Fixes for Physics?

Physics-watchers will have found it hard to miss the recent flood [?] of public criticisms of String Theory, the currently favored candidate for a ‘theory of everything’ unifying particle physics and gravity (and therefore providing a fundamental theory of cosmology). The two most prominent have been Peter Woit from Columbia, who has spun off his blog, Not Even Wrong into a book of the same name, and Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute, who has written one of his own, The Trouble With Physics (whose publishers have been kind enough to send me a copy, so you can look forward to my commentary at some point when it gets to the top of my bedside table book pile).

Woit, in particular, continues to comment on the situation on his blog. And he’s got some suggestions for improving things, starting at the graduate level:

  1. Giving people directly out of graduate school longer term postdocs (e.g. 5-6 years), so they have more than 1-2 years in which to come up with something for their next job.
  2. Graduate student birth control, bringing the ratio of Ph.Ds to jobs to something reasonable, so that the job market is not so insanely competitive and people are more likely to feel that they can have a future in the field even if they don’t work on the latest, hottest topic.
  3. Senior theorists need to stop putting students to work on the latest, trendiest string theory topic, encourage their students to work on a wider variety of things. At the same time they need to change their standards for hiring postdocs and junior faculty, making it clear to applicants that they want to see original ideas, not the same thing everyone else is doing.
  4. The NSF/DOE should explicitly admit that particle theory research is in trouble, give guidance to people reviewing proposals that copycat proposals on the latest string theory topic will not be funded, and emphasize that priority will be given to diversity, that proposing to do something different will be a lot more likely to get you funded. This applies to grants for workshops/conferences, as well as grants to individuals and theory groups.
Although Woit specifically aims these comments at theoretical particle physics, just substitute “cosmology” into each of these ideas, and they stand up just as well. We’ve got too few senior jobs and too many people jumping on the latest bandwagon. But maybe I’m just getting curmudgeonly — although I’m not sure that I’m with the doomsayers like Woit and Smolin that this bespeaks a general crisis in physics, rather than just a period of consolidation, especially as cosmology in particular adjusts to its transition from a data-starved discipline to a data-driven one.