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on 24 April 2017
Its a very complex book about a very complex subject and I (not a scientist or mathematician) shall have to read it at least twice more to understand it better. However the basic ideas are very clearly expressed and it makes a very powerful case for its main premise. Very worthwhile reading if you are interested in the physical sciences.
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on 16 July 2006
Apart from the fact that Peter Woit has every right (even obligation) to publish a view dissenting from the received wisdom, the fact that the representatives of that received wisdom are so hostile to such a lucid, balanced and well-written description of the current state of String Theory (or should that be "String Hypothesis"?) is a good sign that he is onto something.

Several decades ago I was awarded a modest degree in Mathematics and Physics from a very good Physics faculty at Manchester University (attending lectures in the Rutherford Building gave one a sense of time travel). Far too modest a degree to allow an academic career, but enough to give a lifetime of interest and curiosity in these matters. I have read pretty much every popular book mentioned by Woit and, in an attempt to understand even a little more about string theory than the vague ideas provided by these simpler books (not to mention Brian Green's computer generated graphics) I have recently finished the massive task of reading Penrose's "The Road to Reality".

I made it to the end (skipping all the equations except one; the one which I along with everyone else on the planet born since Einstein already knows) not because I understood much of what I was reading but because I thought I might be rewarded with some understanding of what it was all about. No chance.

So when I found this book by Woit once more hope triumphed over experience and I ordered it immediately.

What I want to do is thank Woit for providing the best book on the subject (from the viewpoint of the non-practitioner) that I have ever seen or read. Obviously, as a teacher, he understands how to explain things that are not self-evident truths. And he does it with wit and intelligence.

I can't say I now understand String Theory, but I am a lot closer to understanding what it is that it is trying to describe.

So, thank you Peter Woit.
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on 9 June 2006
Peter Woit is interested in finding a final theory that produces predictions, and the purpose of this book is to investigate mainstream ideas and some alternatives. Lee Smolin comments that Not Even Wrong 'is a courageous and necessary book that should spark a debate about the future of theoretical physics', while Roger Penrose's states: 'The hold that string theory has ... is very remarkable, considering the lack of any observational support ... Woit supplies the first thorough and detailed analysis...'

Woit acknowledges on page xi that most stringers are 'not likely to be very happy with this book.'

Chapter 1 begins with Winston Churchill's advice in war, the version I'm familiar with being simply: 'Never surrender!' But should this advice advice apply to speculative mainstream ideas?

Woit discusses this in the context of stringy speculators. They too will never surrender: too much depends on their speculations. Surrender will mean loss of prestige, power, control of arXiv.org, journals, etc.

Chapter 2 briefly defines (in words) state-vectors and Hamiltonians and then gives a history of experimental particle physics.

Chapter 3 explains (in words and illustrations) quantum theory, symmetry groups, Lie algebra unitary group U(1), representation theory, Weyl's theory, symmetry unitary groups SU(2), special orthagonal group SO(3) and its relationship to SU(2) by rotations, particle spin, all in historical context.

Chapter 4 explains the history of quantum field theory from the inconsistency of Schroedinger's quantum mechanics with relativity, through Dirac's equation that solves the problem and predicts spin, antimatter and the electron's magnetic moment. Woit briefly discusses renormalization, which is physically understood by the polarization of Dirac's sea of virtual charge created by the strong field around a real particle. The polarized charge tends to shield out most of the charge as seen at large distances or in low energy collisions. Renormalization is required because there must some kind of cutoff (reason unknown) that prevents the entire vacuum being polarized by a single real charge, but Woit does give the detailed history which makes at least the mathematical side of the problem crystal clear to the layman.

Chapter 5 is gauge symmetry and gauge theories. Woit explains Weyl tried to unify gravity and electromagnetism by extending the general covariance of general relativity (general covariance is the property whereby covariant laws of nature don't depend on either the velocity or acceleration of the observer) into a new symmetry principle of gauge invariance, giving Maxwell's equations. Einstein immediately found experimental objections to Weyl, so that closed down that speculation. However Weyl later introduced the maths of spinor fields. Woit introduces the Yang-Mills weak force isospin symmetry SU(2), noting that the name derives from isotopes (where the experimental data comes from).

