Is String Theory wrong?

The dean of debunking

String theory, which nowadays dominates the research programmes and main funding of theoretical physics in many western universities (at a recent conference in Cambridge some 440 of them gathered to discuss their subject), was not so much discovered as invented in order to solve a vexing explanatory deficit. In the early 1970s, physicists announced the so-called “standard model” — a theory that seeks agreement between the contrasting realms of super-huge objects, such as stars and planets, (known as relativity) and the super-small realms of the subatomic (known as quantum). The standard model, however, failed to explain gravity. Enter string theory to rectify the problem. In its simplest terms, this complex set of notions claims 10 or 11 space dimensions (as opposed to the three of everyday human perception), and assumes a “landscape” of myriad elementary bundles of energy (strings) that interface not only with the universe we inhabit but a multiplicity of unseen and unknowable parallel universes.

But is string theory true? Peter Woit, a mathematician at Columbia University, has challenged the entire string-theory discipline by proclaiming that its topic is not a genuine theory at all and that many of its exponents do not understand the complex mathematics it employs. String theory, he avers, has become a form of science fiction. Hence his book’s title, Not Even Wrong: an epithet created by Wolfgang Pauli, an irascible early 20th-century German physicist. Pauli had three escalating levels of insult for colleagues he deemed to be talking nonsense: “Wrong!”, “Completely wrong!” and finally “Not even wrong!”. By which he meant that a proposal was so completely outside the scientific ballpark as not to merit the least consideration.

Woit’s book, highly readable, accessible and powerfully persuasive, is designed to give a short history of recent particle and theoretical physics. Ultimately he seeks not only to rattle but to dismantle the cage of the string theorists. What gives the book its searingly provocative edge, moreover, is the fact that Woit isn’t even a tenured professor, but a mere mathematics instructor specialising in computer systems. Yet he has formidable allies such as David Gross (the Nobel Llaureate theoretical physicist), Roger Penrose (the world-class mathematician) and Lee Smolin (the leading cosmologist), plus an accumulating constituency of other big-name supporters. Woit has taken on a group of the smartest minds in the world and told them that their intellectually imperial pretensions are naked. He has boldly published what many have thought but never dared to express so cogently, or at such length.

I have to say I agree with his analysis. I don’t even pretend to have the slightest clue how the math behind string through works; but from an armchair perspective is seems to be one of the most crack induced theories modern physics has to offer. I always hate commenting on science stories like this though, because in general I have little expertise in these areas. Certainly, thousands of physicists, almost all of whom smarter than me and certainly more educated about the subject, think string theory is worth pursuing. I can’t debate its merits with any one of them.

Personally, I just subscribe to Einstein’s view of what a good theory should be: simple. Simple enough that you can explain it with pictures to a five year old. Just try to do that with String Theory and you’ll see the problem.

It’s irrational, I know, but I believe the universe has a certain elegance to it, a beautiful simplicity from which great complexity arises. String Theory is too ugly for me to put much stock in.

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