String theory gets knottedThe problem with the book is that it is really two books. "Woit I" - a brief history of particle physics - takes up the first 146 pages. Strings first appear on, wait for it, page 152, when we embark on the Great String Massacre of "Woit II". Here the book finally gets into its stride, and becomes quite entertaining. But to get that point means traversing the long, rambling and inaccurate Woit I, and many readers will jump off before getting to the destination. This reviewer nearly did... This mayhem is not helped by errors and deficiencies: Ernest Rutherford discovered the nucleus at Manchester, not Cambridge, and using alpha particles (as stated correctly on page 19) not electrons (page 87)... I could go on. Emerging from the fog of Woit I is the saintly figure of Hermann Weyl, who single-handedly did much to improve the mathematical footing of physics in the early 20th century. Indeed, aside from damning string theory, Woit's major theme is how physics and mathematics are intertwined disciplines, dancing closely together but not always in step... The author relates vividly how the theoretical-physics community appears mesmerized by the brilliance of Edward Witten. While himself being impressed by Witten's intellect, Woit depicts him as a Pied Piper of Princeton, luring gullible theorists off to dark destinations. Witten is the counterpart for the latter half of the 20th century to Weyl in the first half, but in Woit's eyes he does not achieve the intellectual honesty of Weyl - even if Weyl was having an affair with Frau Schrödinger!
review by Gordon Fraser