I’m getting repetitive-motion disorder from all my years of whacking
string theorists, or pluckers, as I fondly call them. I’m thus thrilled at the
help I’ve gotten lately from Peter Woit and and Lee Smolin, authors of the
anti-string screeds Not Even Wrong and The Trouble With Physics, which have
been reviewed in Discover, the New Yorker, the Times, SEED, TIME and a bunch of
other publications. I‘ve done my part, reviewing Woit for the British magazine
Prospect (“Stringing Us Along”) and Smolin for Canada’s Globe and Mail (“Physics
at the end of its string?”). Also, the
Smolin, Woit and I agree on string theory's faults (untestability and almost infinite mutability), but I’m less sanguine than they are about the long-term prospects for particle physics. String-theory is just a symptom; you can’t fix physics by crushing string theory, any more than you can cure schizophrenia by suppressing hallucinations. Here’s how I put it in my review of Smolin:
Although I admire the authority and passion of Smolin’s diagnosis, I disagree with his prescription. What physics desperately needs are not new ideas but hard experimental data that can test ideas or inspire new ones, but these data are costly. Smolin does not even mention by far the most important event in physics over the past 25 years: Congress’s cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider in 1993 after its projected costs ballooned to more than $10 billion. The Large Hadron Collider, which will be the most powerful accelerator in the world when it comes on line in
Switzerland next year, will fall many orders of magnitude short of the energies needed to probe directly the microrealm where superstrings supposedly dwell.
Politicians and the public have become increasingly reluctant to pay for accelerators large enough to probe smaller distance scales and higher energies, where genuinely new phenomena might be discovered. The reluctance is understandable. Hawking… once promised that physics would help reveal “the mind of God.” But the “explanations” that physics offers are so abstract and mathematical that only an elite corps of cognoscenti can understand them. Moreover, theoretical physics is no longer yielding world-shaking applications such as lasers, transistors, nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. Little wonder, then, that funding for physics has stagnated while it has soared for biological research, which can help us not only understand but also heal our complicated selves. In other words, physics is in even bigger trouble than Smolin lets on.
By the way, I’m soliciting bad puns used in headlines for string stories. They must be worse, at least, than the headline of this post or of my “Scientific Curmudgeon” post “Pulling the Plug on Strings (Or: Taking Scissors to Strings, Cutting Strings Down to Size, Tripping Over Strings, Totally Plucked)” or of the reviews cited above.