Chapter 6 is the Standard Model. This is what you're buying the book for. Chapter 7 explains the successes of the Standard Model in experimental particle physics. Chapter 8 lists the few outstanding problems of the Standard Model like gravity and, 'Why does the vacuum state break the electro-weak gauge symmetry? If the origin of this really is a Higgs field, then at least two new parameters are needed ... One [only] is determined by the observed properties of the electro-weak interactions ... This is why the Standard Model predicts the existence of a Higgs particle, but does not predict its mass.'

The first 101 pages, just described, are worth the price of the book. Chapter 9 onwards sadly gets into the boring and useless stringy speculations: Kaluza-Klein 5 dimensional unification, supersymmetry, supergravity. Sense is restored from page 120 with lattice gauge theory in quantum chromodynamics, which makes predictions that are tested. Woit explains that Witten made the decisive breakthroughs which allowed calculations to be made using the current algebra model of pions.

Page 180 gives Feynman's published statement about superstring theory:

'nonsense ... not calculating anything ... maybe there's a way of wrapping up six of the dimensions. Yes, that's possible mathematically, but why not seven? When they write down an equation, the EQUATION should decide how many of these things get wrapped up, not the desire to agree with experiment ... So the fact that it might disagree with experiment is very tenuous, it doesn't produce anything; it has to be excused most of the time.'

Feynman added: 'String theorists don't make predictions, they make excuses.'

The next hundred pages explains boring stringy pseudo science dominating the media with hype. I pray for the day when it will be possible for Woit to bring out a new edition renamed 'Not Wrong!', with those last 100 pages replaced by a discussion of naturally checkable theory, hopefully something from Lee Smolin or someone. Overall, this is the best book I've ever read.

Page 227 describes the some silly attacks on Woit by string theorists:

'... some superstring theorists have chosen to attack me personally [via the Not Even Wrong weblog comments section] ... One of the more excitable of such superstring theorists, a Harvard faculty member, [commented] that those who criticised the funding of superstring theory were terrorists who deserved to be eliminated by the United States military.'

Woit spent the years 1984-7 as a postdoc at Stony Brook, during which the 'first superstring revolution' took place (the one where either 10 or 26 dimensions seemed likely). By 1987, superstring theory had closed down most of the opportunities for investigators interested in understanding the Standard Model in 4 dimensions. Like Feynman, Woit considered it premature to introduce extra dimensions merely in order to address speculation about graviton and unification guesses. If the introduction of extra dimensions was addressing an experimentally fact, then that would be science. Similarly it would be science if a speculation have a checkable, definite prediction.

However, to invent a speculation about extra dimensions merely in order to justify other speculation about gravitons and unification of forces, without a checkable connection to reality, is not physics.
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on 23 May 2009
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.)
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 May 2011
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.
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on 30 January 2008
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".
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 5 April 2011
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.
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on 6 June 2006
Before I begin, let me point out that my PhD supervisor was Barton Zwiebach, a leading string theorist and author of the recently published 'A First Course in String Theory'.

It is certainly true that string theory is by far the most beautiful and complex physical theory that man has ever contemplated, so that it is hardly surprising to find so many talented young researchers drawn to it. It is also one of the very few theories currently under serious investigation as a possible 'theory of everything', with the potential to unify gravity and the standard model. There was a time long ago when string theory was thought (or rather, hoped) to be a single unique theory, but the current proliferation of string vacua (the 'landscape') and the consequent complete lack of predictiveness should, for any reasonable-minded person, dash any hope of it being the 'theory of everything'. Rather, the huge number of manually tunable parameters make it a 'theory of almost anything'. Indeed, given any particular universe you can imagine, the chances are that there is a string theory (or more likely, lots of them), which describe it. To still hold on to the vain and distant hope that maybe, just maybe, there is some deep, as yet unknown, underlying symmetry principle which will somehow manage to pick out our particular universe as the only possible one out of the infinite number of possible stringy universes, goes far beyond wishful thinking - it is an exercise in self-delusion. Unfortunately, "all that glitters is not gold" - mathematical beauty in and of itself simply does not imply correctness.

Of course string theory should continue to be studied, but the physics establishment must be in a state of crisis when an extraordinarily disproportionate number of people are investigating a model which potentially has nothing useful to say about the real physical world. Time, money and effort are surely better spent elsewhere.

