Blog Wars and String Wars

From hostile physicists to commenters who think they know more about string theory than Nobel laureates, Peter Woit describes the weird world of science blogging.
  • Transcript


Question: How does blogging affect your relationship with other people in your field?

Peter Woit: So, there's actually kind of two things. One is the blog and I also wrote the book. Anyway, for many years I wasn't very happy with what was going on there and I was kind of observing it. Okay, this is becoming more and more problematic. There is this - not only are people not admitting that this isn't working out, but there's this whole - there's a lot of public promotion of the subject and it's very difficult and complicated and a lot of people don't understand it, and so this is not really a healthy situation. Someone should kind of clearly explain to the larger community of physicists and also to non-physicists exactly what the situation is here. And so I wrote an article about this and then I finally wrote this book and it took a while to get the book published. It's a long and interesting story, but then while - I guess it was after the book was written, I also started to see there were a couple of other physicists who had started blogs and I thought, well this is interesting thing to do and I can both talk about the issues related to String Theory and things which I was trying to get through the book but also kind of follow it on a day-to-day basis. And also write about whatever I'm interested in. So, the blog, I guess, I don't worry about the audience for it, it's kind of written just very much whatever I would like to read. So, I'm kind of writing whatever I would like to read. So, if there is somebody out there exactly me, they must find this really fascinating, and if there's someone quite different, then they're probably not at all interesting.

And so because of that, the kinds of things on the blog are often - if I learned something or something new or interesting is going on even in pure mathematics, I'll be writing about that, or pretty much anything going on in between mathematics and physics I'll be writing about that. I'll be writing a lot about the LHC and also just about whatever is going on in the controversy over this String Theory, and it's interesting that more keeps happening with that. My book came out and there's a book by another physicist with a similar point of view as mine and it all came out, so that caused a lot of controversy so a lot of reviews and a lot of argument going on, on the blogs and a lot of people refer to this as the String Wars and so there's this very - for a year or two there, there was a kind of very interesting, if you're interested in this kind of thing, there was a kind of warfare in terms of blog postings and comments going on, on my site and various others and that sort leads to all sorts of strange things.

Question: Do your readers ever provide useful insights into physics problems? 

Peter Woit: Well, there's some - it depends. I often learn interesting things from comments. So, now that the blog is fairly well-known, people will write in comments to my blog and often telling me something about something that I hadn't heard about. And that's interesting, or they'll often send to me privately by email saying, hey you might be interested in this, so I get a lot of that and learn a lot that way.

One interesting thing that I found amusing about the whole String Theory discussion was that it's an incredibly complex and difficult subject and so, it's really hard to over emphasize how it's a subject that nobody really understands very well, and even the people who are the experts at it are - I had this amazing experience of having a conversation with a Nobel Prize Winner who people are thought of the brightest people in his field and asking him what they think of String Theory and they'll say, "I don't know. I don't really understand what's going on. I don't want to comment on it. I'm baffled by it." So, one interesting thing about some of these discussions in the blog is I found one way to figure out exactly what's going on in String Theory and whether something is really a problem or not is to just put out my understanding of it in a blog posting or a comment, or whatever, and then fairly quickly you would find that either I was wrong and there was some reason that this actually made sense even though I thought it didn't, and this way I was quickly and often abusively be explained what an idiot I was and why this was - and here's the answer and you really should have known, or and then I found out they **** learn something, or often found out that if I was right and there really was a problem here, the answer I would get was often this abuse of oh, you're a complete jerk and you're a moron, but no scientific answer to the scientific question. So, that was actually an interesting way to see exactly the state of research on the subject was by kind of probing it and getting that sort of response from some of the more hostile people in the subject.

Question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the Internet’s impact on science?

Peter Woit: Well, I think it has definitely - I mean, it's mostly a positive thing. I mean one of the main problems with the blogs, one of the most annoying things about the blogs is - especially if a lot of people are reading it, you're really in a situation where there's a small number of people who really understand it and know what's going on and have something really sensible to say about it because a very large number of people who have some kind of interest in it and have the time and energy to sit there and write uninformed things on your blog and kind of just - so actually unlike some blogs, I actually delete a lot of the comment submitted to my blog and try to keep the noise level down and so that's probably the most discouraging thing about the whole experience. It's just this number of people out there who kind of want to go on about this and argue about this but don' know what they are talking about and want to fill the internet with all information sources they can get their hands on with uninformed nonsense.

So, there's a lot of that, but just the kind of discussion of the subject and of it's problems which I think went on in these blogs and of which if you're interested, you can now **** go to **** and real. I don't know if there's any other format, it's an amazing format for that. There's really no other way that discussion could be held in that way. And also the internet just provides us this kind of amazing access to information of a sort which is totally unlike anything we've ever had before. You can just Google some term and immediately have access to all sorts of often high level discussions of the subject.

I think the one - it's actually made some of the faddishness of particle theory a bit worse in the sense that, one thing that used to kind of slow down fads was just how long it took to communicate them to people. I mean, there's certain prominent people might have started working on some idea at Princeton or Harvard, but it would take a while for the news of that and an understanding of what these people were doing to filter out to the rest of the community and if people wanted to kind of jump on it and pursue it in a faddish way, it would take them a while to even find out about it. Whereas now, everybody is kind of, every night there's some new set of preprints come out and the preprints are there, and people logging in and looking at these, and the minute that somebody has some new thing which is becoming a kind of faddish thing to work on, everybody throughout the world has it at exactly the same time on their desktop and can start thinking about it and working on it. So, it kind of makes that even more so than it used to be.

Recorded on December 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen