Stringing Up String Theory

Mathematician Peter Woit explains why string theory is worse than wrong.

Peter Woit. [CREDIT: Peter Woit]
By | Posted December 28, 2006
Posted in: Featured, Physical Science
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Peter Woit has been generating an awful lot of controversy for a soft-spoken, unassuming mathematician. But he isn’t the center of attention because of his own research at Columbia University; it’s his opinions about string theory that are generating the hype. In his new book, Not Even Wrong (Basic Books, 2006), and his blog by the same name, Woit expounds at length about physics – a field he considers troubled and trapped by a theory that is so far off the mark it can barely be considered science.

Woit has never been a string theorist himself. When he earned his doctorate degree in particle physics from Princeton in 1984, the string theory craze was just beginning. Woit was interested in pursuing other intersections between math and physics, so after his physics post-doctoral work, he found himself more at home in Columbia’s mathematics department than in any of the string theory-obsessed physics departments of the time.

Over the next 15 years, Woit observed that, despite failure after failure, string theory remained the sole path pursued by nearly all theoretical physicists in their quest to bridge the physics of the very small with the macroscopic world. In 2001, he finally wrote a short article for American Scientist magazine explaining why he thought string theory had gone bad. The response he received, both positive and negative, was overwhelming. He decided to expand his ideas into a book, and then turned them into a public discussion via his blog in 2004. The blog quickly became the forum for a raging debate: Should the physics world continue to focus on a theory that a growing number of voices decry as misguided? Scienceline caught up with the man who started the fire.—Interview by Karen Schrock

SCIENCELINE: What is so wrong with string theory that you feel it’s Not Even Wrong?

PETER WOIT: Well, a little history: Back in 1984, when people got really excited about string theory, they had a calculation that said that string theory most logically makes sense in 10 dimensions. We only see three space and one time dimension, so there have to be six other dimensions somewhere. The hope was that there would only be a few ways of describing this six-dimensional space. People thought, okay, we’ll just learn more about string theory, see what happens for these six-dimensional spaces, and one of them will explain our world and we’ll all get Nobel Prizes. Then they discovered that there are essentially an infinite number of ways of choosing the size and shape of the six-dimensional space, and you can get pretty close to whatever you want out of the theory by massaging the six-dimensional space appropriately. So you can’t use string theory to predict anything you can observe, which under the normal standards of scientific conduct is when you are supposed to give up.

SCIENCELINE: But a lot of physicists are excited about the Large Hadron Collider being built at CERN in Switzerland. Doesn’t string theory predict the particles they might discover there when it comes online in 2007?

PETER WOIT: The problem is no matter what they see at the Large Hadron Collider, the string theorists can then go out and find a six-dimensional space which will match those results. There really isn’t a prediction at all from string theory about what they’re going to see at this collider.

SCIENCELINE: So what are some of the alternatives to string theory that you think are being neglected because of its popularity?

PETER WOIT: There aren’t really many good ideas out there. What’s needed is people who are going to develop new stuff, and that’s very, very hard to do. It requires being willing to go off and pursue some completely obscure idea and put years of your life into it. That’s an incredibly dangerous thing to do. You could very easily spend a few years on an idea then find that it wasn’t such a good avenue, and, suddenly, you don’t have a job. So if you’re a young physicist and you want to do something with mathematics and particle theory, it’s virtually impossible unless you do string theory. That’s what most directly concerns me.

SCIENCELINE: Are there any string theorists out there who agree that their field is in trouble?

PETER WOIT: Talking to string theorists privately, I find that we actually see eye to eye on many things. They’re more optimistic than I am that string theory will ultimately lead to something, but the things that I find disturbing about the subject they also find disturbing. But it’s really hard to find people who are willing to put their name to that publicly. My string theorist friends have made it very clear that they don’t want me quoting them on my blog. They’d soon stop talking to me if I did.

SCIENCELINE: Your blog has generated quite some controversy. Didn’t Harvard string theorist Luboš Motl accuse you of having the intelligence of an amoeba?

PETER WOIT: It’s great. Sometimes I think I’ve been very lucky because the person most willing to engage in a discussion about this publicly is this guy who is a complete ideologue and extremist. It’s something of a gift to have him as my most vocal and visible opponent. He actually does a very good job of reflecting some of the problems with how string theory has been pursued. If you want to understand what has gone wrong in that field and what kind of attitudes have become ingrained in people, you can find an example in its most extreme form by reading his websites. It’s kind of hard to take him seriously. I think there are a lot more sensible people who would make tougher opponents.

SCIENCELINE: He and your other critics often mention that although you have a Ph.D. in physics, you are not a string theorist yourself, so you obviously don’t understand the nuances of the field. Do they have a point?

PETER WOIT: Well, I haven’t worked directly in the research but I’ve certainly spent 20 years of my life following the field. That’s what I’m basing my knowledge on. But it’s true, one of the characteristic things about the subject is its incredible complexity. To even start to understand string theory you need a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. The literature is huge, there’s now 10, 20, maybe 30,000 papers written on the subject. It’s so complicated that nobody really understands all of it, even the best string theorists. On the other hand, if you follow the subject for a while, you see that there are certain crucial obstacles to doing what they want to do. It’s fairly well known what these obstacles are. One I mentioned before — the size and shape of the six dimensions. And you can pick up a string theory paper, after you’ve done this for a while, and see whether they’re addressing those crucial issues or not. So it’s true, I haven’t actually worked out the calculations. But I can read what they’re saying and understand it well enough to know whether or not they’re getting at these critical problems.

SCIENCELINE: Do you think it’s unusual to spend so much of your time following a field in which you aren’t working yourself – in fact, a field in which you don’t think anyone should be working?

PETER WOIT: I think there’s a lot to be said for that. If there’s one criticism I agree with, it’s the idea that maybe I’d be better off just ignoring all those people and doing something positive. And, well, there’s a pretty decent argument there, and I can’t completely disagree with it. But I found myself in a peculiar position. I’m in this faculty position, which is not tenured but it’s permanent. This means I’m insulated from the political pressures that most people in the physics community face. The thing that shocked me after I first published the short piece five years ago was how many people wrote to me and said, “You’re so brave. We would never dare do anything like that.” I started to realize that there really has been a serious intimidation factor. People within the theoretical physics community feel that there are many, many powerful people who are very devoted to this subject, and if they start criticizing it in any public fashion they’re going to get themselves in big trouble. Their students aren’t going to get jobs, their grant is not going to be evaluated well, et cetera. I felt like since I’m immune to these pressures, I was the person in a position to say something.

SCIENCELINE: But you must get some sort of gratification from the fact that you are the only person doing this, right?

PETER WOIT: Yeah, when I started five years ago I was greeted with an enormous amount of skepticism. But I really have seen the attitudes and viewpoints of people around me change, and that’s been for several reasons. One reason, things just have not been going well for string theorists themselves. But many people have told me that what I’ve been doing is also having a major effect. And that’s really rewarding to see that change happening.

SCIENCELINE: So what’s your next step?

PETER WOIT: I’m really happy with the blog. It’s been very successful, it’s done exactly what I wanted, and I want to try to keep doing it. But I want to figure out how to make it less time consuming so I can pursue my own research. The really crucial idea about particle physics that was learned in the 20th century was the importance of symmetry arguments. But there’s a lot in mathematics about symmetries that physicists have never really used. I want to see if I can get a new understanding about how to exploit symmetries in particle physics, which will require developing some new mathematics. I want to push the frontiers of mathematics even further.

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  1. String, string, string…. it is so much more than string theory. ;)

    String – 25 Uses and Beyond: Truth and Fun

    Brockeim, December 29, 2006 at 9:54 pm
  2. I’ve been waiting a very long time to see an opposition to the baseless string theory. I’m very happy to see this has gotten some publicity. Maybe now people will start to understand that science is more than numerology, and that it has basis in reason. A sound scientific theory is based very carefully upon the layers of reasoning below it. As many experienced mathematicians know, if one is looking too hard in one place (string theory), one will find exactly what they are looking for…whether its right or wrong.

    T. Boone Pickens, December 30, 2006 at 2:42 am
  3. The more you study string theory, the more you will see that it reflects the characteristics of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Bell’s inequality and the double-slit experiment are both examples of how much real explanation is still needed. String theory has not led to a greater understanding of the universe and its functions, but only to a greater understanding of string theory itself. Its logic is circular.

    As humans, we need to base our assumptions off testable and graspable ideas. The argument of “our minds just can’t understand it” is often used in favor of string theory and Hawking’s seemingly increasing amount of dimensions. Like a media plague, string theory has cast itself over the public, and “if its this popular, it simply must be true.”

    String theory is a severely extensive amount of math that cannot be applied to reality, so reality must be applied to it. This is simply the wrong way to go about science; Einstein and Feynman would be ashamed.

    steven hawking, December 30, 2006 at 3:06 am
  4. I’d like to see Woit’s response to Brian Greene’s writing on the subject. Perhaps this is covered in his recent book or blog, I will have to check it out.

    Fred M, December 30, 2006 at 6:23 am
  5. Why can’t string theory simultaneously be wrong, circular, and useful?

    I haven’t read Woit’s book yet, but the title implies that the pursuit of string theory is actually hindering progress. With the admitted shortage of alternative approaches (only three roads, per Smolin), it would seem impossible to demonstrate that playing in one of the few sandboxes available is actually harmful.

    On the other hand, starting with an incorrect theory and fixing it would seem to be a perfectly rational approach. It is not as if string theorists do not appreciate the scientific mandate for disprovable predictions…

    The implication that there is an enforced orthodoxy is a serious issue. But the perception and reality of resistence of the new by the established has been true throughout the history of science (and other fields). The claim of resistence by suppression is not always limited to only one of the competing camps — I believe, for example, that Greene feels that string theory is resisted and its practitioners excluded from some opportunities.

    It is hard from a distance to distinguish paranoia from persecution.

    Kurt TeKolste, December 31, 2006 at 11:22 am
  6. Imagine a hardened steel box impervious to any known means of opening the box. A tiny window in the box reveals the only clue to what’s inside. Inside, a cube appears to be suspended in mid air. Now, formulate some theories as to why the cube is suspended without ever manipulating the box or cube. If one of the theories postulated seemed viable and everyone ganged up, then a beautiful theory could arise and a lifetime spent perfecting the theory. Then, somebody experimenting reaches into the box, cuts the thin wire suspending the cube.

    Bobby, January 14, 2007 at 1:39 pm
  7. String theory has been proven with mathematical rigor to be wrong. It has long been known that physics (a universe)would be impossible in any dimension but 3+1. Also there is a quantum theory of gravity, the only possible one since it is required by geometry: GR. The description of the books showing this is at impunv.blogspot.com. For the dimension see

    Our Almost Impossible Universe:
    Why the laws of nature make the existence of humans extraordinarily unlikely
    R. Mirman

    and for the derivation of GR from geometry (the Poincare group) and quantum gravity see Massless Representations of the Poincare Group electromagnetism, gravitation, quantum mechanics, geometry
    R. Mirman.
    The proofs are rigorous and verified by others.

    Ronald Mirman, January 27, 2007 at 4:30 pm
  8. String theorists will say the sum is 6 (or maybe 6000). See my blogs for further discussion. Can anyone disagree?

    Ronald Mirman, July 4, 2007 at 11:32 am
  9. The blogs are


    Science blog
    impunv.wordpress.com
    or
    impunv.blogspot.com

    Political blog
    randomabsurdities.wordpress.com

    Ronald Mirman, July 4, 2007 at 11:34 am
  10. The electron and proton were treated as point particles, because the numerical tools during the early part of the 20th century were paper, pencil, and lookup tables. Special relativity and quantum theory were invented as patches for this non-physical model. Electric charge confined to a point implies infinite self energy, no magnetic spin, no angular momentum, no ability to radiate or absorb energy, etc… .

    As a result of the point particle theory, Physics became obscure Mathematics with many fudge factors thrown in to accomodate experiments. Physics in no longer physical at all. The inane statement “that no one understands quantum theory”, should not be acceptable to anyone who claims to be a rational scientist.

