Who's winning the string wars and why should you care?

A conversation with theoretical physicist Peter Woit

By Gerald Alper

He may look ordinary, act ordinary, seem ordinary. But once he opens his mouth the gig is up, all semblance of ordinariness falls away and you quickly realize you are in the presence of a remarkable mind. Peter Woit is Senior Lecturer in mathematics at Columbia University, author of the famously controversial Not Even Wrong, and author of the even more famous (but less controversial) blog of the same name. Currently, he is putting the finishing touches on a major textbook, four years in the making, on Quantum Mechanics and Representation Theory to be published by Springer in late 2016.

Fifty years ago I had to choose between Columbia University and NYU's uptown University Heights division. Both universities had accepted me for admission to their then thriving engineering schools, but it was NYU that, surprisingly, had offered me a full four-year scholarship and I could not possibly deprive my struggling middle-class parents of such an economic windfall.

Fifty years ago, despite my considerable early academic success, I had been intimidated by the legendary aura surrounding Columbia. Now trudging up to the stairs at the gateway on 117th street and Broadway on a wet and miserable day, on my way to meeting Peter Woit for the first time, I can feel the old tingle, the absurd reverence for academia — inculcated in me since the dawn of consciousness as a child— by my education-worshiping parents.

Although I have lived in New York for most of my life, only once, when I was 12 years old, had I ever been to Columbia University campus. As editor, and a major contributor of creative articles to our eighth grade newspaper, The Beardsley Press, we had been nominated as the outstanding newspaper in the country. First prize was a gloriously unexpected visit to New York City with six of my journalistic cub reporters. We were to be lodged in a luxurious mid-town Manhattan hotel, treated to a live performance at Radio City Music Hall by the “entertainer of the century,” Bob Hope (“thanks for the memories”). The highlight was to be an inspirational speech by the Dean of Columbia School of Journalism on the joys and responsibilities of the sacred calling of journalism. Held in the main auditorium it was delivered to the incoming freshman and seven cowering journalists from The Beardsley Press. For me, of course, the real highlight had been a live performance by the then greatest ventriloquist in the world, darling of early television variety shows, Paul Winchell and his lovable wisecracking dummy, Jerry Mahoney.

It all comes back to me as I climbed the stairs, make a hard left and head towards the stately, mansion-like edifice, called simply, the math building.

Architecturally speaking, the style is somewhere between funereal and aspirational. One thing is clear, it seems to say, students may come and go, but this building is meant to last. No matter how smart you think you are (and no one who is not smart makes it past the front door) from the standpoint of the mathematical luminaries, living and dead, whose portraiture adorn the walls, you are little more than a tabula rasa. No matter how brilliant you may actually turn out to be you will never do more than scratch the surface of the immense repository of mathematical knowledge enshrined in these hallways. (Full disclosure: Lest the reader think I am playing the role of the hapless victim of math anxiety in order to curry favor, I will admit that, 50 years ago, when I graduated from William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx, I was nominated —having achieved perfect scores in the year-end regents—as the best geometry student, the best physics student, the best science student.) But this is math anxiety in a different league, and unless you are obtuse, you will feel it.

I am early, so there is time to visit the lounge on the fifth floor and calm down. Except R&R for anyone in basic training to become a professional mathematician is not something to which I am accustomed. Covering one half of one wall is a large, clean blackboard in case anyone should get an emergency brainstorm. Across the room standing against the wall is a large buffet table laden with plates of toasty bagels, mounds of fresh-looking cream cheese (a scrumptious plethora of bagels and cream cheese), containers of coffee and juices, and assorted treats. Whatever else may lay in store for these young mathematicians, they do not have to worry about being fed. And they are young. The average age cannot be much more than 19 and (as for the very youngest) it can not be so long ago that they celebrated their 12th birthday. As a group they strike me as Euro-exchange students, sitting in perfect stillness, staring in Zen-like fixation (like Stepford students) at their raised laptops. I realize there is not a single female in the entire room.

Before I can seat myself, a voice behind me catches my ear. An impromptu seminar has broken out between four people: an urbane, thirtyish-looking man, his arms cradling the back of two adjacent chairs, who is assuming the role, or who really is, the group leader; a stocky, bull-necked man with shoulder-length hippie hair who was the group's gadfly; a short Jewish-looking young man, sneeringly observing the unfolding dynamics, who is the group Woody Allen and an ethereal-looking, peace-loving boy who is the group’s self appointed mediator. 

