What were they thinking?

What the heck is wrong with the people at Slate? I simply do not understand why any magazine would put in a science column, and have Jackie Harvey, I mean Gregg Easterbrook write it. It’s an astonishing decision, and I’m stunned into silence…so I’ll let others do the snark and abuse.


  1. says

    Huh. I didn’t see anything in that article that was worthy of even being called a science column. I saw a lot of backstory, a lot of discursive noise, and really no science at all.

    There’s no there there.

  2. Michael Kremer says

    No religion here :)

    This is an honest question for the readers of this blog. Forget about Easterbrook, is Smolin’s book worth a look for a philosopher interested in but relatively unversed in science?

  3. CCP says

    I can’t seem to get my jaw to shut…Easterbrook???
    no doubt those Slate people intend to generate interest ($$$) by stirring up controversy…it’s like baiting the highschool paper with unpopular opinion pieces to get more letters. Except here it’s $$$.
    Probably also, Tom Bethell was too busy.

  4. George says

    Underneath that Easterbrook article is link to a review of Lawrence Krauss’ book: Hiding in the Mirror: the Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions.

    Maybe Krauss should write a book about the mysterious allure of Roman Catholicism.

  5. Old Hippy says

    PZ, since Slate are bringing in a Christian who, it is said, thinks ID should be taught in schools, to write about science, maybe you should apply to Slate to write their Religion column.

  6. Stogoe says

    PZ, you writing the Religion column would rock, but perhaps there’s too much anti-theistic shorthand in play in your current venue. You’d have to start way back at the beginning, and take baby steps. Although, as a professor, you probably have plenty of practice with baby steps.

  7. JohnPhys says

    Yes, Easterbrook’s comments on the book were quite ridiculous, and defintiely exaggerated and distorted some of the claims made by string theorists to make them seem even more ridiculous, but there is one thing I’d like to point out.

    There are quite a few physicists that agree with Smolin’s assessment of the current state of theoretical physics. He gives some astounding statistics in the book on just how much string theory is dominating the faculty positions and the funding opportunities in the subject. Considering that string theory has not made one testable prediction, it seems like a dangerous allotment of resources to have so many devoted to that subject.

    I’m not saying that noone should study it, however. It could one day hold the answers to everything, but so could something else that’s been overlooked for the past 20 years.

    As physicists, why can’t we spread the wealth?

  8. George says

    “As a friend of mine says, the whole show of the universe is so extraordinary that the absence of God is God enough.” – Lee Smolin.

    “Another aspect of this is that a scientific cosmology can contain no residue of the idea that the world was constructed by some being who is not a part of it. As the creatures who makes things, it is our most natural impulse to ask: When we come upon something beautifully or intricately structured, who made it? We must learn to give up this impulse if we are to do scientific cosmology. As there can, by definition, be nothing outside the universe, a scientific cosmology must be based on a conception that the universe made itself. This is possible because, since Darwin, we know that structure and complexity can be self-organized. We understand that there are natural processes, easily comprehensible, by which organization can arise naturally and spontaneously, without any need for a maker outside of the system.” – Lee Smolin



  9. CL says

    Gregg Easterbrook is a hell of a football columnist and a pretty good writer on national political affairs, but I can’t for the life of me understand why Slate let him write something about string theory. I have a BS in physics (I’m now in law school), and I sure as hell wouldn’t presume to know enough about string theory to be able to review a book about it. Whoever’s in charge of these decisions over at Slate should have at least had enough sense to get a theoretical physicist who thinks string theory is bunk to review it. (Sheldon Glashow would love the chance, I’m sure.)

  10. bernarda says

    I don’t know Smolin’s book, but Easterbrook could have at least read Greene’s “Elegant Universe” to get an idea of the questions asked. Or he could have even watched the Nova series based on the book.


    At least he would have had an idea about what he was talking about.

    The layman, like me, might also try:


    For a more basic look at details of classical mechanics and quantum mechanics. Also to see where one is coming from.


