Above my desk there is a postcard with a quotation by Winston Churchill. It says: Never, Never, Never give up. I bought this some years ago after receiving a particularly nonsensical referee report, and it's been moving with me since.
|Until I read Peter Woit's book I did not know this quotation was used by David Gross at the end of his closing talk on the Strings 2003 conference. These are the opening lines of chapter I of 'Not Even Wrong', though in this version the quotation has five Never's.|
My grandma taught me there is a thin line between stubbornness and stupidity. I'd say the intention of Peter Woit's book is to draw the line for the case of String Theory. It remains up to you though, on which side you place yourself. Maybe the two Never's make all the difference.
The book can be divided roughly in two parts. The first part, chapter 1-9, are an introduction into the Standard Model and its problems. The second part, chapter 11-18 are a survey on the achievements of String Theory, or rather the absence thereof. Chapter 10 I don't really know what to do with.
If Lee Smolin hadn't already said it (back flap) I'd have said the book is courageous, cause it provides all the necessary criticism that was - and is - omitted in most introductions into the subject. Criticism is always uncomfortable, for both sides. So, I am not entirely comfortable with this review either.
Unfortunately, the whole purpose of the book - to point out the 'Failure of String Theory and the continuing challenge to unify the laws of physics' (subtitle) - makes the second part of the book a rather depressing read.
The first half is an introduction into the main concepts:
A short history of experimental particle physics (2), quantum mechanics (3), quantum field theory (4), gauge symmetries (5) and the Standard Model (6 + 7). Then, problems of the Standard Model (8) are discussed, after which follows a chapter about the need to go beyond the Standard Model, and about some attempts to do so (9).
So far, the book could have been an average popular science book, but imo not an especially well written one. Even though I personally like the briefness of the introduction (having read about one thousand popular introductions to quantum mechanics), there are definitely better ways to do it. I would e.g. recommend Lisa Randall's 'Warped Passages' which is indeed a very readable, and also entertaining. If you like it brief, try Lee Smolin's 'Three Roads to Quantum Gravity'; if you like it fast and furious, try Joao Magueijo's 'Faster Then the Speed of Light'. Unfortunately ( since it defies the intention of Peter's book) I'd also say Brian Greene's 'Elegant Universe' is a much more elegant introduction into the basic concepts.
Furthermore, I myself do appreciate the use of technical terms and mentioning of mathematical abstractions, because an interested reader will have it much easier to build up on it. In this regard, the references given at the end of each chapter are also very useful. I do appreciate this because I had to read an enormous amount of pop science books in high school before I found the relevant words 'tensor calculus' and 'differential geometry'.
However, on the other hand this means, these introductions will be very hard to read without at least basic knowledge in first semester physics. Is it really necessary for an introduction into quantum mechanics to elaborate on the relations between 'a very specific representation of the group U(1), the representation as transformations of the complex plane' and Fourier analysis (p.48)?
Chapter 10 about 'New Insights in Quantum Field Theory and Mathematics' then provides you with detailed explanations on topics like
'The Wess-Zumino-Witten two-dimensional quantum field theory turns out to be closely related to the representation theory of Kac-Moody groups. [...] The Hilbert space of the Wess-Zumino-Witten model is a representation not only of the the Kac-Moody group but of the group of conformal transformations (actually, this is a serious over-simplification [...])'
'Analytic fields could be classified by an integer, the so-called degree [...]The number of such fields of degree one was known since the nineteenth century to be 2875, and the number for degree two had been calculated to be 609,250 [...]The physicist's mirror space method predicted that there were 317,206,375 analytic fields of degree three [...].'
I guess, you really have to be R. Penrose to call this 'compulsive reading' (front flap).
However, if you made it through chapter 10, the books gets better in the second part. The next chapters summarize points of criticism on String Theory/Supersymmetry. None of which was really new or surprising for me, but it is good to have them written down as clearly as Peter Woit does it.