    There is a model of the electron and proton, which gives them spatial extension and the shape of a toroid. This model uses only classical Physics, is free of contradictions and non-physical absurdities, and predicts the observed sub-ground states of Hydrogen. Unfortunately, the well tenured Physics community is off studying the even more absurd model of multi-dimensional strings. The Standard Model and String Theory are the Earth Centric theories of modern times.

    jim, March 25, 2008 at 12:22 pm
  11. “The electron and proton were treated as point particles, because the numerical tools during the early part of the 20th century were paper, pencil, and lookup tables. Special relativity and quantum theory were invented as patches for this non-physical model.”
    So true! String theory is an absurd excuse for an absurd concept…

    L C, January 30, 2010 at 6:06 am
  12. Kurt: If I understand your post, you claim that it would be more practical to show how String Theory is wrong and correct it.
    You have missed the whole point, which is in the title, and is superficially explained in the article.

    The problem is that you can’t disprove String Theory because they have a few factors (such as the shape and form of the missing 6 dimensions) that they could change as they please. If you prove them wrong, they only need to change the configuration of one of these factors to allow themselves to be right again. But the theory doesn’t actually state 1 single solution, so it can prove how the theory works for an aspect of our universe, given that our universe had certain properties, then it proves another aspect, given that our univeser had diferent properties!

    Imagine if I proved to you a little crazy theory that shows how electricity and gravity can be interchanged, and it requires a certain variable X that depends on the gravitational constant, the electromagnetic constant and some mysterious factor (it is unknown when the theory is stated, but it’s proven to be needed).
    Then I proceed to show you how my theory works with various experiments on the electromagnetism and gravity. But the problem is that each experiment has a diferent mysterious factor! I can’t be wrong, because I can always change the factor to be right, but I will never be right, because I always need to change the factor to consider other cases.
    This would the be scientific equal of masturbation: it feels good, we enjoy doing it; but it’s a waste of time compared to the real thing which actually does something fullfilling.

    Carlos Lopez, March 7, 2010 at 11:00 pm
  13. Carlos

    There seem to be three levels of discussion going on here: a financial discussion, one about theoretical physics, and one about the nature of reality.

    Woit is largely concerned with the fact that the fundamental questions of physics require a long and risky commitment which tends to move physicists into whatever is currently funded, which in turn is determined by an imperfect human process. This is certainly a real concern — and not only in physics and not only about string theory.

    He also is concerned with the issue that you raise: the fact that the descriptions of string theory create an inherently unverifiable theoretical structure — and in particular there are so many degrees of freedom that the theory can be tweaked six ways from sundown, as you reiterate.

    Your comment seems to require that our descriptive language use only terms that correspond to something real.

    My thought is that, while Occam’s principle is important — a theory more complex and comprehensive than it needs to be should be avoided — that it may be necessary to find a way to describe the phenomenon accurately first and then eliminate unnecessary dimensions in the description.

    In particular, I do not believe that it is necessary to ascribe any physical reality to all the extra dimensions. It is only necessary to believe that reality in some way behaves in a manner that is consistent with the mathematics of ten or eleven dimensions (or some projection thereof) and thus that this language is useful as description.

    So tweaking a model with too many degrees of freedom until it aligns well with the known facts, even if you have no direct physical access to some of the parameters that you tweak, provides a descriptive language that must have some correspondence with reality even if it is not itself “realistic.” Once you have enough smaller circles cycling around larger circles to describe the motion of the planets you can perhaps understand what is going on well enough to simplify both the theory and its interpretation.

    Kurt TeKolste, May 10, 2010 at 10:33 am
  14. String theory is a way for realy obtuse pompus individuals to spend tax dollars on pointless exercise .
    If 1 of these string theorist had any real insight , they would self fund there budget .
    I have learned more of Hydrogen bonding , electons and energy , than all of these bums added together .
    I have successfully split water into its elemental state at a rate that surpasses all University docteral candidates. Phds from Berkley , Baylor school of medicine , And Purdue , have all contacted , Supposedly off the record and ask for direction in their experiments. Pathetic . Over educated , over funded nonsense . To see a water fueled engine go to google .
    enter: The Water Fuel Engine by Craig Westbrook .
    All the afor mentioned univerities tried to steal tech .
    And tried to justify ridiculous grants , with uniteligable results .
    Screw string theory… Fire is plasma , and directly related to electricity !

    Craig Westbrook, January 10, 2011 at 10:16 am
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