The tide seems to be turning against string theory and its speculative attempts to produce a "theory of everything." Not a moment too soonby John Horgan / August 27, 2006 / Leave a comment
Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit Jonathan Cape, £18.99
“String theory is still promising,” I once heard the physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek quip, “and promising, and promising.” String theory is a so-called unified theory, which attempts to wrap quantum mechanics and relativity into one tidy mathematical explanation of all nature’s forces, and it has been promising for more than 20 years now without delivering.
Depending on which variant you prefer, string theory holds that reality is woven out of infinitesimal strings, or loops, or membranes vibrating in a hyperspace of ten, or 11, or whatever dimensions. Advocates—I will call them “pluckers”—claim that string theory represents a “theory of everything” that will answer the most profound of all questions: how did the universe come to be? And why did it take this particular form rather than some other form that would not have permitted our existence?
In his 1988 blockbuster A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking nominated string theory as the best candidate for a solution to the riddle of the cosmos. Since then, proponents have continued to sing strings’ praises in popular books such as Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku, Warped Passages by Lisa Randall and the monster bestsellers The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (who also hosted a television series about string theory). Moreover, string theorists dominate particle physics in terms of publications, grants and tenured faculty positions—even though they have not produced an iota of evidence for the theory. The MacArthur Foundation has awarded nine fellowships for particle physics since 1981, and eight have gone to pluckers. Of the 22 physicists who have received their doctorates since 1981 and gone on to receive tenure at the leading physics universities—Berkeley, Caltech, Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Stanford—20 specialise in strings. The director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study and half of its physics faculty are string theorists.
String theory has always had detractors. Richard Feynman liked to say that string theorists don’t make predictions, they make excuses, and his fellow Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow has compared pluckers to medieval theologians debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I have also criticised string theory in my 1996 book The End of Science and elsewhere. But Not Even Wrong by the mathematician and physicist Peter Woit of Columbia University is the first book-length critique of the…