Fine Structure

Not Even Wrong

Before I start reviewing the content of Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong, I should mention my feelings towards it's doppelganger, Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics. I accumulated both of these books at about the same time and without knowing much at all about string theory. Trouble happened to be the book I'd heard more about so I started that one first and after 100 pages of somewhat repetitive and occasionally downright caustic berating of string theorists, I put it down and gave Not Even Wrong a chance. Some of Trouble had some solid physics to it but mostly I found Smolin talking about how string theorists should stop wasting their lives a waste of my own time. Call me naive, but I'm still under the impression (and not under the influence of any particular institution) that even all these bickering back-and-forth physicists are still on the same team at the end of the day, even if they don't act that way.

In contrast, the first 160 pages of Not Even Wrong were a breath of fresh air which spoke only briefly of string theory, focusing more on the history of theoretical physics and how theory has traditionally developed. Maybe this sounds boring and tedious to those of you who've already obtained a degree in physics but, as someone without one, I found it really informative. And although the first half of Not Even Wrong doesn't cover a lot of recent physics, it does cover relevant physics and the second half, read with your newly gained history of particle physics knowledge, goes much more quickly than the first. Woit drives the string-is-not-a-theory idea home and uses plenty of references from the first half of the book to make his point. His perspective is solidly math-based but, other than expecting you to understand some concepts that are explained to you, there's no content that is reserved for math students only. As for the arguments for and against string theory, I'll leave it to the reader to decide based on Woit's words and the words of others.

One of the more curiously connected points of Not Even Wrong was a sort of State of the Physics Job Economy which provided one of the few points that I can almost see a valid reason to be actually angry about. And I said almost. Essentially, Woit argued that not being a string theorist has a negative impact on your employability after you graduate and it's driving people that would otherwise be working on unique ideas to work on string theory just for some job security. This is particularly meaningful to me and other people in my situation, undergrads and even Ph. D students, since our entire lives learning physics is being overshadowed by the possibility that no one will want to employ us if we're not working on The Thing (thing rhymes with string, did you see that?).

Woit does impress me as one of a growing number of people in the physics space that recognize blogs as a useful tool in the sciences, not to mention a decent method for self-promotion. His Not Even Wrong blog is most commonly a collection of links from the last week on new information and brief summaries into why they're important or not important; a great filter for someone starting out who doesn't necessarily know where to find this information. Unfortunately, you can usually discount the comments section as string/anti-string bickering or shameless off-topic self-promotion from random readers. The occasional good Q&A session does appear though and Woit is not afraid of responding directly to people in the comments.