There’s been some buzz around a recent Quanta article by K. C. Cole, The Strange Second Life of String Theory. I found it a bit simplistic of a take on the topic, so I thought I’d offer a different one.
String theory has been called the particle physicist’s approach to quantum gravity. Other approaches use the discovery of general relativity as a model: they’re looking for a big conceptual break from older theories. String theory, in contrast, starts out with a technical problem (naive quantum gravity calculations that give infinity) proposes physical objects that could solve the problem (strings, branes), and figures out which theories of these objects are consistent with existing data (originally the five superstring theories, now all understood as parts of M theory).
That approach worked. It didn’t work all the way, because regardless of whether there are indirect tests that can shed light on quantum gravity, particle physics-style tests are far beyond our capabilities. But in some sense, it went as far as it can: we’ve got a potential solution to the problem, and (apart from some controversy about the cosmological constant) it looks consistent with observations. Until actual evidence surfaces, that’s the end of that particular story.
When people talk about the failure of string theory, they’re usually talking about its aspirations as a “theory of everything”. String theory requires the world to have eleven dimensions, with seven curled up small enough that we can’t observe them. Different arrangements of those dimensions lead to different four-dimensional particles. For a time, it was thought that there would be only a few possible arrangements: few enough that people could find the one that describes the world and use it to predict undiscovered particles.
That particular dream didn’t work out. Instead, it became apparent that there were a truly vast number of different arrangements of dimensions, with no unique prediction likely to surface.
By the time I took my first string theory course in grad school, all of this was well established. I was entering a field shaped by these two facts: string theory’s success as a particle-physics style solution to quantum gravity, and its failure as a uniquely predictive theory of everything.
The quirky thing about science: sociologically, success and failure look pretty similar. Either way, it’s time to find a new project.
A colleague of mine recently said that we’re all either entanglers or bootstrappers. It was a joke, based on two massive grants from the Simons Foundation. But it’s also a good way to summarize two different ways string theory has moved on, from its success and from its failure.
The entanglers start from string theory’s success and say, what’s next?
As it turns out, a particle-physics style understanding of quantum gravity doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. Some of the big conceptual questions the more general relativity-esque approaches were interested in are still worth asking. Luckily, string theory provides tools to answer them.
Many of those answers come from AdS/CFT, the discovery that string theory in a particular warped space-time is dual (secretly the same theory) to a more particle-physics style theory on the edge of that space-time. With that discovery, people could start understanding properties of gravity in terms of properties of particle-physics style theories. They could use concepts like information, complexity, and quantum entanglement (hence “entanglers”) to ask deeper questions about the structure of space-time and the nature of black holes.
The bootstrappers, meanwhile, start from string theory’s failure and ask, what can we do with it?
Twisting up the dimensions of string theory yields a vast number of different arrangements of particles. Rather than viewing this as a problem, why not draw on it as a resource?
“Bootstrappers” explore this space of particle-physics style theories, using ones with interesting properties to find powerful calculation tricks. The name comes from the conformal bootstrap, a technique that finds conformal theories (roughly: theories that are the same at every scale) by “pulling itself by its own boostraps”, using nothing but a kind of self-consistency.
Many accounts, including Cole’s, attribute people like the boostrappers to AdS/CFT as well, crediting it with inspiring string theorists to take a closer look at particle physics-style theories. That may be true in some cases, but I don’t think it’s the whole story: my subfield is bootstrappy, and while it has drawn on AdS/CFT that wasn’t what got it started. Overall, I think it’s more the case that the tools of string theory’s “particle physics-esque approach”, like conformal theories and supersymmetry, ended up (perhaps unsurprisingly) useful for understanding particle physics-style theories.
Not everyone is a “boostrapper” or an “entangler”, even in the broad sense I’m using the words. The two groups also sometimes overlap. Nevertheless, it’s a good way to think about what string theorists are doing these days. Both of these groups start out learning string theory: it’s the only way to learn about AdS/CFT, and it introduces the bootstrappers to a bunch of powerful particle physics tools all in one course. Where they go from there varies, and can be more or less “stringy”. But it’s research that wouldn’t have existed without string theory to get it started.