Even though it may leave a bitter taste in the mouths of the more fanatical string theory advocates, Woit's book is an important and indeed necessary contribution. For the sake of scientific advancement we would do well to take note of the issues he raises.
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on 31 May 2006
String theory is usually presented (without evidence but with excess hype) as being the "best candidate for the final theory", an extension of existing well-accepted ideas of the Standard Model to produce a complete theory. However, as Peter Woit states in this book, the actual problems of physics which are known to be real are simply ignored by string theories, while various speculative or imaginary solutions are invented by string theory which contains neither useful quantitative predictions, not physical dynamics of a scientifically useful kind.

The actual major problems facing physics concern (1) dynamical (predictive) unification of gravity/general relativity and the Standard Model (string theory is merely consistent with a spin-2 graviton force boson, and makes no predictions that can be checked), (2) the quantitative masses and gravity strength (these are all a related problem, since gravity acts on mass rather than charge, so the Standard Model doesn't describe any of this), and (3) the actual mechanism for electroweak symmetry breaking, i.e., how the vacuum polarisation (or other phenomena relating to a speculative Higgs field) give mass to three out of four of the electroweak gauge bosons at low energy, hopefully predicting an exact value for the key particle involved such as a Higgs boson.

String theory fails to even tackle any of this. String theory instead postulates 10 dimensional superstrings with 6 dimensions rolled up into a complex Calabi-Yau manifold (Witten showed using M-theory that this can be unified with 11 dimensional supergravity). String theory includes supersymetry (SUSY) which attempts to demonstrate unification of forces at a massive energy - far beyond anything achievable (even with a particle accelerator the size of the solar system) - by the extravagent addition of a superpartner for every existing particle. None of these superpartners have been observed. Nor does string theory predict anything quantitatively checkable about them, such as their exact energy.

Claimed successes for string theory such as "predicting gravity" are vacuous because there is no prediction, no connection between abject speculation and reality. The mathematics for string theory is clearly what sets it apart from being dismissed out of hand as crackpot speculation: because of the complex mathematical nature of the Calabi-Yau manifold, it yields a spectacular number of different possible metastable vacua for the ground state of the universe, about 10^350 solutions.

Let's spell it out: string theory is so vague it is consistent with about 1-followed-by-350-zeroes different ground states. So much for the science of string theory. The next thing is that string theory involves group-think. Peter Woit does not unfortunately present his own ideas in this book, which are interesting alternatives to string theory. This book is aimed at a wide audience and his mathematical papers can be found quite easily on the internet for free. But he makes the point that physics is more likely to advance rapidly if there is a diversity of ideas than with almost everyone thinking around the same mainstream "fashionable" speculation for decades. String theory is a new aether, and has bogged down physics for twenty years.
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on 2 June 2006
But some string theorists may be offended if they are confused about the difference between facts and opinions (seeing that string theory does not contain even a single hard fact or checkable prediction!). String theory contains 10 dimensional superstring-supersymmetry speculation, 11 dimensional supergravity and spin-2 graviton speculation, so-called brane speculations and the more sensible and predictive speculation that that the string theorist's special "mathematical skills are assumed to derive from a special 'mental vacuum state'", made by Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson in his arXiv paper number 0312012: "String Theory, Universal Mind, and the Paranormal". The nonsense injected into this science by such "string theory" is very worrying for us all.

I found the book to be, if anything, too weak in arguing its finding that there is nothing scientific in string theory. Being too constructive, the author is apologist for the state of the art, and blames the sluggish developments on a mere over-concentration of talents in a single far-fetched design. This reader feels that the author should have placed the blame squarely on what Josephson called the 'mental vacuum state'.

This is not a book which was written specifically for the great advocates of string theory mathematics like Professors Brian Josephson (who won his Nobel Prize for work in electromagnetism, a practical and therefore totally different subject), Edward Witten, Lisa Randall, and arXiv trackback dominating personalities like Jacques Distler and Lubos Motl. If the book was about these people, it would be very boring.

Instead, this is an exciting book written by a real world physicist who understands a lot and doesn't shoot his mouth off unless he has a very good reason. The author was educated to post-doctorate level and developed applications for Edward Witten's quantum chromodynamics solutions.

Readers will find the best ever popular introduction to the Standard Model, written by someone working on its applications at the time it was being bedded in. Readers will also find in the book a clear and well balanced guide to string theory.

The author is constructively critical and does produce insightful suggestions for improving the current situation, difficult as it is for string theorists to find funding. He explains the facts about the "landscape" of solutions to string theory and other fundamental problems which prevent it from making any unique statements.

But the book is worth buying just for the lucid summary of the Standard Model the author understands so well. A book to treasure.
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