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Nobel string critics aim to restore theorists' credibility

  1. Feb 8, 2006 #1

    marcus

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    So far the most notable and quotable string critics IMO have been the Nobel laureates Richard Feynman, Gerard 't Hooft, Sheldon Glashow, David Gross, Burton Richter, Philip Anderson, and Robert Laughlin.

    David Gross is a special case because he is himself a string theorist---maybe with Witten the most prominent and influential figure in stringdom. Gross is the only string theorist to be awarded the Nobel prize (it was for earlier non-string work) and he organized the prestigeous 23rd Solvay conference last year. His widely quoted remarks critical of the string Landscape were made at or around that elite conference.

    I have noticed recently some animosity against Gross in particular and string critics in general, here at PhysicsForums. It has involved ad hominem attack with derogatory remarks and what I believe is a serious misunderstanding of the critics' motives.

    Admittedly one can always suspect that there is, in someone's criticisms, an element of malice, or schadenfreude (delight in another's discomfort), or a sense of superiority. And IF YOU THINK DAVID GROSS OR THE OTHERS HAVE BASE MOTIVES please say so and explain why. But I want to explain why I think these Scientific Establishment guys have a serious concern and that they are leading the criticism of string research to protect the longterm interest of science----and PHYSICS CREDIBILITY in particular.

    I dont want to claim that ALL their motives are praiseworthy all of the time. Sometimes one of these guys may have made a wisecrack

    Feynman: String theorists don't make predictions, they make excuses.
    Laughlin: String theory is like a 50 year old woman wearing too much lipstick.

    but let's not be too hard on the late Feynman, or Laughlin either.


    Apart from occasional wisecracks, however, some of the criticism we hear is obviously the result of much soul-searching and is thoughtfully expressed, and, in some cases, took considerable moral courage. I particularly respect David Gross' position. I think he is trying to do what is best for the longterm good of theoretical physics and as a leading US string theorist he is in a difficult situation.

    BTW obviously not all prominent US Nobel laureate physicists are critical of string Landscapism or string in general. For instance Steven Weinberg and Frank Wilczek seem quite tolerant and supportive.

    the point I would make here is that top people in the scientific establishment can DIFFER as to what is needed for the longterm health of the science community and the theoretical physics enterprise.

    Have to go, back later.
     
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2006
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  3. Feb 8, 2006 #2

    marcus

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    Since (in another of this forum's threads) a special issue was made of David Gross comments, I will try to dig up some links

    Here is one bunch:

    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=321

    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=308

    Here is the homepage for the 23rd Solvay Conference (December 2005) which David Gross chaired---it has links to the program of talks

    http://tena4.vub.ac.be/23Solvay/qsst/

    A lot of the stuff included in Woit's blog was things Gross said at Solvay, which got into New Scientist, and then Nature magazine picked up on the story and interviewed Gross and a bunch of others
    ================================

    I still havent figured out how to make the main point.
    If you don't already understand why a top physicist (including someone whose research is string) would want to speak out critically TO RESTORE INTEGRITY of the US theory establishment, then I don't yet see how I can explain it to you.

    BTW some people with the same elite perspective and loyalties and concerns DON'T speak out. They act like they are just hoping that if nobody says anything somehow things will get better. And you know what? In a sense they might possibly be right! The new collider (LHC) will start up and results of some kind will start coming in. People will find new things to investigate and some will migrate into other theoretical lines. If I can speculate, the string Landscape could well be forgotten in a few years, and there could be a certain wisdom in just quietly hunkering down for now and waiting for the present situation to blow over.

    But by contrast, I admire the guts and forthrightness of people like David Gross and Andy Strominger. When they speak out and call a spade a spade it leaves me with a better taste in my mouth and more respect for the US theory establishment.
     
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2006
  4. Feb 9, 2006 #3

    f-h

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    Fairness requires that you also point out that Gross:

    "... went on to claim that really string theory is a vital subject and that it is in a wonderful period."

    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=318

    Anyway, it's Kindergarden.

    Calculemus.
     
  5. Feb 9, 2006 #4

    selfAdjoint

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    I am reading Cao's Conceptual Development of 20th Century Field Theories; it it a wonderful book, and I am currently on the sections where he describes the period between the construction of QED in the 40's and 50's and the rise of gauge theory in the late 60's. This period saw the physics community in a sort of Kuhnian confused pre-paradigm-change state. Field theory was in bad odor, for reasons that seemed very good at the time (cf. Landscape), and the resort was to systems based on experimentsl data without assuming unobservable entities (Heisenberg's program). Chief among these were the analytic S-matrix theory (SMT) and Current Algebra, and their much more radical offshoot, Chew's nuclear democracy.

    Cao is fundamentally a philosopher, but one who has read and grokked deeply not only what the physicsts were doing, but why, and what they thought about what they were doing. Perhaps this deep perspective can only be had retrospectively, but we need to hold our balance today and not focus on the polemics and high level opinions of physicists (Chew went around to meetings asserting as strongly as he could that there were no fundamental particles), but on the growth of physical understanding. The landscape doesn't have to be the end for SST anymore than its early apparent successes were the triumph of SST.

    BTW, what I take away from Cao are two interesting thoughts:

    Helicity and anomalies were appearing in the data and it took years for even the smartest physicists to get a clear, deep understanding of what was happening.

    And until that understanding of helicity and anomalous symmetry breaking sank in, gauge theory of the weak and strong forces could not be properly conceptualized.
     
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2006
  6. Feb 9, 2006 #5

    marcus

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    That is a good link which my search didnt turn up. Glad you contributed it, fh. It shows Gross balancing, which he certainly does.

    About Kindergarten. It seems that Gross does not agree, he takes it more serious than you do.

    As for myself, I normally don't pay attention to string business because it doesn't interest me. I just think there are some interesting newer unification approaches on the non-string quantum gravity scene and I'd like to see US research diversify some and give the non-string guys a chance---along lines I see in other countries
     
  7. Feb 22, 2006 #6

    Chronos

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  8. Feb 22, 2006 #7
    I read it too. It and it's companion volume 'Conceptual Foundations of Quantum Field Theory' are nice.
     
  9. Feb 22, 2006 #8

    selfAdjoint

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    I'm going through it carefully, for the history, the "Conceptual Development" more than the philosophy. There are all sorts of nuances in the history of gauge physics that I didn't know. Who knew that Heisenberg was a big contributer to the recognition of spontaneous symmetry breaking in gauge theory?
     
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