Unable to ignore the rising chorus of voices behind me, mindful of how loud and entitled they seem, and fearful of being perceived as an unwelcome trespasser, I signal for the attention of a boyish looking student, seated about two feet away, who is utterly transfixed by his laptop. I jiggle my hand as though it is time for him to snap out of his trance and he does so, at first dazed at having been summoned to reenter the real world, but then, multi-tasker that he is, immediately refocusing his prodigious powers of concentration on the expected question. It is a simple whispered question:  gesturing with my thumb to the noisy group, 15 feet away, “Is that a seminar behind me… Will I be interrupting it?”

He looks only 15 years old but he's a quick study. Realizing I'm in need of an older brother, he addresses me as though I am having trouble tying my shoelaces, “no, no,” he urges me, motioning me with his hand to seat myself (I realize, rationally speaking, they must be several years older but they are so fantastically innocent-looking, so overprotected and untested, sitting so obediently before their open laptops, inhabiting without protest a virtual world of pure abstract thought — that they seem to me more like overgrown children than emerging young adults).

However, not wanting to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to eavesdrop on a seminar of Columbia wunderkind, I gladly seat myself. The ensuing conversation which I heard only in snatches and sound bites, conducted in a language I had never before heard, went like this. 

Group leader: “Okay let's look at the dimensionality, when N=8.”

Group gadfly: (pouncing on this) “Why eight?” 

Group leader: (puzzled as to the real source of this palpable resistance): “Why eight?”

Group gadfly: (continuing to be unimpressed): “Yes, why eight. Why not seven?”

Group leader (leaning forward): “Well (sighing noticeably). OK…” (What follows is a brief tutorial on when and when not to resort to certain notational formalisms. 

Group gadfly (manifestly pleased he's managed to make the group leader work so hard): “I see, then with certain parameters N equals eight and with others parameters N equals seven.”

Group leader (sensing a shift in power has taken place): “If you put it that way, I suppose so.”

Group mediator (Sensing an opening for a possible arbitration): “What we have here then are two powerful formalisms, two frontal attacks coming from different directions, which basically achieve the same beautiful proof of the (sounds like) Reidel theorem.

I noticed, somewhere in the midst of the Riedel theorem tutorial, the urbane group leader, perhaps sensing that the level of conversational gravitas, had fallen beneath his customary standards, had slipped away. And now the group gadfly, ratcheting up his intensity, becomes the group pit bull. When someone asked him about the Barney algorithm, his verdict was swift and merciless: “He's a crackpot. The algorithm is correct. But he’s a crackpot.” It was the straight line the group Woody Allen had been waiting for: “Barney is a crackpot? Why am I not surprised to hear that?”

I noticed they were now looking at me looking at them. They probably have been fooled by my silver-gray hair into thinking I was a mathematical somebody. But they have figured out that, hardly a member of the club, I was just an overly curious interloper.  Just as well, it was time to meet Peter Woit.

I wondered, walking slowly down the stairs to the fourth floor, what I say to him? None of the books I have read, the blogs I have followed, the video-taped science lectures I had exhaustively and obsessively watched, had prepared me for this. I was meeting, purportedly interviewing, the Senior Lecturer in mathematics at Columbia University, the famous theoretical physicist who had written the controversial, radical book, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.

On the fourth floor I follow a trail of dwindling numbers (to room 421), down narrow corridors and box-like tiny offices. Just before I arrived at room 421 out of the corner of my eye, I spot a semi-large completely empty, oddly rustic-looking classroom. Architecturally speaking, if I had to, I would describe it as early Abraham Lincoln.

There is a twenty-foot long, dark brown table, that would be suitable for a picnic, and a matching 20 foot, bare bench, with absolutely no demarcations. I imagine Stepford-like students robotically sitting in a row following the unfolding march of equations on the wall to wall blackboard at the head of the classroom. It was also bare, just as I remembered it fifty years ago, except for the humongous, Godzilla-size clapboard eraser waiting to punish anyone, unfortunate enough to blaspheme the blackboard with a manifest, mathematical error. I could imagine without cognitive dissonance a young Abraham Lincoln attending with rapt attention such a classroom. I could even imagine him building it himself.

I didn't know what the protocol for punctuality was when it comes to professors of higher mathematics, but I figured precision was the safest way to go. So at exactly 1 PM I poked my head around the corner of the door which had been left open. About 15 feet straight ahead, in a second room, room 421, another door was partially a jar. All I could see in profile were the bottom halves of two, rather long crossed legs; some knees, part of a notebook, and a pen poised in the air. I did a quick back of the envelope calculation and deduced that the legs, the knees belong to Peter Woit; that, while waiting for me, with not a minute to waste, he had dived back into his ever present workload and temporarily lost track of the time. (Which has happened to me when I'm waiting for less than punctual patients). So I rap on the door gently but audibly, only a little bit louder than the click heard around the world on February 11, 2016, signaling the detection and verification for the first time in history of of Einstein's prediction of gravitational waves. And Peter Woit literally springs to his feet (the whole person), as he might have had he been on the LIGO team and had actually heard the first click from the beginning of time, and rushes to meet me. He seems tall, above 6 feet, seems trim, and looks like a down to earth regular guy. It's a difficult moment when you have to transition from being a total stranger to someone who—at the end of the encounter—will be expected to say (and to be told) “It was nice to meet you.” (As Erving Goffman famously observed, our social contract absolutely depends on each of its constituents, upon meeting strangers, to act much nicer than they could possibly be in the real world: i.e., to lie about their true feelings: people would rather go to the stake than to say, at the end of an encounter, (what is often the simple truth): “I didn't particularly like meeting you and would rather not see you again.”

