The Strange Second Life of String Theory

Sep 24, 2016

By K.C. Cole

String theory strutted onto the scene some 30 years ago as perfection itself, a promise of elegant simplicity that would solve knotty problems in fundamental physics—including the notoriously intractable mismatch between Einstein’s smoothly warped space-time and the inherently jittery, quantized bits of stuff that made up everything in it.

It seemed, to paraphrase Michael Faraday, much too wonderful not to be true: Simply replace infinitely small particles with tiny (but finite) vibrating loops of string. The vibrations would sing out quarks, electrons, gluons, and photons, as well as their extended families, producing in harmony every ingredient needed to cook up the knowable world. Avoiding the infinitely small meant avoiding a variety of catastrophes. For one, quantum uncertainty couldn’t rip space-time to shreds. At last, it seemed, here was a workable theory of quantum gravity.

Even more beautiful than the story told in words was the elegance of the math behind it, which had the power to make some physicists ecstatic.

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5 comments on “The Strange Second Life of String Theory

  • Alert, alert, I am about to be very pedantic.

    I am always put off by the use of the word “theory” when it follows “string”. It is string hypothesis, nothing more.

    See, people think Darwin proposed the theory of evolution. He did not. He proffered the hypothesis of evolution and, over the ensuing decades of experiment and debate, he was shown to be correct and then it evolved (pun intended) into the theory of evolution by natural selection.

    A more modern example would be Lynn Margulis’ Endosymbiotic hypothesis which has (pun again) evolved into a theory over the decades of critical examination. Her early work was often crapped on and belittled. I heard it said that a prominent biologist (not Richard) said that she was either a genius ….. or completely cracked. But, her beautiful assertion did not exit her mouth (pen…brain…)as a theory. it was a hypothesis. So is the untested idea that strings underlie all matter.

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  • A lot of nice things about this article of the expansion of the String Hypothesis, not least the resetting of expectations about timescale, the acknowledgement of the greatly expanded and quite generally usefull mathematical tool kit it has created for others, the new rich blended soup of ideas.

    But I particularly like this neat little observation/hypothesis-

    The discovery of dual descriptions of the same phenomenon pretty much sums up the history of physics. A century and a half ago, James Clerk Maxwell saw that electricity and magnetism were two sides of a coin. Quantum theory revealed the connection between particles and waves. Now physicists have strings.

    (Crooked, appreciated the Margulis illustration. I don’t think people even now realise how critical this (now) theory is to understanding complex life.)

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  • 3
    Pinball1970 says:

    @1 and 2 Do we have any evidence at all of 1/extra dimensions or 2/super symmetric particles?

    Any hints at the LHC?

    What experimental data is there to support anything in string theory?

    If methods will never be able to probe matter at the energies required to “look” at some of the elements of string theory can we still say it is falsifiable?

    Lynn Margulis? I will google- thanks

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  • crookedshoes, I see your pedantic and raise you a metaphor.

    …and then it evolved (pun intended) into the theory of evolution by
    natural selection.

    …Lynn Margulis’ Endosymbiotic hypothesis which has (pun again)
    evolved into a theory…

    since your concern is semantics.

    Pinball1970, try ‘Unweaving the rainbow’ c. chapter 9 for RD’s take on Lynn Margulis.

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