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#math.columbia (University)

#math.columbia (University)

Scientific Controversy No. 13

Posted: 02 Dec 2017 01:33 PM PST

I made the mistake yesterday evening of spending it out in Red Hook, at an event billed as addressing the scientific controversy over string theory. The venue was an arts space called Pioneer Works, the brain-child of artist Dustin Yellin (whose formative early experience with physics is described here). The event was sold out (tickets were free, courtesy of the Simons Foundation), and drew a huge crowd of several hundred, mostly twenty-something Brooklyn hipsters.

The guests brought in to discuss the controversy were David Gross and Clifford Johnson, and the moderator was Janna Levin. Levin began the discussion by asking the two of them where they stood on string theory: pro, con or agnostic? This flustered Gross a bit (he’s one of the world’s most well-known and vigorous proponents of string theory) and Levin somehow took this as meaning that he was agnostic. Finally Gross clarified things by saying something like “I’ve been married to string theory for 50 years, not going to leave her now”.

Things then moved on to the usual well-worn hype about GUTs, string theory and unification. The LHC made a quick appearance, with no mention of falsified string theory “predictions” of supersymmetry. Instead Johnson characterized the discovery of the Higgs as somehow a vindication for this unification program. Gross went on to explain that unfortunately testing string theory requires going to the Planck scale where strings would be obvious, but that this was out of the question with any conceivable technology.

Besides being immune to experimental test, Gross also described string/M-theory as not a theory at all, since we don’t know its equations or principles (according to him, it’s a “framework”, see here). The conversation then degenerated into a long and meandering discussion of the black hole information paradox (to her credit, Levin countered Gross’s claim that string theory successfully explained it by reminding him of Polchinski and the firewall business).

The Q and A session consisted of a series of mostly crackpot questions from the audience. Johnson responded to a woman saying she thought that we were oscillating between two universes by telling her that she could see she was wrong by testing her theory. The sudden appearance of testability as a criterion to shoot down vague ideas surely confused her.

On a positive note, neither Johnson nor Gross were interested in promoting the multiverse, and the audience was spared that.

Johnson has a new book out called The Dialogues, written in graphic novel form. My previous experience with him was a rather unpleasant one more than ten years ago, after the publication of my book. He wrote a long sequence of blog posts about what he called the “Storm in a Teacup”, attacking Smolin and me and our books. Attempts to discuss the issues involved with him in the comment section there were confusing at first, until things finally became clear when he explained that he was refusing to read my book or Smolin’s. Dialogue about science was not something he seemed interested in if it involved uncomfortable criticism of string theory.

His book addresses this controversy with a panel in which the physicist figure explains:

Frankly, that’s mostly driven by the press, and a few attention-seeking individuals. Most people have a more nuanced view… It just does not sell newspapers or books.

On the question of “attention-seeking”, one might want to consult Johnson’s forty-plus long series of blog postings about his participation and appearance in TV and movie programs. As far as books go, in an end-note for this panel Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe is recommended. After the Q and A, a long line formed for people to hand their credit cards over to an assistant, then get a copy of Johnson’s book and have it signed.