mark, you’re right! I am in disgrace for mis-remembering.

As for hanging out, please let me know when you’re next in town! It’s been a while since we’ve had a drink together.

Cheers,

-cvj

20. Clifford says:

Hi Lee,

I’m sorry that you think this is not a focus on the specifics of the points you’ve raised. It is about the specifics — The debate was very much about the specifics of the points raised and I’ve encouraged people to listen to the debate. You’ve raised several points in conversations here and in other places….I’ve read them and taken part in discussions of them too.

It is, however, also legitimate to discuss the parameters, format, and nature of the debate, in as much as it affects the message being put out there one way or another. This is what I have done in this post.

I do not know the specifics of which version and which copy editing mistake was made here and there… but it does seem to me (as has been pointed out in these pages before) that if you’re going to be making contentious points and are making very sweeping remarks about your professional colleagues -remarks that are very hard to not take as negative- you need to be extremely careful indeed, and certainly not be defending so many of the most visible parts of the book, and what sounds like rather key typos in sentences, by blaming it on the publisher

Further, as Mike pointed out in the debate, it is cold comfort to know that the UK version has been toned down a bit while the USA version (and maybe other markets? I do not know) is still saying lots of objectionable things. I think it was legitimate for him to discuss earlier versions. He should definitely not be a puppet of the publisher and tow the line and pretend other versions don’t exist.

It also seems very odd to me that you keep saying that this book is all about a big open discussion in the field, and when Joe Polchinski, one of the most senior and highly influential people engages and gives a detailed discussion of your book -which you say you want- you choose to not say a single thing at all. That’s a bit odd, I repeat.

Best,

-cvj

21. Mark Trodden says:

Will do. Cheers,

22. Lee Smolin says:

OK, Clifford, propose a format to respond to Joe where the debate will not be swamped by people making ad hominum attacks like above, and will stay strictly focused on the issues, and I will be happy to write a reply, not today but I would be happy to promise in 3 weeks.

The book is also not equivalent to the sum of my conversations and blog postings. Unlike them, the book is a carefully structured and carefully balanced argument. Given the amount of space you have given to discussing it i find it puzzling that you are not curious to read it. Beyond that, why should anyone take seriously a critique of a book by someone who hasn’t taken the time to read it?

Thanks,

Lee

ps re copy editing, I was being very careful, that is why copy editing mistakes did not make it into print.

23. Clifford says:

Hi Lee,

I’ve never directly critiqued things in your book or Peter’s book -others have done that. The only time I have referred to things in your books is by reference to things that you yourselves have either reported or confirmed is contained in them in the course of discussion – things that include what you’ve agreed are the central thrust of your claims.

I don’t see how my going off to read the book will make those questions any less pertinent.

So again: If you or anyone has a serious and specific scientific point to make, they can (and you and peter have many times) just do so, rather than telling me to read your book. We don’t argue about physics by launching books at each other….. battle by books is for fields like humanities, etc. In physics you just stand up and make specific arguments or claims and stand by them. For me to read a long popular level book is not needed for me to figure out what you’re getting at.

Summary: You made your points clearly and publicly, here and elsewhere and I have listened and read carefully. I’ve largely disagreed with your identification and characterisation of the situation/problem, and have made my points in return, in several debates here and elsewhere. Don’t try to undermine what I say by a distraction about whether I’ve read your book. It is not a very good debating tactic.

As to whether you reply to Joe or not – that’s your choice. It is not for me to determine the parameters…I was just mystified and curious as to what was behind the lack of an answer.

Cheers,

-cvj

24. Hmm says:

Agosto–

What I say may be impolite–but I do believe in this “debate” truth has too long been squashed in favor of politeness. “Personal attacks” are relevant as a response to an assault on an entire field, when they they have relevance. When Lenny says that Lee’s ideas go “glub glub glub” to the bottom of the sea, he is correct: none of his ideas in physics have any legs. Worse, he often goes to the press with howlingly ridiculous ideas–like his recent famous “octopus” model for incorporating the Standard Model into LQG. Does he answer how chirality, anomalies are reproduced? How electroweak symmetry breaking can’t happen without something unitarizing WW scattering? Of course not–but despite producing these head-shaking pieces of crap he still expects people to take his ideas seriously. He has not convinced any significant fraction of scientific community that his ideas are worthwhile on scientific grounds, for twenty years, which is (as Mike said) why he (and Woit, who is even worse) choose to go to a public who doesn’t really know or care either way to make their points. I called him an intellectual parasite–what else do you call someone who (as Mike also said) is making money off a book condemning people who actually do research and work? I called him an intellectual poseur–what else do you call someone who brings in random points from philosophers and injects them into a physics debate? Have we gotten so PC that we can’t call a spade a spade? I will go further and venture to say that Lee is a borderline charlatan—the Bruno Latour of theoretical physics.

25. Lee Smolin says:

Dear Clifford,

Our disagreement about the role of books illustrates one of the points of mine, which is that part of the reason string theorists and quantum gravity people talk past each other is that there are two very different styles or cultures of doing theoretical physics. One is foundational and philosophical and dominated theoretical physics during the early part of the 20th Century, another more pragmatic and anti-foundational that took over in the 40s and has dominated since. You explain the latter style when you say, â€œIf you or anyone has a serious and specific scientific point to make, they canâ€¦just do so, rather than telling me to read your book. We donâ€™t argue about physics by launching books at each otherâ€¦In physics you just stand up and make specific arguments or claims and stand by them.â€

Of course I can and do do this, I was trained in that style. But then I discovered the â€œrelativity communityâ€, which was a remnant of the older style. I found that there people do feel the need to read books from history and philosophy of science and talk about them as part of their research. Why? Because there are kinds of questions that cannot be successfully addressed unless you take a longer view and see them in the perspective of the history of our science and the writings of philosophers who have tried to think deeply about the questions that most puzzle us. These are foundational questions like the nature of space and time or the implications of quantum theory for our understanding of reality. Those who have made progress on them in the past such as Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Bohm, Bell, Penrose, Connes and others did and do write books to be read by both their colleagues and the public, because they find they need the scope a book offers to fully explore the subtleties of these questions. Furthermore, they see themselves and their scientific work as part of a long intellectual tradition, which one gets into by reading books from the history and philosophy of science.

In other sciences experts tend to write books when there are deep puzzling questions to explore. For example in biology the great evolutionary theorists such as Dawkins, Eldridge, Gould, Margulis and others carried out a debate about the scale and pace at which natural selection operates in a series books. Now we are at a very puzzling point in physics and some people are finding they need to explore the implications in books. Greene, Krauss, Randall, Penrose and Susskind all wrote books addressing the issues in string theory and quantum gravity-not just for the public but to carry on a debate among us. My book is part of that literature and is in part a response to them. I write books to influence the debate among us; I also find that writing a book focuses and expands my own thinking in ways that donâ€™t happen when I am only writing research papers.

Here is an example of the kind of question I found I needed a book to explore: what to think of the problems that arise from the need for higher dimensions in string theory, such as the problem of moduli stabilization and the vast number of static solutions. To approach this I read books on the early history of GR and unified field theories and learned that higher dimensional compactifications were explored many times between 1914 and 1984 and that close to the beginning these problems were appreciated and discussed by Einstein and others. I weave this story into my book because I find it useful when trying to judge how serious the present issues in string theory are to know how Einstein and many others struggled with the same issues over decades.

26. Lee Smolin says:

Dear Hmm,

Your postings perfectly illustrates another of the points of my book which is the irrational, nasty, scornful, aggressive denunciation by some insiders in a field towards perceived outsiders and critics-especially when those critics are respectful, credentialed, balanced and indeed have worked in the field. If anyone thinks I went too far in Part IV, then please consider that theorists who express and hold views like this are unfortunately not hard to find. Luckily there are also many string theorists who are respectful and accepting of critics and members of other reasearch programs.

Beyond that, of course the very recent work my colleagues and I published does not address many important questions. Since Newtonâ€™s Principia there have been very few works in physics that both introduced a new idea and direction and solved all the questions it confronted.

27. Plato says:

Lee:propose a format to respond to Joe where the debate will not be swamped by people making ad hominum attacks like above, and will stay strictly focused on the issues,

I was thinking about what the debate should be called? How about “In Search of Mandelstam’s Holy Grail?” 🙂

I like what you are doing Lee in the face of it all.

28. Clifford says:

Lee,

Best,

-cvj

29. Plato says:

“Deep play doesn’t have to do with an activity, like shallow play. It has to do with attitude or an extraordinarily intense state.”-Dianne Ackerman

I think even the lay person can mature given the chance to participate in the deep play. We still need to be exposed to the research. After a time, we may see more from the lectures then what’s on the surface? Debate does that, even while there is this student /teacher in all of us?

Nuance may be replaced with that “new term” that was supplied previous?

30. Lee Smolin says:

But Clifford, you are promulgating a misunderstanding of what is in my book, based on not having read it. The main themes of the book are constructive rather than destructive. There is no “turning” by me, and no collaboration with the press, or the publisher to claim that “string theory is wrong”. The theme of the book is not that string theory is wrong it is that there are big open issues that string theory and other approaches have not solved: can we discuss them? The press I am not responsible for, but most of the reviewers who read the book do see it is fair and balenced and not the simple attack on string theory you mistakenly think it is. There was a publicist who got out of hand, and I used bad judgement in not arguing even harder than i did to further tone down the advertising-and this I have taken responsibility for-apologised for, and had modified, so can we move on please?

You seem to think that some attack on string theory was planned, and suggest I am being disengenuous to say I was surprised by the reaction, but look, there had just been books by Susskind, Krauss and Penrose on these issues and no big press reaction. I had written a previous book on the landscape problem and a second book on the problem of background independence, and while they were decently received there was no big reaction. Woits book came out in the UK and there was no big press reaction. So I had no reason to expect anything different.

You seem to have decided very early that my book is a part of a strategy of “attack” and “destruction” and spent a lot of time and space trying to address a problem that never existed, because you literally judged a book by its cover without reading it. A large part of our discussion is my asking you please to read the book because your initial hypothesis is simply wrong. If you won’t read it, how am I to convince you that you are wrong about its contents?

Finally, you had drafts of the book a long time before publication as one of a number of string theorists all or part were shown to in order to invite criticism and correction. I did this to avoid what is happening now, because if i inadvertently misjudged something or got it wrong that would be corrected before publication. I understand if you didn’t have time to read it, others did and were very helpful. But it is disengenuous for you to falsly attack a book you didn’t read, on the basis of spreading false rumours about what it contains, when you had the opportunity to read the drafts and correct anything you find wrong long before publication.

31. Peter Woit says:

Clifford,

The best response to your posting would be to simply point out that, while you repeatedly accuse me of not knowing what I am talking about, you admit to not having read either my book or Lee’s, so really do not know what you are talking about at all. If you want to devote lots of time to writing long postings publicly attacking people and their views, I suggest you should first take a few hours to read what they actually have to say, in the form they worked hard to most carefully and clearly lay out their arguments.

Another excuse: at the moment I’m at an internet cafe in Pisa, traveling with a friend. Tomorrow I’ll be speaking here in Pisa on the topic of “Is String Theory Testable?”, and next week when I get back I’ll put the slides of my talk up on the web. If you have any interest in the scientific arguments I’m making you can see some of them there. Last week I gave the same talk at the INFN in Rome, where as far as I could tell the audience (of mostly high energy physicists) was sympathetic to what I had to say, although perhaps somewhat disappointed that my criticisms of string theory were not more vigorous. From talking to people there I learned a lot about the views of theorists in Rome, who seem to pretty much share my point of view on string theory.

As for the argument that Lee and I have no business writing books for large audiences about the problems with string theory, I’ll just note that no string theorist has ever publicly complained about the many popular books glorifying string theory, some of which contain large amounts of hype, and none of which explain the problems of the theory. Mike Duff, while attacking Lee for writing a book critical of string theory, wrote a laudatory review of Susskind’s “Cosmic Landscape”, even though most physicists consider what Susskind is promoting to the public to be pseudo-science. From what I recall, you’ve never commented on the Susskind book, claiming you haven’t read it (for a guy devoted to the public presentation of what is going on in this field, there seem to be a lot of books you don’t read).

As for Hmm, again there’s not much point in trying to spend time responding to his sort of cowardly viciousness. He (or someone who behaves exactly the same way and uses the same anonymous handle) sometimes comments in the same empty nasty way on my blog. I do have some information on who Hmm is: most of his postings come from Harvard or the Boston area, except one, which came from the Sheraton in Palo Alto, exactly the same day that Nima Arkani-Hamed was visiting the Stanford ITP. You can judge for yourselves whether this is part of the explanation for the fact that the Harvard theory group seems to think Lubos Motl embodies the best of the string theory community.

32. Clifford says:

Once again, Peter and Lee, I am not attacking what you say in your books… I am discussing the many points that you have made in many a public forum such as this one, and I am discussing the whole issue of whether an overblown media campaign is the best way to bring about change in a field – especially when part of the complaints made by you are about media campaigns! What I am saying is clearly stated in my posts on the subject.

It is very pathetic to try to distract from what I am saying by bringing up this issue of whether I’ve read your books or not. It is just not relevant. Especially telling about how lame this is is the fact that you happily (and in the case of Lee, sometimes productively) debated some of your views with me for well over a year (almost two), and it was just not relevant as to whether I read the books, since you did not know. Now that you know, suddenly that’s the main issue. Ridiculous.

So stop trying to hide behind that. It is lame. It is evasive, and it does not reflect well upon you at all.

Peter, you make strong and overblown claims about results in string theory that you do not understand even after reading the papers. When discussing science, you should use the tools and standards of the field in question to make your point. You’ve failed at that miserably and embarrassingly when given the chance here and in other places, again and again. This is quite different from me talking about a few simple points that you and Lee have made in several places in several formats, which are quite easy to grasp.

The bottom line is that you’ve both *knowingly* tried to use the media’s distortions (multiplied by your own distortions) to sidestep the standard process of carrying out a scientific argument. I’m asking you to help science by presenting better *scientific arguments* – by producing better alternatives that are more attractive. I don’t need to read your books to say that.

-cvj

33. Clifford says:

The bottom line is that youâ€™ve both *knowingly* tried to use the mediaâ€™s distortions (multiplied by your own distortions) to sidestep the standard process of carrying out a scientific argument. Iâ€™m asking you to help science by presenting better *scientific arguments* – by producing better alternatives that are more attractive. I donâ€™t need to read your books to say that.

-cvj

34. I do have some information on who Hmm is: most of his postings come from Harvard or the Boston area, except one, which came from the Sheraton in Palo Alto, exactly the same day that Nima Arkani-Hamed was visiting the Stanford ITP. You can judge for yourselves…

Where have we seen this tactic before?

Iâ€™m asking you to help science by presenting better *scientific arguments* – by producing better alternatives that are more attractive.

So if I make string theorists admit that my arguments are correct, as I did here and here, you would consider them seriously? I wonder why I don’t believe you. 🙂

36. Lee Smolin says:

Clifford, “knowingly..sidestep the standard process of carrying out a scentific argument” implies intent. But all the scientific arguments in my book were presented in papers on the Arxiv, some of which were also published. There was lots of time, for example, for experts to respond to hep-th/0303185 which gave a detailed critique of the then present status of string theory and the other major research programs. A few did and of course there were developments since then. This, plus a lot of fact checking and having the book read by experts is what gave me confidence that there are no errors of scientific fact in the key argument. Other papers which presented the key arguments of the book prior to its publication were hep-th/0407213, hep-th/0408048, and hep-th/0507235. So I did the right thing, which is to have tested all the key scientific arguments by presenting them ahead of time in the scientific literature.

Should I have stopped there? One of the issues the book raises is that groups of specialists such as, but not limited to string theorists, organize themselves in such away that they do not listen to criticism or discussion from anyone other than those deliminated as part of their community. So there are no presentations of alternatives to string theory at the annual string meetings, and no time set aside for presentations of outside critiques. Both of these are common practice in other fields and other communities. I can’t speak for Peter, Roger or Lawrence, but I do feel that had there been a lively debate within the scientific community that string theorists opened to people like myself who have worked on the theory but not exclusively so-indeed were there not such an insistence on a separation between string theory and the other approaches to quantum gravity and a clear distinction between who is and who is not a string theorist-I would have written a different book.

And i should say that the response by yourself and others just proves the point that there is an aviodance of criticism and a disrespect of the views of those not considered part of a well defined community. Most of the discussion on yours and other blogs in response to these books has not addressed any of the actual content of the books. One way or another it has been about whether we did something wrong by even writing a book about string theory-being percieved as outsiders. This is why it matters to us that you discuss these books and spread false claims about them without even reading them.

As for the media’s distortions, certainly there is no attempt to “use’ this because this is another fantasy created by you. Many of the journalists who report on science are very knowleable, thorough and fair to a fault. They do a lot of research and checking before they write something. Not all but many of the reviewers of my book understood it-and a few really caught the subtelties well. A few did misread it, but I see much more evidence of distorsion in your false claims about the books than in the majority of reviews. This of course is because most reviewers would find it unethical to comment publicly on a book they have not read.

37. Clifford says:

Hi Lee:-

Where have I falsely or unethically commented on your book? Where have I written a review of your book? Show me. I’ve commented on and discussed many of the issues with you here and elsewhere, despite what you claim.

I welcome criticism and urges to be cautious in all these scientific endeavours. I am not wedded to string theory, as you and I have discussed many times in person. I just want to know how Nature works and would like to see success in whatever approach can get us there.

I just don’t happen to agree with your approach of using the press and popular media to discuss this issue, since it confuses the points of scientific substance with sociology and other obfuscations….and presents only a popularity contest to the public, and to young people trying to decide about what fields to work on. They should be shown good science, not this sort of thing… this is not a healthy approach.

It is legitimate for me to discuss that, which I have done, whether you like it or not.

If you don’t like me discussing it, fine, but pretending that I reviewed your (or Peter’s) book and then being shocked that I have not read them is just silly. I never wrote a review or either of your books nor claimed that I’d read them. The issues I have been discussing have nothing to do with a detailed reading of the books.

How many times would you like me to say that? Will you still continue to hide behind that issue? Come on.

Finally, I will admit to still being puzzled about something. So I will ask again. If you are so keen to have a discussion, and to have people read your book and discuss its contents with you, how come when one of the most influential people in the field, Joe Polchinski, takes the time out to write a careful and detailed discussion of the contents of your book, you maintain total silence? This seems to me to be very odd indeed. Perhaps further evidence of two (or more) Lee Smolins?

Your lame reasons offered above are…. lame.

Best,

-cvj

38. Carl Brannen says:

Clifford, I’ve read both these books. The conclusions you jump to about the contents of Smolin’s book in particular are very wrong. You simply have no factual basis to be making comments like this in regard to it:

“Iâ€™ve also questioned the wisdom of writing popular level books (that are largely devoted to a concerted attack on the work of many others) as a means of achieving what you seem to want to achieve, and whether that combined with the inevitable press storm and public misconceptions it generates (which you seem so naively â€œsurprisedâ€ about) is really the best way to proceed in view of the damage to physics in general it may be causing.”

What you’ve been commenting on is not the books, but on other people’s comments. They are derivative comments two times over and are completely opposite. From this we can deduce:

$$\frac{d}{dx} Smolin(x) = – Smolin(x)$$

that Lee is a pure sine wave, with amplitude and phase to be determined.

Kea’s laconic comment is spot on. String theory as well as LQG and other theories that do not allow perturbation calculations are about to go down the drain in great style, but neither of these books will have anything to do with it.

39. Clifford says:

Carl,

Factual basis number 1:

I’ve been discussing directly with Lee Smolin and Peter Woit about the contents of their books and their central arguments, for almost two years now. I’ve heard them speak about their views of string theory and of string theorists.

Factual basis number 2:

There is confusion and misconception in the public domain (as a result) about these books. Just talk to people, and read the discussions in press and other media outlets.

Factual basis number 3:

Lee himself says he was surprised by the coverage. I don’t actually believe that, but he said it. It is another fact upon which I based the above statement.

I could list more facts upon which to base what I say, continuing with, say the titles of the books…the blurb written about them by their own publishers, and so forth.

So what on earth are you talking about?

-cvj

40. Kea says:

So what on earth are you talking about?

Clifford, I too have read Smolin’s book. Personally, I did actually find a few comments in it that I think a string theorist would rightly find insulting. SO WHAT? It is not what the book is about. The irony, of course, is that many of the people who ‘take Lee’s side’ (including Lee) don’t really understand what the book is about either.

41. Clifford says:

I’m not going to attempt to repeat everything I have been discussing all over again about this whole issue being a “Storm in a Teacup”, and why that view can be legitimately and defensibly put forth without reading their books, especially after almost two years of talking with the authors about their views.

If you want to stick to thinking that what I am saying constitutes a review of their books, then there is nothing I can do about that. If you want to stick to thinking that I’m hung up about whether or not some people have been insulted, there’s nothing I can do about that either.

OR, you can go and read what I’ve actually written in the posts about the issues, and the very specific things I have discussed with the authors of their books in their own words. (Perhaps you think the authors have also being misrepresenting their own books in these discussions?)

I have provided the links at the end of the post above in a handy form. It’s all there. Please look before jumping to further conclusions.

-cvj

42. Nigel says:

“… there is a constant claim that string theory and its proponents are somehow brainwashing and/or frogmarching young people into working on that area to the exclusion of all else. …” – Clifford

This is the issue that worries me. You are seriously downplaying the problem. Students are the least of it.

String theorists are firstly brainwashing one another that M-theory based speculations are science and encompass the most physics, secondly the’re brainwashing the wider community of physicists including those who studied assorted applications who aren’t specialists in particle physics, and thirdly they’re brainwashing the media which in turn is brainwashing everyone, including students.

Consensus without facts is dogma. There’s nothing wrong with all this until you see the side effects, such as the editor of PRL using Witten’s published remark that string theory “predicts gravity” to censor papers without even sending them for peer-review first.

Peer-review can’t work anyway with regards to alternatives with only string theory being deemed to be a consistent theory of quantum gravity. If someone does have a really radical idea, different enough from M-theory to avoid the landscape problems and make progress, how on earth is that person going to be taken seriously by someone who believes in – and is funded for – a mainstream speculation?

Other ideas need serious nurture. Einstein didn’t come up with general relativity while a patent clerk. This is why there’s no progress. You need quite a lot of development of alternatives to M-theory to get somewhere.

To answer Hmm’s ridicule of Lee Smolin’s twisted braid approach to representing the standard model, because it doesn’t include features like chiral symmetry, Hmm should get excited about page 51 of Peter Woit’s http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0206135 which does find a tentative representation which encompasses the standard model, including chiral symmetry features. However, it’s clear that ANY promising ideas that model what is known fact will be taken today as being boring or at least less glamorous than the altar of M-theory with extra dimensions, branes and other uncheckable speculation.

43. Arun says:

“In other news, scientists said the CVJ’s teacup is definitely showing a warming trend as the number and intensity of storms in it have shown a broad increase.”

44. Elliot says:

Let me share an outsider’s perspective. It appears that Lee and Clifford are “talking past” each other. I would suggest that if anything meaningful is to emerge from this interaction it should begin with a set of statements that both Lee and Clifford are both in violent agreement with and then begin an effort to highlight meaningful and substantive differences in this arena.

So let me start with a set of statements that I think both may be able to accept and see if it leads anywhere.

1) We agree that whatever theoretical construct is the best model of reality should ultimately conform to experimental or observational data with the least number of ad-hoc adjustments and the greatest explanatory value.

2) We agree that the percentage of research dollars currently spent on each various approaches to explaining the nature of underlying reality is not meaningful in determining which model is ultimately correct. Restatement: Nature doesn’t care what we think or if we are wrong or right.

3) We agree with respect to statement #2 that funding levels and inertia in current research is an completely independent issue from which model of reality is correct.

4) We agree that scientific inquiry into which model of reality is ultimately correct is not a popularity contest or subject to spin or public linguistic manipulation apart from clear and accurate scientific statements of how a particular model or models conform to reality.

If Lee and Clifford cannot agree to these four points I would humbly and respectfully suggest that there is no value in continuing this discussion.

Elliot

45. Clifford says:

All sounds good to me, but I’m pretty sure – from the decent into irrelevance – that the discussion has long been over. The best I can do is point out to people of the public to be careful what they hear about these books, and to point out when I hear of a debate or other event that helps shed a somewhat different, clearer, light on the matter, and hope that they see through some of the guff from Smolin and Woit.

That’s really all I’m trying to do at this stage with regards this business. I’m getting on with doing the science to see what I can see.

-cvj

46. Plato says:

I like Elliot’s ground rules. I don’t think they are talking past each other though but still trying to find their way.

I like the fact the Lee is still willing to put himself out there for these kinds of debates as mentioned with Clifford’s opening post. And “leading by example” is the continued push to find these differences and present them. We learn a lot about the research by what is presented, even if it had a philosophical taste to it.

So I think there was agreement to the kind of debate mentioned earlier, but clearing away some of “the debris” that makes the conversation unsettling toward a percieve funding preference, may be helpful?

Is there any evidence of “string profiteering” please come forward or hold your peace? Clifford I know you may not like this, but that is indeed a frustrating thing to put in face of some wanting to understand the models. Which ever.

Anyway some might like Lee’s approach as I do in regards to the historical work melding into today’s research. To even understand “his position” from reading the work he puts forward in synoptic style is sometimes necessary.

Does this lesson what is appealing from Clifford’s openness as well to help those less fortunate to understand this process of science. Of course not.

So from a lawyer above(?) define the rules that we can move forward here in the debate of some kind.

47. Lee Smolin says:

Dear Elliot,

I do agree, and look forward to the next steps you propose.

Lee

48. Peter Woit says:

Jacques,

Quite possibly I’m wrong, and “Hmm” is someone else from the Boston area who was visiting Palo Alto at the same time. If so, my apologies to Arkani-Hamed. But I don’t think this kind of blog comment is the same as a referee’s report…

Clifford,

Do you really think it is ethical to allow comments like that of “Hmm” on your blog? Before blogs, people who wanted to behave anonymously like that had little they could do except write on toilet stalls, now you’re providing them a venue to do this publicly.

People sometimes have legitimate reasons for not wanting to reveal their identity on a blog, but I don’t see any ethical justification for carrying out this kind of attack from behind the cover of anonymity. Maybe we’ll never know who “Hmm” is, but it might be a good idea if you and Jacques don’t support his behavior to say so.

49. Clifford says:

Peter, you’re right (although it is nothing to do with ethics, really). Everyone:- Please be advised that in our discussions, the product of anonymity, A, and comments of a more personal nature, P, should be roughly a tiny constant,   $$\varepsilon$$:

$$AP \sim\varepsilon$$

Thanks.

Thank you Peter, and in return, I’ll ask that you please don’t continue your very odd practice of making random accusations about which anonymous person might be matched up with which named person. That is getting on for being unethical and is quite unprofessional. You’ve made a notable colossal mistake in this area before, as Jacques pointed out above.

-cvj

50. Peter Woit says:

Clifford,

I still don’t see any condemnation from you of the comments by Hmm (whoever he is) that you chose to allow to be posted here. Yes, it is a question of ethics, really. So is the issue of misrepresenting my views and those of Lee’s and endlessly personally attacking both of us and our books, while refusing to read them.

51. Bee says:

Interesting! It seems this discussion has gotten an unusual spin. So, even though I promised myself to stay out of this, I’ve got something to add. Let us leave aside for the moment the question who might have been insulted by what, or whether it was a particularly good idea to make this debate a public one. Before anything constructive can ever come out of this, I think one should set the stage.

Even though I am convinced Lee’s concerns about the present funding decisions and selection criteria are justified, apparently not everybody thinks so. My opinion is build up on the fact that every postdoc I know or have met and with whom I have discussed the question, agrees that the current system encourages working on established projects rather than investigating own ideas (which might possibly fail and/or not result in publications with well known top researchers on high-impact topics), and they agree that this is not optimal to progress.

However, the people I know are hardly a representative sample, and if you read e.g. Joe Polchinski’s review you’ll notice that he questions the necessity for change. (This point was not only brought up by Joe). On the other hand I have to say if I was a postdoc in Santa Barbara most likely Joe Polchinski wouldn’t be the first person to tell that my life sucks, and that I’d rather not work on what my supervisor’s current interest is. So, again, its hard to tell how objective this opinion is.

My suggestion therefore would be to start with a survey that addresses the points raised with the aim to settle the issue whether or not there is a need to act in the first place. E.g. one would like to ask researchers which criteria they apply to chose their research topics, and to which amount these decisions are based on career considerations, co-workers, supervisors demands, how ‘risky’ these decisions are and in which regard. One might want to ask whether they pay attention to fashionable topics, whether they would change their research projects if their funding was more independent. One might want to ask what criteria they use to evaluate applications, e.g. how much attention is payed to the connections a candidate might provide to other established institutions (networking etc), whether his/her previous works are compatible with ongoing research, number of publications, citations, letters from well-known researchers, previous employment at well-known institutions, etc etc.

A second step would then be to summarize the outcome, to evaluate it, and to formulate suggestions (if necessary) to improve the situation. That could be understood e.g. as recommendations for hiring processes.

If possible, for such I would strongly recommend to use already existing structures (e.g. the physical societies) and not add additional layers of organization.

Just an idea. I’d be happy to hear your opinion.

52. Clifford says:

Bee,

Very interesting suggestions indeed. Here is maybe a useful step in being constructive. All I have been saying is that this situation has nothing to do with string theory per se, but the structure of academia and the building of research careers in general. If we can go ahead and move forward on thinking about this without it being a “string theory and string theorists are the problem” discussion, this would be progress. This is one of my central points that keeps getting ignored in all the distractions that keep being raised.

So Lee, Peter, would you like to organise and carry out that survey? While you’re at it, perhaps you could quantify a number of things that have been claimed, such as whether the general atmosphere of a malaise among young people is true or not, etc, etc.

When you’ve done such careful and objective data gathering, worldwide, with a proper inclusion of all aspects of research (and not just the narrow corner that you claim to be “fundamental” – we’ve argued about that before too), then publish that in a book and I will be the first out there to buy it and read it!

Best,

-cvj

53. Plato says:

As a lay person outside of the organization of scientists I am still speaking from experience.

I think while doing that survey one has to remember the sociological aspect of having to feed oneself and finding some form of job security to allow that creative function to grow.

There is of course a vast difference between knowing one’s position s secure, while doing the necessary work, but having the freedom to delve into other areas is of course the willingness of any institution to ask for the students participation. By getting them involved.

This sometimes I think can be dealt with the organizations that are already involved in the education development of the prospective students. I was thinking of PI and the educational work given by Susskind. Different schools advancing the “other models” for inspection.
l
Whilst the student is in this struggle, and the thoughts long off on where home might be to plant their roots, it is a fact that the longer you are in any educational position the more secure you will feel.

Speak your mind and don’t worry about the bosses if you want to advance the current thinking held in any science field? How would they feel if you are doing your job, and are going the extra mile because you enjoy it??

The human condition often voices the emotive reaction of the circumstance they are in. How will this help the institutions? I wonder while I am back to thinking of the debate of the seasoned.

54. Bee says:

Hi Clifford,

All I have been saying is that this situation has nothing to do with string theory per se, but the structure of academia and the building of research careers in general.

My words 🙂

What questions would you put on the survey? What do you think are the important points?

Best,

B.

55. Elliot says:

As a follow up to my previous message, I think what is also required here is some “deconstruction” of the issues raised in Lee/Peters books into individually addressable areas. Very roughly these are:

1. The science itself.

2. The process of doing scientific research within the academic environent.

3. The political environment both within and outside of academia.

4. The public perception of the research.

5. The financial support structure and allocation for scientific research.

My belief is these individual issues have become deeply “entangled” in this discussion and need to be cleanly parsed out to make any meaningful progress. I like Bee’s suggestion to address one aspect of this. I need to do a bit of background research but I am optimistic that there can be progress in this arena. Stay tuned.

Elliot

56. Clifford says:

Yes, B…. you’ve been saying that all along as well. Thanks for reminding me.

Now, sure, (B and Elliot) a discussion can be had about academia looking at itself and seeing if it is organized in the best way for what it wants to achieve (we all know it has serious flaws in other areas, so I would not be surprised if some improvements can be made), but I’d also like to make sure that one of the most key aspects does not get lost in all of that: – The production of good new idea within the science itself. There’s an awful lot of sitting around loudly saying how evil string theory and its practitioners are, but not an awful lot of good stuff being *worked through* and proposed to the community as alternatives through the existing structures of discourse (which are not as totally broken as claimed, I’d say).

And with that, I’m off to my other blog for a while to write up some more evil string theory ideas to discuss with the smart young students that I have chained to their desks in the basement, Polchinksi, Zwiebach and GSW being fed directly into their veins via intravenous drip bags……

Later,

-cvj

57. X says:

In other fields, there may be more objective measures of “progress” and “value” than in string theory or even particle physics as a whole.

In a field not in a crisis with lack of direction from experiment (e.g., let’s take molecular biology as an example), and where progress is “tangible”, the need for people to go and do risky, low-likelihood-of-payoff stuff early in their careers is simply not there. Or there may be more objective criteria to judge the chance of success and the value of success.

Academia as a whole may exhibit the same behavior as the community of particle physicists, however, it is a problem of a different urgency for particle physicists compared to most other branches of academia. In the “hard” sciences there is hardly any other field full of theoretical results with no connection to “reality”.

The situation is historically unique and is unique to particle physics. Expanding the scope to include all academia is IMO a great mistake.

58. weichi@weichi.com says:

“The situation is historically unique and is unique to particle physics. Expanding the scope to include all academia is IMO a great mistake.”

You can say that again!

The idea that the claimed “crisis” in particle theory has anything to say about scientific research in general is absurd.

So if the particle theorists want to change their funding process, great. If they want line up in a circular firing squad, great. Circle jerk, great too. Why should the wider world care at all?

Someday there will be new data, and there will be theories to explain that data, and all will be well. Untill then, it’s a great example of the old saying about academic politics: the argument is so bitter and contentious because the stakes are so low.

59. Bee says:

@ weichi

Why should the wider world care at all?

“Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesnâ€™t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.”

Stewart Brand, in John Brockmanâ€™s The Third Culture

(see – every now and then, I don’t immediately forget a name)

60. weichi@weichi.com says:

Bee,

I like the quote!

But particle theory != science. Particle theory is just a very small part of science, and string theory an even smaller part. So why should a person who is interested in *science in general* care about this dispute? What does it tell us about the way that science should be pursued or is pursued? I guess it’s an object lesson in the importance of experiment in scientific progress, but beyond that …

Of course a person, like myself, who finds particle theory interesting might be interested in the dispute! After all, that’s why I’m reading and commenting on this blog! But I don’t think I’m learning anything about *science* from any of this.

61. Nigel says:

Everything that happens involves particle physics, so it determines the nature of everything, and is just a few types of fundamental particles and four basic fundamental forces, or three at high energy, where electro-weak unification occurs.

It’s better to have debates and disputes over scientific matters that can potentially be resolved, than have arguments over interminable political opinions which can’t be resolved factually, even in principle. I don’t agree that a lack of debate (until new experimental data arrives) is the best option. The issue is that experiments may resolve the electroweak symmetry breaking mechanism, but they won’t necessarily change the facts in the string theory debate one bit. Penrose explains the prtoblem here on pp. 1020-1 of Road to Reality (UK ed.):

‘34.4 Can a wrong theory be experimentally refuted? … One might have thought that there is no real danger here, because if the direction is wrong then the experiment would disprove it, so that some new direction would be forced upon us. This is the traditional picture of how science progresses. Indeed, the well-known philosopher of science [Sir] Karl Popper provided a reasonable-looking criterion of a proposed theory, namely that it be observationally refutable. But I fear that this is too stringent a criterion, and definitely too idealistic a view of science in this modern world of “big science”…

â€˜We see that it is not so easy to dislodge a popular theoretical idea through the traditional scientific method of crucial experimentation, even if that idea happened actually to be wrong. The huge expense of high-energy experiments, also, makes it considerably harder to test a theory than it might have been otherwise. There are many other theoretical proposals, in particle physics, where predicted particles have mass-energies that are far too high for any serious possibility of refutation.â€™

62. Elliot says:

Nigel,

If a theory cannot produce at least in principle an observational refutable prediction, then I don’t see how it can be called science. In my mind it becomes mythology or religion. One fundamental lynchpin of the scientific method includes experimental verification. Obviously when we attempt to develop theoretical models for phenomena that are 10 to the 40th orders of magnitude larger or smaller than our own scale, expermintal verification is quite challenging but to suggest that we have to redefine the scientific process, because experimental verification is hard seems to me to be a dangerous watering down of what we have come to recognize as science.

Elliot

63. JustAnotherInfidel says:

weichi—Clifford has made the point that high energy theroy really isn’t that different from other academic fields, in that major trends drive the research directions, if I understand correctly. He objects to Lee’s demonization of string theory because the academic atmosphere in strings is really not that different from the atmosphere in other disciplines. Lee has framed his book as an indictment ofstring theory (whether that was his intention or not), while the string community feels that it is only playing by the established academic rules. The comparison here is a bit tricky, because other fields generally have some hard experimental data. I’m sure that Lee would argue that the situation in high energy theory is necessarily different because of the lack of data.

Clifford further objects to Lee’s airing of the debate in the public domain. Example—people who are fans of Intelligent Design attack Evolution as “just a theory”, sometimes citing the “storm in a teacup” as evidence for a minority view being squelched by the grouthinkers in the field. They are of course wrong because there is evidence which specifically refutes their theory (fossil record, DNA, common sense, etc.). The public will not take the time to weigh the scientific merit of the two theories, and then must make a judgement based on Brian Greene’s book and Lee Smolin’s book. Such debates lead to a mislead and misinformed public—Lee has effectively given every theory that’s not string theory an “underdog” label. And if there are two competing theories, one being an “underdog” like LQG, the public is sure to side with the oppresed!

The case of, say, Loop Quantum Gravity in particular is hurt because those researchers who are interested in it have not convinced other physicists that it is worthwhile to stidy. (Read post 23.) Lee will, of course, say that people are interested, but even if they wanted to work more on these ideas, there wouldn’t be any hope for finding a job. The advice usually given to young PhD’s is to work on things that are interesting to both you AND other people. If other people aren’t interested in your research, then you cannot hope to get very far. I would remind you that at one time, those who studied string theory probably had the same complaints about faculty positions and such—I guess they would all be bitching about Euclidean Quantum Gravity taking all of the money (or something).

I wish digesting these string theory texts was an easy as having them fed into one’s blood stream. Clifford you forgot to add your own tome to the intravenous solution!

64. Clifford says:

JustAnotherInfidel:-

Thanks for the summary! I was beginning to despair that maybe nobody (or few) was understanding anything of what I was saying.

Best,

-cvj

65. Nigel says:

“If other people arenâ€™t interested in your research, then you cannot hope to get very far.” – JustAnotherInfidel

That depends on how far you can go which depends on whether you actually have a useful idea or not. As the title of Feynman’s book, What do you care…?, says, other people’s opinions aren’t always valuable!

See also http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=-77014189453344068&q=Freeman+Dyson for the problems you still have if others do appreciate and try to help you. Freeman Dyson was ridiculed and upset at a conference by Oppenheimer, when Dyson was explaining Feynman’s ideas.

66. Lee Smolin says:

Dear JustAnotherInfidel,

In the interest of clarification, especially given that we are in a dialogue with people who havenâ€™t read the book, can I emphasize that my book makes already one of your points and discusses in detail another issue you raise.

You say, â€œLee has framed his book as an indictment ofstring theory (whether that was his intention or not), while the string community feels that it is only playing by the established academic rules.â€ I make it very clear in Part IV that the sociological issues I raise are not restricted to string theory or high energy theory, but are common across the sciences. On p 338 I say explicitly

â€œMy point here is not to criticize string theory; the string theorists are just behaving in ways that any dominant research program would. The problem is that we have a system of decision making in academia that is far too vulnerable to takeover by an aggressively promoted research program regardless of the results. The same system once worked against string theorists.â€

I then illustrate this with a quote from Alvero de Rujula, â€œIt must be remembered,â€
de Rujula told me, â€œthat the two people most responsible for the development of superstrings, that is to say Green and Schwarz, have spent ten to fifteen years systematically working on something that was not fashionable. In fact they were ridiculed by people for their stubborn adherence to it. So when people come and attempt to convince you that one must work on the most fashionable subject, it is pertinent to remember that the great steps are always made by
those who donâ€™t work on the most fashionable subject.â€

I further illustrate this with a quote from a very senior particle theorist, â€œwho lamented that he had not been able to persuade his colleagues to hire John Schwarz in the early 1980s. â€œThey agreed that he was an incredibly smart theorist,â€ he said, â€œbut I couldnâ€™t convince them, because they said he was too obsessed and he would probably never work on anything else but string theory. These days I canâ€™t convince my colleagues to hire anyone who is not a string
theorist.â€

I return to this issue on p 350, where I say, â€œI must emphasize again that I do not believe that any individual physicists are to blame for the stasis that has overtaken theoretical physics. Many of the string theorists I know are very good scientists. They have done very good work. Iâ€™m not arguing that they should have done better,â€¦ What we are dealing with is a sociological phenomenon in the world of academic science. I do think that the ethics of science have
been to some degree corrupted by the kind of groupthink explored in chapter 16, but not solely by the string-theory community. For one thing, it is the academic community writ large that makes the rules. In a court of law, a good lawyer will do anything within the law to advance the cause of his clients. We should expect that the leaders of a scientific field will likewise do everything within the unwritten rules of academia to advance their research program. If
the result is the premature takeover of a field by an aggressively promoted set of ideas that achieves its dominance by promising more than it delivers, this cannot be blamed only on its leaders, who are simply doing their job based on their understanding of how science
works. It can and should be blamed on all of us academic scientists, who collectively make the rules and evaluate the claims made by our colleagues.â€

I also emphasize that very senior people in other sciences worry about exactly the same issue. I quote extensively on page 344 from an address to the National Academy of Sciences, from its then president, Bruce Albert,

â€œWe have developed an incentive system for young scientists that is much too risk-averse. In many ways, we are our own worst enemies. The study sections that we establish to review requests for grant funds are composed of peers who claim that they admire scientific
risk-taking, but who generally invest in safe science when allocating resources. The damping effect on innovation is enormous, because our research universities look for assistant professors who can be assured of grant funding when they select new faculty appointments.
This helps to explain why so many of our best young people are doing â€œme tooâ€ science.

â€œMany of my colleagues and I were awarded our first independent funding when we were under thirty years old. We did not have preliminary results, because we were trying something completely new. [Now] almost no one finds it possible to start an independent scientific
career under the age of thirty-five. Moreover, whereas in 1991 one-third of the principal investigators with NIH funds were under forty, by the year 2002 this fraction had dropped to one-sixth. Even the most talented of our young people seem to be forced to endure
several years of rejected grant applications before they finally acquire enough â€œpreliminary dataâ€ to assure the reviewers that they are likely to accomplish their stated goals.â€

I quote also from two of the great mathematicians of our time, Isadore Singer and Alain Connes, raising the same issues in mathematics.

Singer: â€œI observe a trend towards early specialization driven by economic considerations. You must show early promise to get good letters of recommendations to get good first jobs. You canâ€™t afford to branch out until you have established yourself and have a secure position.
The realities of life force a narrowness in perspective that is not inherent to mathematics. We can counter too much specialization with new resources that would give young people more freedom than they presently have, freedom to explore mathematics more broadly, or to explore connections with other subjects, like biology these days where there is lots to be discovered.

â€œWhen I was young the job market was good. It was important to be at a major university but you could still prosper at a smaller one. I am distressed by the coercive effect of todayâ€™s job market. Young mathematicians should have the freedom of choice we had when we
were young.â€

Connes: â€œThe constant pressure [in the U.S. system] for producing reduces the
â€œtime unitâ€ of most young people there. Beginners have little choice but to find an adviser [who] is sociologically well implanted (so that at a later stage he or she will be able to write the relevant recommendation letters and get a position for the student) and then write a technical thesis showing that they have good muscles, and all this in a limited amount of time which prevents them from learning stuff that requires several years of hard work. We badly need good technicians, of course, but it is only a fraction of what generates progress in
research. . . . From my point of view the actual system in the U.S. really discourages people who are truly original thinkers, which often goes with a slow maturation at the technical level. Also the way the young people get their position on the market creates â€œfeudalities,â€ namely a few fields well implanted in key universities which reproduce themselves leaving no room for new fields. . . . The result is that there are very few subjects which are emphasized and keep producing students and of course this does not create the right conditions for new fields to emerge.â€

(see the book for the original citations)

Finally, since TTWP came out I have received a number of emails from senior established people in other fields including biology, chemistry, computer science, english and economics thanking me for raising issues that are of great concern to senior people in their fields.

Thanks,

Lee

67. Plato says:

The public will not take the time to weigh the scientific merit of the two theories, and then must make a judgement based on Brian Greeneâ€™s book and Lee Smolinâ€™s book.

You take for granted that the public has no mind of it’s own and that the public cannot judge for themself? Or Maybe, it could be you think the public does judge, but based on “erroneous data” incited to make that difference?

I think people who stand front and centre who challenge the current thinking are being portrayed on “both sides” and they don’t really realize it. They both “want to be careful.”

Dress up the debate of the current research in abstract thinking by trying to address the incompatibility of Gravity and Quantum mechanics? There is a result for “dimensional perspective” that leaves one in the 3+1. Some do not want to go there?

Is there still not the underlying factor that “Quantum Gravity” is of value here no matter what you call that theoretical dogma? 🙂

Why creating “the distance ” from that debate, by continuing to “cloud it” and make it foggy, is going away from the “heart of the debate” necessary.

68. X says:

“Clifford has made the point that high energy theroy really isnâ€™t that different from other academic fields, in that major trends drive the research directions, if I understand correctly. He objects to Leeâ€™s demonization of string theory because the academic atmosphere in strings is really not that different from the atmosphere in other disciplines.” — JustAnotherInfidel

Particle physics is at a juncture where the Academics As Usual is likely to prove fatal to the field. Other fields are not in that situation. I don’t think Smolin demonizes anyone, but hey, IF it takes demonization to drive the point home, so be it.

69. Clifford says:

Lee:-

You’ve illustrated one of my main points very nicely. Whether you like it or not (and I don’t see how you could *not* have forseen this), the discussion keeps ending up being perceived as an issue about String Theory vs the Rest, and it has served to obscure the discussion about the process we have in general academia for doing research, bringing forth new ideas, career structures for young people, etc. That’s an interesting discussion indeed, but by getting this put into the public domain as an “underdog vs establishment” punch and judy show, everything just gets confused. The greater good is not served.

This is why this is all a storm in a teacup.

This is why I have written much of what I have written here on this blog.

If I wanted more of your detailed opinions (most of which I know from talking with you) about the example of our field of research, I would read your book, but I’m not having that discussion, which is why it is and remains legitimate to talk about what I have been talking about (the effect of the book, the marketing of the book, the perception of the book, the context of the book) without having read those details (although, as I stress again and again, we all know that you’ve repeated the key points many times in discussions here and other such platforms, and I’ve certainly expressed my disagreement with those points in those contexts).

As I’ve said before, a better way to proceed would have been to write and present a book that was about what you claim that you wanted to discuss, if indeed you really wanted to discuss the processes that we have in academia for doing research, bringing forth new ideas, career structures for young people, etc.

The downside would then have been that you (or your marketing people, who of course you have nothing to do with) would not have been able to use the device of the “string theory vs the underdog” motif to sell the book and get the attention of the press. But it would have been more honest, and many more people who can make a difference might have been able to read it with an open mind, and without questioning your agenda.

Cheers,

-cvj

70. Plato says:

Layman thinking.

Painting a finality on things is not a good way to go because a lot of times there is alway more that needs to be said?

The point has been made exceedingly clear on the “persona” that has been attached to the book and the reasons why we acknowledge what scientists have done to stand up for the public. Go that “extra mile” to help us see what has been the basis of disagreement above, continues to linger, and has no resolve so far.

Now that the problems had been aired, why not get down to the nitty-gritty?

It’s as almost if the message required of the sciences to be “exceedingly clear” is being lost to “dissipative conceptual differences” while the demand of science as I have perceived it, is that we are suppose to write exceedingly clear in that qualitative style?

So nothing short of this conceptual difference is what hides in the basis of “the qualitative style.” Must be covered by an analysis of each conceptually? As if qualitatively?

71. JustAnotherInfidel says:

Clifford—I have read with much interest all of the Teacup blogings and most of the ensuing firestorms. And the resilient tomato plant. This amid CFT’s and orbifolds and students complaining about homework grades…

Lee—Thank you for your response. I do agree that there may be problems with the way funding/faculty positions are awarded, and not just in science. I’m sure that if one were to look into any Academic discipline, one could find similar issues. And I am fairly certain that few people here would disagree with this statement. Nonetheless, the very title of your book, “The Trouble with Physics” implies that this is a problem experienced only in this field. Perhaps if it was called “The Trouble with Science” or “The Trouble with Academia”, there would not be such a huge debate.

Plato—Yes, I take very much for granted the public’s ability to understand the motivations of string theory beyond the “Elegant Universe” level. (Example: A majority of people in America still doubt evolution.) If, for example, you have never calculated the quadratic divergence in the SM higgs sector, you wouldn’t appreciate how big of a fine tuning it represents, and in turn wouldn’t see how wonderful a solution supersymmetry is. If you never understood that, then you could not be expected to appreciate the fact that we are limited to N=1 SUSY by chirality, and (in turn) that the compact manifolds in string theory must have SU(3) holonomy. So in some sense, the public relies on Brian Greene to tell them that “The dimensions in string theory have to look like this” (insert generic two dimensional projection of Calabu-Yau). Or they rely on someone else to tell them “Well, the Calabi-Yaus are extremely complicated and not natural.” The decision that the lay-person makes is not made bsaed on any knowledge of physics, it is based on the presentations of those involved.

Another example: One of the criticisms of supersymmetry is that it is very complicated and adds something like 120 new parameters to the theory. On the face of it, this is a terrible “simplification”. But what those people don’t tell you is that all of these parameters can generally be written in terms of a very small number of SUSY breaking terms, turning “120 new couplings and masses” into “maybe 5 SUSY breaking paramters”.

The point is, if one has not a basic understanding of LOTS of physics, they can never appreciate fully the intricacies of the theory—whether it be based on Loops or Gerbes or Strings or whatever other maths I don’t understand. The judgement of the layperson is made strictly on the presentation. In this sense, Lee’s book sets string theory in a boxing (or Cricket, if you like) match with everything else. The debates between Lee and senior stringers seem to further this misconception—I cannot speak to the intents of the parties involved, but the public will certainly see Lee as a champion against the establishment (and certainly in some sense he is). One only need to cruise around a few discussion boards on the internet to see this.

I don’t want to be taken out of context here—I am a huge proponent of people thinking MORE about physics. I mean, I tell my students all of the time, it is in my interest that they are interested in what I do, because they’ll be the ones funding me in the future. And I spend a great deal of time explaining things like string theory to whoever will listen (especially my mother, who tries to debate the merits of “What the Bleep do we Know” to me ocasionally). But to expect someone to appreciate fully the details of a theory they have never spent any time studying is unreasonable.

X—I fail to see how string theory will lead to the death of physics. At worst, if it’s all wrong, all of the graduate students will leave and get jobs in finance (I know a few who are already pulling down enviable salaries!), physics will stagnate, and something new will come along when all of the tenured strings professors die or retire, and the LHC (or ILC or VLHC or Planck, or…) data shows us something we never expected. Physics won’t die because people will always be interested in asking questions that don’t have easy answers.

72. JustAnotherInfidel says:

Ugh. The fourth paragraph should say this:

One of the criticisms of supersymmetry is that it is very complicated and adds something like 120 new parameters to the theory. On the face of it, this is a terrible â€œsimplificationâ€. But what those people donâ€™t tell you is that all of the 120 parameters can generally be written in terms of a very small number of terms, turning â€œ120 new couplings and massesâ€ into â€œmaybe just one free parameter, depending on how you break SUSY â€.

My advisor would be upset if I didn’t correct myeslf!

73. Mark J says:

Clifford,

Like Bee I thought you had put all of this aside. I followed the progress up through SinTC VI…somehow I missed the the facts that you haven’t read either of the books. Is this really true? It appears so, how I missed it I am not sure. But I find myself in TOTAL amazement. I have always found your posts on this topic to be somewhat harsh but knowing that your point of view is necessarily less in formed then it could otherwise be turns your posts from harsh into our right attacks, IMHO. And as a reader of our blog I find myself let down by your behavior.

The reasons you give for explanation, above, are real lame…again IMO. I can think of a number of reasons why you may have not bothered to read them, and none of these reasons are very flattering to you. My recommendation is that you should go read these books and only after that open you big mouth piece here on the internet.

Again, I am just floored…amazing.

74. Clifford says:

I’m sorry you think that, Mark J. Let me repeat once again that I’ve never reviewed those books, and have never said that I have read them. The things I’ve been talking about have always been based on direct discussions with the authors themselves, and what they have said directly, and/or about the media impact of the books themselves. Please pick yourself up from the floor and re-read the discussions and see for yourself that that what I’ve been saying is consistent with that.

Best,

-cvj

75. Elliot says:

Clifford,

Elliot

76. Clifford says:

Thanks! That’s very easy to answer:

It depends upon what Professor B says in his comments.

If Professor B has

(a) been discussing the central issues and assumptions with me for almost two years in great and considerable detail, and directs his comments to the points I made in those discussions, or to points I’d made in public debates

AND

(b) if his/her comments about the paper itself were about which journal I submitted the paper to, how the paper was marketed, what the public reaction to the paper was and what those effects were (given the choice of marketing), and whether it was the best journal to submit it to given the subject matter, (all issues relevant to discussions raised in (a) concerning public perceptions of the subject itself)

…then I would consider it totally irrelevant as to whether (s)he’d read it or not, since that was clearly not be the point of what he/she was trying to say. Notice that it is irrelevant as to whether Professor B talked to Professor A or not, since Professor B based all his opinions on (a) and (b) type material/conclusions.

Read the posts I’ve done. Read the comment section discussions. Both here and on Cosmic Variance going back to 2005. You will see that my arguments have always been based on things such as type (a) above or type (b).

Thanks!

-cvj

77. Lee Smolin says:

Clifford, you have more than once argued, â€œAs Iâ€™ve said before, a better way to proceed would have been to write and present a book that was about what you claim that you wanted to discuss, if indeed you really wanted to discuss the processes that we have in academia for doing research, bringing forth new ideas, career structures for young people, etc.â€

At the risk of inviting further personal attacks, would it help if I mentioned that I did first propose to publishers something which, while not quite this, would have included these concerns under a more general investigation of the relationship between science and democracy. A key theme of that book-part of which exists as a manuscript-is the necessary role of conflict, disagreement and competition between divergent research programs in the progress of science. You might be interested to know that I could not find a publisher for this. The response from editors was that such a book would not succeed, not because it would not get attention, but because an abstract discussion with no examples would not convince anyone of anything. To be convincing there had to be a concrete case study.

What then to use for the case study? I might have chosen a subject in biology or computer science, but this would not have been credible because I am not an expert in those fields and I would have insufficient expertise to critique them. (Not to mention that this is a hobby and I continued always while writing my own research.) To make a case of the kind that I made required expert knowledge-it required having done technical work in the field.

Now you might think that I nevertheless went too far in singling out string theory in my book. I have two related questions to ask. First, is it not the case that the response of some string theorists indicates that the critique of string theorists as a community that formed a premature consensus around one speculative, unformulated and untested theory was on the mark? The many friendly and frank communications I have had since with a large number of friends and colleagues in string theory convince me that there is a lot of independent thinking and sober judgment among members of the string community. At the same time the behavior of a few fits perfectly the description of a community captured in group-think, unable to process or respect the views of critics from near outsiders. The level of personal and ad homium attacks has been shocking and a number of people have told me it convinced them that the situation is much worse that I described in the book. The fact that no senior string theorist has publicly taken people to task for calling Peter and I crackpots and far worse is taken as an indication that the string community largely approves of these tactics. And the fact that a number of people including you take it almost as a badge of honor to not read Peterâ€™s and my books-while feeling perfectly free to discuss your conjectures as to our motives and intentions, is I have to tell you, seen by many outside observers as further evidence that some of the criteria of group think apply-for example that your sense of group loyalty outweighs your critical and independent judgment.

My second question is whether in fact there is any style or amount of criticism of string theory from a person you perceive as outside the string community that would have been acceptable? I have to admit that I did not anticipate people would be so sensitive and this was my bad judgment. I thought if I took every effort to check facts, and to be balanced, respectful and never remotely personal or ad hominum people would be accepting if not welcoming of some friendly criticism. The critique of the scientific issues in my book is careful and accurate and indeed has not been seriously challenged since. Nor does my analysis of the status of the field scientifically differ from many string theorists, for example, Brian Greene.

But I have to tell you, if you donâ€™t know, that there are a lot of people in the physics and math communities who are a whole lot less sympathetic to string theory than I am. If you cannot deal with my style of criticism, balanced, careful and informed, and to a large extent sympathetic-indeed in my case after two books about and supportive of string theory, are you prepared to accept any level of criticism at all?

If, like me, you hope that irrational group think does not characterize the bulk of string theorists, you should do something I cannot, which is to publicly distance yourself from the people who respond to reasoned balanced criticism with nasty, personal attacks. You could start by ruling out any personal attacks on this blog here.

Another thing you might do is to respond in a balanced reasoned way to what was a balanced reasoned critique. This means to read what Peter and I actually say and respond in kind. This would mean saying, â€˜you know Peter and Lee are right about issues A, B and C, these are serious issues and it is good of them to raise them. But I disagree with them on points D, E and F.â€ Some string theorists have responded this way and it has given them a lot of credibility because it shows them acknowledging important issues and explaining why nonetheless they disagree with other conclusions we draw. When someone responds to our detailed balanced critiques by a personal attack or by changing the subject and trying to make the issue our motives rather than the questions we actually discuss, it weakens their credibility tremendously among all but a close circle of like minded friends. The only interpretation of such behavior I understand is that such people are more concerned with appearing loyal to a community of insiders than they are to making a credible response to the much larger community of colleagues who are not insiders.

Similarly when your response to claims about alternatives to string theory are blanket dismissals indicating that there is nothing of interest in those directions-such as you repeated above-you greatly weaken your credibility. If more string theorists could do what I did with string theory and say about LQG, CDT or one of the other programs, â€˜You know, they get results A, B and C, which seem solid and are very interesting, but they fail to solve issues D, E and Fâ€™ their stance would be much more credible than simply to dismiss the work of ~150 people as of no value or interest at all.

Itâ€™s not for me to tell you how to do your job but there have been only a few occasions when I did not come away from a debate in person or on-line with the feeling that I could have defended the case for continued interest in string theory better than the person I was debating did. Two of those occasions were the debates with Brian Greene and Philip Candelas. Your blog has, I am sad to say, not been one of them, and the reason is that your basic strategy throughout has been to change the subject away from a discussion of the substantial scientific and sociological issues and bring up repeatedly questions about my motives and intentions. You continue to suggest that I somehow deliberately conspired with the press and publicists to cast string theory in a bad light. You have been assured more than once that this was not the case.

Now, just to close the issues you want to discuss, let me tell you what I think about your question of why the press responded as they did to Peter and my book, when there was not such a response to earlier books on the same subject from Krauss, Penrose, Susskind, etc? You seem to think it was a deliberate â€œmanipulation of the pressâ€ on my account. That is ridiculous-any one who knows what else was going on in my life in this period will know why I hardly paid any attention to the preparations for publication, but perhaps I can offer some speculation for why the press reacted as they did, based on some discussions I had with journalists who interviewed me.

1) There has been for many years a public perception that string theory was established as the unified theory of everything. This was established in many articles, TV shows etc. In spite of the good faith effort of some-certainly not all- authors and string theorists involved, this existing public perception was incorrect because it portrayed string theory as established fact rather than a research program under construction with no final form of a theory and no ties so far to experiment. (I should emphasize that Brian Green certainly made it clear that string theory was unfinished and unverified but not all did.) This was a precondition, there would not have been a reaction were string theory not already established in the publicâ€™s consciousness as having a status the facts and results did not justify.
2) There were a number of events, articles and books which preceded Peterâ€™s and mine which communicated that there were issues with string theory-especially a lack of contact with experiment. Some journalists told me that the 2005 string conference in Toronto was pivotal to their understand that string theory had these issues. Other journalists mentioned Susskindâ€™s book as significant in getting across that string theory had a problematic relationship with experiment. There were other books such as Kraussâ€™s and Penroseâ€™s that good journalists also probably read that communicated this message.
3) Peter and my books then appeared, almost simultaneously. (This was not planned, indeed my book had been scheduled before Peter had a contract.) Our tone is moderate and balanced and we repeat what the journalists have already understood from the last two years of reading and reporting on conferences. Because the picture that emerged from all these sources was inconsistent with the public image that string theory was already established as the right theory, there was something to report-except for those who had already reported the story back in 2005.

You blame us, but I think the above is a more reasonable explanation. If so part of the problem was caused by string theorists allowing the press and the public to believe that the truth of string theory was an established fact-or close to it. That is, had there been as much concern for â€œdistortions of the pressâ€ in prior wildly over-optimistic communications about string theory as there is now, the whole press issue would have been avoided because the press and public would have had a more accurate understanding of the conjectural nature of string theory. Had string theorists been careful to make sure that the public image did not run ahead of the actual results, then my critique would have been old news and would not have merited much attention.

Thanks,

Lee

78. Clifford says:

Hi Lee,

You’ve said a lot here (thanks), and I won’t get to all of it in this response, but I do need to say three things:

(1) We’ve discussed the scientific content of many things you and Peter have said in great detail in many blog comment streams. Going over them again and again does not go anywhere. (I’m also including, for example the comment thread of my landscape post at Cosmic Variance.) For a while now, I’ve been discussing the matters of the public perception of the discussions, etc., which is a separate issue and a legitimate concern.

(2) I’ve never dismissed the alternative approaches, as you claimed I have. I’ve said here many times that I am very welcoming to alternative approaches to the problems we face in theoretical Physics, and would love people to work on them more and come up with ways of solving those problems. I don’t care whether it is string theory or not. I’ve said that may times. I just disagree with your approach to the matter of getting more people to work on whatever the right approach is, and most of what I’ve been doing is simply saying so.

(3) I very much agree with a lot of your analysis of why there is so much attention given to the books, and I’ve made much of the same analysis here myself. That is why I’m surprised when you say you did not anticipate the reaction. I certainly did not mean that you are somehow pulling the strings of the media to get attention for your book…. but rather tapping into the media’s tendency to look for a controversy and make a big play of it. I’ve certainly not seen or hear much of you taking the opportunity to say (on the various radio shows, say) that it’s all been a big misunderstanding and this is really about scientific research in general. No, they introduce you in the terms in which the book has been marketed and you pretty much go along with that, if I recall correctly.

Now perhaps you and Peter can clear something up for all of us.

(a) Could you please verify that since the Summer of 2005 we’ve had many a detailed public discussion about several things about research in string theory, particle physics, and the like -scientific, sociological, and otherwise, starting at Cosmic Variance (e.g., the post above) and also here at Asymptotia. Not just myself, but several senior people have been involved at various points. Include also technical discussions over on Jacques’ blog, (although I only know of appearances by Lee there, not Peter).

(b) Could you please confirm or deny whether those discussions, which are a matter of public record, covered -in considerable detail- the central points and assumptions which form the core thesis of your books.

(c) Could you also please confirm or deny whether I’ve ever argued with you or stated opinion about content that was not either expressed by you in those discussions, or on public debates/radio appearances that I’ve reported on.

I ask the above only because this business about whether I’ve read the books or not is getting a bit silly, given how much I’ve based my discussions on direct talk with you both, or debates you’ve been involved in that I’ve listened to, and that I’ve restricted my remarks about the books themselves to the issue surrounding the publication and marketing of the books. We can move forward on matters of substance quite a lot if you’ll help untangle things a bit by answering (a), (b) and (c).

Best,

-cvj

79. Clifford says:

Hi again Lee,

One of your other questions, I can immediately answer: “how much criticism…”. The answer, assuming you mean fair and informed criticism, is – as much as you wish.

It is unfair and/or uninformed criticism that many people are objecting to.

For example, a great deal of time was spent by me arguing with Peter Woit that his oft-made public claim that string theory has been shown to be wrong is not a correct claim. I asked him again and again to tell us what the research result is that shows this. He has not, and seems unable to do so. I don’t consider that to be informed criticism, but a very very strong and unfair overstatement of what the current state of on-going research is.

I also find myself objecting quite a bit to what aspects of string theory research come up in these discussions and what parts are left out, when it comes to making assessments of where we are and what we have achieved and not achieved. Again, this is based upon your public statements. You, for example, declared here on this blog (at and around comment #53 of the post here) that the effort to understand aspects of strongly coupled gauge theories using string theory (e.g. AdS/CFT and its applications) was essentially not fundamental, and so have not really been including it in your assessments of the outcomes of what we’ve been doing as a field… I’ve objected to that. I do not consider it a fair criticism of the worth, potential, and value of an entire field if many significant results and efforts are not included in the assessment.

I hope that clarifies things for you.

Best,

-cvj

80. M says:

dear Clifford, I read Peter’s book and he does not claim that string theory is wrong. He claims that string theory is “not even wrong”, as you can check by reading his title.

I don’t see how you cannot agree that getting 10^500 string models is such a big problem that you now need a miracle, like LHC-scale strings, or a peaked landscape statistics, or a long fundamental string in the sky, or…

If it happens, we can burn Lee and Peter. If no miracle happens, everybody will agree that what they wrote was obvious. For the moment, most people prefer to wait and see what happens.

81. Clifford says:

M:- Peter and I (and several others) have had this conversation about this claim a number of times on this blog. You can read it all in the threads of the posts I’ve referred to. Please let us know if you have anything new to add.

Best,

-cvj

82. Aaron Bergman says:

Let me speak for myself alone for a moment. I have read your book and Peter Woit’s book. In fact, I wrote a rather long review of Woit’s book. I have also looked into research on LQG, CDT and various other things (I think CDT is by far the most interesting of the bunch.)

My second question is whether in fact there is any style or amount of criticism of string theory from a person you perceive as outside the string community that would have been accept

I think that criticism should always initially be phrased as a question. In all my experience interacting with you, you come across by making some pronouncement that the people who have studied an issue don’t really understand it. Instead of stating that the evidence for AdS/CFT supported weaker claims, you could have asked if there were evidence that went beyond the weaker claim. Instead of stating that there was no proof that the perturbation series converged (as I stated elsewhere, there is an explicit statement to this effect in Polchinksi’s textbook, so it should come as a surprise to no one), you could have asked what the evidence was. Instead of stating that string theorists “reject Einstein’s legacy”, you could have asked if string theorists really feel that they are doing so. The list goes on.

You say that you took every effort to check facts, but as I think Polchinski’s review and any number of discussions on various blogs demonstrate, the facts in your book aren’t straight. You use the word ‘balanced’ seven times, but stating something doesn’t make it so. I hope you think about the accusations you are making towards your fellow scientists. I think you underestimate their seriousness and overestimate the ameliatory effect of stating afterwards that you still “respect” them. Perhaps you went into this with the purest of intent, but it is the end product that people read. I hope you try to understand why that end product engendered the result it did, not just among string theorists, but among lay-readers. Because if you can’t understand that, then I don’t see how this is ever going to go anywhere.

83. amused says:

JustAnotherInfidel, #63,

“The advice usually given […] is to work on things that are interesting to both you AND other people. If other people aren’t interested in your research, then you cannot hope to get very far.”

It isn’t as simple as that. Most string theorists (except those of the Lubos variety) probably have no problem acknowledging that there are also interesting non-string topics in formal particle theory. Jeff Harvey did so in a previous exchange on this blog, and Jacques Distler even went as far as to write out a list of such topics during an earlier exchange over at cosmic variance. But the reality is that if you want to get hired either at the postoc or faculty level then it isn’t enough that prospective employers think your topic and work is interesting; you generally need to be working on something closely connected to their research. The same is generally true for getting strong letters of recommendation from influential people. That’s natural enough, and is no doubt true throughout academia, not just formal particle theory. But where does this leave us in a situation where, to paraphrase Polchinski, there is “remarkable convergence on an unproven idea”? To find a junior faculty position, usually it’s a prerequisite to have been a postdoc at an illustrious institution (and it helps greatly to have been at such a place as a grad student when seeking a postdoc job). But these days, the formal particle theory research at almost all of these places is on strings and brane stuff. So someone not working on that is going to have a much tougher time, even if the string theorists consider their research topic and work to be interesting.

Of course, that’s hardly a new point in these discussions, and the standard response is to shrug ones shoulders and say “oh well, that’s just market forces”. Which is true, but it’s also relevant to ask whether it is in the best interests of physics. Hopefully it’s not too controversial to suggest that the interests of physics in the long term are best served by ensuring as much as possible that jobs go to the “best” people, regardless of their preferred research topics. Who knows what the future holds – maybe string theory will somehow overcome it’s problems, make contact with experiment and prove itself as the true description of (some part of) nature at the next level. Or maybe it won’t. Something totally new and different could come along and sweep us all off our feet, or maybe we’ll just have to struggle on in the wilderness for a long time to come. All things considered, surely the chances of good things happening are highest if the “best” people are retained in physics.

If we can agree on that, the next question is how to identify the “best” people, and whether the current system is optimally configured for that. Of course, there’s no easy answer and probably there isn’t any definitive answer at all. But why not discuss and debate it anyway; it can’t be any less productive than the slagging matchs above. (I have a few thoughts/suggestions on this but will spare you them for the time being – this comment is long enough already. Bee has also written about this on her blog and elsewhere. Let me just mention that the problem of selecting the best people in an environment of increasing specialization and lack of guidance from nature (experiments) is not unique to h.e.p. — the maths community has long been in this situation. So it might not be completely irrelevant to look at how they have solved the problem.)

84. Nigel says:

“For example, a great deal of time was spent by me arguing with Peter Woit that his oft-made public claim that string theory has been shown to be wrong is not a correct claim. I asked him again and again to tell us what the research result is that shows this. He has not, and seems unable to do so. I donâ€™t consider that to be informed criticism, but a very very strong and unfair overstatement of what the current state of on-going research is.” – Clifford.

Woit explains on page 177 of Not Even Wrong (I admit you are not aware because you have not read the book) that using the measured weak SU(2) and electromagnetic U(1) forces, supersymmetry predicts the SU(3) force incorrectly high by 10-15%, when the experimental data is accurate to a standard deviation of about 3%. So that’s failure #1.

Moreover, he also explains on page 179 that supersymmetry makes another false prediction: it predicts a massive amount of dark energy in the vacuum and an immense cosmological constant, totally contradicted by astronomy and too high by a factor of 10^55 or 10^113 depending on whether the string theory is minimally supersymmetric or a supersymmetric grand unified theory, respectively.

Either way, Dr Woit explains: ‘This is almost surely the worst prediction ever made by a physical theory that anyone has taken seriously.’ So that’s failure #2.

He also has a brief summary of some other technical points at http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/testable.pdf

85. Peter Woit says:

Clifford,

“Could you please confirm or deny…”

If you bothered to pick it up and look at it, you’d see that large parts of what is in my book have not been discussed at all here. In particular, a large focus of it is on the relation of mathematics and physics, not just in string theory, including for example a rather technical chapter explaining the history and significance of developments involving topological theories.

When you write about my book (or Lee’s), you simply have no idea what you are talking about. Before you admitted in part V or VI or whatever it was of your seven part attack on us and our books that you hadn’t read them, it had never even occurred to me in my attempts to engage in discussion here that this was the case. I literally could not imagine the possibility that a serious academic would do this.

As for the actual “scientific discussions” that I’ve tried to engage in with you and Distler here and elsewhere, the behavior of both of you has been appalling. Distler’s idea of a “scientific discussion” with someone he disagrees with seems to be to insult and sneer at them, with the main tactic misrepresenting everything they write, using this to prove to himself that they don’t know what they are talking about. He goes so far as to not only take things out of context, but to change words and put things in quotes claiming one wrote something one did not write. This isn’t a very effective tactic since what he has done is there in black and white. When this is pointed out to him he never even bothers to apologize. You seem to approve highly of his behavior, and have adopted a lot of it yourself.

To add to Lee’s explanation about the current media perception of string theory, let me point something else out. Science writers read blogs. They read mine, yours, Jacques’s and Lubos’s. They know very well they don’t understand the technical issues of an argument, but this is something they are very used to, and they have a lot of experience sorting out who is making a plausible argument and who isn’t. Guess what? Some of them are reading this blog entry, seeing what “Hmm” has to say for himself, what Lee and I have to say for ourselves, and taking note of the fact that you haven’t even read the books you are attacking (and seem to think that they are fools who have no hope of figuring out what is what).

As for your endlessly repeated claims that I’ve been unable to give you arguments for why I talk about the “failure of string theory”: I’ve wasted huge amounts of time trying to discuss this issue with you, and pointed you to long things written on my blog. My talks in Rome and Pisa were about exactly this point. See my blog for a link to the slides of the talks if you’re interested in actually looking at these arguments. I don’t believe you have any interest in a serious discussion of them, preferring to close your eyes, keep shouting that they don’t exist, and refusing to either read them or think about them.

86. M says:

I have nothing useful to add, otherwise I would be working on it. Unfortunately, it seems that nobody has good ideas about how to deal with the landscape.

Let me add something that might be obvious: if you are hired to work on the unique theory of everything, and it turns out to contain 10^500 universes, and you still want to keep working on it, then it’s up to you to have something useful to add.

A “maybe we can try this and this” would be more interesting than dismissing the problem and debating about how well you can fight with authors of books that you don’t want to read.

87. Clifford says:

Nigel, Peter, others…

We’ve discussed those points and several other ones a lot over the course of the several discussions I’ve referred to already. Why do I need to read the book to hear these simple points again? My most basic point is that string theory is a theory that is nowhere as well developed as any of us would like. There is so much we don’t understand, and we certainly don’t understand the process of extracting precise predictions from it yet. How can Peter conclude that the theory’s predictions are incorrect when it has not even been developed well enough to make a concrete prediction? We’ve talked a lot about the issue of predictability or the lack of it in the context of the landscape issue, and also disagreed about that, in addition to disagreeing about the state of understanding of the landscape in string theory. (We’ve also talked about the fact that there’s a whole lot of work going on in other areas of string theory to develop it further and to apply it to lots of other problems, work which I consider to be very valuable and should not be left out of the discussion.)

I can understand that Peter does not like the theory for whatever aesthetic reasons he might have. That is his choice. And his gut feeling might be that it is wrong. But that is entirely different from claiming that it is wrong with no proof. I’ve discussed this point again and again with Peter since the Summer of 2005. It is the central thesis of his book. It is the central marketing point of his book.

The extra stuff you say is there about relations of string theory to mathematics, etc, Peter, and history of topological developments -how on earth will that shed light on our disagreement about the central thesis of your book? That is all just moot as far as I am concerned. I’ve chosen (as have others) since the middle of 2005 to talk directly to you about your central claim, and you’ve not been able to offer a technical argument that drives your point home. The research into this theory (which you have not been participating in) is still on-going and far from complete, and so I cannot understand how you can know in advance what the outcome is.

This is physics – you don’t need to refer me to a long discourse in a book (or “long things” on your blog – which I’ve read and they are not the proofs you claim they are) to make your argument. That is a smokescreen. People can read for themselves in the earlier discussion threads as to the character and content of the technical discussions we’ve had. There are times when we’ve all -on both sides- unfortunately degenerated it a bit into silliness, I’ll agree, but on balance I would say that we’ve discussed these key issues exhaustively. I don’t need to read your take on the history of string theory to get at the key technical issue that forms the central core of your book. This is theoretical physics where you can make simple, clear arguments to make your points…not philosophy, sociology, history etc, where discourse and analysis using books is the norm.

Our discussions about the core of what you are trying to say are publicly available for all to read in great detail.

Please stop hiding behind the issue of whether I’ve read the book or not.

-cvj

88. Peter,

You cannot claim to be engaged in serious scientific discussion, when you make sweeping claims like this one

Your claim that the AMS paper gives a proof of multi-loop finiteness is a complete mischaracterization of the situation. As Lee correctly explained to you, the AMS prescription for amplitudes is not invariant under the choice of gauge slice. They are therefore working with ill-defined amplitudes, and cannot have a finiteness proof.

and then, when challenged, steadfastly refuse to back them up with a shred of evidence, despite repeated entreaties that you do so. Sorry if you think such demands constitute “insult(s) and sneer(ing).” I guess we disagree on what constitutes a valid argument.

NC wrote:

Moreover, he also explains on page 179 that supersymmetry makes another false prediction: it predicts a massive amount of dark energy in the vacuum and an immense cosmological constant, totally contradicted by astronomy and too high by a factor of 10^55 or 10^113 depending on whether the string theory is minimally supersymmetric or a supersymmetric grand unified theory, respectively.

Nigel,

The deceptive nature of page 179 was discussed at considerable length here. In that discussion, Peter eventually admits

If you read Aaronâ€™s review, youâ€™ll see that what he takes me to task for is not claiming that the CC situation is better in the SM case, but for not mentioning that it also has the CC problem. I donâ€™t say anything at all about the CC problem in the SM, do explain the problem in the supersymmetric case. Maybe heâ€™s right that I should have said something more about this in the book.

but insists that he did not intend that anyone would come away with the impression that the CC problem was somehow a consequence of (or unique to) supersymmetry.

Thanks for confirming that that’s exactly the impression a lay reader comes away with.

89. Peter Woit says:

Clifford,

“claiming that it is wrong with no proof… It is the central thesis of his book.”

You have no idea what the “central thesis” of my book is or what evidence is or is not developed there, or what any of this has to do with mathematics, because YOU HAVEN’T READ IT. Stop embarassing yourself.

I see from your lack of any mention of the slides of my talk, which very much relate to the points you complain about, that, as expected, you have no intention of paying any attention to any arguments I may make, in any form. Instead you plan on just endlessly repeating that I don’t have a “proof that string theory is wrong”, only “gut feelings”, and that I am somehow “hiding” from a real scientific argument with you. If refusing to read someone’s arguments is not “hiding” from them, I don’t know what is.

90. Clifford says:

Peter,

So you’re saying that the central thesis of your book (given what you’ve said publicly about it and given the title upon which is it marketed) is not that string theory is wrong, has failed, and that continued research into that area is misguided, something you’ve been saying publicly so often?

But even that is beside the point. That is the aspect of the book that is being trumpeted about loudly in the press, and about which I have concern that the public is being misled, and so this is the part that I object to. This is the part that I’ve been discussing with you, and asking you to make honest scientific statements about. Are you saying that is not an aspect of the book at all?

Please enlighten me on the simple points of the above paragraph, and don’t play a game. If I am wrong about the above, just tell me, and I will certainly admit that I am wrong.