Having given up to expect a popular science book, here, I'd have wished for more technical details.
The later chapters then seem to me like a collection of essays that are rather vaguely connected to each other. E.g. there is an elaboration on the alleged beauty and elegance of String Theory (13), the religious aspects of the string community (14), and a chapter on the Bogdanov affair (15). I found myself explaining to Stefan that I think the point of the latter chapter was an example for how difficult it has become to sort out the crap in the field, and how peer review fails, and not that Peter tried to publish how he was misquoted by the brothers.
Then there are some well meant but unfocused attempts to analyze the problems in the community (16), which annoyingly are not very constructive. However, in big parts I share Peter Woit's view
'This huge degree of complexity at the heart of current research into superstring theory means that there are many problem for researchers to investigate, but it also means that a huge investment in time and effort is required to master the subject well enough to begin such research. [...] '
'Besides raising a huge barrier of entry to the subject, the difficulty of superstring theory also makes it hard for researchers to leave. By the time they achieve some real expertise they typically have invested a huge part of their carrier in studying superstrings [...]'
Then there is the unavoidable landscape issue in chapter 17, which I refuse to comment on, and a chapter on 'Other Points of View' (18), which also mentions LQG. This disappointingly short chapter is somewhat counter-effective to the claim that there are alternatives to superstring theory that should be pursued with more effort than currently invested.
An overall remark is that I find it quite interesting how Peter Woit gives a view on things from the mathematical side. E.g. I was not aware about most of the cross-relations mentioned in chapter 10, and some of it I will surely look into closer. I also used to say the M in M-theory stands for maths. By reading the book I came to realize that this is probably not a good interpretation either.
[...] it's very clear to me how my mathematician colleagues would answer the question of whether superstring theory is mathematics. They would uniformly say 'Certainly not!'
Maybe, I have been living in the US for too long, but I could not avoid asking myself which target group this book was written for. I definitely would not recommend the book to my mum (even though she's a maths high school teacher), or my younger brother (who has a MS). Moreover, for the 'interested layman', the discussion about the details of String Theory will be rather boring. I really hate to point it out, but even though Peter's or Lubos' blog might leave you with that impression, the world does not revolve around the question whether the KKLT mechanism can be considered elegant or not. And when you step back and out of the line of your peer group, the landscape discussion might rank somewhere close by the question whether aliens encoded a message in our DNA.
However, there is an audience this book is definitely addressed to. If you are a student who has just begun learning String Theory, or consider going into the field, you should without doubt read this book. I'd go so far to recommend reading it along with any String Theory lecture. It will give you much a better base to judge for yourself whether you want to enter the field.
(p. 237) Quote from Michael Atiyah:
'In the United States I observe a trend toward early specialization driven by economic considerations. You must show early promise to get good letters of recommendations to get good first jobs. You can't afford to branch out until you have established yourself and have a secure position. The realities of life force a narrowness in perspective [...] I am distressed by the coercive effect of today's job market.'
Since there are people who buy books by the cover: it features 'an artistically enhanced picture of particle tracks in the Big European Bubble Chamber'. That could have been nice, but the overlay with the title on the front flap is very sloppily done, and it just looks cheap. However, it will look nice in a bookshelf.
To summarize, I'd say Peter Woit's book 'Not even Wrong' is not an entertaining and easy to read popular science book. Neither does it provide sufficient details to be a technical introduction into the problems and alternatives to String Theory. I would really be interested to read a more technical version of the second part, and I genuinely hope Peter Woit finds the time (and the publisher) to do so. In his book, he carefully summarizes problems in Superstring Theory, and points out weaknesses of the current research programmes. The book will tell you all the things String theorists know but don't talk about in public.
If this was an amazon review, I'd give three stars. However, I am very suspicious of amazon reviews: Those who take the time to write reviews are usually either completely upset or totally excited, whereas the broad middle range is often missing.