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Everyday science

Perimeter Institute welcome speech reignites the string wars

12 Sep 2013 Hamish Johnston

By Hamish Johnston

A series of four articles about people at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) has been published in the Canadian magazine Maclean’s and one article in particular has got people talking.

The piece is called “Perimeter Institute and the crisis in modern physics” and it focuses on a welcome speech given by Neil Turok, who is director of the PI in Waterloo, Canada. Turok was talking to incoming students to the PI’s Perimeter Scholars International (PSI) Master’s programme.

In the speech, Turok referred to a “very deep crisis in physics” that he believes the field has entered. The problem, according to Turok, is that experiments such as those at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the European Space Agency’s Planck space mission have so far failed to find any significant evidence for physics beyond the Standard Model.

Turok also told his audience that “There’ve been grand unified models, there’ve been super-symmetric models, super-string models, loop quantum-gravity models…Well, nature turns out to be simpler than all of these models.”

With regard to string theory, Turok said “It’s the ultimate catastrophe: that theoretical physics has led to this crazy situation where the physicists are utterly confused and seem not to have any predictions at all.”

Not surprisingly, one of string theory’s most vocal critics, the mathematician and blogger Peter Woit, says that Turok’s comments are “great to hear”.

However, not everyone is pleased with Turok’s views on the state of theoretical physics. In his usual combative style, blogger Lubos Motl describes the comments as an “anti-physics tirade” and then offers a 4000-word rebuttal to the speech.

Just about everything that happens at the PI is captured on video, so you can watch Turok’s welcome speech and come to your own conclusions.

The articles were written by Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells, who also profiled PSI student Jacob Barnett, who is just 15 years old, in “The making of a child prodigy“. Wells also chatted to several other PSI students and describes them in “Jacob’s classmates“.

In the final article, Wells describes his lunch at the PI’s “Bistro at the edge of the universe“.

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