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A Mathematician Criticizes String Theory

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


A Mathematician Criticizes String Theory

Cover of Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit

Basic Books

The Bottom Line

Woit's book contains some discussions of mathematical and scientific concepts which may not be particularly clear to those who are intimidated by higher mathematics, but for those who are comfortable dipping their toes into these waters it's well worth the read.
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  • A bit of technical background on the mathematical concepts at the heart of modern quantum physics.
  • Excellent practical discussion of experimentation and particle accelerators.
  • Woit makes the importance of symmetry in quantum theory clear.


  • The mathematical detail might be intimidating to many readers.
  • Lacks the narrative flow of some other books on the topics.


  • Review is based on the paperback edition of the book. Also available in a hardcover edition.
  • 291 pages, with 19 chapters + notes & index
  • Written by Peter Woit, PhD in theoretical physics from Princeton, now teaching mathematics at Columbia University.

Guide Review - A Mathematician Criticizes String Theory

String theory took a couple of hits a few years back with the publication of Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law at roughly the same time as Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics. The two books feature many of the same complaints, but the emphasis is different, and each has its own merits and flaws.

In common, both books are concerned with the overwhelming embrace of string theory despite the fact that its never been confirmed by experiment and, more importantly, is so far beyond current experimental bounds that it's questionable if it could be confirmed (or refuted) even if energy considerations weren't astronomical. They are also highly critical of the "string theory landscape" concept which has become a common viewpoint over the last decade, in which there is a vast megaverse that contains nearly infinite possibilities, and that our "universe" is really just one small sub-section of that megaverse.

The major difference is that I felt that Woit's book spent a bit more time on the technical aspects of the underlying quantum theory, which is more his specialty anyway. Specifically, he really was able to illustrate some details about the role of the underlying symmetry which feels somewhat glossed over in other accounts, such as Lee Smolin's. The discussion is somewhat technical, but it's still laid out in a way which is highly accessible to a reader who wants to get into it without requiring a lot of background in science or mathematics, which is a hard act to pull off.

Overall, I'd highly recommend Woit's book for the reader who has a fairly solid understanding of science and mathematics, and won't be intimidated by the sophisticated discussions that arise within the book. Woit's book does an excellent job of filling in the gaps and making a clear analysis of some problems that still exist within the search for a unified scientific theory.

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