Business Insider author Julie Bort posted yesterday about the academic opposition by Peter Woit to the Fundamental Physics Prize and the newly announced Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. What is more interesting is that he seems a little amused (or bemused) by his fame in the media. If anyone follows the String Wars saga and doesn’t know Peter Woit I would be a little bemused.
Peter isn’t entirely wrong about some topics, but he isn’t entirely right either, chief among them is his entirely dogmatic dismissal of string theory as a successful approach to understanding the unification of forces. First of all, no one has proven string theory to be wrong yet, and it does make some very real predictions about the dimensionality of space-time, it also provides a theoretical framework for counting blackhole microstates that connects directly to more widely accepted theories such as those proposed by Beckenstein and Hawking…facts that even Peter appears to understand.
One of the criticisms that has been repeated about string theory is in principle string theory can be modified to explain any potential result, and this sort of retrodiction and not prediction is a serious flaw. However, this is something we would probably actually expect in a theory of everything, absolute and complete consistency with observation. To be fair though, here is where I think there is some meat to Peter’s points.
We tend to use the word mechanics to describe frameworks from which we analyze the behavior of physical systems, or from Webster’s mechanics is,
a branch of physical science that deals with energy and forces and their effect on material bodies
and the more concise description is,
Science of the action of forces on material bodies. It forms a central part of all physical science and engineering. Beginning with Newton’s laws of motion in the 17th century, the theory has since been modified and expanded by the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity. Newton’s theory of mechanics, known as classical mechanics, accurately represented the effects of forces under all conditions known in his time. It can be divided into statics, the study of equilibrium, and dynamics, the study of motion caused by forces. Though classical mechanics fails on the scale of atoms and molecules, it remains the framework for much of modern science and technology.
It is very easy to make a similar statement about string theory and redefine it as “string mechanics”. There are very distinctive differences between classical theories, quantum theories and string theories (and we should really use the plural of theory for string theory) that exist at a very fundamental level. Principally, as is well known, classical theories do not make natural use of non-commutative observables, and string mechanics differentiates itself further by ensuring that infinities that appear as the result of the uncertainty principle are contained.
The taming of infinities is critical because we simply don’t see infinities in our ordinary experience of the universe. That the infinities can be tamed by adding additional dimensionality is not surprising, but that there is very specific number of dimensions that do allow for taming the infinities is very surprising. This is probably one of the most impressive feats of theories that use string mechanics, an explicit statement about the consistency of the universe and dimensionality.
In any case, I think Peter Woit’s criticism is somewhat selfish and shows a weakness in the mathematics community if it cannot withstand a little external opinion from people who want contribute. Zuckerberg can spend his money as he pleases, and if that means a few feathers will get ruffled within academics, I cannot imagine that would be a bad thing. As a business leader he certainly has a better perspective of the kind of mathematical challenges that actually matter in the here and now, so why not recognize people who have given us better insight into these challenges?