Why I Don’t Write More About String Theory

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.