In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Why Crime Pays | Main | Life Among the Ruins »

March 24, 2004

String Theory Etc.

Dear Friedrich

Long ago at Camp Massaweepie, my Boy Scout chums and I would occasionally gather in a tent and ponder The Big Questions. "Nothing" was one of our faves. If Nothing were really Nothing, then how could we talk about it? Yet here we were talking about it. Didn't the fact that we were managing to discuss Nothing prove that Nothing has a Something sort of existence, if only as a topic of conversation for a bunch of Boy Scouts? And if Nothing is Something, well then At this point, one of us would toss himself onto the ground and let out a holler of bewilderment and consternation. We loved that.

Graybeard though I may now be, I'm having a Massaweepie Moment.

Not long ago, I went through a couple of intros to relativity and quantum mechanics, and at the moment I'm in the middle of a Brian Greene introduction to string theory. Whee: is my head spinning. Have you had a wrestle with string theory? It's -- and I'm happy to admit that I speak here as nothing more than someone partway through a Brian Greene book an attempt at a Theory of Everything.

The basic challenge string theory is meant to meet is this. On the one hand, there's relativity, which does a good job of explaining things at a big scale; while on the other hand, there's quantum mechanics, doing a fine job of explaining things at the subatomic scale. Two sets of circumstances; two sets of equations. This situation is apparently intolerable; it seems to rubs theoretical physicists the wrong way. They look at black holes, where the two sets of equations go haywire, and they want something to bind relativity and quantum mechanics together. Even better would be to arrive at the one Equation of All Equations that underlies both relativity and quantum mechanics. There must be such a thing, if only for the sake of elegance, or something.

String theory is an attempt to be that Equation of All Equations. It's the idea that matter and forces both are made up of minuscule vibrating loops of energy; differences in vibrations account for differences in matters and forces. According to Greene, string theory is what the best young theoretical-physics minds are excited about at the moment. They find it promising and attractive, if not without its problems. My mediocre and arty mind finds it appealing too; I enjoy playing with the obvious connection between vibrating strings and ancient ideas about the Music of the Spheres. Why does music hit us the way it does? Why should it exist at all? Perhaps it really is an emanation of the basic Nature of Everything!

In any case, it's an exciting moment: we may be on the verge of something really enormous. My heart goes pitty pat and then my feet start to drag. Not that my reactions could matter less, of course. Nonetheless, I'm feeling reckless tonight and will forge on.

Do you struggle, as I do, with the very idea of a Theory of Everything? I do for two reasons, neither one of them (as far as I can tell) theological or mystical. First reason: how can a Theory of Everything account for itself? How can a Theory of Anything account for itself, come to think of it? Isn't it a terrible and insurmountable problem that the reality a Theory of Everything would want to explain has to include the very Theory of Everything that's doing the explaining? Wouldn't such a theory in fact have to account for its own discovery? And how could anything explain its own existence, let alone its own discovery, within the general fabric of Everything?

My second reason may be even more basic. It's this: when "explanations" become mega-abstract, they seem to cease functioning as explanations at all and start to behave like models instead. Am I wrong in having the impression that one of the lessons of chaos theory is that at a certain point you have to abandon the idea of a stable explanation, give over to complexity, let the algorithm rip and see what follows? When this happens, it seems that some general phenomena can be observed and that some general principles can be loosely sketched out. Which of course is impressive, and potentially fascinating and helpful. (Christopher Alexander's The Nature of Order, anyone?) But to what extent can such observations and loose principles be considered explanations?

I'm confusedly aware that I'm wrestling here with an old problem: do explanations and theories precede what they explain? If so, in what realm do they exist? If not, then what the hell are they? How useful is it to imagine that, say, equations underlie what we see enacted around us? Or is "enactment" (and our perceptions of "enactment") all that can really be said to be occurring? Are equations really explanations or merely ways we (OK, the brighter among us) have of making these enactments discussable? I feel the presence of David Hume among us as I type such words.

Any help with any of this? I'd be grateful for Camp Massaweepie-style musings too.

