9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why postmodernists love string theory
This came out the same year that Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics (2006) and it carries the same message, namely that particle physicists need to move away from string theory because it is beginning to look like it isn't valid science. The main point in both books is that after two or three decades of work on string theory--or superstring theory, M-theory, brane...
Published on 2 May 2011 by Dennis Littrell
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Difficult to know who the audience for this book is
This is clearly an important book - it is a critique of String theory, which has apparently failed to produce verifiable predictions in the quarter centuary since the establishment of the standard model. But it is very difficult to evaluate the truth of the author's arguments.
The author argues that particle physics has gone down a blind alley. There are an...
Published on 23 May 2009 by Robert
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why postmodernists love string theory,
This review is from: Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law (Hardcover)This came out the same year that Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics (2006) and it carries the same message, namely that particle physicists need to move away from string theory because it is beginning to look like it isn't valid science. The main point in both books is that after two or three decades of work on string theory--or superstring theory, M-theory, brane theory, etc.--string theorists are unable to make any predictions that can be scientifically tested.
The deep problem for the reader of either book is that only particle physicists themselves can know whether progress is being made. For the rest of us we have to accept what they say on--dare I use the word?--faith. Without empirical support string theory is, as Woit has it, "Not Even Wrong" (the phrase is from Wolfgang Pauli).
The Preface and the first two chapters up to page 29 are eminently readable and interesting. Starting with Chapter 3 "Quantum Theory" the book becomes difficult and continues to be more than challenging until Chapter 13 "On Beauty and Difficulty" beginning on page 193 where it becomes readable again. The problem? With or without mathematics it really is impossible to make particle physics understandable to a general readership. Woit tries to make QM and string theory clear without equations and I give him credit for trying. But it is the nature of modern science but especially of something like particle physics that it is impossible to really grasp the subject without years of study.
Perhaps the beginnings of trouble for particle physics began in May, 1963 when P.A.M. Dirac famously said "It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment." (p. 195) This view, shared in some respects by Einstein, is the source of the problem today. While it turned out to be true that some mathematical equations that came before experimental support back in the grand old days of physics proved to be valid many did not. And of course it was understood that experimental support would have to follow otherwise the beautiful math would have to be put aside as wrong, arbitrary or perhaps not even wrong. The interesting thing about the equations in string theory, according to Woit, is that they are not beautiful. (p. 196) I would hasten to point out that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder and such claims really get to the heart of the matter: without experimental proof or predictive power, it really doesn't matter from a scientific point of view whether the math is all that beautiful or not.
Woit goes into the politics and economics of present day particle physics with his main point being string theorists control access to all the good jobs and that furthermore once you're on the string theory path it is hard to get off because of the enormous commitment in terms of time and energy required. So those people in string theory tend to support the theory despite its lack of empirical support because it is their livelihood and they have almost nowhere else to go because as Woit says, "It's the only game in town" (see Chapter 16). Woit compares string theory to postmodern theory in its arrogance saying that "In both cases, there are practitioners that revel in the difficulty and obscurity of their research, often being overly impressed with themselves because of this. The barriers to understanding what this kind of work entails make it very hard for any outsiders to evaluate what, if anything, has been achieved." (p. 202)
The title of the next chapter is "Is Superstring Theory Science?" and Woit's answer is no. He writes, "...superstring theory is at the moment unarguably an example of a theory that can't be falsified, since it makes no predictions." (p. 207) I would add that this is similar to so-called Intelligent Design, another "theory" that fails because it can't be falsified. This in a nutshell is why string theory is not science. Here is the situation: you have a "theory," an edifice of equations and ideas about reality. You have an insulated and esoteric cadre of high priests who are the only ones that have access to this "knowledge," and you have to take their word for it being true since they can't prove it. Maybe it is true, maybe it isn't. Maybe God did part the waters and maybe the Pope really is infallible in certain matters. But without experimental support none of this is science.
Woit goes on to remind us of "the Bogdanov affair" in which some string theory mumble jumble got past some peer review journal editors. This sort of thing, reminiscent of the Sokal Hoax from a few years back, suggests that things are indeed getting lax in the same way that postmodern literary journals can be lax since so much of what is expressed is either arbitrary or simply a matter of opinion without any sort of scientific rigor.
