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See Inside September 2006

The Inelegant Universe

Two new books argue that it is time for string theory to give way
PATIENCE



NICK KOUDIS Getty Images
The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next
by Lee Smolin
Houghton Mifflin, 2006

Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law
by Peter Woit
Basic Books, 2006

When you click the link for the Postmodernism Generator (www.elsewhere.org/pomo), a software robot working behind the scenes instantly throws together a lit-crit parody with a title like this: "Realities of Absurdity: The dialectic paradigm of context in the works of Fellini." And a text that runs along these lines: "In a sense, the main theme of the works of Fellini is the futility, and hence the stasis, of precapitalist sexuality. An abundance of deconceptualisms concerning a self-falsifying reality may be revealed."

Reload the page, and you get "The Dialectic of Sexual Identity: Objectivism and Baudrillardist hyperreality" and then "The Meaninglessness of Expression: Capitalist feminism in the works of Pynchon."

With a tweak to the algorithms and a different database, the Web site could probably be made to spit out what appear to be abstracts about superstring theory: "Frobenius transformation, mirror map and instanton numbers" or "Fractional two-branes, toric orbifolds and the quantum McKay correspondence."

Those are actually titles of papers recently posted to the arXiv.org repository of preprints in theoretical physics, and they may well be of scientific worth--if, that is, superstring theory really is a science. Two new books suggest otherwise: that the frenzy of research into strings and branes and curled-up dimensions is a case of surface without depth, a solipsistic shuffling of symbols as relevant to understanding the universe as randomly generated dadaist prose.

In this grim assessment, string theory--an attempt to weave together general relativity and quantum mechanics--is not just untested but untestable, incapable of ever making predictions that can be experimentally checked. With no means to verify its truth, superstring theory, in the words of Burton Richter, director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, may turn out to be "a kind of metaphysical wonderland." Yet it is being pursued as vigorously as ever, its critics complain, treated as the only game in town.

"String theory now has such a dominant position in the academy that it is practically career suicide for young theoretical physicists not to join the field," writes Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. "Some young string theorists have told me that they feel constrained to work on string theory whether or not they believe in it, because it is perceived as the ticket to a professorship at a university."

The counterargument, of course, is that string theory is dominant because the majority of theorists sense that it is the most promising approach--that the vision of oscillating strings singing the cosmic harmonies is so beautiful that it has to be true. But even that virtue is being called into question. "Once one starts learning the details of ten-dimensional superstring theory, anomaly cancellation, Calabi-Yau spaces, etc., one realizes that a vibrating string and its musical notes have only a poetic relationship to the real thing at issue," writes Peter Woit, a lecturer in mathematics at Columbia University, in Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law. The contortions required to hide away the seemingly nonexistent extra dimensions have resulted in structures Woit finds "exceedingly complex" and "exceedingly ugly."

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