What I really find myself thinking here is along the lines of: Hmm. It seems as though the desire to achieve the Big Explanation -- the one that's going to touch existence on such a deep level that reality is going to unfold before us -- is the drive that powers much progress. Yet will such an achievement ever in fact occur? Can it even occur? Which isn't to quarrel with or deny the amazingness of progress. Nonetheless: odd, no? The coexistence of a strong desire to reach a Promised Land with the strong possibility that such a Promised Land doesn't exist? The relativity/quantum mechanics duo seem to meet their Waterloo in black holes; can anyone guarantee that string theory, even if it stands up, won't meet some Waterloo or other too? We want the Big Explanation so badly, and we're so very driven to pursue it -- yet it may be possible that such a thing simply doesn't exist. Who inflicted this predicament on us? And what purpose -- in an evo-bio sense -- might such a quandary serve? Does it exist in order to fuel progress? But progress towards what?

To return to earth for half a sec: I'm thrilled to see that Denis Dutton is continuing to post papers at his website here. Be sure not to miss this one here. It's about The Literary Mind, a Mark Turner book that I love. (I wrote a brief posting about Turner here; the book is buyable here; Turner's own site is here.) Dutton does a fabulous job of presenting and examining Turner's argument, and I'm glad to see that Dutton finally buys it, as do I. Turner's thesis, in a word, is that people imagine language mistakenly. The Chomsky idea that there's a Deep Grammar embedded in the brain misses the point, as do the attempts of philosphers to inspect language for its ability to fix (or miss) truth. Instead, language is all about story -- but go read Dutton for more. And please let me know how you react. I'll shut up about the fact that I see intriguing and provocative correspondences between my gab about Theories of Everything and Dutton's essay, which is (ahem) entitled "Which Came First, The Language or Its Grammar?" ...



posted by Michael at March 24, 2004


Chomsky posits some miraculous language generator as the bridge between us and the amimals. It seems with human's brain capacity that a grunt or a groan, and consequently, differentiation and distinction would emanate out from that as communication got results.

The Author of the article, or that is,the idea & text of whom the Author of the article is focusing on: takesthe larger macro medium as the motivator of speech. Positing that the story is the focus and that speech fills in that conceptual gap.

I'm not inclined to deny that there is some plausibility of influence arising from there; that there is impetus derived from understanding the macro event, or as we most do playing along with a good portion of the events that surround us as we can't possibly be focused on everything to the degree that our discernment techniques might allow us were we to slow down time so as to analyze and reflect more in regard to the events around us and in this way give plausibility to theorizing that we rationalize, to an extent, via the story line, the tale, the epic, the way our life unfolds.

Where I'd have a more difficult time buying into that is that language unfolding as a means ... seems perfectly rational.

There are distinctions from the onset -- that multiply the initial sound. Volume. Immediately makes the differentiation between either silence and sound multiple beyond the starting basic contrast of 2. Add a rudimentary "halt" and "go" or "no" and "yes"; and immediately there are expanding multiples of meanings just from the most basic communication foundations. It appears to me as extremely plausible that a primitive being could expand their vocabulary just by experience, and from that, to some extent rote. As reflection and consideration would likely not be a conscious understanding until long after speech had evolved.

Layered events, amongst all of humanity, contributes to a gathering of knowledge, that influences the understanding of the present though it can be theorized that our knowledge gathering capacity, amongst the confluence of events that constitute humanity's gathering process of knowledge, have evolved in potentially a hap-hazard way. Hence making for the possibility that we have egregious errors of discernment, even though humanity has made giant leaps of awareness as events have unfolded in the past.

Put in another way: it could be, though it is unlikely, that in some of the simplest notions we have overlooked facets. That kind of thinking is where Philosophy can become completely detached from reality, and in doing so profits immensely by simple pragmatic applications of the thoughts to where they lead .Yet we also profit from recognizing that there are phenomenon of human origin but not of human design. And from that recognize that a reductionist ken, to the extent of a priori thinking, is quite possibly not privy to us from our perspective, sometimes, to the extent that we imagine it so.

Posted by: reader on March 24, 2004 2:13 AM

Me, I'm a Quantum Loop Gravity kinda guy myself. String theory seems too inelegant, and that rubs me the wrong way.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on March 24, 2004 4:52 AM

I had gotten the misty notion that string theory was slightly past its meridian as an exciting explainer of everything. I mean, if it is so darned good as an explanation, shouldn't it (a la relativity or quantum mechanics) have generated some odd results that should be experimentally validatable by now? Of course, it probably has, but nobody got around to telling me, or I was probably asleep or watching T.V. when they did.

Actually, I'm having a similar moment with Mr. Turner's theory. I think I get Mr. Dutton's explanation, but when one starts to discuss what lies at the root of human linguisitic capabilities, I'd start looking at chimps for clues. Is there any evidence that chimps 'tell stories' about the world? Is it possible to 'tell stories' without grammar? If grammar is a higher order consequence, not a lower-order cause, what exactly is the lower-order logic at work here?

OK, OK, I know, I gotta read the book...! More homework!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 24, 2004 5:25 AM

Don't worry FvB, it's not just you, I have yet to hear of a falsifiable prediction of string theory myself.

Which to me says that it's probably either too complex, or too simple :-)

In any event, not a useful model(s) yet.

Posted by: David Mercer on March 24, 2004 6:27 AM

In honor of Camp Massaweepie, I am throwing myself on the ground and screaming "aaarghhhh!"

Posted by: annette on March 24, 2004 10:47 AM

I think you are misinterpreting what is meant by a "Theory of Everything". See, they don't really mean "everything". They mean "almost everything".

I don't think a theory of physics needs to include an explanation of ideas, which are non-physical. So it need not include itself, as the theory is also non-physical.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on March 24, 2004 10:51 AM


When it comes to string theory, quantum mechanics, et al, I'm assured that the only thing that really matters is the equations. Any explanation you hear other than the equations themselves is necessarily metaphorical (including the term "string" itself). Now, the explanations are based on the stories physicists tell each other as they attempt to come to grips with what the equations say. Thus, the explanations you read are popularizations of stories which were known not to capture the full nature of the equations to begin with.

And what that means is that you needn't feel bad for not understanding string theory; the physicists don't really understand it either.

Posted by: Will Duquette on March 24, 2004 10:55 AM

physicists don't really understand it either

It seems they don't all believe it either. I just happened upon a blog today (though this excellent blog) that deals with string theory. I'll quote from this post [where the blogger is discussing a talk he attended]:

"Gross's talk contained the usual tendentious pro-string theory points, here's a few of them with commentary:

1. " String theory is in a period like that of 1913-1925, it's like the Bohr model, we're waiting for the analog of Heisenberg's or Schrodinger's breakthroughs"

The problem with this is that the Bohr model was actually predictive, for instance it predicted a lot about atomic spectra that could be experimentally checked. There clearly was something right about the Bohr model, there is no good evidence there is something right about string theory.


4. "String theory is a consistent, finite quantum theory of gravity"

Simply not true. Peturbative string theory is a divergent expansion, non-perturbative definitions don't work for four large flat dimensions, rest small.

5. "String theory inspired brane-world scenarios, although I don't really believe these"

Why would you think that an argument in a theory's favor was that it inspired some clearly wrong models that you don't believe and that don't predict anything?

While Gross mentioned the "discretium", he didn't really explain exactly how disastrous this is for string theory, since it makes it essentially vacuous. He made a big deal of string theory implying that our notions of space and time need to be changed, but made it clear that no one really has a viable idea about how to change them. He puts his hopes in the fact that we still don't understand what string theory is. This seems to me to be exactly the sort of wishful thinking that he claimed at the beginning was not what string theorists were doing.

His talk went on for more than an hour and a half... I noticed that two string theory postdocs I know were in the audience. They've both told me that they think the subject is at a point of crisis and they are thinking of quitting. I don't think anything Gross said was likely to encourage them to continue."

There's also a article by the same fella, one Peter Woit, available online: it's called String Theory: An Evaluation [pdf]. I don't have time to read it right now - or I'll miss my bus - but I'm sure it'll be well over my head, from the little I've scanned it seems highly negative.

"The experimental situation is best described with Pauli's phrase 'it's not even wrong.'"

So it goes with the current Grand Theory of Everything, I suppose.

By the way, the question about how you can speak about nothing was a personal favorite of mine in college. Thanks for bringing it up again.

I wish I had something to add to your broad questions, which are certainly mroe interesting to me than string theory, but I don't at the moment.

While I'm gabbing all over your comments, this is a fantastic blog and I read everything the two of you write on it.

Posted by: PF on March 24, 2004 1:41 PM

Boyscout? You were a boyscout? What rank did you get to?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 24, 2004 2:34 PM

Reading the dumbed-down conceptual stuff is not enough. You need to get an advanced physics textbook and do some real problems! Good luck!

