It’s summed up nicely by the discussion at Cosmic Variance, and spelled out explicitly in comment #125 by Marty Tysanner:

Sean coaxingly requested,

Come on, string theorists! Make some effort to explain to everyone why this set of lofty speculations is as promising as you know it to be. It won’t hurt too much, really.

It seems remarkable to me, 120+ comments later, how few people have responded in this vein. Over at Clifford’s blog there have been some angry discussions (e.g., this and this) about the merits of Lee’s and Peter’s books, and some string theorists and partisans were quite vocal in their usually unfavorable opinions about the books (often without having read either of them), jumping at the chance to trash Lee and Peter or repeat common assertions like “string theory is the only game in town.” But now, when Sean has offered an excellent opportunity in a widely read forum to make a case in favor of string theory (rather than just another opportunity to trash its opponents), it seems most proponents have little to say:

He goes on to list six people who have responded in the basic spirit of the original call for comments. Two of them are just pointers to Jacques Distler’s blog, and one of them is Sean answering his own question. He continues:

If one needed a better understanding of why string theory may be losing the public debate, this pathetic response by its proponents speaks loudly. Given that Cosmicvariance is a popular blog that is read widely by the lay public and journalists as well as scientists, it is especially hard for me to understand why the string theory community should be content to put the onus of looking for reasons why the string program is worthwhile onto the public that funds most of the effort. A reference to Jacques Distler’s blog is not a substitute for a coherent, concise argument, especially because the level of discussion at Jacques’ blog is not what the typical lay reader would find comfortable. One could easily come away from the above discussion assuming that either string theorists are spending time on it because it is “the only game in town” or that they really could care less whether anyone knows why it is worth doing as long as the dollars keep flowing.

And that’s pretty much all you need to know about the status of the debate.

Now, to be fair to string theorists, they’re hardly the only ones who are disinclined to explain their work to the general public. String theorists are outnumbered by condensed matter physicists, but there isn’t a great deal of condensed matter physics blogging out there– Doug Natelson and Travis Hime are about it. My own field of atomic physics/ quantum optics isn’t exactly laboring under an overabundance of public outreach in the blogosphere, either.

On the other hand, though, I haven’t seen anybody making a public call for more atomic physics blogging and getting blown off. If I had, I probably would’ve posted something on the subject, because, well, that’s what I do. If I missed something, please, give me a pointer, and I’ll be happy to respond to the request.

Happily, Marty’s request did generate a couple of good responses, twenty-odd ranty posts later, particularly tomasiello at #147 and Moshe at #149 (though the latter comes after a comment at #136 that comes off as “We don’t need to do outreach because Brian Greene has written books,” which isn’t terribly productive, but does seem fairly representative of the general attitude).

In general, though, the few good responses are drowned out in a sea of bickering about who was mean to who first, and other third-grade level debates. Even the comments on a silly April Fool’s Day post parodying the world’s funniest physics blogger immediately devolve into name-calling.

It’s just not worth the hassle.

Comments

  1. #1 adam
    April 3, 2007

    I’d like to see pubic debate in a lot more areas of science research at a level accessible to the average taxpayer. I wouldn’t restrict that to science research, though; the average taxpayer should be able to find accessible information and debate about all areas of government spending.

    I don’t have an axe to grind with string theory, although some of its most visible representatives might not make the best impression. That’s probably not just a string theory problem, however; inside many physicists, there’s a pompous twat desperate to get out (take me, for example*).

    The problem with accessible debate is the fact that, really, some areas of research are just very hard to make accessible. Furthermore, it’s hard to find someone who’s impartial whilst also being sufficiently expert to judge what a fair representation is, or who can judge the truth of claims that a field is nearing, say, making experimentally falsifiable predictions, or becoming practically useful (those last two are claims that you sometimes hear from string theorists and quantum computation types, respectively and they’re important claims).

    *Only kidding. I’m perfect. Just ask me.

  2. #2 Moshe
    April 3, 2007

    One has to be repetitive to be heard, so I’ll try again. Many of my colleagues, myself included, do all kinds of outreach activities, give popular talk and talk to our colleagues, and write in to blogs, etc. etc. The question is which activities are worth our time. Trying to argue with blog commenters, or bloggers, that we are nice people and not evil, that we don’t look down on our colleagues, that we do our share of outreach activities, and in the process being confronted endlessly with strange and irrelevant arguments about this or that other blogger… This I feel is not a good use of my time. You may feel this is yet another sign of arrogance, I’d say that is a forgone conclusion, I’ll live with that.

