Daniel Lemire's blog

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Slashdot | String Theory a Disaster for Physics?

According to Slashdot, Mathematician Peter Woit of Columbia University calls String Theory ‘a disaster for physics.’ Reading the article, you learn that “Virtually every young mathematically inclined particle theorist must sign on to the string agenda to get an academic job.” I think this is probably more common than we care to admit. Academia tends to reinforce its own bias.

  • Big shot professor X comes up with an idea.
  • He gets 20 Ph.D. students to work on it. A few good results come up, but mostly, the idea remains a promise.
  • Other soon follow the new trend, or at least, they send some of their Ph.D. students to the front, just in case.
  • There is little evidence that the idea is worthwhile, but this is quickly dismissed… “we just need more research”…
  • As the trend grows, researchers who have invested a lot in the idea become numerous, and they start infiltrating hiring committees, program committees, funding agencies, and so on. Their career now depends on the fact that the trend continues. After all, trying something new is much harder than just continuing whatever we are doing!
  • The idea finally bears some fruits. There is some very limited industry adoption. It is hyped by academia the world over.
  • Nothing further comes up, people start recycling old ideas. Researchers refuse to see the lack of progress for what it is.
  • Big shot professor Y comes up with a related idea which builds on professor X’s original idea, but in a novel way”.
  • The cycle continues…

There is a simple solution to this problem: encourage independent thinking. Next time you review a paper or a funding application which attempts something fresh, don’t dismiss it because “the paper ignores 20 years of research.” We need to ignore fashions more, and encourage novel ideas. Don’t reward people because they follow the trends. We are supposed to give people tenure so that they can take risks, say things others don’t want to hear. Let’s build on that. Next time you are on a hiring committee and someone wants to hire a string theorist, or the equivalent in your field, be watchful.