  11. jeffk says

    The problem here isn’t the book (I’ve read a few different places now Smolin’s book is reasonable and respected by many of his peers), but the same old problem of a journalist who doesn’t understand science convoluting the process with “belief”. Theory and experiment advance together, and both are neccessary for achieving the goals of science. While we always have to explain experimental evidence, sometimes when theory gets ahead of us, and sometimes it leads us there. And sometimes it gets thrown out. When scientists decide it’s time to decide that there’s nothing left to learn from string theory, great. When Gregg Easterbrook starts spouting off about the great conspiracy of string theorists who “believe” crazy things, that’s a different story altogether. Somebody should inform him that scientific theory arises in a rational manner to explain our observations, and often incorporates things we havn’t yet discovered.

  12. says

    In response to Michael’s question, I think Smolin is good value. I haven’t read this book yet, but I’ve read his Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, and I’ve seen his review of Greene’s recent string theory book in American Scientist. Smolin writes clearly and energetically, and his criticisms of string theory are substantial. Recent mathematical results have been disappointing, it seems: The hoped-for reduction of the (very) many string theories to a single theory (or even just a few) seems a very dim prospect now.

    To return to the main topic, the contrast with a ‘spiritual dimension’ is striking: String theory was attractive in the first place because a ‘graviton’ appears to come ‘for free,’ in such theories, suggesting real hope for a reconciliation of relativity and quantum physics. Other mathematical results in the neighborhood are also very pretty. In general, we know enough about the mathematics of these dimensions to actually calculate some interesting quantities, and empirical tests are not out of the question (depending on what happens with micro-black holes, as I understand it). Anything this substantial in religious metaphysics would be a breakthrough of the first order, not a target for claims of over-funding…

  13. Torbjörn Larsson says

    I’m not sure who gives me the largest headache, Easterbrook who knows no science but thinks he does, or Smolin who knows science but thinks he doesn’t. Easterbrook starts with “hooded monks” (he obviously haven’t seen the street fashion of some young scientists) and Smolin ends with pushing selforganisation (cosmic natural selection is a nice theory, but is isn’t main stream at all).

    As I heard it Smolin isn’t trying to give a wellrounded picture of science as such here, and he has also an agenda of pushing alternatives to the main stream. He seems to be discussing social issues of physics, and he may or may not do a good job of it. Considering his agenda I doubt it, though he is currently not alone in his assesment.

    String theory is at least a math theory. For example, to this layman AdS/QCD seems to give better predictions than QCD does alone. (Of course, there is always the argument that QCD could have arrived at these methods anyway.)

    So long we can’t practically check its predictions (but at the Planck scale we can AFAIK) without other theories reproducing them it will be shortchanged.

    AFAIK it predicted some scattering results a year before flux tube methods in QCD could reproduce them, it gives above results when its ideas is combined with QCD, it postdicts unobserved black hole entropies after semiclassical approximations did, and the list goes on.

    Some late rumor, not a peer reviewed article, is that the landscape predicts the small negative spatial curvature we still only tentatively observe. I’m all for looking at alternatives too, but it seems like string theory is still the best bet and deserves most resources.

    But direct resource allocation according to the market of ideas, not by indirect use of authority, would be faster and more effective, and if Smolin argues that I won’t object. I can’t anyway, I’m not in that business. :-)

  14. Torbjörn Larsson says

    “The hoped-for reduction of the (very) many string theories to a single theory (or even just a few) seems a very dim prospect now.”

    Uh? Witten et al have shown that they are duals of each other in certain places. Duals can’t be reduced into each other. If you are discussing an encompassing M-theory to embed the duals in, it hasn’t come far. That doesn’t mean that the string theories can’t probe different places in theory space.

  15. Professor Membrane says

    Peter Woit has commented on Easterbrook’s review

    As I read on, besides wondering “Hey, is he going to mention my book too?”, I started to remember who Easterbrook is, and how stupid some of his previous writings on physics were. By the end of it, I was very glad Easterbrook had left me out of it.

  16. BlueIndependent says

    I must profess my ignorance to this Easterbrook fellow, who seems to elicit much derision for his apparently vapid analyses.

    Is he one of the creationist lot?

  17. says

    I was blissfully unaware of this Mr. Easterbrook, but I don’t like how much his names sounds like my website name. Every time I glimpse it I have this little twitch of recognition but then halfway through the name it turns out to not be about me at all (phew!)

  18. CL says

    Easterbrook isn’t exactly a conservative. He qualifies as more of a “centrist Democrat” or something like that. He was, for quite some time (and he may still be, I don’t know) a regular writer for The New Republic, and he’s done work for the Brookings Institution before.. His brother, Frank Easterbrook, a judge on the 7th Circuit, definitely is a conservative.

    To the “world at large,” Easterbrook is probably best known as the author of “Tuesday Morning Quarterback,” a football column on ESPN. In general, his non-science-related TNR work has been pretty good, but he has definitely been an ID advocate in the past. It continues to disappoint me that “generalists” whose commentary is so good in other fields have absolutely no clue what’s going on when they write about science.

  19. eric taylor says

    string theory is in serious trouble right now, and I think Easterbrook’s article is very fair to that theory. I have no problems with him equating the spirit world with the problems string theory has with predictability. I haven’t read the smolen but I just got done reading “not even wrong” by peter woit.

    The problem is just like easterbrook says, the physics in the study of string theory are so incredibly difficult, I mean, to even approach understanding Lie groups the U(1)xSU(2)xSU(3) is asking a lot of the layman even one knowledgable in other fields of science, and that group, U(1)xSU(2)xSU(3) is merely the standard model of physics, then to get to string theory you have to go up to (in one version) SO(32), I mean, it’s exactly what he says:

    The leading universities are dominated by hooded monks who speak in impenetrable mumbo-jumbo; insist on the existence of fantastic mystical forces, yet can produce no evidence of these forces; and enforce a rigid guild structure of beliefs in order to maintain their positions and status.

    String theory is in SERIOUS trouble. Serious trouble, look at it, the theory has been worked on by all the best minds in physics for 20 years and ZERO progress has been made.

    Back when QED was discovered overnight there were discoveries of new particles, explanations of old anomolies, QCD overnight explained why when you shot a hot particle at a proton it showed asymptotic freedom, that is the quarks (as we now know) are more losely bound the closer they are together, every time a new theory was advanced there would be immediate breakthroughs in physics.

    Not so with string theory. There is something really terribly wrong with string theory. Maybe it’s like having a 25th century math accidentally handed to 21st century physicists. Maybe it’s just straight up wrong. Except as Peter Woit says, it’s not even wrong, because it fails to make predictions.

    The physicist Wolfgang Pauli was known for his often less than polite criticism of the work of some of his collegues. He would sometimes exclaim “wrong” (falsch) or “completely wrong” (ganz falsch) when he disagreed with someone. Near the end of his life, when asked his opinion of an article by a young physicist, he sadly said, “it is not even wrong” (Das is nicht einmal falsch). A theory can be “not even wrong” because it is so imcomplete and illdefined that it can’t even be used to make firm predictions whose failure would show it to be wrong. This has been the situation of superstring theory from its beginnings to the present day.

    — Woit

    There’s a growing feeling among physicists that it’s time to give up on entirely on string theory. Making absolutely no progress for 20 years does that to you.

  20. RichS says

    I think Easterbrook makes one interesting point: shouldn’t it be called the “string conjecture” or “string hypothesis” rather than “string theory”? If one insists, correctly, that — based on extensive observation and testing — such things as evolutionary “theory” and the “theory” of relativity are proven facts about the world we live in, wouldn’t it be wise to withhold the use of that term from an admittedly fascinating but utterly unproven set of conjectures?

  21. Caledonian says

    The problem with trying to construct mathematical models is that technically there are always an infinite number of possible explanations for any given set of observations. If you can’t use the rule of parsimony to eliminate possibilities, you’re in real trouble.

    Sadly, even scientists fail to use terminology property in everyday speech. Strings are hypotheses only.

  22. says

    I imagine the use of the word ‘theory’ in ‘string theory’ comes from its usage in mathematics to refer to a field of study, as in ‘number theory’ or ‘group theory’, and not from the word’s more common scientific meaning.

  23. Caledonian says

    If that’s the case, isn’t the fact that the concept is still discussed in terms of mathematics and not physics (granted, there’s a very fine line between them) rather telling?

  24. says

    For good contrast to Easterbrook, I recommend “Is God an Accident?” by Paul Bloom in The Atlantic.


    Bloom’s article takes a hard look at why people have so much trouble letting go of religious belief in the face of compelling evidence, and comes up with some fascinating insights. His thesis relies on evolutionary biology and an examination of the difference in how we regard things and people.

  25. josh says

    … Serious trouble, look at it, the theory has been worked on by all the best minds in physics for 20 years and ZERO progress has been made.