Best,

-cvj

91. Nigel says:

Dear Jacques,

Comparing and confusing the standard model of particle physics and making ad hominem attacks on people being “lay readers” doesn’t detract from the failure of supersymmetry to predict anything correctly. It’s still an error, whether the standard model makes it as well, or not as the case may be. You seem to have a different definition of the standard model, which is more like a speculative theory than an empirical model of particle physics.

The standard model isn’t claimed to be the final theory. String is. The standard model is extremely well based on empirical observations and makes checked predictions. String doesn’t. That’s why Smolin and Woit are more favourable to the standard model. String theory if of any use should sort out any problems with the standard model. This is why the errors of string theory are so alarming. It is supposed to theoretically sort things out, unlike the standard model, which is an empirically based model, not a claimed final theory of unification.

92. Peter Woit says:

Jacques,

You really are incorrigible, you just can’t stop claiming that I write one thing or another when it’s not what I wrote. Here’s the latest:

“insists that he did not intend that anyone would come away with the impression that the CC problem was somehow a consequence of (or unique to) supersymmetry.”

From what I remember, you, like Clifford, refuse to read my book, and in this case are basing your arguments secondhand on Aaron’s review. Anyone who wants to can read through the discussion you linked to. The short version of the story is that the book explains the well-known fact that the problem of the scale of the CC is a robust one for any attempt to combine supersymmetry and gravity, due to the fact that, in flat space, the vacuum energy is the order parameter for supersymmetry breaking. This is uniquely a problem for supersymmetry, and a very serious one; this is not a controversial observation.

As for the AMS “proof” of multi-loop finiteness, everyone who reads that exchange can see that you ultimately agreed that you were comfortable with the statement that the AMS “proof” had gaps in it which are still unfilled, which agrees with my understanding of the situation based on consulting experts and the literature. I see no point in spending time debating with you precisely the size of the gaps in the AMS argument.

I’m not about to waste more hours of my life engaging in technical arguments with someone as fanatical and intellectually dishonest as you. If you want me to do this you at least you better come up with some new ones. If you actually read my book I’m sure you’d have no trouble finding all sorts of things in there you could misquote and misrepresent.

It’s hilarious to be accused of misleading the public about the current state of string theory by someone who has issued press releases and generated large numbers of press stories about how a team of brilliant theoretical physicists, led by Jacques Distler of UT, have finally figured out how to test string theory at the LHC. Doing this based on a PRL paper where, as far as I can tell, you were forced to remove this claim in order to get it published, is one of the most amazing attempts to dishonestly mislead people that I’ve ever seen.

93. wolfgang says:

Lee,

earlier you wrote about “..the writings of philosophers who have tried to think deeply about the questions that most puzzle us. These are foundational questions like the nature of space and time..”

I think many people are indeed disappointed that string theory does not directly answer the ‘deep questions’ about the nature of space and time. They had high hopes that finally at the Planck scales everything would come together to answer such questions.

But I would like to remind you that physics almost never made progress by ‘thinking deeply’ about the nature of time but rather by avoiding and working around such questions.
A.E. used the famous ‘definition’ that “time is what we read from a clock” at the beginning of his famous 1905 paper. Only later (after Minkowski) did it turn out that
he shed a lot of new light on some of the old philosophical ‘deep questions’.

I would not be surprised if something similar will happen again with quantum gravity.
The Seers, thinking about the nature of space and time may never achieve anything.
But the Craftsmen who work out e.g. the details of the AdS/CFT correspondence may find a new angle to think about the mysteries of spacetime quantization.

94. Peter Woit says:

Clifford,

“string theory is wrong, has failed, and that continued research into that area is misguided” is not the “central thesis” of my book. It’s a caricature and a misrepresentation of of some of the arguments that are in the book. The accurate version of the arguments exists in the book and in many things I have written on the internet. If you want to quote something I wrote, fine, just do so, taking care not to change the wording or meaning by taking it out of context. The Distlerian tactic of misrepresenting and caricaturing the arguments of people you disagree with is just dishonest.

If you can’t bring yourself to read the book fine, but then stop making claims about it here or elsewhere.

95. Aaron Bergman says:

The short version of the story is that the book explains the well-known fact that the problem of the scale of the CC is a robust one for any attempt to combine supersymmetry and gravity, due to the fact that, in flat space, the vacuum energy is the order parameter for supersymmetry breaking.

Peter, that statement doesn’t even make any sense. If there’s a cosmological constant, you’re not in flat space. It is only in supersupymmetric field theories that the vacuum energy is an order parameter for supersymmetry breaking. In most supergravity theories, it simply isn’t true. The potential looks like roughly like

$$V \sim (|DW|^2 – 3 |W|^2)$$

Both terms are important.

96. Peter Woit says:

Aaron,

This is exactly the same argument we went over before. Do you really have something new to add? The statement I wrote here is explicitly labeled a “short” version, obviously I know exactly the point that you are making since we discussed it at length in the thread that Jacques pointed people to. If you really want to discuss this, please don’t start all over again from the beginning. Go back, read over everything I wrote and you wrote way back when, and if you really think there is an important issue that was not covered and needs to be argued here, let me know what it is.

97. Peter Woit says:

Aaron,

And please take your time doing this. I’m traveling, can’t spend much time on this, will have a lot to deal with when I get back to New York tomorrow night and teach Monday, so it may take a while to respond to anything new you have to say about this.

98. You really are incorrigible, you just canâ€™t stop claiming that I write one thing or another when itâ€™s not what I wrote. Hereâ€™s the latest:
â€œinsists that he did not intend that anyone would come away with the impression that the CC problem was somehow a consequence of (or unique to) supersymmetry.â€

OK. Perhaps I was being too generous. Maybe you did intend people (like Nigel Cook) to come away with that misapprehension.

in flat space, the vacuum energy is the order parameter for supersymmetry breaking.

In flat space (global supersymmetry), the vacuum energy is unobservable.

In local supersymmetry (supergravity), the vacuum energy is observable, but it is not an order parameter for supersymmetry breaking.

This is uniquely a problem for supersymmetry,

No it’s not.

As was patiently explained to you, there’s a smooth interpolation between the supersymmetric and non-supersymmetric situations. The cosmological constant problem persists (and, in fact, becomes 60 orders of magnitude worse) as one interpolates from the supersymmetric to the non-supersymmetric situation.

everyone who reads that exchange can see that you ultimately agreed that you were comfortable with the statement that the AMS â€œproofâ€ had gaps in it which are still unfilled,

I said that I was comfortable with the statement that the AMS proof (sans scare quotes) might have gaps. None have been found in the published literature. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. If there are gaps, however, it is unlikely that any are serious enough to cast doubt on the conclusion.

That’s a far cry from your statement — which you held quite insistently to. Are you now prepared to retract your statement:

Your claim that the AMS paper gives a proof of multi-loop finiteness is a complete mischaracterization of the situation. As Lee correctly explained to you, the AMS prescription for amplitudes is not invariant under the choice of gauge slice. They are therefore working with ill-defined amplitudes, and cannot have a finiteness proof.

Doing this based on a PRL paper where, as far as I can tell, you were forced to remove this claim in order to get it published,…

You have no idea what you are talking about. And I am not going to dignify your speculations with any further comment.

The final (published) version of our paper contains much stronger bounds than the original. I am pleased that we were able to improve it, and I stand by our paper, as written.

99. Peter Woit says:

Jacques,

About the CC: read my message to Aaron. If it were worthwhile trying to argue issues like this I’d extend the same invitation to you, but, again, I’m sick and tired of dealing with your dishonesty.

Your latest dishonesty includes claiming that you said you were comfortable only with the claim that there “might” be a gap. Go back and read what you linked to. No “might”.

As for your dishonesty in misrepresenting the PRL paper to the public, you’re right. I don’t know exactly what the story is. All I know is that in the PRL version the claims about string theory were deleted, only to reappear in your dishonest press releases. Your explanation that the bounds were stronger in the PRL version doesn’t explain this at all. Fine to hear that you stand by the paper, do you stand by the press releases? What about the stories in the press that the press releases led to?

100. Peter Woit says:

Sorry all Storm in a Teacuppers, but this is my last night in Italy, I’m heading out for the evening, will be traveling all day tomorrow, getting ready for and teaching Monday as well as dealing with other stuff. Happy to continue, but you may not hear from me until Tuesday.

101. Gina says:

Dear Lee, Clifford, Jacques, Peter and everybody else,

I was surprised to see here part VII of the tea-cup series. I thought all have already been said. I have a few remarks:

1) In the previous post “Storm in a tea-cup VI” I raised 16 points where I found Lee Smolin’s argument (in the book) incorrect or problematic. (Remark 139, detailed in subsequent remarks.) Lee kindly answered the first five points that I had raised. Without trying to “push” for further responses (but I will be, of course, thankful for such,) let me just mentioned quickly where my other points can be found.

Comment 205 – (two links to Masterclass-comments 18,19): These are points, 1 and 2 (Lee’s overall evaluation of ST) and 6,7 and 8 (the issue of pluralism).

Comment 206 (point 9; Lee’s comments on the string theory community. Here I found Lee’s approach fundamentally unfair);

Comment 288 (point 13: Lee’s comments on the attitude to fantastic claims),

comments 324 and 323 (points 11,14,10: Lee’s sociological issues and suggestions) and finally

comment 326 (point 16 – issues related to philosophy of science).

2) My personal recommendation for people who choose to participate in the debate and even spend dozens if not hundreds of hours doing so is to read or at least carefully go through Lee’s and Peter’s book.

3) I did read Peter’s book and while I found the first part about physics and mathematics very nice (!) the part about string theory is somewhat weaker and I do not think Peter presents a strong case against string theory. Overall his arguments are familiar and many of them rely on what string theorists say.

4) Jacques raised a valid point about Peter Woit’s uncovering the whereabouts and speculating the identity of “hmmm”. Like in Peter’s quest for the CUP’s referee, the issue is of good judgment even more than of ethics. (But the ethics issue in the blog arena is also interesting. After all, “hmmm” like many other people who posts anonymously on your blog, Peter, have the right to expect that you will respect their anonymity.)

If there is one good piece of advice in scientific debates of this kind (which is easier to give than to carry) it is: “Stick to the highway”.

(Also in this thread I find Peter’s style to be aggressive to the extent of being unpleasant.)

5) I was pleased to see Peter Woit writing on his blog: “There’s no denying that string theory has inspired a lot of important ideas, both in math and in physics.” If this is so then what else can be said? string theorists should continue to make inspiring ideas to math and to physics and so is everybody else and slowly some understanding will emerge.

6) It is mentioned in the post that TTWP’s British version is toned down. Does this refer only to the cover or also to the book itself and in what way?

102. Nigel says:

Dear Jacques,

People don’t come away with an impression from reading the books that Dr Woit is claiming the CC is a unique problem of supersymmetry. It is made perfectly clear that this is a problem of supersymmetry when you try to use supersymmetry to calculate the vacuum energy.

A student who answers one of the questions on a paper and gets it wrong, derives no excuse from pointing to another who achieved 99%, despite happening to get the same single question wrong. Any assessment by comparison needs to take account of successes, not just errors. In one case the single error marks failure, in the other it’s trivial.

103. Your latest dishonesty includes claiming that you said you were comfortable only with the claim that there â€œmightâ€ be a gap. Go back and read what you linked to.

I will repeat my challenge to you (made repeatedly in the comment thread in question) to present a single known gap in the AMS proof. There aren’t any in the published literature.

You are, apparently, aware of some sooper sekrit unpublished flaws. Flaws so serious that they justify your (otherwise outrageous, scurrilous, and flat-out incorrect) statement

Your claim that the AMS paper gives a proof of multi-loop finiteness is a complete mischaracterization of the situation. As Lee correctly explained to you, the AMS prescription for amplitudes is not invariant under the choice of gauge slice. They are therefore working with ill-defined amplitudes, and cannot have a finiteness proof.

But the fact that you resolutely refuse to share your knowledge make any physics discussion with you , on the topic, impossible.

As to the CC problem, the fact that you continue to present flawed arguments like

… due to the fact that, in flat space, the vacuum energy is the order parameter for supersymmetry breaking. This is uniquely a problem for supersymmetry,…

despite all explanations to the contrary, does not bode well for any continuation of that physics discussion either.

I hope you enjoyed your jaunt to Italy.

104. Gina says:

Dear all

I went over the slides of Peter Woit’s talk. My (lay) impression is that this is an excellent talk about string theory. As far as I can see, an identical talk could have been given by a string theorist and even a mildly optimistic string theorist. Successes and problems of string theory are presented nicely. (And often finding a problem IS a success.) I see no connection between this lecture and the strong rhetoric of Peter here and in his book.

105. Plato says:

Is Kip Thorne a Chip off the Old Block(Wheeler)? I was thinking in terms of the cartoon Clifford supplied. The “older gentlemen” are watching the younger generation.

Can you imagine how Schwartz must of felt being amidst Gellmann and Feynman?

JustAnotherInfidel:The judgement of the layperson is made strictly on the presentation. In this sense, Leeâ€™s book sets string theory in a boxing (or Cricket, if you like) match with everything else. The debates between Lee and senior stringers seem to further this misconceptionâ€”I cannot speak to the intents of the parties involved, but the public will certainly see Lee as a champion against the establishment (and certainly in some sense he is). One only need to cruise around a few discussion boards on the internet to see this.

I have been following these discussion for a few years now. Like Nigel my ignorance may be apparent from the layman status, but I do try to go to the heart of things. I thought I would like “Wolfgang’s statement” and then it got lost, as the understanding of the seer and the craftsmen took another hit.

Ingenuity seeks the craftsman to be good at what he does, and in that smartness the ability to bring forth new ideas “as if” the seer. All of you can label yourselves to what you think you are and all of you would be right. Because at times you need to be highly critical and times where ingenuity seeks that you step outside the box.

IN essence, Jacques is bringing the discussion back to the “qualitative style” that is necessary. Where the name of the debate was supplied previous in terms of Mandelstam. I would ask why Smolin dislikes that “abstract world.” Both Peter and Lee would quickly dismiss it, and as a layman I would want to know why.

This does not discount the way in which I perceive Lee to work, because I like the way he can brings things together. Three roads to quantum gravity is more of the signature I would think he’d like to portray then his latest book.

Has he somehow ruled out this synoptic valuation, and quickly his signature gone?

106. Clifford says:

Peter,

Please just answer the physics questions asked of you, and stop referring us to your book. We’ve been discussing these issues with you here and elsewhere since the middle of 2005, so we know the main message you are trying to convey. I asked you whether or not you are now claiming that your declaration (with no proof) that string theory has failed or is wrong (or any of the many ways you are publicly on record for saying this) is still your central claim. That is a very easy thing to answer. You either still believe it, or you don’t.

(1) If you don’t then you should tell the public, because that is what you have been saying in the past, and that is the impression they certainly get from your book, and the PR surrounding it.

(2) If you do, then I ask you yet again to tell us your scientific argument for this. (Not the weak arguments based on your feelings about how things ought to work, but an actual proof. All I’m asking for is a good physicist’s proof, not a mathematician’s proof.)

Hiding behind whether or not I have read your book is not an answer to a straightforward scientific question about things that you have said here and elsewhere. Once again, I repeat that we do this kind of physics by presenting each other with scientific arguments, equations, and so forth. You are making a very strong claim. Claims such as these are not scientifically backed up by writings in popular books.

That is why many are not bothering to read your book. There’s a credibility issue: We have heard your claims on blogs (yours and many others), and you do not seem to back up what you say with any sound argumentation, despite being repeatedly asked. Now your response is “read my book”. Another smokescreen. Why would we bother if you can’t even do it in a pretty direct online debate?

Your case would be much more credible if you would just answer the question directly.

Best,

-cvj

107. JustAnotherInfidel says:

Plato—I mean no offense to the interested lay-people here, but I believe that, unless you actually DO these calculations, you can never fully appreciate the depth of the problems and the beauty of the solutions. It’s like listening to jazz—the occasional listener or the aficianado can enjoy the music in some detail, but those who enjoy jazz the most are no doubt the musicians who are intimately familiar with jazz because they play. In this sense, you can never appreciate the mathematics that goes into the statement “Supersymmetry solves the hierarchy problem” or “The compact directions have to be Calabi-Yaus”.

108. Arun says:

There is little virtue in doing calculations you don’t have to do.

109. amused says:

JustAnotherInfidel,
That’s ok, I’m also no expert on the ins and outs of the hiring process, having only seen it from the outside until very recently. My description was based on personal experience on the job market and the various stuff I’ve noticed from following the rumor pages etc, and if I mischaracterized the situation in some way then hopefully someone more knowledgeable will chip in and clarify it.

“The point is, if people were interested in the alternatives to string theory, then there would be more faculty positions/post docs in those areas. I think that people are unswayed by the progress along other fronts, and if more interesting work were done, then it would be a larger field.”

I agree to some extent, but there are other factors as well. E.g. inertia: For someone to change from, say, string theory to some alternative QG approach after having invested (a large part of) their working lives in the former, they would have to see the latter as not only interesting/promising but *more* promising than string theory.
But in any case, there is more to the situation than this. One of the most unfortunate things about this whole discussion imo is the way it gets portrayed as a struggle between string theory and “QG Alternatives” (LQG etc). The implication being that only QG of some form or other is worth working on. In fact there are plenty of other non-string things (e.g. to do with regular gauge theories) in formal particle theory that are interesting and deserve to be worked on. These are uncontroversial, and string theorists generally seem to have no problem acknowledging that they are interesting topics. (Not interesting enough *for them* to make them want to work on it, but still… – my inertia remark applies here as well.) These things fall under what Susskind calls “near-coast navigation”, and have imo been receiving a lot less attention and research efforts than they deserve during the string era, especially considering that so much progress in physics has resulted from near-coast navigation in the past.

110. Agosto says:

Regarding the CC and supersymmetry: Sean Carroll has argued that the CC problem in the supersymmetric context *is* more serious because there it is the result of a real calculation, and not just hand-waving as is the case in the non-SS context. I agree with that. On the other hand, the very fact that in SS we can actually do a real calculation should be regarded as progress.

111. Nigel says:

â€˜Peter, … I asked you whether or not you are now claiming that your declaration (with no proof) that string theory has failed or is wrong … If you do, then I ask you yet again to tell us your scientific argument for this. (Not the weak arguments based on your feelings about how things ought to work, but an actual proof. All Iâ€™m asking for is a good physicistâ€™s proof, not a mathematicianâ€™s proof.) … Your case would be much more credible if you would just answer the question directly.â€™ – Clifford.

So you think both the massive errors of string theory quoted in comment #84 above are “weak arguments” and want an actual proof? So far Jacques has claimed that the error of string theory to predict the CC isn’t uniquely a string theory problem, which is beside the point:

If string theory is wrong on the only few things it says, that isn’t excused by pointing to other theories with problems. Do you excuse all the students when they make similar errors in your string class? (If so, that may explain how string theorists all make the same errors.)

Supersymmetry is certainly wrong for the first reason in #84 according to experimental data, regardless of what the explanation for the apparent small positive CC really is.

So if the fact supersymmetry is wrong in the only checks possible doesn’t constitute a “good physicist’s proof” that string theory is wrong, then you presumably want a disproof of some other part of string theory as well? Which part?

112. Peter Woit says:

Well, my flight is delayed, so have a few minutes to waste here in the Rome airport.

Jacques,

Again, if you really wanted to have a discussion with me, it would help if you would acknowledge when you write something that is verifiably not true, and this is pointed out to you. You claimed here that you had only previously acknowledged that there “might” be a gap. This was an untrue and dishonest statement. Anyone who goes back to the relevant exchange can see the truth of the matter. No matter how much sneering and different fonts you employ can’t change this fact. I’m not going to waste time on a highly technical discussion with someone as dishonest as you. I’ve discussed this topic with people who, unlike you, are experts on this, and honest, and I’m not retracting anything I wrote.