Woit even cites an anonymous scientist as saying that there is a string theory "mafia" in charge of the physic departments in our prestigious universities (p. 223). On the next page he has an "excitable" "Harvard faculty member" say that "those who criticized the funding of superstring theory were terrorists who deserved to be eliminated by the U.S. military." Woit adds, "I'm afraid he seemed to be serious about this." (p. 224)
I have read books by renowned physicists Leonard Susskind and Brian Greene in which they come out strongly in support of string theory and hopeful that it will someday gain some experimental proof or be formulated in such a way that predictions can be made. But to be candid I feel they are in the unfortunate position of people who have to justify a lifetime of work otherwise admit that they might have better spent their time in other pursuits. The cognitive dissonance they face is difficult to resolve even for august scientists. Richard Feynman is quoted on page 246 as saying, "String theorists make excuses, not predictions."
Okay why does this really matter? It matters because this unscientific approach from string theory gives aid and comfort to not only postmodernists who believe that all of science is merely a social construction but also to creationists who can now claim that string theory and their intelligent design theory are similar in that neither one is falsifiable. If this is the case, by what authority do we choose one and not the other? In other words, a non-falsifiable string theory is a retreat from science into something akin to religion.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly useful introduction to gauge theory and Standard Model of particle physics,
This review is from: Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics (Paperback)From a marketing standpoint, it's probably a pity that Dr Woit has targeted this fairly technical book at a non-technical audience, and that he has included discussion about the failure of string theory. The first section is focussed on explaining mainstream solid particle physics, and this gets fairly abstract in places, but it contains some deep physical insights about the handedness of the weak force, the problems of the Standard Model, and so on that you won't easily understand from any other book. The second half is focussed on the failure of string theory, which is very upsetting because those guys keep hyping abject speculation based on wishful thinking and "groupthink must be right" arrogance.
However, no real harm is done. You can easily skip over the quotations from Richard Feynman, Sheldon Glashow, Gerard 't Hooft and many others attacking string theory for being non-falsifiable religion, and learn about the basic concepts behind the maths of quantum field theory.
Then you can easily find more technical material as you need it. The author has some more mathematical stuff on his university home page, and the book has extensive references for further reading.
The book makes you familiar with the basic way in which gauge symmetry works and how it connects to particle interactions. A Lagrangian equation is written to describe a field, a path integral is then used to evaluate the action of that Lagrangrian. In practice the path integral, which sums over all possible ways an interaction can occur in spacetime, is expanded into a series of terms each being a power of the strength or coupling constant of the force determining the interaction. Each term in the expansion then represents one member of a set of increasingly complicated types of interaction, which can be pictorially illustrated by a Feynman diagram. Evaluating the sum of the series of terms enables you to work out reaction cross-sections, corrections to the magnetic moments of leptons, or whatever you have set up the Lagrangrian to achieve.
After reading this book, if you have also had some exposure to the kind of maths used in quantum mechanics and general relativity, you are ready to begin studying books like Ryder's "Quantum Field Theory".
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Difficult to know who the audience for this book is,
This review is from: Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics (Paperback)This is clearly an important book - it is a critique of String theory, which has apparently failed to produce verifiable predictions in the quarter centuary since the establishment of the standard model. But it is very difficult to evaluate the truth of the author's arguments.
The author argues that particle physics has gone down a blind alley. There are an infinite number of possible string theories, with the very few predictions the theory actually makes, disagreeing with experimental results. Additionally, because String Theorists hold the tenured positions at the heights of academic physics, they are able to ensure that this is the only game in town.
From the negative review on this page, it is clearly a controversial argument.
Following his descriptions of the maths of string theory requires a lot more than my (Engineering degree level) maths, and it does not read as well as Fermat's Last Theorem for the interested lay reader. Given the difficulty of the subject (and string theory requires post doctoral research for physicists to achieve an acquaintance with the subject) the author does write a readable book. (At least, I finished it, and managed to follow the main arguments, even if I didn't understand the maths being referred to.)
