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String theory: Not Even Wrong according to Peter Woit

  1. Jan 11, 2007 #1
    String theory: "Not Even Wrong" according to Peter Woit

    I haven't read the entire book, but Peter Woit has written a book on string theory that calls the theory "not even wrong" because it does not provide any testable predictions: http://www.amazon.com/Not-Even-Wrong-Failure-Physical/dp/0465092756/sr=1-1/qid=1168530580/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-9503088-6553557?ie=UTF8&s=books

    I have limited understanding of string theory from Brian Greene's book The Elegant Universe. Given that there are various threads of evidence for string theory and some postdictions of the standard model, and the widespread support for the theory among scientists, does anyone care to share thoughts on this subject?

    o| Hiram
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  3. Jan 11, 2007 #2


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    Really? I hadn't heard about that yet!

    (Excuse my sarcasm: Blog fatigue)
  4. Jan 11, 2007 #3
    Sorry, but I'm new here

    I just started posting here on Saturday, 1/6/2007, so I didn't know what has been posted on the subject already.

    Excuse my beginner's mistake.

    o| Hiram
  5. Jan 12, 2007 #4
    Hi Hiram,

    I think that the "string theory controversy" is one of the most discussed subjects over the physics blogosphere... I suggest you do some searches around, but do get back and post on more specific questions if you have not found the answers elsewhere.

  6. Jan 12, 2007 #5


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  7. Jan 12, 2007 #6
    Personally and I'm sure I'm not going to make myself popular, but I tend to agree that String theory is not even wrong. It's a proto-theory or a hypothesis; it has nothing statistical to back it up therefore it is not a valid scientific theory, it is non falsifiable as it currently stands, thus it is not even wrong, it's closer to philosophy atm; that to my mind is uncontestable; if you can show me evidence of string theory then I'll change my mind, 'til then I'm reserving judgement; but suffice to say I think it's a very convenient bit of mathematical manipulation which should it prove true would astound me. It always struck me personally as trying to change the argument to fit the facts, or sophistry.

    As I said though I doubt on a Physics section that discusses Strings, M-theory etc, this view is going to be very popular. So I'll just retreat to a safe distance before the missile attacks come in :wink::smile:

    I'm not reading through blogs by the way. Put up some quotes or something, I so don't have enough time to trawl through all those blog sites :tongue: :smile:

    By the way this isn't meant to be a troll it's just my opinion, it could be erronious, who knows?
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2007
  8. Jan 12, 2007 #7


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    your views are similar to those of a lot of us who post here, so I would not worry too much about "missile attacks"

    I'd say this is a fair assessment and would be hard to argue with. It hasn't lived up to the expectations raised in the 1980s and 1990s. IMO most of the interesting discussion here is of newer (usually background independent) approaches to QG----lines of research that are alternatives to string.
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2007
  9. Jan 12, 2007 #8


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    Sorry, I don't have time to do it for you. But if you were interested what string theorists (Clifford @ asymptotia) and other QG researchers (Bee @ backreaction) have to say on your points reading their blogs (as opposed to Woits) is a good idea, and I gave a startingpoiint for further reading.
  10. Jan 12, 2007 #9
    thanks for not letting my thread die

    I did not intend to state the controversy of string theory in general as the topic of my thread.

    I wanted to discuss Peter Woit and his book, specifically. I confess I only looked at it at Barnes & Noble and read the inside jacket to see what his point was and what his credentials were. I hoped to learn more about Peter Woit and his angle from the replies to this thread.

    Can we do that?

    Brian Green's optimism and enthusiasm had already inspired me to hope that string theory bears out, but I want to keep an open mind. BTW I discuss doubts about string theory with my therapist, who compares belief in the validity of string theory to my problem with not being optimistic about my future (college dropout) in general -- a sign of depression. Not a bad comparison, according to pro-string theory camps.
  11. Jan 12, 2007 #10


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    What do you want to discuss? Peter Woits arguments are a substantial partof the controversy about String theory. In some sense he served as a crystalization point around which the debate structured itself, AND popularized it.

    So to me to say you want to discuss Woit/Woits book but not the general string theory controversy which it signifies seems kind of nonsensical.
  12. Jan 12, 2007 #11


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    I think Smolin's book is better on the topic, and after reading both, I am more inclined to agree with Smolin, that there are some good things about string theory, but other subjects have to be researched as well.
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2007
  13. Jan 12, 2007 #12
    alright, then...

    f-h, I did not know that Peter Woit was making the main thrust of the criticisms of string theory. I simply put my post because someone said, "Make a specific question about the debate over string theory." and I felt I had already done so in my thread's original post.

    How about discussing Richard Feynman and string theory? He said shortly before he died, "My feeling has been -- and I could be wrong -- that there's more than one way to skin a cat. I don't think that there's only one way to get rid of the infinities. The fact that a theory gets rid of infinities is to me not a sufficient reason to believe its uniqueness." This quote is from chapter 9, page 213 of Brian Green's The Elegant Universe, and originally from Superstrings: A Theory of Everything?, edited by Paul Davies and Julian Brown (1988).

    I do not feel this is that strong of a criticism. String theory does not have to be the only solution to the problem of the infinities to be valid, although the infinities described indirectly by Brian Greene are only one of the problems string theory addresses. Brian Greene lists Richard Feynman as a critic of string theory along with Sheldon Glashow and Howard Georgi, who voiced stronger opposition to my mind.
    o| Hiram
  14. Jan 12, 2007 #13


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    I don't understand, the therapist compares WHOSE belief in the validity of string theory? Yours? In that case he/she would be comparing your belief in the eventual success of the projected theory with your lack of hope or optimism concerning your own success in life.

    Do you possibly mean that the therapist was CONTRASTING your faith in string with your lack of faith in yourself?

    I don't understand because your statements are too vague. Please be clear and spell things out more carefully.

    If the issue is optimism then you are in luck because EDGE.ORG asked some of the world's smarter more original thinkers a New Years's Question What are you optimistic about? and you can read all their answers online. Google "edge question 2007"

    My favorite was the response from Frank Wilczek, theoretical physics Nobel laureate.


    You quote Feynman but the quote is not in his characteristic pithy style, perhaps it was too near the end of his life.

    A better known quote from Feynman on the subject of string is:

    String theorists don't make predictions, they make excuses.
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2007
  15. Jan 12, 2007 #14


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    Thanks for sharing the Feynman quotes, y'all.

    Feynman had the rare combination of excellent mathematics skills, excellent physical intuition, and a strong drive to use them. One of the things I find interesting about his intuition is that he was an earlier doubter of the concept of the quantum vacuum and creation and annihilation operators.

    As for your therapist, their job is to sit there while you work your problems out on your own. I have my doubts as to whether they took a class in college on how to interpret other people's feelings about physics. And it should be said that half the talk doctors out there graduated in the lower half of their class.
  16. Jan 12, 2007 #15
    I had hoped to discuss Feynman's views on string theory, but...

    Since two of you are asking for a more complete picture to be painted of something I mentioned more in passing, I will give one. However, I want to stick to string theory because otherwise this thread will need to be moved to the psychology forum.

    The issue is optimism. I feel that my chances of getting a middle class job are contingent upon graduation from four year school. I finished 3 years out of a 4.5 year engineering program at UCSD before I dropped out and subsequently went to the mental hospital in 1997.

    In 1999, I started working minimum wage restaurant jobs and hating life. Finally I quit in December 2000 and readmitted myself to junior college, where I have been since fall 2001.

    I do not feel confident about my ability to return to UCSD or any four year college or university. Hence my pay scale will be lower class. This sounds like it would be mariginally better than staying on government disability checks. When I take psych assessment tests, I answer questions about hope for the future as: no, I don't have it.

    Now, here comes the part about string theory: I've been trying to keep up my reading about science and math in order to keep my mind a little bit fresh and review some histories of interesting and colorful personalities in those fields. Part of my reading extends to string theory, and my therapist is interested in it too, so we started talking about it as a common interest.

    He does not understand it that much, as he did not understand what the unification of the four fundamental forces of nature was. However, he has probably read Stephen Hawking, et al. and gleaned a few things.

    String theory is incomplete and subject to a certain amount of doubt, but optimists choose to believe in it in advance, as this gives them a reason to study it and work it out.


    my therapist wants me to look at my future the same way Brian Greene looks at the prospects of string theory.

    I assume you don't want a longer account of all of this. Now, I told my therapists that some physicists have doubts about string theory being true (getting back to Peter Woit, et al.). His face clouded and he said something like, "Let's cast all those doubts aside and just think positive. And, that's how I want you to do about your own future, Hiram."
  17. Jan 12, 2007 #16
    The future is completely open in all senses. I have a great interest in quantum gravity, but given the current state of affairs, it means I end up interested in several approaches, because we don't have a theory of quantum gravity yet. At this point, I wouldn't stick to one idea only (e.g., string theory), but try to have an open mind about the various possibilities. We hope that soon some of these possibilities will be subject to indirect tests. Or, optimistically speaking, we hope that one of these approaches will be shown to be a promissing route to a consistent quantum gravity theory. It is a very exciting time in fundamental high energy physics. There are far many things we do not know. The future is open, life is a learning game. It is hard in every sense, but worthy to be part of. That's the way I usually try to think positively about.

    Best wishes,
  18. Jan 12, 2007 #17


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    I thought that too, when I was young. One of the few cool things about getting older is learning things that we wished we'd known when we were younger. Since then I discovered that some blue collar work pays quite well, and is very healthy. Now I'm only about 50 pounds overweight.

    It is my belief that a lot of engineering programs are the most difficult subjects to get a BS degree in. By now you've discovered that junior college is a hell of a lot easier. When you finish up there and think about going to a 4-year, remember that you do not have to be an A+ student. All you have to do is avoid being in the bottom 25% of the classes. If you cannot do that, then try to avoid school, I say, there are many other paths. There are so many other ways of making a living. Most of the jobs offered in the newspaper don't have the slightest requirement of a degree.

    I knew Al Foxx back when his life was an incredible mess (his condo was downstairs from mine). 25 years on, here's his website now:

    From reading his website, I can tell you that his story is far more difficult; physically, emotionally and morally, than he tells it. I could say a lot more.

    When one decides to spend ones time looking for an advancement in physics, I agree that optimism is a neccessary thing. Except being an old man, I no longer think in terms of "optimism". Instead, the word I prefer is "faith". You don't have to be convinced you're right. If you can convince yourself that the only way you can make progress is if you assume you're right, then you've made the first step.

    And I think it's important that there be as many different faiths in physics as possible. I think the string theorists are mostly wasting their time, but I do not begrudge anyone their faith.

  19. Jan 13, 2007 #18
    Thanks to both of you for your kind responses. I was relieved that I did not get lectured for bringing up therapy in a string theory thread, But I would like to refocus and stick to the subject of this forum.

    That said, I will now write responses anyway:

    ccdantas: Yes, I agree that it is an exciting time to live in. Quantum gravity seems to be imminent in the long view; many brilliant minds are working on the problem in several countries around the world. The Large Hadron Collider may have a great deal to contribute to particle physics -- if it is finally built. Funding was a problem for the Superconducting Supercollider as I recall.

    CarlB: Thanks for the encouragement. However, in terms of blue collar work, I don't think I could do it; I don't have a strong back for it, and my left shoulder is in serious and permanent disrepair. More limiting, I am of an Asian extraction, and my lack of height and muscle prohibits me from picturing myself lumbering around a construction site with a hard hat and a big steel beam on my shoulder. I have never been good at sports and I might even have a perfect record of defeat in one-on-one contests; I'm not strong enough to do manual labor.

    Besides this, I like science and have liked it since I began excelling in it in junior high school. Thus I find it hard to depart from the college route, even in the face of poverty as a result of no B.S.

    However, your point is still well taken; it's just that I had to keep going into it with one of my past therapists.

    More recently in this past year 2006, I have decided to get a degree or certificate in computer science from junior college, which is a plan my current therapist approves of. I hope I ace all my classes to make me more competitive. And I have been doing a lot of outside reading on my own, for my own benefit; thanks to that reading, I've already written a few short programs.

    I decided the other day to start posting on this forum in order to discuss some of the science I've been reading about by myself; otherwise, I don't have too many scientists to talk to about it.

    Very briefly: Al Foxx sounds reminiscent of The Pursuit of Happyness, another inspiring story about a man who struggled to make a living. Anyway, my problem with optimism, or faith if you prefer, is that it comes into conflict with various realities not easily overcome.

    Without making much of it, I think it's kind of like the debate over string theory. String theory suffers from incompleteness. It may be completed in the 21st century, or it may require even longer; I know there are numerous geometries to consider and calculate for the shape of the curled up hidden dimensions, such as the Calabi-Yau spaces, or something like that. However, I don't want to actually construe string theory and optimism in my case as the same argument; I'm simply casting one single line towards the topic of the thread, string theory. I hope this single paragraph relating to the debate over string theory will suffice for the relevancy issue for this forum.
  20. Jan 13, 2007 #19


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    Keep in mind that people who are unhappy about the prospects of String THeory are not necessarily unhappy about the prospects of a theory of quantum gravity. They are optimistic about their own research programs. This is not a crisis of science (very few argue this...) but a debate within a scientific community which research program is more viable.

    I personally dislike String theory, if the optimism is justified is hard to judge, from the outside or the inside, I'm pursuing different models and ideas in my PhD. There is one point where ST proponents are consistently offending, and where a large part of the backlash comes from: They insist they are the only game in town. That's not true. They are the biggest but not the only!

    For this kind of annoyance Woit made himself a public figurehead. This is unfortunate in a way since he is not actually part of QG research. Nor is his style of critique as found on his blog justified objectively. While ST hasfailed to deliver on some of it's biggest promises and the hubris of some of it's proponents has been proven to be vapid on the whole it still does provide perhaps 'the' most significant mathematical structure found in the search for QG to date.

    For everything else, good luck! Stay curious.
    Last edited: Jan 13, 2007
  21. Jan 13, 2007 #20
    Thanks, f-h, for bringing the subject back to string theory. I suppose I shall have to start a new thread on some other aspect of the theme of going beyond the standard model. Thanks also for your good wishes. (As a footnote, one of the books that reminded me to stay curious was Richard Feynman's Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman: adventures of a curious character.)
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