If you think I’m stupid enough to waste time on another round of your game of taking things I write about supersymmetry breaking out of context and going on about how wrong I am, you’re wrong. Anyone who wants to see this performance can follow the original link, I’m not going to repeat it.

And I really think you should explain publicly why you issued that dishonest press release in an attempt to mislead people and claim backing from PRL for results that are not in the published version, but were in an earlier one. Clifford especially seems very worried about people misleading the public about string theory, you owe him an explanation.

Clifford,

About the physics questions you are asking: I just spent a couple weeks preparing lectures about this that I delivered in Rome and Pisa to more than 100 high energy physicists. The slides are on-line, my blog posting gives some editorializing explaining the argument and precisely what I mean when I say string theory has failed. The book contains these arguments at a more popular level, the slides contain a more detailed argument.

From everything you write, you seem to be completely unwilling to read anything I write carefully laying out my arguments, preferring to repeat endlessly the same accusations, for which you have not a shred of evidence. If you actually show signs of looking at the arguments given in my talks and want to discuss them, I’ll be glad to.

113. Plato says:

JustAnotherInfidel: I mean no offense to the interested lay-people here, but I believe that, unless you actually DO these calculations, you can never fully appreciate the depth of the problems and the beauty of the solutions

No offence taken, as I think your thoughts are shared.

Looking for these kinds of supersymmetrical experimental conditions are part of the education I think, as well as, learning indeed how to do qualitatively do them.

I do appreciate the beauty of this because of where we are headed in terms of the energy usage. What “natural conditions” allow this, while we look at colliding particles and the cosmic sources for this. How it explains the early part of our universe.

So looking for this “cross over point” is crucial. What are the conditions at this time?

One had to appreciate where strings fit into Guth’s inflationary universe in terms of the “microseconds” and not seconds. So what are the conditions at that time? A quark Gluon plasma? A super fluid?

So you see “the concepts” have to be ruled by the experiments, and the concepts speak of the qualitative. As a layman, I could be wrong in my surmising.

114. Again, if you really wanted to have a discussion with me, it would help if you would acknowledge when you write something that is verifiably not true, and this is pointed out to you. You claimed here that you had only previously acknowledged that there â€œmightâ€ be a gap. This was an untrue and dishonest statement. Anyone who goes back to the relevant exchange can see the truth of the matter. No matter how much sneering and different fonts you employ canâ€™t change this fact. Iâ€™m not going to waste time on a highly technical discussion with someone as dishonest as you. Iâ€™ve discussed this topic with people who, unlike you, are experts on this, and honest, and Iâ€™m not retracting anything I wrote.

In other words, since you can’t back up your assertions with so much as a shred of evidence, you will

1) attempt to misread my response (“I am comfortable with …”) to Lee’s inquiry (as to what would be a suitable replacement for his original, unsupportable assertion) as a concession to your point.
2) engage in cheap ad-hominem attacks.
3) valiantly try to change the subject.

This is why, ultimately, it is impossible to have a physics discussion with you.

Cheap semantic games, ad-hominem attack, kicking sand in the air… Anything to steer the discussion away from the Physics… Maybe this all sounds good to your intended audience of lay people (but I doubt it), but it won’t wash with an audience of physicists.

115. Clifford says:

Peter,

Thanks for getting back to the physics question, and acknowledging that the answers to it are not to be found in an irrelevant popular level book. So your new slides are where I’m supposed to look, then? not any of the previous places you’ve sent us to hunt? You’ve got new research results which you share there that show that string theory is wrong? I shall have a look, as I expect others will too.

Have a good flight!

cheers,

-cvj

Youâ€™ve got new research results which you share there that show that string theory is wrong? I shall have a look, as I expect others will too.

As I see it, the argument is really quite simple. In hep-th/0501114, section 6.1, NPZ note that “the classical constraint algebra is modified by the anomaly (the central term), which is responsible for almost everything that is non-trivial about string theory”, “viewed as a bona fide model of matter coupled quantum gravity in two dimensions”. One expects that the only non-trivial thing about 2D gravity generalizes to 4D gravity (why bring it up otherwise?). However, the relevant 4D diff anomalies do not exist in string theory. Hence it does not “serve as an example of how quantisation [of gravity] should work”.

(This is essentially the argument that Urs made, and rejected when I agreed with him. Evidently there is no causal connection between these events, though.)

As J. Distler has pointed out, neither do such anomalies exist in QFT. Hence QFT must be replaced by a theory which supports the necessary anomalies (multi-dimensional Virasoro algebra). This theory is called QJT, and differs physically from QFT in that not only the fields but also the observer’s spacetime trajectory is quantized.

117. gina says:

Peter wrote: “The slides are on-line, my blog posting gives some editorializing explaining the argument and precisely what I mean when I say string theory has failed. ”

Peter’s slides can be called “The glory and difficulties of string theory”. They do not give at all a picture of a definite failure but a picture of a scientific struggle of the highest quality.

It is true that the rhetoric of the book and blog (even the editorializing explaining on the blog of the slides) tells a different (personal but unconvincing) story.

Peter also wrote: “This was an untrue and dishonest statement. Anyone who goes back to the relevant exchange can see the truth of the matter.”

I followed the marathon exchange on that matter quite closely. I did not find any of Jacques statement dishonest. (The mutual accusations were at times quite hilarious.) Jacques agreed to acknowledge that a physics proof may well has gaps from a mathematical point of view.

118. Gina says:

Dear Clifford,

You wrote to Peter: “If you do, then I ask you yet again to tell us your scientific argument for this. (Not the weak arguments based on your feelings about how things ought to work, but an actual proof. All Iâ€™m asking for is a good physicistâ€™s proof, not a mathematicianâ€™s proof)”

It does not make sense to ask Peter to repeat a rather long argument made in his book here on your blog. (And also a “proof” even in the physics level for the failure of string theory is a too high requirement.)

There is a simple way around reading Peter’s book. It is simply reading the parts of Peter’s book where he made his case. You can skip safely Chapters 1-10 about particle physics, the standard model and the Seiberg-Witten story. Chapter 11 tells the history of string theory, you can go over it quickly, (pp. 139-160.) Read Chapter 12:”string theory and supersymmetry: an evaluation” pp. 161-192. This gives Peter’s main argument. Read also chapter 13 “On beauty and difficulty” 193-202. Chapter 14:” is superstring theory a science” pp. 203-211 elaborate on the falsiability issue. (You can skip the story about Hagelin two page from middle of page 204.) Skip chapter 15 The Bogdanov affair. pp. 213-220 . The chapter “the only game in town” pp. 221-236 is about sociology. It is not a scientific evaluation of string theory itself. It is not a must but you can go through it quickly. The short Chapter 17 about the landscape pp. 237-246, is important to Peter’s argument. Go through” Other points of view” where Peter is quite skeptical towards other approaches and read the conclusion 255-264.

Alltogether, we are talking about 40-60 minutes of reading. Given that you probably spent hundreds of hours on this debate and perhaps five hours on just explaining and debating why you did not read Peter’s book, it looks like a good investement of time and the correct thing to do.

119. anon. says:

Thomas Larsson: you seem to be explicitly rejecting holography at the outset of building your theory. On the other hand, we have plenty of examples of holographic theories of quantum gravity in higher dimensions. We also have good semiclassical arguments that any theory reducing to Einstein gravity at long distances will have the black hole thermodynamic properties that lead us to believe in holography in the first place. So, I expect that if you want to get people to really pay attention, you will have to convincingly show that your “QJT” does reduce to Einstein gravity at long distances, and furthermore, you will have to investigate the properties of black holes in your framework and see how our usual understanding breaks down. (It must break down if your framework works, since you claim that your framework is entirely local.)

120. Lee Smolin says:

Dear Wolfgang,

I think we just disagree, you say, “physics almost never made progress by â€˜thinking deeplyâ€™ about the nature of time but rather by avoiding and working around such questions.” My understanding of the history is that whenever a new form of dynamics was invented a key role was played by someone thinking deeply about the nature of time-and there is no mystery about this because they wrote about it. For example, Aristotle, Newton, Lagrange, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac etc.

My first contentionis that we face a need to invent a new kind of dynamics and hence we need more of such people now. My second contention is that because we don’t know whether you or I are right about this, we must split our bets and have some people who follow the philosophy you advocate and some who follow the one I follow Einstein in advocating.

Dear Clifford,

First, can I say something-on most issues you discuss on this blog i am usually fully in agreement with you. So i do not dispair that if we clean up our misunderstandings we can agree on these issues as well.

As for your a) and b) above. a) yes, but

(b) Could you please confirm or deny whether those discussions, which are a matter of public record, covered -in considerable detail- the central points and assumptions which form the core thesis of your books.

No, what we discussed was mainly the status of various scientific claims and results in string theory, LQG and other approaches. I learned something in these exchanges as I hope others did. But the point of my book is not only, or mainly, to present the current status of results and conjectures in string theory, for example, that there are no falsifiable predictions, that there is no complete formulation in terms of a small set of principles and equations, that key c conjectures such as uv finiteness and S duality have gaps in the existing claims for proofs.

All this is background for the issues of main concern for my book, and these issues were mostly not part of our discussion because they needed a book length argument to develop. These issues included: What is the wise thing to do from this point? What was the historical background that led to the present situation? Is there a connection between the failures of the earlier unified field theories in the period 1919-1960s and the issues string theory faces now? How did a theory which can be characterized as above come to be seen as “the present paradigm of theoretical physics” ? Is this a good thing or does it reflect a dis-function or lack of efficiency in the functioning of academic science? What is the situation and role of alternative research programs in such a case and what should be the view of the wider physics and academic community to the existence of competing and alternative research programs? Does the present conflict between string theory and its alternatives reflect any longstanding splits or disagreements about basic philosophical issues such as the nature of time?

I should also emphasize that while the book is not an attack on string theory in general it is very definitely an attack on a point of view about string theory that some, but not all, string theorists have adopted. This includes the arguments that the anthropic principle can yielded falsifiable predictions-which have been shown to be fallacious, and the argument that was made by several string theorists that a theory need not give falsifiable predictions for doable experiments to be believed. My book takes a strong stance against this point of view. I am confident here of my reasons, especially given that already in my first book the possibility of an anthropic solution to the landscape problem was considered and rejected. I am glad to know that my view on this is shared by some string theorists such as Brian Greene but not so happy that a number of very smart string theorists continue to believe that some version of the AP may still be useful.

So the strongest statements in my book are directed, not against string theory per sel, but against this AP based point of view about string theory. I do believe that to the extent that these views become dominant in the physics community the basic ethics and values that underlie the success of science are endangered.

Perhaps you think that this embrace of the AP is a minority view among string theoristsl, but you have to admit it has some pretty prominent advocates. Recall that as of the publication of Peter and my books, no one had seriously challenged that point of view with a reasoned argument (David Gross’s assertions were welcome but were not arguments). I would have prefered to see such a challenge from inside the string community but given that it wasn’t forthcoming I felt the responsibility to make as strong and detailed case as I could against it.

Thanks,

Lee

121. Aaron Bergman says:

I would have prefered to see such a challenge from inside the string community

Nobody’s challenged the anthropic point of view inside string theory? I’m sorry, but I can’t see how that statement is possibly supported by the evidence. Do you mean that nobody in string theory has written an anti-anthropic book?

122. Plato says:

I thought I better respond to the conclusion of “AP May Still be Useful?” and it’s earlier debates discounted. Nothing has changed from Lee’s perspective in this regard and a lot support him. There is still some questions about it? 😉

“We finally learned that inflationary universe is not just a free lunch: It is an eternal feast where all possible dishes are served.” Linde

See here for Linde’s thoughts.

If ones does not like “perfection” they tend to “move away from it” and apply discrete things in terms of “asymmetrical thinking.” While it is philosophical and delivered with a basis of thought along with that, one had to go that “extra mile” to figure it out.

Could the universe exist in another state before the one we see? If so how is it that it came to be this way?

Jacques is right. Layman will not be happy with just taking it the way that Lee is putting it out there. We had this standard already set for us, whether it is the physicists who will sit and debate or whether it is in the news articles.

The theoreticians/physicists will form their opinions, so it would be wise Peter to scan the results and perceptions they formed as they listened. See what they thought of your lecture.

How would Jacques know this? Will the data support his thinking or yours? If all lectures are formed and Q and A provided, will they submit to a polling and free thoughts associated?

123. wolfgang says:

Lee,

thank you for responding and as you already said, we can only agree to disagree.

The way I read A.E.’s history, he was very much focused on solving concrete physics problems in his productive early years. Of course he was thinking deeply about those problems, but only in his later years did he focus more and more on ‘the deep issues’, like unification and how to reconcile quantum theory with his believes about the nature of reality. He then based his research on philosophical principles which he could not give up and the result was that he became less productive. (Although I have to admit that an average professor could probably base a whole career on the work A.E. did in those later years.)
I think it would have been better for physics if he had remained the excellent craftsmen he was, instead of the Seer who tried to find a unified theory by contemplating the nature of space, time and matter.

124. Clifford says:

Gina said:

It does not make sense to ask Peter to repeat a rather long argument made in his book here on your blog. (And also a â€œproofâ€ even in the physics level for the failure of string theory is a too high requirement.)

Really? (in turn, to both parts of what you said)

I’m not interested in discussions that express his dislike or gut feeling about what string theory research has achieved so far with regards addressing the problems he considers important. I’m interested in a concrete scientific argument that backs up the claim that he has made in several places that string theory cannot ever make contact with experiment. -It is a steadily ongoing program of research on a subject that has probably only just scratched the surface of what it has started to tell us, (right or wrong), so how can he know in advance?- I would say that is a pretty simple and natural thing to ask of someone who is making that a cornerstone of their public relations campaign, wouldn’t you? And I don’t think that it is unreasonable to ask them to communicate their strong scientific reasons for this extraordinary statement in concrete form. A popular book for the layperson is not that concrete form. I don’t care what else he says in that book, I am only interested in the fact that the book is being marketed by him on the strength of his string public statements about string theory. If he can back up his strong public statements with science, then fine. If not, then it is a misrepresentation, and that is what I am unhappy with. He has been unable to do so to date. What he says in his popular level book is irrelevant, as far as I am concerned since I am addressing things (and always have been) that he has said directly either here or elsewhere.

So the “correct thing to do” is not to read the book, but challenge him to back up his strong public assertions. This is what I’ve been doing.

-cvj

125. Clifford says:

Lee:-

Thanks for the answers. I really appreciate that you took the time to do that, and hence be constructive. So you confirm (a) and (b) and for (c) you said:

No, what we discussed was mainly the status of various scientific claims and results in string theory, LQG and other approaches. I learned something in these exchanges as I hope others did.

So we are agreed than, it would seem, that it is totally a red herring to keep harping on about whether I’ve read your book since I’ve been clearly talking about our disagreements about the scientific issues, the role of mis-marketed popular books in carrying out this entire discussion, and so forth.

As I’ve said before, a discussion about how and whether some new mechanism should be implemented to cure (so to speak) the sociological problems that may or may not be present
in theoretical physics (or academia at large) can be had, but that is a separate discussion from the one I have been primarily carrying out here, which is largely about public perception of science, scientific argument, the press, the media, mis-marketing, and blah blah blah……

So let’s move on.

As in all good science, it makes sense to gather data and understand in a concrete way the extent of the problem or whether there is a problem at all before you try to solve it. Bee, in a comment above, made an interesting suggestion of carrying out a survey. Might you be interested in taking that further? She’s got an office just down the hall from you, more or less… how about chatting to her about it some more?

Best,

-cvj

126. Peter Woit says:

Jacques,

THis is what you wrote in a comment to an earlier posting:

I am comfortable with the proposition that

“The AMS proof of finiteness has gaps in it. And some of those gaps remain unfilled, even today”

This is how you characterized that here:

I said that I was comfortable with the statement that the AMS proof (sans scare quotes) might have gaps.

This is rather minor, but it’s typical of the dishonest way in which you discuss these issues. The fact that you steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that you did this, that the statement you claimed to make is different than the one you did make, is also typical.

Again, do you stand behind the dishonest press release issued by your institution about your scientific work? Clifford’s posting and comments here are an attack on my claim that, as a unified theory, string theory is not testable and has failed. Your press release claims that I am wrong, that you have a way to test string theory at the LHC, based on your PRL paper where that claim does not appear (it was removed, as far as I can tell, in order to get the paper published). This question is not irrelevant, it addresses both the scientific issue here, and your personal honesty in how you deal with this issue.

Clifford,

127. Arun says:

Round and round, and not even with the charm of NASCAR.

128. …based on your PRL paper where that claim does not appear

Your reading comprehension is at a very low ebb, both with respect to our paper (it’s only 4 pages!) and with respect to my response to Lee (and the followups in which I explained why I would be comfortable with that statement).

I hope that, after you recover from your jet lag, you can sit down and read our paper and find out what we actually said in it.

Or not, as the case may be. I really don’t care what you say about our work, because I cannot take seriously someone who refuses to adhere to even the minimum standards of scientific argument.

You made a very clear claim, and then, over the space of hundreds of comments, steadfastly refused to provide a shred of supporting evidence for it (or to retract it). Why should I (or anyone) attempt to engage in a discussion of some other topic (like my paper with Grinstein et al), about which you’ve made equally clear (and equally erroneous) claims? Given your modus operandi, that would be as big a waste of time as this discussion has been.

Despite your desperation to change the subject, I (at least) am not going to play along, until you come clean about your claims about AMS. That’s the minimum anyone, who wishes to engage in serious sceintific discussion, should require of you.

anon – 119:

Thomas Larsson: you seem to be explicitly rejecting holography at the outset of building your theory.

Yes. I really don’t think that what is happening here and now is best described in terms of conformal data located on a holographic screen located outside our visible, de Sitter universe. Moreover, it is really the projective representation theory of the spacetime diffeomorphism algebra, which is what it is.

On the other hand, we have plenty of examples of holographic theories of quantum gravity in higher dimensions.

Examples of successful, predictive theories which agree with observation (no susy, positve cc, etc.)? 🙂

We also have good semiclassical arguments that any theory reducing to Einstein gravity at long distances will have the black hole thermodynamic properties that lead us to believe in holography in the first place.

By the logic of NPZ, 25 out of 26 consistent quantum gravities in 2D are local rather than holographic (subcritical and critical free string). I think that it is a mistake to ignore more than 96% of all consistent theories. But perhaps we cannot learn anything about 4D gravity from 2D gravity. If so, NPZ’s anti-LQG argument based on 2D gravity is fundamentally flawed, and Lee Smolin is right to ignore it.

So, I expect that if you want to get people to really pay attention, you will have to convincingly show that your â€œQJTâ€ does reduce to Einstein gravity at long distances,

Provided that one feeds in the Einstein action, yes. The key step is to expand all fields in a Taylor series, and formulate everything in terms of the Taylor coefficients rather than the fields themselves. As long as the base point is a c-number, this is just field theory in unfamiliar coordinates, and it has to agree with standard results, modulo questions of convergence of the Taylor series.

The physical differences arise when the base point becomes an operator with quantum dynamics rather than a c-number. But this cannot change the classical limit.

Anyway, Clifford asked for a scientific argument against string theory, and I gave him one.

130. Plato says:

While I can sympathize with you Arun, the essential points made here are clear from an over look at the continued sew saw back and forth of discussion within context of these Storm in Teacup posts.

Some still do not quite understand the nuance supplied in this picture. Sure they talk about a donuts and coffee lots, but no! no teacup? 🙂

The debate is still a good thing to define positions and rebuttals clearly, while it is held to an agenda. People are held to the points necessary and shouldn’t wander. If you divert by “emotive impact of what he dislikes” then this dislodges the debate immediately. You want mental collaboration, not the reactive states of each other.

That’s not what your after. You want information.

Lee then becomes answerable to his last statement supplied “as a book?” Without this look into the continuing stage presence? “The impact has to be dramatic” in order for a new version of what he “meant to say” will appear in new book or addendum to the reprint of current book.