Posted by: asd on March 24, 2004 4:23 PM

Wow, it's a mega-Massaweepie moment. Much to digest here, and most of it way outside my reach, which is very pleasing.

Reader -- I suspect I'm operating on many levels beneath you here. But you've got me recalling my prob with Chomsky's approach to language, which always to me seemed to boil down to: "We speak, therefore we have an inborn something-or-other that enables us to speak." Which never seemed to me to explain much.

Stefan -- Time to re-title the Brian Greene books. He seems addicted to applying "Elegant" to string theory.

FvB -- I guess the main problem (and here I wave desperately, admitting right up front that I have no idea what I'm talking about, I just read the occasional science popularization) with string theory is that it can't really be put to the test. No one's devised experiments that can prove it true or false. As some of the opponents Greene cites say, Well, so what then makes it science? As for Turner, language and apes, one of these days I'll do a posting on a fun book I read years ago by John McCrone called "The Ape that Spoke." A decade or so ago, I thought it was hot stuff. I wonder if it holds up?

David, Todd, Will, PF -- Many thanks for the informed looks at all this. I'll sleep a little better tonight.

Annette -- LOL! Seems the only appropriate response sometimes, doesn't it?

FvB -- Eagle Scout, dude. Although, to be honest, me mum and dad did most of the real work on some of those merit badges. Did you make Eagle yourself?

ASD -- Textbooks? You mean, with equations? Not in this lifetime, or any parallel dimension either. For me this time around, it's EZ or it's nothing at all. I'm enjoying the Brian Greene, btw. Have you tried him? Not up there with Paul Davies or Stephen Pinker, but good anyway. Here's hoping he's trustworthy and isn't misleading me too, too badly.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 25, 2004 12:56 AM

You think my mother was going to let me out of Scouting without getting my Eagle? Of course, I got it at the advanced age of 15, so most of the merit badges were, shall we say, within my capacity--something that wouldn't have been true 2 or 3 years earlier.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 25, 2004 2:33 AM

I bailed out at 14 or so. I'm certainly the black sheep of my family, all of my younger brothers got their Eagle. I only made it to second class, and was forever a merit badge or 2 short of 1st class.

No merit badges in Programming Languages, Abstract Math, Physics or things of such ilk, else I might have given more of a damn!

Posted by: David Mercer on March 25, 2004 5:34 AM

Lucky you. The latest "In Our Time" is about theories of everything and the panel includes Brian Greene. I haven't listened to it yet but I plan to do so shortly. Since the blowhards are into audiotape courses, you might enjoy browsing through their archives too.

Posted by: Chris Martin on March 25, 2004 2:57 PM

Michael, you may want to read George Eliot's "Middlemarch" for another take on "The Theory of Everything." Back then it was religion; now it's physics.

And it's miles easier than a physics textbook with, gack, equations.

Posted by: Deb on March 25, 2004 6:40 PM

Very interesting blog! Specially this post! On the nature of Nothing, I think "nothing" is just a human definition for a concept, it doesn't exist physically, but exists as a concept. Just like darkness or cold. Darkness doesn't exist, it's just the absence of light, just as cold is the absence of heat. Nothing is the absence of anything. I've heard about the string thory before and it sounds very interesting to me. Like someone said, the theory doesn't have to explain itself because it's not physical. I also think that there is indeed one point at which you just can't go any further with theories because the just have no substancial meaning, but I don't think string theories is at this point yet. This would be when you get to those really hardcore philosophical questions of metaphysics for which there's no definite answer and everything is mere speculation. But still, I think it's worth discussing these kind of questions.

Posted by: Rod on March 28, 2004 2:20 AM

The discussion of "Nothing" reminds me of mathematics, and that troublesome entity that the Hindus finally put into our math-symbology.

"Zero" is a troublesome guy. You can take any other number and create a fraction with it, but Zero? What the heck is 1/0?

If that doesn't boggle your mind, the concept of "Nothing" appears to be exactly the problem behind the trouble defining the "Empty Set" in set theory.

For what it's worth, I have no idea how valid string theory is. But if it doesn't produce a falsifiable claim, its scientific status doesn't quite appear to be up to the level of a "Theory of Everything".

Posted by: steve h on March 29, 2004 10:05 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?