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Physicist Fist-Fight: What’s the Deal with Strings?

Can one theory explain everything?

This is the oldest objective of science. We can retrace the question to the pre-Socratics, when Thales in 585 BCE first suggested that everything was ultimately made of water, and that the apparent phases of matter were simply different states of this fundamental water, this blood of the Apsu or ichor of the gods.

What Thales was attempting was a universal theory. We have since moved on from water to the discovery of four fundamental forces: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, gravity, and electro-magnetism. Between this quartet, our understanding of the universe – however incomplete – hangs both powerfully and delicately. Can they ever be combined into a Grand Unification Theory?

Significantly, electro-magnetism was once deemed to be two separate forces, but James Clerk Maxwell, writing towards the end of the nineteenth century, united them for the scientific world.

Today we have come up with two perfectly wonderful, credible theories to tackle the nature of the universe. We have General Relativity to handle gravity, and we have the Standard Model to handle the other three. As best we can tell, both theories are correct and utterly irreconcilable with each other. It was Albert Einstein’s Holy Grail to reconcile them. He didn’t.

And so the quest continues. Yesterday in New York, seven leading physicists attended the American Museum of Natural History for the 11th annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, and they discussed whether or not it was even possible to come up with the proverbial Theory of Everything.

From the article:

Many physicists say our best hope for a theory of everything is superstring theory, based on the idea that subatomic particles are actually teensy tiny loops of vibrating string. When filtered through the lens of string theory, general relativity and quantum mechanics can be made to get along


Ah yes, string theory. The radical discipline which emerged, almost out of defiance, against the scientific establishment and purported to contain the secrets to explaining everything. The hip brand of new thinking that seemed to merge science and mysticism (more on that later.)

As Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, says, “There’s been an enormous amount of progress in string theory. There have been issues developed and resolved that I never thought, frankly, we would be able to resolve. The progress over the last 10 years has only solidified my confidence that this is a worthwhile direction to pursue.”

I will freely admit that I am a fan of superstring theory. How can you look at it and not gape at its fascinating aesthetics. It seems very Zen, the cosmological picture of simple elegance. When physicists smash particles together and get a shower of seemingly endless smaller particles, there is something enticing about a theory that states this endlessly diverse shower is nothing more than different vibration pitches of the same underlying string-like structure. I’ve attended Greene’s lectures and he is articulate and convincing — he has the Sagan touch for communicating ideas in a lucid and affecting manner.

There’s just one little problem:

Superstring theory isn’t a theory.

Since science works on theories and the ability to test those theories, string theory is a little too radical for its own good. String theory does not lend itself to being tested. It does not make quantifiable predictions. Without these important elements, it is not science by our prevailing definition. It becomes a thought experiment. A philosophy. Perhaps, even, a religion.

From the article:

Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, suggested that string theory seems to have stalled, and contrasted the lack of progress of “legions” of string theorists with the seemingly short 10 years it took one man – Einstein – to transition from special relativity to general relativity.

“Are you chasing a ghost or is the collection of you just too stupid to figure this out?” deGrasse Tyson teased.

In fact, one of the chief components of string theory is that it requires 11 dimensions to work. The instant we involve higher dimensional planes, we stray into phantasmagoric territory. The addition of dimensions becomes something like spackle. Tyson’s offhand reference to ghosts is probably quite calculated and deliberate.

What do we think? If string theory is philosophy and not science, does this suggest that the tools we use are no longer practical in addressing the investigation of the cosmos? Or is it simply a matter of time before we develop those tools?

3 comments to Physicist Fist-Fight: What’s the Deal with Strings?

  • FiveString

    I think I’d classify string theory as an approach rather than a philosophy or (especially) religion.

    And I’m not sure I see any reason a priori why the conceptual difficulties of 11 dimensional space would prevent testable predictions. After all, quantum mechanics does just fine in that department despite our inability to fathom what wave-function collapse or particle-wave duality ‘really mean’.

    That said, string theory is obviously still immature in the testability department. But I’m confident that someday it (or something equally weird?) will rise to that level of rigor and lead to a viable TOE.

  • klox

    It has it’s roots in mathematics, thus making it infinitely more interesting than philosophy.

    The unification of the electromagnetic force has was over a century ago. Why no mention of the electroweak force, the combination of electromagnetic and weak force. That was done in the 60s. The strong force still hasn’t been unified with the electroweak force. The collection gives us the standard model.

  • Eliot89

    You’re correct in stating that String Theory is not yet a theory as it is currently untestable. I also agree that physicists have spent more time on this idea than they have results to show for it. However, as pointed out previously, that does not mean that this non-theory is necessarily incorrect. It certainly does not deserve the status of religion. It could be waiting for it’s Planck or Heisenberg or Einstein to piece together what others have missed. Bottom line, it’s late in the game but still too early to call it. At the very least I believe it to be a worthwhile exercise as it has the potential to help point us in the correct direction should it turn out not to be the solution.

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