Reactions to Spinning the Superweb

Posted by Spinning the superweb |

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Comments to the essays published in Spinning the Superweb can be found in the following blogs:

  • Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit (mathematical physicist, anti-string theorist, and blogger at Columbia University). Essay 1 (see also last comments of this post), Essay 2.
  • The Reference Frame by Lubos Motl (string theorist, former professor of physics at Harvard University, and blogger). Essay 1.
  • Shores of the Dirac Sea by David Berenstein (string theorist and blogger at the University of California, Santa Barbara). Essay 1, Essay 2.
  • Ars Mathematica. Note in particular the comments by Jacques Distler, string theorist and professor of physics at University of Texas, Austin. Essay 1.
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  1. Spinning the superweb May 26, 2009 at 1:45 PM  

    Bert Schroer has a paper on arXiv commenting on the ideas here discussed.
    See "A critical look at 50 years particle theory from the perspective of the crossing property," [arXiv:0905.4006v1]." Here there is an extract:

    "There are of course problems for whose solution it does not matter whether
    the AdS side is physical or not, for example if one believes that the CFT side
    has an integrable substructure and that the AdS spacetime ordering exposes
    this in a more accessible way.

    The Maldacena AdS-CFT conjecture [26] is different in that it insists in
    physical theories on both sides of the correspondence in contradiction to the rigorous
    theorem which supports the naive picture of encountering more degrees
    of freedom than physics allows to accomodate on the CFT side. This counterintuitive
    claim comes from string theory, more precisely from the gravity-gauge
    conjecture. All attempts to get some common sense into this situation has been
    in vain; the main reaction of the string community with its bone-crushing number
    (more than 6000) of publications on this one issue has been the comment:
    ”this is not what we mean”.

    Statements as this are harbingers of a new way of producing ”facts” which
    will be commented on below. As mentioned before the partial integrability
    conjecture may be the only surviving idea because it does not overtly contradict
    existing theorems. But it is a too small place for offering refuge to string
    theorists who were in the possession of a TOE. As already in the case of the
    metaphor about the invisible string, it seems that also in the case of the Maldacena
    conjecture, the string community does not miss a chance of missing a
    chance to leave their cocoon of metaphors.

    This leaves the conclusion that the main reason for the derailment cannot be
    found within particle physics. If one compares particle theory during the ”good
    old times” with the post crossing developments, the most conspicuous change
    is the absence of any profound criticism. One looks in vain for a critical paper
    about S-matrix based approaches after Res Jost’s anti-bootstrap essay [?]. Not
    only was there no critical counter-balancing work at the time of the dual model
    and afterwards in string theory, but leading particle theorists which at the time
    of Pauli and even some time thereafter would have been on the side of caution
    became now its fiercest defenders; one only has to think of David Gross’s ”no
    other game in town” or Ed Witten’s many ways of expressing what a great gift
    with string theory has befallen on us (and preparing us for 50 years hard work
    to explore its consequences)."

    Continues below ...

  2. Spinning the superweb May 26, 2009 at 1:49 PM  

    "The disappearance of criticism has led to a new culture of establishing a
    truth, starting from a conjecture and ending after several reformulations with
    community acceptance at the level of a theorem. This process has been insightful
    described in a series of essays by a young string theorist [31]. The author,
    Oswaldo Zapata, neither criticizes nor supports string theory; he approaches
    the problem like a surgeon who feels neither empathy or disdain for his patient.
    In fact his main interest is not the physical truth value of string theory, but
    the sociological aspects of its discourse, reminiscent of the famous historian of
    physics Thomas Kuhn. He wants to understand how string theorists, having
    disposed of classical methods of establishing theorems, arrive at scientific truths
    and how they present their results without becoming subjectively dishonest to
    the outside world. He does this by studying changes over larger span of time of
    the community’s use of words while none of the facts was altered.

    Interestingly enough he gives the strongest argument for his thesis by not
    touching the mentioned theorems which show that the superstring is not stringlocalized
    in spacetime and that the place of the Maldacena conjecture is already
    occupied by a theorem. This shows that the control of the community over facts
    does not end at those truths which they produced (and which Zapata is well
    aware of), but extends also to inconvenient theorems which originated outside.

    Reading Zapata’s essay may not help to learn about conceptual errors of
    string theory. But his method is very successful in exposing the surreal aspect
    of its bombast which accompanies the string community’s almost messianic end
    of the millennium belief in their TOE. If one rephrases what Zapata formulates
    in more popular terms, one would say that the string community has developed
    a special massage whereby a metaphoric conjecture ends after several sweeps in
    the veil of a fact.

    Intended or unintended, Zapata’s insider report paints a physics analog to
    the Zeitgeist of global capitalism, except that the driving force in physics is not
    greed and deceit but power and self-delusion. String theorists are not Madoffs;
    their derivatives are only some big Latin Letters and extra dimensions.

    The invention of QM with its indeterminism has, contrary to Foreman’s
    thesis [32], nothing to do with Spengler’s post ww1 gloom and doom mood
    in his famous book ”the demise of the west”. But who wants to deny that
    superstring theory, as TOE at the end of history after the demise of the SU is
    representing, either conscious or subconscious, the scientific side of power and
    glory at the end of the millennium? Its strong coupling to the Zeitgeist cannot
    be denied and will be the subject of studies by historians of physics for many
    years to come after the globalized power and glory of a TOE has gone the same
    way as the globalized capitalism. Even if some physicists do not want to be
    bothered with memories about their participation in an inglorious project, the
    metaphors around the TOE and the resulting media hype have lasted too long
    in order to vanish with a whimper; the historians of physics and the public will
    insist to understand what went on for almost 5 decades" (pp.35-37).

  3. Spinning the superweb June 17, 2009 at 8:39 AM  

    Brian Foster, professor of experimental physics at the University of Oxford and lecturer of Superstrings and Einstein’s Universe.

    As an experimentalist, I have no axe to grind on Superstrings - indeed, as someone who distrusts band-wagons, I am more sceptical than I probably have a right to be. I learnt quite a lot from Zapata's first essay, and was stimulated by the second. I certainly agree about the intellectual milieu that Einstein and the 19th century German physicists were born into and how it surely affected their interest in music. In detail, however, I would take issue with some of Zapata's statements - I would personally have characterised the English & German school systems in the opposite way - English public schools were dominated by the classics and did almost no science, whereas German schools, particularly the gymnasia, were much more scientifically orientated - an interesting example is that of Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell - who was English (is a sense almost to a caricature - although born of a German father and American mother) who had to switch to a German school at the age of 15 or so if I remember, in order to get a decent technical education. He was also an extremely good pianist - but he learnt to play before he went to school. I think that Dirac was such a dysfunctional individual - many no doubt know his family history and the tyranny of his father - that he is a dangerous example to generalise from.

    I am not at all confident that there is a real correlation between science and music - (although I too am a musician, a violinist - probably the only way in which I can emulate Einstein) Jack Liebeck, my colleague in our lectures, who does the violin playing - does say that when he gives recitals in physics depts., which he does often in conjunction with our lectures, more people come up to him afterwards saying they play an instrument than at "normal" recitals. What I think would be interesting in addition all this anecdotal evidence would be a study of 1000 randomly selected physicists, biologists and historians and determine the relative numbers who play an instrument. One day when I have some time - probably when I retire! - perhaps I will do this.

    Continues below ...

  4. Spinning the superweb June 17, 2009 at 8:44 AM  

    Of course the real value of associating music and science is that it allows a lecture format of chunks of 15-20 mins of talking interspersed with musical interludes to allow the brains of the audience to recover. This works extremely well - and our latest lecture "Einstein's Universe" has the same format as the "Superstrings" lecture, with violin interludes, but doesn't even mention Superstrings. Here Einstein is the draw that gets people into the audience and we use him to take people up to the Standard Model, LHC and then describe the project, the technology and what we hope to find - hopefully there will soon be some results to discuss too. There is more information, both on this and "Superstrings" on

    My personal rationale is if music and/or Einstein gets a new audience in to hear about exciting science, then it is worth doing. And, I have to admit Jack and I have great fun doing it. By the way, there are people who use guitars to illustrate superstring theory – Mark Lewney in the UK from the Patent Office - did a tour of schools for the UK Institute of Physics in which he brought pop music in around a Superstrings framework - I have not seen the performance but have heard it was good. What I think is important is that the music in the middle of the lecture is related to what one has been talking about. Also, the quality of the live music has to be exceptional - Jack is a world-class soloist who plays with the world's major orchestras and records for Sony BMI - see It wouldn't work if I were to play the music!

    Brian Foster.

  5. Spinning the superweb July 8, 2009 at 9:12 AM  

    Professor of the history of science Jürgen Teichmann, Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany.

    I am not an expert in the history of theoretical physics, but just because of this I read Zapata's articles with pleasure to get some first information about this development of a new field. Quite right it is difficult to write a true history so far the author is involved inside the historical stream.

    In respect to popularizing physics I would say Zapata's articles are well done - in most parts. But in some ones I feel them too specialized (AdS/CFT) or numbering too many single facts (physicists and music).

    In respect to history I only can judge in a general way: here I am not such content. Zapata's conclusions often come too fast (e.g. music has nothing inherent to do with physics or physicists, or music did not end as "mathematical" structure before Baroque time. On the contrary, it was used as practical music by the educated since the Greeks at least and used to have high complex theoretical background from Baroque on to e.g. the twelfth-tone-music in the 20th Century, see e.g. the famous book Gödel, Escher, Bach), or his concepts are not adequate defined for the topic (e.g. "beauty" instead of reductionism, symmetry, unification). Beauty would be also interesting to reflect, but then also in art and literature and this in different times and cultures and this then to relate to physicists as parts of these cultures. Further on I think, popular physics is not in that way directly important for promoting science as Zapata is thinking. It can be important for influencing the political and economical establishment to acknowledge a new development. I think more interesting are the manifold ways of interaction inside the scientific community (and their research funds!). Quite right here versions of high complicated systematic knowledge, which are also understandable for non specialized experts, are useful. I know e. g. from the history of solid state physics that the theory of dislocations around the end of the thirties had no big influence at physicists and engineers. This changed with the soap bubble model experiments of Bragg.
    I know a little more about Galilei. I do not think that he had succeeded because of a lot of "tricks." He really also was a courtier (see Mario Biagioli's book Galileo Courtier), but he had ingenious theoretical ideas - even if they proved as wrong later on (see e.g. literature about his "prove" of the earth's motions by a theory of the tides), and ingenious experimental skill - see e.g. his unpublished experiments.

    Jürgen Teichmann.

  6. Spinning the superweb July 29, 2009 at 1:40 PM  

    Mark Lewney, acoustic expert, guitarrist, and modern physics popularizer.

    Zapata's second essay, "The Music of the Superstrings, " is very interesting. There may be some truth to his hypothesis that string theory writers chose members of the violin family rather than the guitar in order to appeal to a middle class audience and associate themselves with the great musician-scientists of past centuries.

    On the other hand, it is all too easy to ascribe less honourable motives to one's opponent in any debate. To say, as Zapata does, that "popular science has been converted into a battle field where contenders fight for the monopoly of future scientific research" is rather melodramatic, in my opinion. Popular science is about taking some science, ANY science, and trying to make the public say "Wow, cool!" using any dirty trick of showmanship and rhetoric you can employ, since ALL science suffers if the electorate feels disengaged and thus votes to cut funding.

    And I certainly don't think that "string theorists have annihilated any possible contender claiming an alternative quantized theory of gravity" by any means - indeed, string theory is rather falling out of fashion these days, and unless the Large Hadron Collider provides some unlikely and dramatic evidence which favours it over other numerous options, string theory will become a less attractive avenue for theoretical physics graduates at the start of their career. I'm an avid reader of Peter Woit's blog and he often posts articles which strongly suggest that this is becoming the case.

    Continues below ...

  7. Spinning the superweb July 29, 2009 at 1:44 PM  

    Of course, I've also had a bashing off the Not Even Wrong blog myself (see here). I accept that the analogy between harmonics and particles isn't great, and may even be a little misleading. I can only assure the reader that I have no interest in bolstering string theory's reputation at the expense of its competitors. Instead I use it to bolster the reputation of PHYSICS at the expense of ITS competitors at the school and undergraduate level - this is what that Physics World article was all about, really. (And as a bonus, if more kids did physics there would be more theoretical physics graduates to explore those competing theories AS WELL AS string theory.) I admit I've just never been able to come up with a way of making loop quantum gravity seem cool to 12 year olds!

    Indeed, I only use string theory as a vehicle to go from explaining the science of guitars to exploring the notion of other dimensions - not necessarily in a technical compactification/Calabi Yau manifold sense but in a more general and unobjectionable sense including time, hyperspheres and Edwin Abbot's Flatland. I perform "shows", not "lectures", since the real battle is in engaging kids and the public in physics, or science, or even simply "something intellectual" as opposed to all the other trivial crap that constitutes popular culture these days. For all its faults, string theory, and even string theory "hype", is an excellent weapon of mass instruction for someone like me to have in their arsenal.

    Mark Lewney.