    As always, I’d be happy to talk about the physics to whoever is interested. My only observation is that we need to re-introduce physics to those discussion, and stop talking about the pros and cons of the whole enterprise, THAT is not a productive conversation any more.

  3. #3 Aaron Bergman
    April 3, 2007

    Oh get over it, Chad.

    Sean wasn’t calling for outreach in that specific thread. He was calling for it in general. And, you know what, I posted a link to the review where I tried to motivate why people study string theory.

    I have to say that of all the arguments of how string theorists are bad people, that they’re not blogging is quite possibly the silliest. As Moshe points out, it’s hardly as if there aren’t other forms out outreach in the world. Every string meeting I’ve been to, for example, has at least two public lectures. Hell, if you listen to the complaints of Peter Woit and Lee Smolin, the problem is too much hype^H^H^H^Houtreach.

    And where’s the name-calling in the thread about your “April Fool’s” post?

  4. #4 Adam
    April 3, 2007

    Moshe, it seems to me that unless you plan to conduct the enterprise without the benefit of money, discussion of the ‘pros and cons of the whole enterprise’ is entirely germane. That debate, however, does have to be informed by the physics.

  5. #5 Moshe
    April 3, 2007

    Adam, I apply for grants like any other scientist, and get evaluated by other scientists based on the merits of the proposal. Unless you have a plan for more direct democracy in that process, I am not sure what you’re complaining about.

    I think I misunderstood Sean’s initial call. Certainly I did not interpret it as being called to elaborate on the glory of string theory right there and then. Definitely that would have been more fun.

    Also, I noticed that when I make comments on the sociology there is a conversation developing. One may also notice that any of the comments any of us left about the physics sank like a ton of bricks. Just reinforces my point of how framing the discussion influences the probability of success.

    So, I think we all share the disgust with what passes now as a discussion about string theory, any ideas of how to avoid getting into that loop next time? I had one modest idea, surely there are better ones.

  6. #6 adam
    April 3, 2007

    There are clearly political/democratic considerations, as least in the US, at to what is funded through government (but by taxpayers, who would otherwise use that money according to their own desires). Congress passes the research budgets and can direct and restrict that money. If string theorists really did lose a big public debate (not that they have, nor has there yet even been one, but in principle) then you don’t think that would have implications for string theory funding? Much of that debate would clearly be on the validity of the enterprise as a whole, both in terms of the worth of the ideal outcomes and also in terms of an assessment of the likely outcomes.

    The necessary inclusion of physics in the debate has to be moderated by the need for accessibility to the audience. In that sense, blog debates of an unstructured nature (as many of them are, which is part of their charm) may be of limited utility because of the range of expertise of the participants.

    I am sure that, although I haven’t read them, there are blog posts of various levels laying out the likely outcomes and hoped-for outcomes, in enumerated short, medium and long terms and the rough numbers of researchers needed to maintain them (which translates relatively easily into money, I guess). Something like that would be a good starting point, although finding someone of sufficient expertise who was also trusted to be honest about the chances, well, that’s non-trivial.

    The debate should also be embedded, of course, in a wider debate as to how much we really care about the most fundamental physics anyhow. That evaluation of how much we care should also include dollar amounts, because money tells us a lot; given the amounts available to government, either more spending means more taxes or more spending means cuts elsewhere (and the strain I’ve often heard, of “cut the military” or “pull out of Iraq” would have to be sold to the general voting population, although in fact, cutting those would likely only bring the budget closer to balanced in any case). In any case, it’s irretreivably a democratic and political issuem, for all that theorists are relatively cheap.

  7. #7 NL
    April 3, 2007

    It’s worth noting (obviously) that any discussion of “money” wrt string theory is ludicrous. Theorists are cheap. Theory grad students have always TA’d. Mathematica licenses and computers not that expensive, etcetera.

    Also, but less obviously, string theorists are having a bit of a hiring freeze right now; phenomenologists are getting all the good jobs, although the LHC delay might change things.

    I have to say that of all the arguments of how string theorists are bad people, that they’re not blogging is quite possibly the silliest.