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A timely and honest critique,
This review is from: Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law (Hardcover)I've been following the arguments made by Peter Woit against String Theory for quite some time, and it's a pleasure to be able to have them all in a single volume. His arguments are very persuasive, and his writing clear and to the point. This, however, is not a book that the general audience will find easy to follow. The earlier chapters recount the canonical story of the success of the particle physics in the 20th century, and if you are familiar with that story you can safely skip these chapters. The later chapters are the really interesting ones, but unless you have at least some familiarity with theoretical particle physics and the modern mathematics, you might find yourself lost. Even with that caveat it is still possible to appreciate the central theme of this book: theoretical particle physics took a wrong turn somewhere in the late 70s and the early 80s, and has never been able to recover from this. Woit is appealing in this book to the practitioners in the field to be more honest with their assessments of the direction in which the theoretical particle physics is headed, and the lack of any meaningful progress.
Unfortunately, I am very sceptical of the potential impact of this book on the field of particle physics. The Emperor is naked, but he is perceived as irrelevant as well.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not even comprehensible,
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This review is from: Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics (Paperback)Don't believe the marketing hype. This book is too technical and difficult for the general reader.
The only thing I understood was the (admittedly funny) anecdotes about penguin diagrams, Italian mobsters and Joe Hagelin's pink papers. (Peter, please send me that TM poster!) And yes, the author is insulted by two weird French guys confusing Latvia with Lithuania.
I also understood that questioning "super string theory" can be, shall we say, a wee bit controversial. Apparently, one string theorist believes that critics should be handled like al-Qaeda and bombed by the American army!
By *why* is critique of super string theory so controversial? And what on earth *is* super string theory, in the first place? If your math is lousy (like mine -I understand addition and subtraction pertaining to my monthly salary, and even that just barely), you won't be able to gauge the answer from "Not even wrong".
I suppose this is how Peter Woit's college lectures for undergraduates sound like: a lot of advanced math with a couple of bizarre anecdotes thrown in to lighten up the proceedings. Nothing wrong with that, if you are the star student, but the rest of us prefer Lee Smolin's "The trouble with physics". And that book, too, is very difficult! However, if forced to choose, I'd rather try to digest Smolin than Woit.
Now, concerning that TM poster, my address is...
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars quite convincing,
A physicist and mathematician, a lecturer teaching graduate courses in the mathematics at Columbia University, New York, is Peter Woit the ideal candidate to write this book about the failure of the String Theory ?
Sir Roger Penrose evidently thinks so, having even encouraged the project and helped the author to find a publisher.
On the other hand, by far the most common reaction from superstring theorists has been to ignore the authors arguments on the ground that he wasn't saying anything not well known to people in the field.
And what about the non-experts ?
«Professional physics and mathematicians are quite used to the idea that one cannot hope always to follow a technical discussion and one needs to be ready to skip ahead to where things again get less demanding. Just about all readers should find this tactic necessary at one point or another.»
Even so, this book is not highly readable, nor accessible to the layman; rather quite a challenge.
Therefore, despite his fascinating exploration of the quantum mechanics and the quality of his documentation, a rating of three stars seems appropriate for such a perilous enterprise.
14 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars fairly good for what it is is,
So no, I do not concur in the blind bashing of this book (by the way I am not a physicist but an engineer who worked at CERN and am interested in physics on the superficial level).
32 of 52 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Bitter emotions and obsolete understanding of high-energy physics,
Parts of this book are fun to read, although they will be too difficult for outsiders. But the text is definitely not a trustworthy source of knowledge about physics. The book can basically be divided into two parts. The first part of the book describes physics from the early 20th century to the 1970s or so. This part covers some standard material as well as some points that have not yet appeared in the popular literature. The early chapters also honestly explain that the author has not done any important work in high-energy physics himself and that he has been isolated from research (and researchers) for the last 20 years. Because of these reasons, I originally rated the book by two stars.
As the focus of the presentation shifts to modern physics since the 1970s or so, an expert recognizes that the author misunderstands some very elementary questions.