    Back when QED was discovered overnight there were discoveries of new particles, explanations of old anomolies, QCD overnight explained why when you shot a hot particle at a proton it showed asymptotic freedom, that is the quarks (as we now know) are more losely bound the closer they are together, every time a new theory was advanced there would be immediate breakthroughs in physics.

    I think this and similar statements are rather over the top and symptomatic of the problems with Easterbrooks article. I’m a High Energy/Beyond the Standard Model physicist, not a string theorist but just down the hall from them (figuratively and literally.) I don’t have a horse to back in this race but string theory deserves more respect than a summary dismissal on a biology blog.(No disrespect to PZ/biology.)

    String theory may or may not have much to do with reality and discussion of the politics, funding priority, and self-gravitation of the idea are totally legitimate. Evaluating its basic scientific merit is a hell of a lot harder; maybe one should listen to a variety of people who know the field. Many say String Theory has made great strides within its own field, which is to say, in developing analytical techniques and relating it to observable physics. That doesn’t mean it mayn’t have a long ways to go, but you can’t claim there has been no progress. As pointed out above it has at least motivated powerful mathematical insights. And what particles were discovered overnight with QED or QCD? That kind of discovery requires experimental work. Theoretical work on the other hand can explain things, like strings may explain quantum/gravity unification, gauge unification, extra dimensions, divergence problems. I say may because you have to match the theory up with experiments to gain general acceptance. String theory has yet to do so, but it is not unfalsifiable like religious dogma because it is not so in principle; it is just a lot of hard work. The theories of QCD and QED were hardly an overnight revelation, they were the result of a lot of work and are still not fully solved. All of which is to say that string theory is a possible answer to several important questions, people are still trying to decide if it is the right answer. Maybe that determination is so hard that we shouldn’t devote as many resources to it as we do, but it’s not superstition or navel gazing. If we hope to push the boundaries of fundamental physics, let’s face it, the easy questions, if there ever were any, are gone.

  26. eric taylor says

    oh come on josh you can’t put string theory on par with qed and qcd. predictions by those theories agree with experiment down to what? 10 decimal places? the standard model is one of the single best theories discovered. Ever. Let me quote from Woit’s book again:

    But superstring physicists have not yet shown that their theory really works. They cannot demonstrate that the standard theory is a logical outcome of string theory. They cannot even be sure that their formalism includes a description of such things as protons and electrons. And they have not yet made even one teeny-tiny experimental prediction. Worst of all, superstraing theory does not follow as a logical consequence of some appealing set of hypotheses about nature. Why, you may ask, od the string theorists insist that space is nine dimensional? Simple because string theory doesn’t make sense in any other kind of space.

    Until the string people can interpret perceived properties of the real world they are simply not doing physics. Should they be paid by universities and be permitted to pervert impressionable students? Will young PhDs whose expertise is limited to superstring theory, be employable if, and when, the string snaps? Are string thoughts more appropriate to departments of mathematics, or even to schools of divinity, than to physics departments? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How many dimensions are there in a compactified manifold, 30 powers of ten smaller than a pinhead?

    Sheldon Glashow

    It’s actually quite hard for me to criticize string theory because those people are such geniuses. There’s no way I can really approach their intellect. My rational is that I don’t think I’m necessarily right and they are wrong. My rational is that funding dollars go to string theory, and that’s why people work on it. These brilliant people would work on other things if all the funding dried up tomorrow.

  27. josh says

    To be clear, I’m not equating the Standard Model, which is well tested, with String Theory, which is not. (QED, in the case of the electron anomolous magnetic moment agrees with experiment to ~10 figures, QCD is at the few percent level generally.) My point is the standard model is non-trivial. Its consequences took time to understand and it wasn’t accepted overnight, rather it was pieced together with a lot of work.

    To be more precise I should point out that String Theory, is more analogous to Quantum Field Theory than to the Standard Model. QFT is the language of special relativistic quantum mechanics and the Standard Model is a construction within that language which describes the known particles and forces. There is no ‘standard model’ of string theory, a language for quantum gravity. The huge number of possible models are being explored and techniques for dealing with the language are being developed. If you pick a particular stringy model it is possible to make experimental predictions but at least as yet we do not have any complete compelling models and it is hard to restrict the number of potential models. Maybe too many resources have been devoted to an approach that may not pan out, I just don’t think it should be dismissed out of hand.

