String Theory SmackDown [slap slap] ... [thud]

Holographic Universe or Computer Simulation? Big Bang or God?

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String Theory SmackDown [slap slap] ... [thud]

Postby Access Denied » Sun Mar 04, 2007 1:44 am

These comments in response to a recent MSNBC article crack me up…


“Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss is fond of saying that string theory is really a "theory of anything" - and therefore, a theory of nothing.”

String theory is ultimately untestable for a very simple reason--it can be used to explain any possible result. The equations of M-theory alone, if we ignore the other variants, have 10^500 solutions; that's googol to the fifth power! If we had our own private black hole to test at energies close to the Big Bang, and tested for longer than the current age of the universe, it would still be a statistical impossibility to arrive at information that would produce contradictions in string theory. It is, at best, mathematical art--beautiful equations that put people with the equipment to recognize it in a state of aesthetic ecstasy.

But does it actually describe anything? No, it's utterly absurd. There was never any basis for it in the first place; some math-heavy theorists who were looking for the new edge experimented with string equations and found they had beautiful, extremely rich, and extremely large structure, and so they just kept extending their work in the field. It wasn't even based on a thought experiment like Einstein's development of relativity, it was just "Whoa, this looks cool. Let's explore." And because it was so rich, there was just more and more to explore, so people kept working on it even though it never produced any form of real insight. Strings play a siren song that's taken years of money and thought away from genuine basic research; the entire field of physics has been utterly captivated with it, and yet gone absolutely nowhere as a result. I fear an entire generation of promising researchers will spend their days chasing phantoms across mathematical dreamworlds while the frontiers of the real universe are neglected.

String theorists cannot make any serious, nontrivial, and testable predictions. They can only predict what other theories also predict, and rely for the rest on retroactively "finding" the result in their virtual infinity of solutions. Only if they can come up with a prediction that isn't an element of other significant theories, and find a way to test it will it ever become credible, but there's no evidence string "theory" is even capable of doing this. Its adherents have simply put too much work into it already to admit that it's just philosophy, and won't abandon it unless something else that doesn't share its weaknesses becomes the new standard.

The whole idea is disturbing, because these people are supposed to be scientists, but they've been doing years, in some cases decades, of research entirely on the basis of what looks good. While that's a great way to go about mathematics, there's no connection between the fundamental physical universe and human aesthetics. The idea that emotions which evolved to favor an infinitesimally small set of patterns would be useful in divining underlying structure is preposterous, especially in the virtual absence of any empirical road signs. Once we have something that's nontrivially test-supported, and it becomes widely adopted, THEN look for elegant ways of expressing it, don't look for elegance first. Strings are just a resurrection of Pythagoreanism.

Warren Smith (Sent Wednesday, February 28, 2007 1:59 AM)


Contrary to popular belief, there are theories with significant expert following that don't involve string theory's massive number of untested (and perhaps untestable) assumptions. Although they (e.g., LQG) also involve some arbitrariness, the string movement takes it to a whole other level of piling guesswork upon guesswork, and ought to be viewed as scandalous.

Furthermore, strings' popularity seems to have a direct relationship to its inscrutability, which should warn a skeptical mind about where all the hype is coming from: People who aren't directly involved in it being afraid to sound uninformed by failing to be persuaded. Given the unmotivated vastness of the theory, and its ability to describe (as Krauss notes) practically anything, it would seem to be the antithesis of Occam's Razor.

Alain Rollet (Sent Wednesday, February 28, 2007 1:00 PM)

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