October 9, 2006


String theory: Is it science's ultimate dead end?: For decades, physicists have been sure they could explain the universe in a handful of complex equations: now many are starting to fear they have been led down a cul-de-sac (Robin McKie, October 8, 2006, The Observer)

The most ambitious idea ever outlined by scientists has suffered a remarkable setback. It has been dismissed as a theoretical cul-de-sac that has wasted the academic lives of hundreds of the world's cleverest men and women.

This startling accusation has been made by frustrated physicists, including several Nobel prize winners, who say that string theory - which seeks to outline the entire structure of the universe in a few brief equations - is an intellectual dead end.

Two new books published in America question its very basis. Far from providing mankind with the answers to the mystery of the cosmos, the theory is bogus, they claim.

As one scientist put it: 'The uncritical promotion of string theory is now damaging science.'

Biologists and physicists, like Freudians and Marxists before them, raced down theoretical dead ends but don't have the moral courage to backtrack.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 9, 2006 8:32 AM

They now think that horse sense might save it:


Posted by: Qiao Yang at October 9, 2006 9:16 AM

These wackos can find a few bi=one fragments and claim without the shadow of a doubt we came from apes which came from a lizard that came from a amphibians that came from a fish that came from a blob of goop or all birds came from dinasours what a load of horse hocky

Posted by: Wally the bird at October 9, 2006 10:15 AM

String theory describes both everything and nothing. It has so many unknown variables and so many dimensions (10+) that it can describe any artibrary set of initial conditions. The energies required to peer into the higher dimensions are on the order of the energies during the Big Bang, making them essentially unknowable.

Posted by: Gideon at October 9, 2006 10:41 AM

And yet, somehow, chemistry survived Linus Pauling's vitamin C obsession...

Posted by: M. Murcek at October 9, 2006 10:56 AM

Part of the problem, say critics, is that, in the Eighties, talented young physicists were encouraged by professors to take up string theory because of its immense promise. Now they are middle-aged department heads who have committed their lives to the subject and cannot see it is bogus.

Even the hard sciences can sometimes succumb to human nature.

Posted by: Gideon at October 9, 2006 11:56 AM

Science is just politics.

Posted by: oj at October 9, 2006 1:38 PM


Medicine didn't.

Posted by: oj at October 9, 2006 1:46 PM

IANAP but this --

And as for the notion that string theorists have their heads stuck in the sand and refuse to see the truth, this is firmly rejected by Green: 'All scientists are excited by new ideas. That is why we are scientists. But when it comes to a unified theory, there have been no new ideas. There is no alternative to string theory. It is the only show in town - and the universe.'

strikes me as dubious.

What about quantum loop gravity?

By the way, where are AOG and jdwatson?

Posted by: Eugene S. at October 9, 2006 2:15 PM

Eugene - I'm lurking here; thanks for the thought. I'm just enjoying the spectacle of an internecine war among physicists. I'm just a simple engineer who never saw the value of a theory, however elegant, which produces no results, and now many others are starting to question the dogma. I'll let my betters fight this bloody battle, for a lot of academic careers are at stake and it's bound to get nasty.
Weinberg's Principle: An expert is a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy.

Posted by: jd watson at October 9, 2006 3:35 PM


There is no currently known viable alternative to string theory. Loop Quantum Gravity looks interesting, but it's still working its way through the basic particles. My view is that it's no coincidence that this dearth of alternate theories and massive government funding of physics started at about the same time.

Yet physicists can't not go on, it's clear that there are some basic facts about physical reality we don't understand (the archetypical one being General Relativity vs. Quantum Mechanics). So a new, very basic theory is needed that agrees with both of these while simultaneously resolving their conflicts. I cannot but think of that aphorism, "The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it may well be stranger than we can imagine". There's no a priori reason to beleive that human beings are intelligent enough to create and understand such fundamental theory.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 9, 2006 5:03 PM


And remember, that's what "science" has been reduced to these days--Sure, AOG's theory is obviously bogus (not viable) too, but it's the only one he has....

Posted by: oj at October 9, 2006 5:16 PM

And remember, that's what "OJ" has been reduced to these days — Sure, his snark is obviously petty (non-comprehensible too), but it's the only thing he has …

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 9, 2006 10:25 PM

I don't know AOG. String theory has never been applied to my knowledge, which puts it behind Alchemy, which I believe we both agree was not science. If String Theory was able to predict something, if badly, your point would make sense. As it is, it looks like an arguement about how many Angels can dance on the head of a pin.....

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at October 9, 2006 10:34 PM

Mr. Mitchell;

I wouldn't put string theory behind Alchemy. The problem with string theory isn't that it's mumbo-jumbo but that it's still math, not physics, and as I noted previously, it is only a happy coincidence when math applies to physical reality.

But other than that, I don't see where we disagree. I am not arguing that string theory is a good theory, I claimed that the alternatives were even worse.

Perhaps I wasn't clear enough. My point is that I view the situation as a major problem in modern physics, akin to being adrift on a life raft with a suspect map. You don't want to throw it away, but on the other hand you're come to wonder if the map actually leads anywhere. Is that the point you disagree with?