    As for funding I think it’s a legitimate question. But any theorists trying to push the boundaries are necessarily going to be out there on a limb to some extent. I suspect if it weren’t string theory it would be something equally abstruse for many of them. Of course they would leave if funding dried up but the same is true of brilliant cancer researchers. That’s not of itself an argument against strings.

  28. TTT says

    Easterbrook only really liked to talk about environmental issues when he could play the contrarian, the lone voice in the wilderness against an all-powerful global warming / biodiversity crisis orthodoxy. Now that he seems to believe what all normal and honest people believe, it’s taken the fun out of the topic for him.

    And oh, what fun he had! In his anti-environmentalist book “A Moment on the Earth,” Easterbrook said humans should genetically engineer all wild predators into being vegetarians–to make the world a kinder place! I’d say “you can’t make this stuff up,” but that’s the great thing, he totally CAN!

  29. Dave Eaton says

    I have a hard time getting interested enough in string theory to care. I care about the results, but this, to me, is so tentative and potentially misleading (well, if I could understand it enough to be misled by it) that I just want to wait until the next revolution that predicts something unexpected or explains something as yet unaccounted for before I’ll look up.

    I’m a chemist, and most of what I care about professionally can be kinda sorta understood by theory that is terrible (valence bond theory, one-electron MO theory, fishy but useful ab initio calculations) with respect to being correct or even, in some cases, consistent. A large part can be figured out by little stick drawings. And pressing any harder with theory for solution phase chemistry is, at least at this stage, more trouble than it’s worth.

    Still, I want to understand as well as possible what goes on at a molecular level. The consequences of knowledge at this level of detail is unlikely to change how experimental chemistry gets done, but it is important from the POV of the science. I whole heartedly support all the calculation and theory, even if I am a huge skeptic as to whether it will ever matter much to what I do, because I think it might influence how I think. It might, and if not, it might offer insights into what is observed.

    A scientific model of where the universe comes from and how it functions is something I would like to see, and if some breakthrough comes, I hope some really smart physicist can make a cartoon model of it that I can appreciate.

    But I generally only follow baseball via the box scores. The details of most games (other than those I see in person) are mindnumbing to me. So, also, for the outer reaches of physics.

  30. eric taylor says

    another serious criticism of string theory from woit’s book is is that mathematicians know that string theory is not math. So it must be physics. Ideas are no rigorous. Mathematics is so abstract that they must prove their ideas to have value according to pretty strict rules. Physicists have always held mathematicians in a sort of scorn because well, they just wann get ‘er done, and physicists don’t really care about proofs. When experimental results kept up with theory that was ok. But now we have string theory which is purely abstract math without rigor. Physicists can tell that string theory is not physics because it is purely abstract.

    It’s not math. It’s not physics. What did Feynman say about this field 20 years ago?

    I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with experiment, they cook up an explanation — a fix-up to say, “Well it still might be true.” For example, the theory requires ten dimensions. Well, maybe there’s a way of wrapping up six of the dimensions. Yes, that’s possible mathematically, but why not seven? When they write their equation, the equation should decide how many of these things get wrapped up, not the desire to agree with experiment. In other words, there’s no reason whatsoever in superstring theory that it isn’t eight of the ten dimensions that get wrapped up and that the result is only two dimensions, which would be completely in disagreement with experiment. So the fact that it might disagree with experiment is very tenuous, it doesn’t produce anything; it has to be excused most of the time. It doesn’t look right.

    Right now there are two differences between creationists and string theorists. The first is that creationists are too dumb to put really complicated mathematics in their theories. String theory is so complicated that nobody except for a string theorist could possibly disprove it, and they want to keep their golden goose laying those golden funding dollars. The second is that eventually string theorists will give up.

    String theorists love playing the “Only game in town game.” But make no mistake a much less ambitious goal to combine create a quantam theory of gravity is Loop Quantam Gravity. It’s not bad that physics goes down a dead end, we do it all the time. That’s how science works!

    The problem is that for the first time in hundreds of years, theoretical physics has become divorced from experimental physics. No matter what result came out of cosmology, or the hadron accelerator, string theorists would not have to alter their theories. Because they don’t predict anything, and what is more, they don’t even care what the experimental results are. You can go really far down the rabbit hole when your theories can not be falsified.