131. Clifford says:

Peter,

I hope you had a good flight.

One more time: I’ve been commenting on what you’ve said publicly, not your book. There’s a very clear distinction. Being unable to defend your claims, you’re insisting in throwing up this silly smokescreen about my not reading your popular level book.

Don’t you think that this is a bit silly? Is it not a bit counterproductive to your cause to be supplying further examples of the evasiveness discussed in the body of this post, and already exhibited so spectacularly in the comment threads of some of the earlier posts I referred to?

Thanks,

-cvj

132. Clifford says:

(P.S. If your new claims to have proofs (on the slides you point to) of some of your key remarks were to hold any water and are not just the same old stuff you’ve been saying written in a different way (I’ll look at them properly soon to find out, and I hope other interested parties do too) then I am sure that people would be happier that you were bringing (finally!) some substance to what you’ve been saying for so long, and we’d all take note. That is how to carry out a concrete physics debate about your specific claims… not by asking me to read your popular level book.)

-cvj

133. Peter Woit says:

Clifford,

There are two issues here:

1. Your comments here and elsewhere attacking me and Lee for having written popular level books critical of string theory. In doing this, and continuing to do it with this posting, you are attacking books you have not read, and you clearly do not know what is inside them. This is remarkable behavior if you expect anyone to take you seriously. Again, since you seem to have trouble understanding the ethics of this, and what it looks like to people other than yourself, reread comment #73.

One remarkable part of the story of these books and your refusal to read them is that it seems that both Lee and I (completely independently) contacted you when our books were in draft form. From what he writes here, he, like me, asked if you were willing to look at the draft, and offer comments, especially about whether any of the scientific claims were wrong. I don’t know how you responded to Lee’s offer, but in my case, you never even answered my e-mail. At the time I found this a bit odd, it seemed to me that at least a polite “No Thanks” was indicated. This happened back in August 2005.

2. The question of whether I can back up with scientific arguments my claim that the string theory unification program has failed. Here, yes I have tried to discuss this with you here and elsewhere since 2005. Anyone who wants to can find these exchanges, read them and judge for themselves. My description of these exchanges would be that you have shown no interest at all in addressing the arguments I have been making (here, in many of the 500+ postings and discussions that have taken place on my blog, and elsewhere). Like Jacques, you have repeatedly misrepresented what I have written, and devoted yourself not to intellectual discussion, but to trying to prove to yourself and the rest of the world that I’m ill-informed, have no serious arguments, just “gut-feelings”.

134. Clifford says:

There’s actually nothing wrong with expressing “gut feelings” about a physical issue. What I’m asking is that you clearly distinguish between your strong physics demonstrations of your assertions (i.e. supply proofs), and your “gut feelings” about things. And you should be especially careful not to deceive the public by mixing them up. That’s all. I don’t need to know in detail what is in your book if it has already been shown in our discussions since August 2005 that you cannot defend the very assertions upon which the book has been marketed.

Once again: The physics, Peter. Stick to defending the Physics claims. Stop hiding.

Best,

-cvj

135. Peter Woit says:

Jacques,

I see that you are still unwilling to admit that you misrepresented what you had to say in the earlier discussion here, even when I reproduce it for you in black and white.

I gather from your insults about my reading comprehension that your press release about how your PRL paper shows how to test string theory at the LHC is based upon the line in the abstract that you changed from “would falsify string theory” to “would falsify generic models of string theory” in the published version. I do congratulate you on the “generic models of string theory” line, quite remarkable weasel words which don’t mean anything, but do seem to have gotten by a referee and allowed you to justify to yourself putting out the dishonest press release.

The issue of claims in the media about string theory is what this posting is about, so I think discussion of this is very much on-topic. I think that your refusal to say whether you stand behind the press release, or to take the opportunity to explain publicly why the title of the paper was changed and the weasel word added to the abstract make it clear that you’re well aware you’ve got an honesty problem here.

Among the more remarkable things people can find in that earlier discussion is your claim that Marshakov’s published review, which you claim:

“of course, predated dâ€™Hoker and Phongâ€™s workâ€

The “of course” is a nice touch. Marshakov’s paper is hep-th/0212114, and he explicitly refers to d’Hoker and Phong’s work that appeared more than a year earlier: (hep-th/0110247, hep-th/0110283, hep-th/0111016, hep-th/0111040). I couldn’t get you to admit that you were wrong about the fact that November 2001 was before December 2002 and these references are in the paper. Given this kind of behavior, explain to me why I should ever try and discuss anything substantive with you. People assure me that you’re an otherwise sensible person, but when it comes to anything critical of string theory, you behave like the most irrational member of a religious cult I’ve ever made the mistake of trying to argue with. Between you, Lubos and Clifford, I’ve started to think that the comments made in my book about the behavior of string theorists were far, far, far too kind.

136. Plato says:

Heck. Since no oneâ€™s listening to me, I thought Iâ€™d put on a show okay.

There have been some minor misspellings that have been corrected.

As moderator I open it up.

Now listen here. Gut feelings? It â€˜s as if this is a Punch and Judy conversation, so I thought Iâ€™d open it up. Right hand, Clifford and Left hand Peter. The stage is set.

Now Lee of course this is not what we the public want or Clifford, but actual people taking part. Conflict is good if it is productive and in a peaceful way. Yes people laugh when Punch and Judy do it to each other? Er…I mean with sticks.. oh, you know what I mean. Facts

The name of this skit is called â€œGoing Full Circle.â€ 😉

Clifford:So imagine what I thought when I heard that they had Peter Woit on the programme to plug his new book (which, if you havenâ€™t heard, claims that string theory has failed as a theory of Nature, and that it is a total waste of resources. As you know, I have no problem with someone expressing that as a gut feeling, as long as they acknowledge that it cannot currently be put forward as a fact. Nobody actually knows whether it is true or not since last time I looked we were still all doing research on developing the theory to the point where we can actually address the question).

Peter: The main problem with your point of view seems to me to be that youâ€™re pursuing one set of goals (e.g. for instance better understanding AdS/CFT, topological strings, 2d strings), which are reasonable, but selling the subject to the outside world as a much more ambitious program, without acknowledging that it has failed. Your work on non-critical string theories may or may not someday lead to something interesting, but what is being promoted to the public is the idea of unification via a critical 10 d string (or 11d M-theory). This has created a whole industry of people investigating an infinitely complicated variety of â€œbackgroundsâ€ for such a string, and ultimately led to the landscape fiasco. This has been a disaster, and it needs to be acknowledged before it leads to more damage to the field than it has already caused.

Clifford: The other point that I regularly make to you is that you should not characterize all work in string theory as what is being done by a relative few people. Anyone who reads your blog would assume that there are hundreds and hundreds of people all working on the landscape. That is a mischaracterization of the state of research of the field. I think that the program of investigation there is interesting, actually, and it is important for some people to explore some of that program.

Peter:Like Jacques, you have repeatedly misrepresented what I have written, and devoted yourself not to intellectual discussion, but to trying to prove to yourself and the rest of the world that Iâ€™m ill-informed, have no serious arguments, just â€œgut-feelingsâ€.

Clifford:What Iâ€™m asking is that you clearly distinguish between your strong physics demonstrations of your assertions (i.e. supply proofs), and your â€œgut feelingsâ€ about things. And you should be especially careful not to deceive the public by mixing them up.

137. I couldnâ€™t get you to admit that you were wrong about the fact that November 2001 was before December 2002 and these references are in the paper.

Duh! November 2001 was before December 2002. My profuse apologies.

If that’s the picayune level to which you have descended, then there really is no hope of having an intelligent discussion.

The reason you can’t back up your assertion

Your claim that the AMS paper gives a proof of multi-loop finiteness is a complete mischaracterization of the situation. As Lee correctly explained to you, the AMS prescription for amplitudes is not invariant under the choice of gauge slice. They are therefore working with ill-defined amplitudes, and cannot have a finiteness proof.

is that there is nothing in the published literature to support it.

All this grasping at straws and kicking sand in the air is a desperate attempt to distract attention from the fact that in this instance (as in so many others), you have nothing of substance to back up your contentions.

Fortunately for you, few people have the patience required to persist to the point where this becomes clear to even the most naïve observer.

Needless to say, I have no intention of launching into another 300+ comment thread to disabuse you of your erroneous assertions on some other topic (even one dear to my heart), when you have amply demonstrated that the chance of reaching a successful conclusion is virtually nil.

138. Plato says:

I thought I would just mention this debate. I came by it, by way of Peter Steinberg’s blog.

String Theory: Brian Greene and Lawrence Krauss Debate

It comes down to this: Are all things in nature actually super-tiny bits of strings that are vibrating strands of energy? If so, string theory would merge general relativity and quantum mechanics, and would explain the origin of space, time, and the universe itself. Or is the theory, as some critics claim, just extraordinarily complex mathematics which may have nothing to do with physics and a theory of nothing, not everything? If so, physicists are back to the drawing board in their quest for the Holy Grail of physicsâ€”an ultimate theory of everything.

Now you know where I got part of my title of, “In Search of Mandelstamâ€™s Holy Grail?” 🙂

What started in the conversations “is” a legitimate question still being dealt with, so any conclusions drawn “is” indeed premature?

Nothing saids that “if” this was the case that you could take that position as a statement of the book and lead us to believe it is over in terms of model developement and move “from” into new model hopefuls. You do that anyway in regards to model developements. You encourage other perspectives?

Just got to remember it is still being dealt with.

139. Clifford says:

Hi Peter,

I looked at your slides. I think that they are (overall) rather a nice summary of what I would say is a good, relatively non-technical, summary of some of the things that have been done in string theory research (in the areas you chose to talk about) up to this point, with later remarks expressing your point of view, with some plausibility arguments, on why you think that the program is not to your liking, and not likely (in your view) to succeed.

I imagine that it must have been a nice talk to be in, if what you stuck to what you said on your slides.

However, why on earth you would point to those slides in response to my request for a proof of your strong assertions about the untestability of string theory is really beyond me. In the broadest terms, it is notable that overall, you make no allowances for the fact that -as I’ve said before- this is an ongoing research program on a still rather underdeveloped theory. You even mention how poorly we understand the theory in a number of places, pointing out that much of what we do is still perturbation theory, combined with dualities, and that a non-perturbative framework is yet to be found. Let’s grant that you don’t like the current ongoing work on the landscape, and allow for the sake of argument that (as you say in your slides and as we’ve argued about elsewhere) anything done in that area is unpredictive (I won’t go into the debate on that again, but it is in all the posts I’ve referred to, and perhaps others who are currently working in that area can comment further on the state of the art there)… how come you are willing to pre-suppose the outcome and discard all the work that is going on to understand and better develop string theory in so many areas? This is especially puzzling since you mention that lack of understanding.

How can you on the one hand claim that a theory is poorly understood, and then in the same breath condemn it as unworkable before it is understood?

Now, if you had something like an outline of a proof or even a plausible idea about how to rule out the existence of a non-perturbative theory, I’d understand a bit more that you might be emboldened, but you don’t even mention someting like that in your slides.

So once again we find ourselves at this point. You claim that string theory can’t be tested, and base so much of what you say publicly about the field and its practitioners upon that (and have even asserted that the proof is well known, but have never shown it to anyone), and I on the other hand say that (your leaving out of all sorts of other research on applications of string theory aside for the moment some of which may well be highly relevant, such as AdS/CFT) it is really not honest to build a compaign on such a claim. Furthermore, you still seem to be mischaracterising important work in the field as essentially landscape-type research, which is simply a chariacature which neglects the richness, breadth and diversity of research going on in the field. It is impossible to guess which facet of all that research will result in the better understanding that we need to make progress. You very early on sideline AdS/CFT, for example, which is ironic since it was in that context that we got the key insights that allowed for some of the moduli stabilisation scenarios that are used in the landscape-type research.

Physics-wise, what you are saying is that you are unhappy with it, your gut feeling is that it won’t work, and you’re entitled to say that. To claim that there is well known (or even not well known) proof that it cannot make experimental contact with Nature is a highly misleading statement to allow the press and others to quote you as having said.

We’re not going to agree on this, are we? So I see no point to continue. You’re predictably going to come on and claim that I’m deluded and following some religious cult, and all sorts of things you’ve said in the past. All I’ve asked for is a straightforward physical argument from you to back up your strong claim that has been misleading the press and the general public, and you won’t and can’t give it.

And you won’t admit that this is not really an honest way to continue. It is very sad.

I’m done here.

Cheers,

-cvj

140. Peter Woit says:

Clifford,

There’s nothing in those slides about what I “like” or “don’t like”, in particular the problem with the landscape is not that I “don’t like” it, but that it inherently can make virtually no predictions about anything, except perhaps for certain statistical ones, and some of these statistical predictions have already been falsified (e.g. protons should decay much faster than they do). The argument for this is given in the slides.

The argument I give in the slides is essentially that as more and more has been learned about possible consistent string theory “backgrounds”, the speculative idea of unification via a weakly-coupled string theory in such a background has failed in the conventional way that wrong speculative ideas often fail. Simple, rigid, predictive versions of the idea disagree with experiment, so people are forced to move to less rigid, less predictive versions, never getting a real prediction. When this happens, at some point scientists normally admit defeat and move on to something else. The interesting sociological question (which I don’t address in the talk) is why this hasn’t happened, and instead much of the string theory community is defending the indefensible, with people issuing press releases containing bogus claims for tests of the theory and writing books praising pseudo-scientific ideas about “The Cosmic Landscape”.

I think the scientific argument that string theory, as currently understood, has conclusively failed as an idea about unification is very solid, and that this fact needs to be acknowledged by the string theory community. This has nothing to do with “feelings”.

As for whether some unknown non-perturbative string theory will save the day and make the problems that led to failure disappear, sure I can’t prove that this is impossible. But people have been looking for such a thing unsuccessfully for decades now, and everything they have learned along the way points in the other direction. As I mention in the slides, the best guess people now seem to have for what “non-perturbative” string theory is is gauge-string duality, which if you believe it in a highly optimistic form, is telling you that gauge theory is just as fundamental as string theory. If so (except for QCD), we’re in a region of parameters where the field theory description is weakly coupled and computationally useful, the string theory description useless.

I have no problem with people who want to work on gauge/string duality or other ideas about non-perturbative string theory. That it might lead to better understanding QCD is a good reason to do so, and for topological strings the mathematical implications give another good reason. You can also take the point of view that you’re giving up on unification, and will just use string theory as a possible quantum gravity, living with the fact that it gives you an infinite number of quantum gravities, and there’s almost certainly no way you can ever experimentally distinguish them or make any usual scientific predictions. But people doing this need to admit that the original program that has been used to sell the theory has failed, and that they have nothing but “gut feelings” and what could very well be nothing more than wishful thinking behind their hopes that what they are doing is going to bypass the reasons the original program failed.

141. Holmes says:

In the unlikely event that anyone reads this, I’d just like to point out something to Jacques Distler and our host. Namely, that “I won’t dignify that accusation with an answer” is a politician’s ploy, and it convinces absolutely nobody. If you want everyone to believe PW’s accusations, you are going about it the right way…..

142. M says:

dear Clifford,

we always work on work in progress, so we like to have some idea about what seems worth doing, without first having to do it.

In this sense, without having a formal proof, Peter has a reasonable argument about why doing string theory no longer seems worthwhile. Before telling “I’m done” you could dedicate a few lines to describe what do you hope to get by still working on string theory. At the end, everybody can decide what he/she wants to try.

(If you are so upset about books on this topic that you cannot presently discuss physics without consulting a lawyer, then it’s better if you stop reading here and do like Lubos: censor this comment).

For example, do you hope that by understanding the non-perturbative region you will find one new vacuum (or a small number of new vacua), that it will be the vacuum of physical interest, such that you will explain non anthropically why the cosmological constant is small and you will make testable predictions about the low energy theory, such as computing the mass of the top?

143. Nigel says:

“… this is an ongoing research program on a still rather underdeveloped theory. … how come you are willing to pre-suppose the outcome and discard all the work that is going on to understand and better develop string theory in so many areas? This is especially puzzling since you mention that lack of understanding.
How can you on the one hand claim that a theory is poorly understood, and then in the same breath condemn it as unworkable before it is understood?
” – Clifford

There is maybe a diametrically opposed viewpoint.

“Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.” – O. Wilde.

144. Mark Srednicki says:

An interview with Brian Greene has just appeared at MSNBC,

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17738478

with a remarkably intelligent set of questions by Science Editor Alan Boyle. I mention it here because it addresses some of the questions asked that have been asked here.

I’d like to extract one particular quote from Brian: “I would say that [the landscape] is an interesting framework that people have started to take seriously as a possibility. If it’s true, it rewrites the way we think about the universe.”

We see that the big issue for Brian, and for just about all scientists (though with the apparent exceptions of Lee Smolin and Peter Woit), is what is TRUE. Not what corresponds to some philosophy of what science is or is not. Lee writes that the landscape must be rejected because “it would mean the end of our field” (page 165). It should be obvious that this is not the basis that is traditionally used for accepting or rejecting a theory! Peter’s (essentially the same) argument that string theory must be rejected because (at the moment) it does not appear to be sufficiently predictive (for Peter) is also irrelevant to the question of whether or not string theory is TRUE.

If the landscape is right, we may never get anything more than circumstantial evidence that it’s right. But that’s often the case in science. We’ve been spoiled in particle physics by having extremely precise data and highly predictive and quantitative theories for the past few decades. Most of the rest of science has not been so lucky. Perhaps we will not be so lucky going forward. The only way to find out is to do more work and see where it leads.

145. Kea says:

If the landscape is right…

Oh, but it has already been proven wrong. Not that its loudest opponents actually know this…

146. M says:

Mark, which more work can we do? Waiting for LHC with finger crossed hoping that it will find no new physics such that it can be interpreted as more circumstantial evidence for the anthropic landscape?

147. Lee Smolin says:

Dear Mark,

Your selective quotation of me badly misstates my position. Not only do I acknowledge that the landscape is a possibility, I invented the idea, named it and was the first to explore its consequences, in papers from 1992 on. My issue, since then has been how we can continue to make falsifiable predictions if the landscape is true. Back then I considered the use of the Anthropic Principle (AP), rejected it as unable to yield predictions, and found that there are other non-AP scenarios for physics on the landscape that do imply falsifiable predictions. My issue is then not with the landscape, it is with the use of the AP to do physics on the landscape. In fact, I had to wait many years for the string theory community to catch up and agree with me that the landscape issue was serious and needed to be addressed.

To make this clear, let me give the full context of the quote of my book you use from p 165 of TTWP:

â€œâ€¦when it comes to the biofriendliness of our universe, we have at least three possibilities:
1. Ours is one of a vast collection of universes with random laws.
2. There was an intelligent designer.
3. There is a so-far unknown mechanism that will both explain the biofriendliness of our universe and make testable predictions by which it can be confirmed or falsified.

Given that the first two possibilities are untestable in principle, it is most rational to hold out for the third possibility. Indeed, that is the only possibility we should consider as scientists, because accepting either of the first two would mean the end of our field.â€

Then, two pages later, on p 167 I discuss my original approach to the third possibility, from 1992. I beg your indulgence to quote at length, given that there are people who donâ€™t read my book:

â€œBut what about the third possibility, which is an explanation for the bio-friendliness of our universe based on testable hypotheses? In 1992 I put a proposal of just this kind on the table. To get testable predictions from a multiverse theory, the population of universes must be far from random. It must be intricately structured so that there are properties that all or most universes have that have nothing to do with our existence. We can then predict that our universe has these properties.