A classic way people try to sidestep this painful moment is to rely on what I once called open “elevator humor.” This is when two people who have absolutely nothing in common, are suddenly trapped together in an unbearably close space, who cannot wait for the doors to open, but are forced to spend at least one or two agonizing moments together. What they do—via an unconscious collusive pact—is to tacitly agree to pretend to laugh merrily at anything, no matter how putridly unfunny: (e.g. “it never rains but it pours” as though it were a Louis C.K. gem).

And this is what I do. Except after decades of having to hone my verbal agility as a professional writer, I can rely on a certain level of confidence in my improvisational skills. So I impulsively launch into a comic riff on the bizarro experience of wandering into an impromptu conclave of intensely competitive, absurdly young, status obsessed, fledging mathematicians. And to my relief he likes it! So why not, or as an add-on and encore, bring in the ridiculously out of touch Abraham Lincoln school room. 

The absurdity of elitish wunderkind eager to climb the Mount Everest of mathematical thought, is hardly lost on him but this is what he does, and what he does he takes seriously.

“That’s right, that is all there is.”

All you need, in the other words, according to Peter Woit is a blackboard, a workbench, an eraser and a lot of brainpower.

I mentioned that in the morning just before I came to see him, I quickly reviewed (from his blog) the numerous slides highlighting his recent Rutgers talk. It was in commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of his famous, if controversial takedown of the reigning paradigm (in physics, then and now)—endlessly lauded “as our best candidate for a theory of everything”—string theory. I want to get the conversational ball rolling but I have no clue as how to do that. So I say, “You mentioned three revolutions in string theory?” And he's off, that is all it takes. Top flight mathematicians, I can see, think twice as fast as the ordinary person, and when it comes to their special field of expertise, they talk much faster than that. It's as though they have so much data, hypotheses, theories, so many thoughts swarming in their minds, all clamoring to be heard, that they cannot possibly do justice to more than the tiniest fraction.

As he speeds along, thinking and speaking with machine-gun rapidity, I notice he is only looking at me partially, sideways as it were. The focus of his gaze appears to be straight ahead in pure space. He is not distracted, absent-minded. He seems to be concentrating fiercely, in a private self-space into which only he can slip at will and where no one is allowed. It’s the place where lonely geniuses like Gary Kasparov, former world chess champion, go when they need to stretch their minds to the breaking point.

But it's not the place, standing outside the open door of his office where he wants to continue the conversation. Grabbing his coat, he suggests somewhat pointedly, “maybe we should go to lunch.”

But there is something though I have to do.

“Can I look at your office first, for just five minutes?”

He says “sure” but he seems to be wondering why anyone would want to spend time in his cramped cubbyhole of an office, surrounded by towering stacks of cheap paperbacks reaching to the ceiling, tall bookcases crammed with sallow professional literature, and a notable lack of memorable furniture. He doesn't realize is not the office, it's the library, his personal library that I that I want to see. There are few things I am more interested in whenever I meet a new person than the book they are carrying (I don’t expect a window into their soul, just a peek into their mind).

So feeling hurried, but determined to have a quick look, I step inside — and as soon as I do my heart sinks. Among hundreds there is not a single book I know, not a single book I've read, not a single author I can honestly say I recognize. But, at the very top, of a column of paperbacks, about a foot from the ceiling, in an upside down position, in small lettering that I have to strain to read is a book that looks familiar. Yes, it's Douglas Hofstadter's Surfaces and Essences, his latest book, a monumental book, a book I own and know quite well.

Could this be the link I'm searching for?

"Isn’t that Hofstadter up there?" I asked excitedly.


"Douglas Hofstadter, you know him, the computer scientist"

“Umm… is he the one you wrote that book G.. guh..” 

Godel, Escher, and Bach? Yes.” 

“Yeah, I read that one.”

“What did you think?”

“Uh... it was interesting.”

“What about Surfaces and Essences?  I thought it was a great book. You know he has a very original chapter where he tries to derive E=MC2 mainly by the use of analogy.”