The book contains a lot of very embarrassing errors. Let me mention a few examples. Woit originally wrote that the center-of-mass energy of the LHC beams would be 14 GeV, instead of 14 TeV: this error has been corrected after long debates in which he didn't want to admit any flaws. He incorrectly argues that the neutrinos with electroweak energies interact very weakly. He thinks that higher-dimensional rotations are associated with one-dimensional "axes". He misunderstands how SU(2) can be embedded to SO(4). In his description of the history of supersymmetry, he forgets Pierre Ramond. He writes that the supersymmetric vacua predict a higher vacuum energy than the non-supersymmetric ones.
Also, Woit seems to misunderstand that all of our knowledge of theories such as QED comes from perturbative expansions when he attacks the perturbative method as such. He also misunderstands what "background independence" means. At one point, the author also claims that the primary evidence supporting scientific theories is an authority (Edward Witten in his case). Even more seriously, he builds his case upon e-mail messages from undetermined sources that supported Woit's viewpoint. Most of these e-mails were obviously written by cranks.
Authorities play an important role and the author quotes many outsiders in high-energy physics who have criticized string theory. But he never mentions names like Weinberg, Gell-Mann, Hawking, Randall, Arkani-Hamed - famous and active physicists who are not string theorists but who believe that it is the right direction. Books by Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, and others were much more balanced in this respect. The book is a gigantic spin zone.
Woit conjectures the existence of singularities in some integrals that appear in string theory and that are known to be non-singular. Woit does not distinguish a family of theories from one theory with a massless scalar field (a modulus). He does not mention Andrew Strominger and Cumrun Vafa when the black hole entropy is discussed. Woit incorrectly believes that the "beauty" of a theory is the same thing as an experimental verification.
The author repeats poisoned remarks about string theory too many times. The second part of the book could be reduced by 60 percent or so. Moreover, most of the statements in the second part of the book are supported by no technical arguments, neither in the book nor in scientific literature. The problematic statement that string theory makes no prediction is repeated hundreds of times, and in many particular contexts, such a statement becomes not only boring but also patently false. The author is not aware (or denies) the actual mechanisms that are considered to be solutions of various puzzles - for example the doublet-triplet splitting problem.
The book is also full of inconsistencies. In one chapter, he argues that the alternatives to string theory in the field of quantum gravity should be supported. In the following chapter, he argues that they should be suppressed - the work of the Bogdanoff brothers is one of his examples. Woit's knowledge of the history of the subjects he discusses is extremely superficial, too. For example, Leonard Susskind is painted as the discoverer of the large number of vacua in string theory. Quite obviously, Peter Woit has no idea about the "discretuum" described by Bousso and Polchinski and many other concepts that have been discussed for years.
Peter Woit also offers a highly obsolete view on many concepts in theoretical physics such as the gauge symmetry; he is obsessed with the old-fashioned idea that all of physics follows from a gauge symmetry principle. He thinks that the gauge symmetry is uniquely determined by physics because he is apparently unaware of dualities and all other phenomena discovered in the last 20 years that show that his preconceptions are wrong and that gauge symmetries are only associated with a particular description of physics that does not have to be unique.
The book is called "Not Even Wrong" but the readers should know that most of the book is wrong after all. I can only recommend the book to the people who dislike theoretical physics - or at least theoretical physics of the last 20 years - and who want their opinion to be confirmed by a semi-serious source. The readers who want to learn what physics is all about may want to avoid the book because it could make them very confused. As far as modern physics goes, the author is a layman. The topics he raises have nothing to do with the actual discussions that take place among the scientists.
9 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Again, mission accomplished,
It's not typo free but it's extremely accurate. A very sound work from start to finish.
7 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars What went wrong?,
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I found the book unusually hard going, and simply gave up only a quarter of the way through!
If the objective was to give a critique of string theory which could be understood by a layman, albeit one interested in the subject, I think it failed dismally.
I abandoned the book in the wilds of British Colombia rather than bring it home!
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Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics by Peter Woit (Paperback - 7 Jun 2007)