Not Even Wrestling?

Peter Woit’s book, “Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory & the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics”, is out. The book description at Amazon.com says:

How does the world work and what is mathematics’ role in its description? An authoritative and well-reasoned account of string theory’s fashionable status among today’s theoretical physicists, and promising new directions, including the role of beauty in mathematics and physics.

As of yet, the book has not been reviewed in any major physics journals (and might never be?). There is a rather positive (but also rather uninformed) piece on the book in the Times; there is a positive review in the Sunday Times; there is also a comment on the book in the Financial Times (registration required); and finally, Lubos Motl has a very critical review at his blog.

There is also a recent review by John Horgan in the August issue of the British magazine Prospect.

One of Woit’s main objections to string theory seem to be, that it offers no possibility of producing experimental evidence. And that even the proposed Superconducting Super Collider would have failed to provide any clue as to whether the theory had merit.

The problem with this conclusion is that Woit seem to be implying that you need to reach something like the order of the Planck energy to “confirm” string theory.

In spite of all this, the book should be interesting to read; but I have to add that most likely, will we never see universes wrestling, not even wrestling (which Peter Woit might be disappointed about…).

PS1: I coined the term “Not Even Wrestling”, and then Lubos commentet that: “we might never observe Universes wrestling: not even wrestling”;

PS2: This post DOES NOT refer to the book: “Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism”, but for some, I guess, this is more or less the same.

Update: Lubos has written a 17-page-long list of comments to the book. Peter Woit has written an errata page for the book.

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6 Responses to Not Even Wrestling?

  1. Peter Woit says:

    Kasper,

    If you’re going to discuss my book, I really think you should actually look at it, instead of making up what you think my arguments might be based on a blurb or something you read in another review. If you’d like a copy, just send me your regular mail address and I’ll see if I can get you sent one.

    I certainly don’t anywhere say that Planck energies are needed to test string theory, quite the opposite. The point I make repeatedly in my book and on my blog is that if string theory actually were a well-defined scientific theory capable of making predictions, it would predict at least something about low-energy physics and would be testable. The argument that string theory is only testable at high energies is made by proponents of the theory trying to evade the fact that string theory has zero to say about observable physics. They like to claim (incorrectly) that the theory does make predictions, just that they are at too high energy to observe.

  2. Kasper Olsen says:

    Dear Peter,

    I only say that you SEEM to be implying… bla bla, and that one of your objections SEEM to be…. bla bla bla…; I guess the last bla bla here, which is the first above, is correct, namely that you claim that string theory does not make any predictions about low-energy physics – or at least physics at scales which seem to be reachable at any future experiment we can think of?

    Can you think of any OTHER theory which actually says something distinctive about low-energy physics? (lower than at LHC, for example), or are you implying that we will never be able to say something about “the fundamental theory”?? And implying that we are forever stuck with the Standard Model??

    Best regards, Kasper

    PS: I would very much like to read your book, I’ll send you my address by email (and by the way I’m also going to NYC by the end of June, so I might see you there??)

  3. Anonymous says:

    Kasper,

    ‘As we will see, the term ’superstring theory’ really refers not to a well-defined theory, but to unrealised hopes … As a result, this is a ‘theory’ that makes no predictions … this very lack of falsifiability is what has allowed the whole subject to flourish. … When is very speculative research part of science and when is it not?’ – page 6

    Chapter 8 lists a whole array of outstanding problems in the Standard Model.

    The rest of the book explains that the only ways of getting numbers out of string theory have failed.

    It also introduces briefly Loop Quantum Gravity and several other approaches, and why such alternatives are irrationally being ignored by string theorists.

    On pages 180-2, Peter Woit quotes various theoretical physics Nobel Laureates on superstrings:

    Feynman: ‘I don’t like it that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like [it] that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation – a fix up… so the fact that it might disagree with experiment is very tenuous, it doesn’t produce anything…’

    Glashow: ‘But superstring physicists … cannot demonstrate that the standard theory is a logical outcome of string theory. They cannot even be sure that their formalism includes a description of such things as protons and electron. And they have not yet made even one teeny-tiny experimental prediction… Until string theory people can interpret perceived properties of the real world they simply are not doing physics. Should they be paid by universities and be permitted to pervert impressionable students?’

    ‘t Hooft: ‘… I would not even be prepared to call strong theory a ‘theory’ rather a ‘model’ or not even that: just a hunch. After all, a theory should come together with instructions on how to deal with it to identify the things one wishes to describe … Imagine that I give you a chair, while explaining that the legs are still missing, and that the seat, back and armrest will perhaps be delivered soon; whatever I did give you, can I still call it a chair?’

    It is extremely funny and has a very good index.

    ‘Glasshow … has been known to refer to the Higgs as ‘Weinberg’s toilet.’ His analogy is that the Higgs is like the toilet one has in one’s home: it fulfils an important and necessary function…’ – page 100.

  4. Kasper Olsen says:

    Dear “A…”, you should not care too much about what Feynman, Glashow and ‘t Hooft ever said about string theory – none of them has been working on it for real; other people, like Maldacena, Strominger, Witten and Greene would have a completely different point of view 😉

    Kasper

  5. Anonymous says:

    Witten: ‘String theory has the remarkable property of predicting gravity.’ – April Fools Day issue of Physics Today, 1996.

    I wonder if this has anything to do with Witten coming up with M-theory a year earlier?

    Notice my work was suppressed by this hype. Nobody was interested in even reading factually based ideas outside string theory. Dr Bob Lambourne at the Open University suppressed discussion by writing to me in 1997 telling me that string theory was the standard approach to quantum gravity (which I had known for a decade). Stanley Brown at PRL emailed to say that his journal wasn’t really interested in ‘alternatives to currently accepted theories’ which again means strings, and arxiv deleted it within 30 seconds, and although CERN Doc server has an early version, they won’t allow updates now as they only accept feed from arxiv.

    I’m not surprised really that string theorists keep away from people like me. I’m wondering whether to attend an open lecture by Lee Smolin in London on Monday, but he just doesn’t reply to messages so perhaps that would be a waste of time for him as well as for me. You just cannot get a working radical idea out with the stringy speculation swamping all outlets with hype.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Kasper,

    No, I don’t think we are stuck forever with the Standard Model. Someday we’ll have a better theory, one that will explain those things the SM doesn’t. But it won’t be string theory, and the longer people concentrate on string theory, the longer it will be until there will be until we make real progress.

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