This happens periodically with physics and in the past there was eventually a breakthrough that revitalized the field (such as Relativity at the turn of the 19th century). Too many people, especially physicists looking for funding, know this however. So every one jumps on the first thing that looks like that breakthrough, which in this case was string theory. Now the physics community is stuck because it was so convinced of its accumem that it failed to develop alternate theories as backups. In this sense Green is right and wrong — right that there aren't any good alternative and wrong because it was the physics community putting its head in the sand that lead to "no new ideas".

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 9, 2006 11:55 PM

Thank you for your time AOG. What I am saying is that Alchemy was a suspect map(some of it's ideas did work, and that lead to the science of chemistry) and string theory is not a map at all. Math is wonderful, but if you are using it to describe or model reality, there should be some point of contact with it(reality). What has string theory explained? What point of contact does it have with reality? Any engines? Any guns? Anything? What have I missed?

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at October 10, 2006 12:04 AM


Exactly. Neither of us has a currently known viable theory, but only one of us clings to one.

The difference comes because some of us recognize that the how of Evolution and Cosmology is interesting, but not important, so we don't have to have a theory to cling to. We can be equally skeptical of all of them and endlessly amused by you ideologues.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2006 7:33 AM


AOG spent too much on that map just to throw it away because it's fake.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2006 8:32 AM

Mr. Mitchell;

Actually, string theory has explained quite a bit. The problem is, as Gideon noted above, that it explains too much. The only way to restrict it to our physical reality is to inject carefully selected constants, which is the original problem it was trying to solve.

Alchemy was quite a different beast, as it was much more just a collection of recipes than a coherent structure. It didn't really have "ideas" in the sense expected of a theory today. The relationship of Alchemy and string theory is more of being mirror images, or opposite extremes, than similar. Alchemy was just a pile of facts with no theory where string theory is all theory with no facts.

Mr. Judd;

While obviously flattering, your newly acquired habit of responding to my comments by treating my psychological state as the primary issue is a bit creepy.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 10, 2006 12:51 PM


That's all your comments reflect though, is your psychology and philosophy. That's why your buttons are so easy to push.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2006 2:38 PM

AOG, thanks for responding. What has string theory explained? I've been watching, and all I've seen are just so stories. As far as Alchemy, I thought science started with the facts and tried to form a theory that would fit the facts. Are you saying that string theory is not science, or physics? What am I missing? Thanks.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at October 10, 2006 3:05 PM

Alchemy gave us chemistry.

String theory gave us string theorists.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2006 3:55 PM

Mr. Mitchell;

Could you give me an example of one of those "just-so" story from string theory?

String theory has been used to explain the set of fundamental particles, their relatives masses, and the forces by which they interact. These are the facts that string theory starts with and the string theorists have tried to form a theory to fit those facts. That makes it a scientific effort. But don't confuse that with successful theories. It's not called "trial and error" for no reason. Besides, don't conservatives look at long term trends in which 30 or 40 years is but brief interlude? So what's the problem if physics goes down a dead end for that long?

Mr. Judd;

Ah, I see. You push my buttons so easily that I have to delete your comments to not look silly. How crushing to have to resort to such measures, no?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 10, 2006 4:30 PM

Speaking of buttons....

All of string theory is a Just So story--it was made up as a wayt to try to escape from the metaphysical corner that actual physics had boxed the rationalists into.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2006 4:58 PM

Well, AOG, I've seen descriptions of the set of fundamental particles, their relatives masses, and the forces by which they interact, but I haven't seen any application. That's when it would cross into fact, however poorly understood. I also have been watching the physics community endlessly add to the set of fundamental particles, and a promise of more on the horizon(Thus the shameless need for bigger and better particle accelerators.). As for an example of a just so story for string theory, the "One electron for all of time and space" is the one that comes to mind.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at October 10, 2006 6:58 PM

Mr. Mitchell;

Those descriptions are the application. String theory is all about fundamental particles and their interactions, it never had any other application. I am honestly mystified about what else you thought it might do or explain.

P.S. The "one electron theory" isn't taken seriously and isn't part of string theory.

Mr. Judd;

Ah, by "push my button" you mean "make me respond". Message received.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 10, 2006 8:23 PM

In predictable ways--you guys are my own experiment in Intelligent Design.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2006 8:28 PM

Again, thanks, AOG. If string theory has not connection to the "real world", it's not a map is it? String theory has been explained, at least to the public, as being the lastest step on the way to the GUT. If this is not the case, the whole of the physics community going over the cliff makes even less sense. As far as application, I thought that string theory(if it was even slightly factual) would be useful in stopping the particle leakage that has stopped fusion reactions from being successful. And of course, screens to stop particles from escaping atomic reactions would also be useful. How's that going?

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at October 10, 2006 8:39 PM
I cannot but think of that aphorism, "The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it may well be stranger than we can imagine". There's no a priori reason to beleive that human beings are intelligent enough to create and understand such fundamental theory.
AOG, I will take this profound observation home as the best part of the thread.

oj... oh, never mind :-/

Posted by: Eugene S. at October 12, 2006 5:07 PM

Why would I mind? Look at alol the hemming and hawing you lot have to go through to end up back at the start.

Posted by: oj at October 12, 2006 5:22 PM