373 of 403 people found the following review helpful
A high-strung but interesting and helpful polemic on string theory,
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This review is from: Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law (Hardcover)
String theory is a formidable subject to learn, both from a physical and mathematical standpoint. But it is even a harder subject to teach to an audience of non-experts, not because its ideas are hard to express verbally in front of this audience, but because its practitioners sometimes feel it is beneath them to do so. Those who are not familiar with string theory but are curious as to its conceptual foundations might therefore be left to themselves to pursue an understanding of these foundations. However such an understanding can be obtained, for there are of late a few books that have been written by experts in string theory that are targeted to a readership that have a strong desire to learn the subject.
The author of this book recognizes the paucity of expository material on string theory, particularly that dealing with the mathematical formalism, and although this book is a polemic against string theory and its status as a physical and scientific theory, the author introduces (perhaps on purpose) the reader to the theory in a way that is understandable without sacrificing scientific accuracy. But the book could also be of interest to more advanced readers, i.e. those (such as this reviewer) who have a thorough understanding of the physics and mathematics behind string theory but who are not conducting research in it. The author demands rightfully that scientific theory must be testable or at least must have some amount of empirical predictions. He pulls no punches in his critique of string theory, and is very open about what he thinks are the motivations behind those who are actively involved in it. A researcher's motivations of course are not germane to the validity of a theory that he or she proposes, but they are relevant to the understanding of why a particular theory is entrenched in the scientific community, even though there is no experimental evidence for it.
This reviewer disagrees with the author in his claim that string theory is not a "beautiful" theory. And it is the mathematical formalism that is used in string theory that gives it its beauty. Indeed, just the algebraic geometry alone that is employed in string theory is an example of this. That combined with the differential geometry, complex manifolds, and algebraic topology makes string theory a beautiful multi-faceted mathematical gem. That being said, there are many ideas in string theory that deserve to be classified as "speculative" mathematics, as the author does in this book. This classification arises because of the presence of the ubiquitous path integral, an object that has resisted rigorous mathematical formulation.
So yes, the mathematical formalism behind string theory is beautiful, and intoxicates those who contemplate it. But a physical theory must be more than just "mental masturbation" (a characterization imputed to the physicist Murray Gell-Mann in the book). It must also make predictions that can be measured in the laboratory, and these measurements must be reproducible and above all understandable to interested parties. The author does not find any of these predictions in the string theory as it exists at the present time, and he is correct in his claims.
Those who have worked in the academic setting will understand fully the negative reaction the author received when the manuscript was being circulated for review, and which he describes in some detail in the book. This criticism of course was anonymous, following the usual practice in the research community, and such anonymity is a temptation for recklessness and vituperation, and the author gives examples of this. So the book does not only describe some of the ideas of string theory, it also goes into the social interactions and attitudes among string theorists. It would be unfair to say that all string theorists are arrogant and protective of their status as academicians. But those that meet this characterization are in a position that cannot be morally justified. The discovery of scientific truth demands a transparency not only because of the complications of the theory, but also because those who are not directly participating in it are responsible for it's financing (the taxpayer). String theorists, along with all scientific and mathematical researchers are morally obligated to report their discoveries to those who are not in their field in a manner that makes it crystal clear what they are all about. String theory should not be a collection of documents that are to be protected and interpreted by a small body of privileged priests of knowledge.
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Showing 1-10 of 19 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 20, 2006 9:59:54 PM PST
Wayne Klein says:
An excellent, informed and fair handed review of the book.
Posted on Feb 7, 2007 2:21:30 AM PST
A. Livingston says:
This review alone is enough to convince me to add the reviewed book to my wish list.
It's just a shame that an apostrophe found its way into the possessive pronoun "its".
Posted on Mar 10, 2007 2:22:41 PM PST
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 31, 2007 5:59:54 PM PDT
Little Old Granny says:
I had a professor in college who taught Comparative Anatomy. He used only his lecture notes for tests and he talked very fast. But he was practically inaccessible to students; he sat in his office all day seeming to do nothing. So, students said he was "mentally masturbating" which he was. And this was over 40 years ago so the phrase is hardly new. And, it is, if you think about it very descriptive of what someone is doing.
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 3, 2007 12:11:48 PM PDT
WB, Zeno says:
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 20, 2007 11:00:23 AM PST
H. Mcilrath says:
First, he was quoting someone else when he said "mental masturbation". Secondly, are you also against people saying they "kill their thoughts" or "stroke their egos"? It's a METAPHOR, you victim of intellectual prudery.
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 22, 2007 3:18:15 AM PST
Georges Melki says:
Posted on Mar 21, 2008 2:36:31 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 28, 2008 8:29:11 AM PDT
Alan J. Ross says:
About the very concept of "mental masturbation"...
I think there is absolutely nothing to feel insulted for. As somebody else has already said, it's simply a metaphor. When Richard Feynman (and not Murray Gell-Mann) coined (or revamped from somebody else) it, he was simply making one of those well-known jokes of his, about what he believed to be the relationship between mathematics and physics. And as much as "masturbation" is - or can be considered, although questionably - a "secondary", or "untrue", form of sexual activity, as related to the "true" sex one makes with somebody else, so - in Feynman's opinion - is mathematics, which can be considered more or less as a "simulacrum", or an imitation, of physics. Only the latter, in fact, is entitled (I'm always rewording Feynman, here) to adorn herself of the title of "Science", because - unlike mathematics - it is directly related to reality, and not simply to mind constructs. In this latter sense, then, mathematics could be intended as a sort of "mental masturbation": that is, an intellectual activity (whence, "mental") capable of giving a brief and intense pleasure to whom is practicing it, but, all in all, quite "ego-centered", with no true adherence to reality, and thus sort of a waste of time.
All in all, a position not very different from that of Vladimir Arnol'd, who, in the prologue of his article/talk "On teaching mathematics" (<http://pauli.uni-muenster.de/~munste
In both cases, notwithstanding the sense of admiration one can feel for them (and in my case it is very high), very objectionable opinions.
However, that's all. Nothing more than a couple of metaphors...
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 3, 2008 1:27:55 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Jun 3, 2008 1:29:21 PM PDT]
Posted on Jul 23, 2008 7:31:33 PM PDT
Really, a very good review, thanks, Dr. Lee Carlson.
Sadly, I don't think I'll ever understand even a tiny part of string theory, but there's something I understand even less: why so much attention to one simple phrase? If you tried to read the comments without reading the review itself, you might think this is a review of some mental masturbation study or what?..
Hey, guys, are you really offended that easily???