One way to get such a theory is to mimic the way natural selection works in biology. I invented such a scenario in the late 1980s, when it became clear that string theory would come in a very large number of versions. From books by evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins and Lynn Margulis, I learned that biologists had models of evolution that were based on a space of possible phenotypes they called fitness landscapes. I adopted the idea and the term and invented a scenario in which universes are born from the interiors of black holes. In The Life of the Cosmos (1997), I reflected at length on the implications of this idea, so I will not go into it in detail here, except to say that that theory, which I called cosmological natural selection, made genuine predictions. In 1992 I published two of them and they have since held up, although they could have been proved false by many observations made since then. These are (1) that there should be no neutron stars more massive than 1.6 times the mass of the sun, and (2) that the spectrum of fluctuations generated by inflation â€” and, plausibly, observed in the cosmic microwave background â€” should be consistent with the simplest possible version of inflation, with one parameter and one inflaton field.â€

So I hope my point of view is clear: the landscape may or may not be a real feature of string theory-evidence is that I was right and it is. But if it is we are not relieved of our obligation to test the theory by making falsifiable predictions for doable experiments. There is at least one scenario that stands both as an existence proof that this can be done and as a challenge to observers to falsify. Any newer proposal for doing physics on the landscape then has to do at least this well.

Thanks,

Lee

148. Lee Smolin says:

ps To provide some further background for my remark, I should mention that my first book, Life of the Cosmos, 1997, not only introduces the landscape problem in string theory (Chap 5), but has a full chapter (15) called “Beyond the Anthropic Principle” where I explain why the AP cannot give a satisfactory solution to the landscape problem. It took many years for the string theory community to largely accept my observation that string theory has a landscape problem, but I am confident that someday the bulk of the community will eventually come to agree that the AP is insufficient, and that for string theory to survive as a candidate physical theory we must find a cosmological scenario that yields falsifiable predictions.

149. Clifford says:

Lee,

You seem to be under the impression (I’ve pointed out this flawed assumption before) that the “bulk of the community” has made up their minds in favour of the AP. It is not true that the bul has made uptheir minds one way or anohter. It is also not true that the bulk of the community is even *working* on the AP.

I also have to say that I find this claim of yours to have invented, or introduced, or discovered the landscape in string theory to be far from convincing. I don’t see (in broad brushstrokes at least) how the idea of a landscape of solutions was not evident right after the first (for example) Calabi-Yau compactification, combined with the knowledge that there is a vast number of CY manifolds. Phase I of the modern discussion of a landscape of solutions of string theory, and the phenomenological issues it raised, began around then… in the 1980s. I don’t recall you being on any of those papers. Most people did, I’ll agree, prefer to learn more about the theory first before concluding from perturbation theory alone that that was all there was. But there were several serious discussions of the other possibility, I believe, although I do not know if much of it made it to print. Phase II (where some researchers are now) came about with constructing landscapes of long-lived vacua with finite cosmological constant, with the aid of some improved knowledge of control of some non-perturbative issues (but far from anything like a satisfactory non-perturbative understanding of the theory).

So I would say that your discussions several years later are notable, and probably interesting, but it is really quite a distortion (by almost any definition) to say that you discovered/invented the landscape in string theory and was just “waiting for the string community to catch up”. I will grant you that you might have been one of the first to try to see what would happen if the landscape of solutions was all there was, and what that would mean. But that is a bit different from what you are claiming.

Cheers,

-cvj

150. Mark Srednicki says:

Lee, I strongly disagree with your statement that “for string theory to survive as a candidate physical theory we must find a cosmological scenario that yields falsifiable predictions”. What if, someday, someone proves a theorem that shows that string theory provides the only mathematically consistent framework for quantum gravity?

151. Elliot says:

Didn’t the “rediscovery” of a non-zero cosmological constant historically occur after the supernova data indicating that the universe was undergoing an unexpected acceleration in expansion? I am fairly certain that this was in 1998-1999 as it was the subject of much discussion at the Pritzker Symposium on inflationary cosmology at the University of Chicago in early ’99. Up until the most simple inflationary models had a cosmological constant = 0.

Elliot

(rediscovery in the sense that Einstien had originally proposed a non-zero CC then backed away from the claim.)

152. Lee Smolin says:

Dear Clifford,

Of course I am not claiming to have been part of the discovery that string theory has a vast number of compactifications, or ground states. Nor was I the first to think about a multiverse cosmology, Lindeâ€™s eternal inflation was prior to my thinking about this. Nor was I the first to think about natural selection as a model for how to explain how the laws of nature of our universe were chosen, the philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce suggested this in 1893, although I did not know of this when I wrote the first papers on cosmological natural selection. I do claim that I was one of the first, if not the first, to propose that there would not be a dynamical vacuum selection principle in string theory leading to a unique vacuum state and instead to take seriously that the output of the theory would be a vast landscape of theories. I believe I was the first to define the problem of how to make falsifiable predictions from the landscape of string theories, and I believe that so far I have given the only solution to it.

Of course part of the reason for my insisting on this is personal: it would be nice to get credit for the notion that the connection between string theory and experiment must go through the landscape, especially given that so many people insisted I was wrong about this then, and especially since the term I introduced for this is the one that is now in common use.

But part of my reason is for the science, it is incredibly frustrating to have thought through the possibility that the AP be combined with the string landscape in the early 90s and to have understood why it, and more generally static, random distributions, on the landscape canâ€™t work, to explain this in a book, and then to watch very smart people waste years playing with the ideas that one has already considered and understood cannot work. For example, it was nice to see the discussions of the difficulties of minimizing potentials on the landscape due to issues of computational complexity of Denef and Douglas, but this was no news to anyone who was familiar with the literature on evolution on landscapes in theoretical biology. The problem of evolutionary biology begins with the question of how nonetheless, in spite of the computational complexity of the fitness landscape in biology, nature produces organisms which are so fit.

Dear Mark,

Even if there were a unique theory of quantum gravity one would still need experiment to show that this was relevant for nature. This is because there is an alternative proposal, which is that gravity is not quantum mechanical but that instead quantum theory is modified or itself is only a low energy limit of a very different cosmological theory, applicable only for small subsystems of the universe.

But having said this, given that in LQG there is both a rigorous existence and uniqueness theorem for the quantization of diffeomorphism invariant gauge theories (the LOST theorem) and given that there are now calculations of the graviton propagator, there is a lot more evidence than there was five years ago that LQG does provide a consistent, finite quantum theory of gravity with a good low energy limit. There is also evidence accumulating that CDT has a good low energy limit in which spacetime emerges in 3+1 dimensions. Thus, while there is more to do on both approaches, it is looking less and less likely that string theory is either the unique or the best approach to quantum gravity,

Thanks,

Lee

153. gina says:

“The problem of evolutionary biology begins with the question of how nonetheless, in spite of the computational complexity of the fitness landscape in biology, nature produces organisms which are so fit. ”

Dear Lee, It is not clear what precisely you are referring here to. Are you saying that what nature produced is so fit to the extent that the evolution process cannot be simulated, even in principle, by a computer?

154. Garbage says:

“What if, someday, someone proves a theorem that shows that string theory provides the only mathematically consistent framework for quantum gravity?”

You will have to define first what you mean by “quantum-gravity”, and certainly you would get the desire theorem if the hypothesis is: “string theory is the only TRUE consistent framework for quantum gravity”, although the whole thing would become a logic puzzle.

Nature in the other hand is a different story. I regard mathematics (and ultimately logic) as a fantastic tool to help us trying to understand the universe, and possibly the best we can get. However, mathematics itself isnt physics, and [most] mathematicians dont cranck their heads trying to come out with simple leading ideas or models to explain data and make predicitons. One of these new ideas may lead to an experiment which will show us that QM isnt the final word and will make us rethink what a quantum theory of gravity could be.
I like what mathematicians say about their theorems, they are as useful/strong as its assumptions. And these are ultimately what makes the difference.
I’ll give u a simple example. Let’s say we find Lorentz Invariance is broken, or evolution violates unitarity. Then we would have to go back and change our assumptions and start all over, falsifying ST along the way perhaps?

I like philosophy (perhaps too much) as well, and truly believe it can give us hints and lead our path towards understanding nature, but we all want to do ‘Science’ at the end of the day, dont we?

G

155. XXX says:

What if, someday, someone proves a theorem that shows that string theory provides the only mathematically consistent framework for quantum gravity?

And what if someday somebody proves a theorem that bodies heavier than air cannot fly?

156. Mark Srednicki says:

XXX wrote, “And what if someday somebody proves a theorem that bodies heavier than air cannot fly?”

No one ever claimed to have such a theorem. In 1895, Lord Kelvin declared that “heavier-than-air machines will never fly.” No proof was offered. And he was immediately challenged with the counterexample of birds. To which his only answer was that birds were different because they were alive.

Lee: is your position that case (1) on your list, “Ours is one of a vast collection of universes with random laws”, could not possibly be true? That was the conclusion I drew from what you wrote in your book, and I am left unclear by what you wrote above.

157. Clifford says:

Garbage, XXX:-

Mark clarifies what he means in this comment. If you wish to contribute something sensible to the discussion, please reply to him on that thread, to avoid confusion.

(Update: I see Mark replied here too. Well, ok, carry on. But do read his comment on the other thread.)

cheers,

-cvj

158. Lee Smolin says:

Gina asks, “Are you saying that what nature produced is so fit to the extent that the evolution process cannot be simulated, even in principle, by a computer?” Certainly there are many numerical experiments in simple systems modeling natural selection from which a lot has been learned. But when we come to the real thing, with millions of different species co-evolving all at the same time, one faces a problem of enormouosly greater complexity than evolution of a single species on a fixed fitness landscape. There are claims that it may be impossible to create a static landscape to represent something like the space of all possible combinations of all possible viable biological species on a planet. There are also results like the “no free lunch theorem” which states that no single optimization procedure works better than random search on all possible landscapes, that imply that unless you know a lot already about the landscape you cannot design a good optimization procedure for it. This means that no single computer program can both anticipate all possible landscapes that might be produced by coevolution of a large number of species and simulate evolution on it efficiently.

A related issue is “exaptation”-the fact that the selective advantage confered by a trait can change unpredictably through evolution by the discovery of a new strategy or niche,never before used or occupied. There are claims in the literature that there is no fixed procedure that can anticipate such novel shifts in fitness. This implies that the contribution to fitness of a given attribute of a species can change unpredictably as a result of changes in the environment brough on by the co-evolution of many other species. This means that there is a limit to the validity of studying evolution on fixed fitness landcapes.

Imagine that you list all the traits that contribute to the fitness of bacteria. Could you then infer from these the traits that confer fitness on multicell creatures? On the fitness landscape of bacteria there is no meaning to “flying” or “having a song which communicates health and vitality”. Yet all life evolved from bacteria. The claim that you could simulate all evolution on a computer requires anticipating in advance all possible traits that contribute to fitness in all possible biospheres and knowing how these are coded into instructions to make proteins.

One source for these issues are the last two books of Stuart Kauffman.

Thanks,

Lee

159. Plato says:

IN relation to the landscape. This is not what stood out when I went to look at Lee Smolin’s reference to chapter 5 with regards to comment #148 I hope this shift is okay for posting?

Just drawing attention to the dates of publication and comparison of views. I was thinking of “Benchmarks” in terms of the progressions, that could have been marked as successes, and help one to realize that there was still a process unfolding?

I thought these two views countering one another?

A second obstacle arises from the theory’s reliance on the idea of spontaneous symmetry breaking to explain why each of the elementary particles we see in the world has different properties. While this is a beautiful idea, there is a certain ad hoc quality to how it is realized. To this date, no one has so far observed a Higg’s particle and we have only a very imprecise idea of their properties. Page 61, The Life of the Cosmos by Lee Smolin ISBN 0-19-510837-x 1997

As a Lay person I was thinking of the word “ad hoc” in Lee’s statement, and wonder if this is still reflected in his views of today. This was a build up and precursor to the statement about string theory in question according to Lee’s book statement??

Unravelling String Theory,by Edward Witten 29 Dec 2005

String theory is the only known generalization of relativistic quantum field theory that makes sense. The framework of special relativity plus quantum mechanics is so rigid that it practically forces quantum field theory upon us. The tightness of the modern framework is one of the main reasons why physicists were able to discover what has become the standard model of elementary particles.

Have we moved past this today and “all” in agreement?

160. Garbage says:

The Weinberg-Witten theorem is ironically evaded by the celebrated ADS/CFT correspondency, again, a theorem is as powerful as its assumptions…
In the other end, it is like saying ST predicts gravity… 🙂

I have a great deal of respect for ST, it is actually kinda fun and some of its results suggest it is probably in the right track. Now, from there to even imagine is the ONLY way there is a huge gap. It seems like an intelligent design type of thing: Let ST be…

By the way,

“… and that the interactions of these states is always consistent with a string interpretation.”

Even so, that doesnt mean at all it is the ONLY consistent theory of QG in any sense, and one more time (sorry to bother repeating myself), it is always based on the assumptions.

G

ps. I wonder actually, how is it possible to have a theorem which will *prove* from scratch that the *only* consistent world is 11 dimensional…

161. Plato says:

I wonder actually, how is it possible to have a theorem which will *prove* from scratch that the *only* consistent world is 11 dimensionalâ€¦

E8 is a lesson on diversity of symmetry, and “the 11th” the movement to branes?

iMagine what goes on in this abstract thinking? Even to me it is bewildering. Yet the brane diagrams help. How did we get there? The “complexity” quantumly involved, would have to be mind boggling?

162. Gina says:

Dear Lee,

I asked â€œAre you saying that what nature produced is so fit to the extent that the evolution process cannot be simulated, even in principle, by a computer?â€

“But when we come to the real thing, with millions of different species co-evolving all at the same time, one faces a problem of enormouosly greater complexity than evolution of a single species on a fixed fitness landscape. There are claims that it may be impossible to create a static landscape to represent something like the space of all possible combinations of all possible viable biological species on a planet. There are also results like the â€œno free lunch theoremâ€ which states that no single optimization procedure works better than random search on all possible landscapes, that imply that unless you know a lot already about the landscape you cannot design a good optimization procedure for it. This means that no single computer program can both anticipate all possible landscapes that might be produced by coevolution of a large number of species and simulate evolution on it efficiently. …”

Your suggestion, Lee, that the fitness achieved in our world is not something that can be simulated (even in principle) by a computer is quite far-reaching!

(Of course, we are not talking about a simulation that will lead to precisely the same outcomes, since those depended on a lot of randomness and relied on unknown parameters. But we are talking about comparably successful processes.) This opinion resembles in some general terms Penrose’s claims about the human brain.

While being naivly somewhat appealing, as far as I know ideas about proceesses in nature which are capable to achieve optimization beyond the capacity of computers seems contrary to emerging insights about computation. It is not clear to me if by “computational complexity” you refer to the same thing as the people in computer science. (I think the paper of Douglas and Denef that you mention and regard as “no news to anyone who was familiar with the literature on evolution on landscapes in theoretical biology” is really talking about technical terms from the theory of computer science.) But if you do talk about the computer science notion of “nor feasible” , I do not see what can be a possible interpretation of your ideas on this matter. What can be a mechanism to achieve fitness that produced something computers cannot match?

Claims of similar nature and the reference to the “no free lunch” are prominent in the intelegent design literature. Of course, advocates of intellegence design may have or may quote serious scientific ideas. But in this particular case, I do not see any reasonable scientific interpretation of claims which attribute to any optimizatin process in nature, such as evolution, computational powers which are superior than the powers of computers. (I also very vaguely remember that the “no free lunch” argument is considered rather weak.)

163. Len Ornstein says:

Gina:

I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I believe Lee was referring to the improbability of evolution approximately repeating itself, were it even to start with a same progenitor ‘bacterium’.

This is usually referred to in evolutionary biology as the problem of convergence. How likely is it that any ‘similar’ structural or functional, features produced in one evolutionary lineage, will be able to arise, completely independently, (using different DNA sequences, let alone the SAME sequences)? This obviously depends at least upon the complexity of the feature, the time available, and the properties of the environment (both physical and biological).

There is a great deal of evidence for convergence in the evolution of features and functions like flight and swimming adaptations. The case for higher levels of complexity…like the evolution of a nerve, of light sensing organelles, and of eyes is less clear cut (see my Science and Physics Today discussions of these matters: and ).

10^500 may seem big, but the combinatorics of possible DNA messages dwarfs, that magnitude into complete insignificance. Given infinite time, biological evolutionary processes MIGHT be approximately ergodic, but not likely over as little as a few hundred billion years. In this sense (rather than “in principle”), “The evolution process can not be simulated…by a computer”.

Hope this helps.

164. Gina says:

Dear Len,

The issue you refer to (if I understand you correctly) seem to apply even for one or a few different species co-evolving together. (Not just for the “real thing”.) I realize that you cannot write a computer program repeating precisely or even approximately an evolutionary process that depends on unknown parameters and may have chaotic components. I thought Lee meant something stronger. (Maybe you mean something stroger as well but in this case I do not understand what it is.)

Specifically, Kauffman’s argument that Lee mentioned based on the “no free lunch theorem” is supposed to say something stronger about impossibility – in principle – to optimize in the context of evolution. Some people I talked to were very skeptical that the no free lunch theorem (whatever it is; I am only vaguely familiar with what it is, but they were,) says much about optimization in general, and were especially skeptical about any relevance to the theory of evolution.

165. Len Ornstein says:

Gina

Somehow, the 2 links I provided, were deleted. They are:

http://www.pipeline.com/~lenornst/SETI.html

You note,”The issue…seem(s) to apply even for one or a few different species co-evolving together”. It applies for many different species evolving together, in the sense that the problem gets to be even more complex.

If you need infinite time to solve a problem, then in the real world the best you can get is a good approximation. And if you can’t expect even a good approximation in a few billion years, the problem is hard enough to fit under “no free lunch”; although that also is only an approximation.

Maybe this provides some clarification?

166. Plato says:

Layman need markers from which to progress.

The Landscape – For Real This Time

Clifford:

Letsâ€™s think of height as representing potential energy, just like on our earlier sketch. Letâ€™s think of the valley (the surface of the lake, say) as being at zero energy. Then all higher elevations are positive energy, and you see that there are several interesting features. …

See here for link to article.

Look familiar? 🙂 How many time since then have we seen “the familiar” dressed up in what another may say of the landscape?

167. gina says:

I am a little confused about another thing. Is this evolution stuff really related to physics and the questions regarding quantum gravity?

168. Len Ornstein says:

Gina:

I brought evolution back in to clarify(?) Lee’s position. It also has some relevance to at least Steve Weinberg’s ‘justification’ for the Anthropic Landscape, e.g., see:

http://www.pipeline.com/~lenornst/Anthropic.html

169. Plato says:

I know most have moved on.

String Theory Landscape

Quantum Effect, however allow a manifold to change state abruptly at some point-to tunnel through the intervening ridge to a nearby lower valley.

See here

AS a layman I needed to understand the differences of String theory Landscape and Fitness landscape? Are others having the same problem?

Fitness landscape

In evolutionary biology, fitness landscapes or adaptive landscapes are used to visualize the relationship between genotypes (or phenotypes) and reproductive success. It is assumed that every genotype has a well defined replication rate (often referred to as fitness). This fitness is the “height” of the landscape.

See here

Always still a puzzle to me. 🙂 Thanks for your patience.

170. Gina says:

Concerning the analogy of evolution and high energy physics: If Smolin and Weinberg find it useful and it led Lee to his ideas about the landscape it is hard to argue against it. (Philosophers of science make a distinction between dicovering and justifying and point out that there is no clear methodology for the “discovering” part.) But still we can be somewhat skeptical about how far this analogy goes.

Concerning the superior computational power of evoluion/emergent of physics rule, There are three levels. One extreme level is that like Penrose’s claim about the human mind also evolution and the emergence of the law of physics exhibit superior computational power. An intermidiate step would be that since we do not have understanding of the mechanisms, solving the tentative models we create is computationally unfeasible. An even more mundane statement (which seems rather obvious) is that the randomness involved and unknown “input” prevents us from giving a precise simulation. I do no know where Lee’s opinion lies on this spectrum.

And as for the “no free lunch” theorem that Lee mentioned and its relevance to optimization and to evolution, I found this paper by Olle Haggstrom.

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