Not having to teach this Monday, I spent a large part of the weekend belatedly reading Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong, many years after it was initially published. It’s a very thorough, ambitious and carefully judged history of particle physics and the idea of discovering the laws of nature, culminating in an account of the past thirty years of string theory. I’m sorry I didn’t read it earlier.
My active encounter with physics ended in 1980, and until reading Woit’s book, though I knew that nothing shattering has been discovered in the past 30 years, I hadn’t quite realized with what a thud the sweep of discovery from Planck through Weinberg-Salam ended. When I left physics, people were moving on from the standard model to GUTS, Technicolor, supersymmetry, strings, etc., and all of it has so far remained unvalidated. I’d remembered only the continuous excitement of new quarks and neutrinos being discovered in the Seventies, and somehow imagined that life in physics was still that way.
Woit’s approach to all sides of the merits of string theory and its proponents is measured; he doesn’t hesitate to give opinions about moral issues, but he backs them up. It reminds me of a verse from a series of English books we loved in high school. They were written by a fictional English public-school boy called Nigel Molesworth, and one of them was called How To Be Topp; I still have it. If you grew up in a quasi-British school system and wore blazers and boaters and got caned sometimes, they were very funny. According to Nigel, the soppy girls at the nearby girls’ school sang:
Ho for Bat & Ho for ball
Ho for Lax & Lat & all,
Miss Dennis is strict, Miss Hamilton fair
But Miss Peabody (gym) is both strict & tall!
As any fule kno, Woit’s account is strict and tall, but entirely fair, which is quite a feat.