    Especially when blogging can very realistically hurt (or at least alter) your chances of getting the job you want.

  8. #8 NL
    April 3, 2007

    The last sentence there is mine, the next-to-last Aaron’s. Sorry for the tag screwup.

  9. #9 adam
    April 3, 2007

    Theorists are cheap, yes, but for that reason there is far less money put into theory, so it’s as susceptible to a budget squeeze or reassignment as anything else.

    And ‘cheap’ is, of course, relative to experimentalists, but that might more correctly be phrased as pointing out that, while theorists are expensive, experimentalists are really expensive (and, consequently, under pressure to produce real-world, physical, results much sooner than theorists have to, which is fair enough).

  10. #10 adam
    April 3, 2007

    I should have been clearer, actually; it’s not just the cost of equipment. Experiments can be more labour-intensive and so human costs can still dominate although the people cost a similar amount, per person, to theorists. Observational astronomy, for example, spends a lot of money on people.

    In any case, is anyone really going to say that the taxpaying public aren’t entitled to information about where their money is going and also that they have the right to push for it to be reallocated if they see fit? Additionally, does anyone think that there is anything wrong when a field is asked to justify itself? As physicists, we work for our universities or research institutions, yes, but we also work for the government, quite often. That means we work for the people and we are paid with taxpayer’s money. It might not be a lot of money compared to what’s required to run, say, the Tevatron, but it’s not so little that I’d like to be without it.

  11. #11 Josh
    April 3, 2007

    Chad,

    Sean’s post did get me thinking about starting my own blog on string theory and other things I find cool in physics and mathematics. I wouldn’t put my string theory manifesto in another blog’s comment section; I find that kind of behavior more than a little annoying. The discussion following Sean’s post has soured me a bit on that idea, though. I wouldn’t want to simply open a new front on which people will immaturely bicker.

    And about your other post: sorry I was a bit uptight. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions about your intentions. Feel free to just call me out in the future if I’m being an ass.

  12. #12 dave eaton
    April 3, 2007

    I think that Adam’s points are pretty much on the spot. Some bit of ‘splaining is just simple self-preservation instinct, I think. I think I have it pretty easy on that account, though. Vague handwavy stuff about computers and nanotech and I’m good. If people want more detail, I’ll fall over myself to answer what they want to ask, but my point is that people already think they know what I am doing, so I am less challenged by outreach than (say) a string theorist.(I’m a chemist, but I was raised by physicists, and I post-doc’d with them. My pubs are mainly in condensed matter when they escape from the chemistry literature.)

    Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about string theory, except that Lubos Motl cracks me up… I guess as long as a lot of what we do is funded by John Q., a certain portion of our time needs to be focused on outreach. Maybe you’ll never get me to understand what M-branes are. But a little indication about why you care, and what it might mean would make most people pretty happy. Heck, I’ll put up with a certain amount of cockiness. I know you guys are better at math than me… all of us in the sciences are amateurs at other parts of science, though, and while I have my favorite parts, I care about what is going on away from my field.

    Moshe’s points are thought-provoking- as someone with my nose against the glass, looking into the string theory shop, I could give a rat’s hineyhole what Lee Smolin or Lee DeForrest thinks about string theory- I am interested in what they are doing, what they predict, and how they tie things together. Wrong stuff eventually gets outed, but not by poop-flinging. So the process and effort is worthwhile, and I am curious to know about it.

    Atomic physics occupies a special place in my mind. My first job as an undergrad was working for an atomic physicist. I still think that the beauty and precision of the experiments are breathtaking.

    As a chemist, I’m miles away from anything ‘fundamental’ in a physics sense, but I would go to the mat for the idea that we do, or should, care about nature as fundamentally as it possible to know. I mainly coax electrons to go places. But I still want to know about nucleons and gluons and strings , despite their irrelevance to my job.

    My outlook- Make the case for science, in general and the little area you occupy, every chance you get. Sure, it’s pearls before swine some of the time, or farting into the great Chinook, but still, it’s important.

  13. #13 Moshe
    April 3, 2007

    Josh, that would be a good idea, the blog. The reason I am so cranky about this issue is that I remember good conversations when, despite the unavoidable noise level, I felt that I could communicate with some interested people, and that was fun. I stopped participating in those threads a while back, since they became all noise, and this is a shame, which is why we need to think on how to communicate without being led into this tedious territory again and again.

  14. #14 Coin
    April 4, 2007

    On the other hand, though, I haven’t seen anybody making a public call for more atomic physics blogging and getting blown off.

    For what it’s worth, I’d totally read such a thing :)

    (Incidentally, while you’re right that the level of detail that string theorists are being requested to provide to the public is greater than that of some other physical sciences, it’s kind of odd because it’s about on par with that being already offered by certain other branches of science– most notably there are quite a few biology blogs offering rather deep explorations of biological science and research intended for a layperson. As far as I can tell this is only really the case because of creationism: that is, creationists engaged in an organized campaign of disinformation about biology toward the public and so some biologists felt compelled to engage the public at a similar level to provide factual information about biology, and then the blogging biologists just kind of got stuck in the habit after the creationists wandered away. Nevertheless, in-depth but accessible biology blogs exist and there’s a good chunk of them just on Scienceblogs.)

  15. #15 Renee
    April 5, 2007

    “it is especially hard for me to understand why the string theory community should be content to put the onus of looking for reasons why the string program is worthwhile onto the public that funds most of the effort. ”

    I think this is the opposite of what is happening. String theory is immensely popular, and plenty of physicists have advertised it to the general public e.g. The Elegant Universe.

    But the public facination with string theory is unwarranted. As my professor of physics at Cornell University told the class, string theory is just one of many other theories, many of which are superior to string theory. Many professors and graduate students of physics are disenchanted with it, but the public just eats it up.

    Perhaps we should be complaining less about string theorists not doing enough advertisement and complain about them doing it to the point of dishonesty.

  16. #16 Renee
    April 5, 2007

    “it is especially hard for me to understand why the string theory community should be content to put the onus of looking for reasons why the string program is worthwhile onto the public that funds most of the effort. ”

    I think this is the opposite of what is happening. String theory is immensely popular, and plenty of physicists have advertised it to the general public e.g. The Elegant Universe.

    But the public facination with string theory is unwarranted. As my professor of physics at Cornell University told the class, string theory is just one of many other theories, many of which are superior to string theory. Many professors and graduate students of physics are disenchanted with it, but the public just eats it up.

    Perhaps we should be complaining less about string theorists not doing enough advertisement and complain about them doing it to the point of dishonesty.

  17. #17 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 5, 2007

    Some big-budget experiments shed light, maybe, on this. For instance:

    the search for extra dimensions
    by Kelen Tuttle
    Symmetry
    http://www.symmetrymagazine.org/cms/?pid=1000237

    Although we now think of the universe as three bulky, nearly-flat dimensions, we might soon discover that the fabric of space-time consists of many more dimensions than we ever dreamed.

    Extra dimensions promise to solve many of current particle theory’s nagging problems. They can explain the abundance of matter over antimatter, the surprisingly large number of elementary particles, and even dark matter–all phenomena that the Standard Model of particle physics fails to predict. This makes the concept of extra dimensions enticing. Yet in the empirical discipline of physics, extra dimensions face an embarrassing dilemma: so far, not a single shred of experimental evidence has been found to support their existence.

    According to Greg Landsberg of Brown University, this stumbling block may vanish in the next few years. Landsberg, along with about a dozen others at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, is searching for experimental evidence of extra dimensions. Similar searches for extra dimensions are going on at DESY’s electron-proton collider in Germany and in various tabletop experiments. “We need a new lens through which to view the universe,” Landsberg says. “And this one offers the type of mathematical beauty that the current understanding of gravity lacks.”

  18. #18 Dale Basler
    April 6, 2007

    Renee wrote in #16:

    “But the public [fascination] with string theory is unwarranted.”

    Who cares. If its popularity pulls people into science, that’s great.

    James Gates, from Elegant Universe on PBS, gave a lecture last week at the national science teacher’s conference titled “Can String Theory Be an Educational Force Multiplier?”

    He talked about string theory and how it can be used as a bridge to educate the public about science.

    He wonders if the remarkable public interest in string theory can be used to bring science to the masses.

    See the slides from his talk and hear an interview at: http://www.wsst.org/labtable.asp?newsID=302

    Gates is putting the idea to work with a new course. I suspect a lot of students signed up for the course expecting to fill up on the sweet desert that is string theory but they stayed for the main course– a healthy heap of understanding the nature of science.

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