Shaking his head, “I didn’t read it… People send me a lot of things”

Clearly Peter Woit is neither impressed nor interested.  As I am about to learn in our conversation, Peter Woit has two levels of engagement.  He is either all in, as in his quest to understand the “mystery” of quantum mechanics. Or he is unashamedly bored, as he was in school, growing up in Darien, Connecticut. 

The is one last thing to do before leaving the office.  In his wonderful Nautilus profile, Bob Henderson talks about the magical impact of the astronomy textbook, Stellar Atmospheres and Interiors by Eva Novotny had made on the teenage Peter Woit. It was a game changer.   Until then he had been content to stare at the stars through a backyard telescope.  Now to his amazement, he realized there was a world of “mysterious equations that tell you how a star works.”  And with that he was hooked.

So I ask Woit if he could show me a copy of the very book he had shown Bob Henderson, the very book that had turned him on to physics.  As though he had been waiting for the question from the moment he laid eyes on me, he climbs on his desk, locates the book on a shelf near the ceiling, and hops back down with surprising agility.  Riffling the pages, he stops at a nearly white page illustrated simply with a crooked, curving line that looks like a wobbly bell curve.  Is it a graph of stellar temperatures, an analysis of a red shift?  Whatever is was, it had shown him that, “There’s some kind of almost completely alien and mystical deep understanding of the world that those people are getting… But it’s actually very precise and testable and actually is real. 

For a few long moments he stares at the picture as though trying to recapture what it was that had so lighted his fire. I of course do not see stellar equations but I can picture in my mind’s eye a very curious, independent-minded teenage boy, who, all on his own, has a vision of how the composition of stars and the motion of planets could be nailed down and beautifully explained in a series of rigorous equations.  To see that, he must have been smart.

So I resolve to put a temporary lid on the questions that are now teeming in my mind and—as we walk through the still miserable weather to the French bistro, just a few blocks from Columbia University to which he occasional goes—to just listen.  Which suits Peter Woit, as he is still revved up over his recent Rutgers talk, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the publication in the United States of Not Even Wrong.

He still cannot fathom the level of animosity directed at his detailed critique of string theory by “some of the smartest people in the world.” At which point I suddenly cannot resist asking, “Why do you think that is Peter?” 

“Why do I think that is?”

“Yes. Why do you think some of the ‘smartest people in the world’ are unable to grasp your point?” 

He wishes he knew. Maybe it is just they are “too invested in the theory to give it up.” 

I never go to French bistros, but the place he has chosen seems admirably suited for leisurely conversation.  The price, as they say, is also just right.  My publisher has been sufficiently generous in his allocation of a luncheon budget that I am determined—if I have to dine on crackers and water—to come in under budget.  But the menu is eminently fair and when Peter Woit orders a cheeseburger deluxe with French fries (with the correct French pronunciation) I am able to say (mimicking one of my favorite movie lines) “I’ll have what he’s having.”

Finally, I’m ready to begin the interview proper, but out of nowhere, Peter Woit has a question of his own for me:

“Why… why… are you doing this?”

The level of implied mistrust takes me by surprise.  “Why am I doing this?”  I’m flustered that I have no ready answer and whenever I am pressed that way my default position is a kind of a self-reflective defensive honesty.

Why am I doing this?  Well, I have been doing this since I was a child.  Asking questions about our origins.  Where did we come from?  Why are we here?  All my life I’ve been interested in the creative process in all of its guises.  In mathematics, physics, neuroscience, psychology.  I’ve been reading your blog for the past three years.  I guess I just wanted to meet you. (The last admission elicits the first genuine smile of the afternoon).

And what ensues (in Part II of my interview with Peter Woit) is one of the longest and most interesting (for me) conversations I’ve ever had.

For readers interested in pursuing these ideas further, see my new book, God and Therapy: What we believe when no one is watching (iBooks, Alper)

Published February 23rd, 2016

Gerald Alper is an internationally recognized psychotherapist who is the author of 20 books.  These include besides the celebrated Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Patient, The Paranoia Of Everyday Life, The Dark Side Of The Analytic Moon, The PuppeteersThe Elephant In The Room: The Denial of The Unconscious Mind, and more recently the just published God And Therapy: What We Believe When No One Is Watching (I Books, Alper). He's been a Fellow of The American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis since 1985, a reviewer for The Journal of Contemporary Psychology, a contributor of articles and essays to leading professional journals, a frequent guest author appearing on public access radio programs throughout the United States and Canada.  His classic paper, A Psychoanalyist Takes the Turing Test, was included in the 2004 pioneering interdisciplinary anthology by Italian neuroscientist Franco Salzone who brought together seminal papers from both psychoanalysis and neuroscience. He lives with his wife in New York, stays in close contact with his two grown sons who remain hunkered down in Los Angeles and has been a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan for the past 25 years.