The Problem With Trendy Physicists

Physics is as vulnerable to fads and politics as other disciplines. Math avoids the same fate by being content to stay “completely useless.”
  • Transcript


Question: How do the politics of math and science affect the objectivity of their inquiry?

Peter Woit: Well, I think any kind of thing that human beings do there is a certain politics to it and certain academic politics, and **** of the field. But mathematics is actually a relatively healthy field these days. I mean, people are making good progress in a lot of different ways and it's also - so anyway, I kind of lived part of my professional life in mathematics and part in physics. And one thing to say about mathematics is that it can have its problems, but it's actually hasn't seen a lot of the problems as some of the other sciences and probably also the wonderful thing about mathematics is so much of it in what people are doing is completely useless. Nobody kind of in ***** really cares very much. You don't really have kind of right and left and people in ideology coming in because there isn't any. It just doesn't actually connect up to the kinds of things that people ideologically worry about. So most of mathematics just doesn't tell you anything one way or another about global warming or about healthcare or about any number of things that you might care about.

So, mathematics is immune to a lot of exterior, real-world politics because of that. And the academic politics, it's there, but I think it's actually less than a lot of fields. One of my colleagues likes to say that, mathematics is the - he thinks about the only subject that he knows in academia or in the real world where if two people disagree about something - if people are studying some mathematical object and there's supposed to be a proof and they disagree about whether this proof **** or not, the will go into a room, sit down and talk about it and fairly quickly or at the end of the day one of them will admit they’re wrong. But the problem with a lot of **** is this doesn't happen where in mathematics, this happens all the time. And so there is the notion of logic and proof and rigor in which we can all - it allows us to all stand on one track.

Physics is, well first of all, physics is a very complicated subject in many, many different things. The String Theory and particle physics is only a small part of physics. So when I talk about physics I talk about them and the problems of those subjects. It's really the problems of a very small - one discipline and one sub-field of physics. A lot of physicists, people are happily going along and doing their science and quite successfully and it has nothing to do with - and they get very, very annoyed when they hear people going on about the problems of String Theory as if that's some big problem for physics, because it's not their problem.

String Theory and particle theory suffers a lot from this business of being from its own success. From not having any - nobody has been able to come up any really good ideas to make positive progress just because there's been no experimental evidence to give you a clue as to which direction to go. And the subject has traditionally been very connected often, at least from a mathematician's point of view, in a very faddish way, that all the smart people in the subject would all kind of jump on the same problem and would all kind of work on the same problem - very often because the subject was kind of driven by experiment and somebody would go out and turn on an accelerator like the LHC Hadron energy and is this really going to happen next year if the LHC seems something unexpected, everyone in the whole field is going to be trying to explain that one thing, and so you have a very kind of a faddish sociology that everybody is trying to do the same thing at the same time, whereas in other fields like mathematics, people kind of spread out and develop their expertise and work on different things.

So, part of the problem of the politics of particle theory has been that you have people used to the idea that well, you should look around and see what these smart people are working on and I should work on the same thing as them. And so, you've got all these people trying to do this. So, String Theory got identified back in '84 as being the hot topic and for a lot of reasons, partly - probably because it was an intriguing idea, but partly also because one of the great geniuses of our subject, this guy named Edward Whitman who is a fantastic genius and has done these amazing things. He got very interested in it and he started promoting the idea that this is a very promising idea and so everyone kind of jumped on it and my initial reaction at that time, I was just getting out of graduate school at that time and partly the way I work and the way I think, I wasn't so interested in the idea of trying to do the same thing as everybody else I would prefer to work on something a little bit different, and partly also - it didn't seem to me - it wasn't that this was obviously a good idea, it might be a good idea, it might not, but there were obvious problems from the beginning.

And so, anyway, **** everybody started working on this and I think my reaction to it was, well that's great that they're doing this and what's going to happen is what normally happens in a subject that after six months or a year or two years, people will see whether it's a good idea or not and if it's not a good idea they'll move on and the really peculiar thing that happened here is 25 years later, this is still - there are still a lot of people doing this and it really kind of caught fire and even without succeeding, it still kind of developed into this whole huge subject and it kind of, achieved some kind of critical mass and more and more people are working on it and they've been working on it so long that people ended up devoting their careers to it and it's a very, very difficult and complicated subject. And it requires quite a lot of time just to get to the point of understanding what is going on. So, you had more and more people working on this and investing more and more of their time and their careers and their lives into it and I think it really go tot he unfortunate point where people were unwilling to kind of admit that this wasn't working. And it's a natural human reaction of an idea that you are fond of and you put a lot into it, it's kind of hard to get you to admit that, well maybe this doesn't work and that this is happening very much in spades in this story because it been hard to get people to admit that this maybe hasn't worked out.

Recorded on December 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen