13 April 2013

String research - the story of the modern maze

Witten's paper, mentioned in the previous post, still touches me. The paper is written by an excellent mathematical physicist. His and the paper's story is the story of a man that enters a maze, sent by many people who trust in his abilities. But instead of looking for the exit, he remains enamoured with what he find in the hallways. In a dead end, he finds an old machine. He starts exploring his machine. After a while he understands what the machine does. He then walks back the maze along the way he entered it, and tells everybody about the machine and about what it does.

He is proud of the machine that he found, and is proud of solving the mystery of its workings. His ego swells. He is admired by thousands of people. He wins prizes.

Then a few people start asking about the exit he was supposed to find. He avoids the answer. He points to his achievements. A sense of disappointment starts to spread.


The exit of the maze is unification, the machine is string theory. String research is good for your fame and ego. But string theory is useless for unification. 


  1. Yes, he found a machine that somebody had started to build. All machines are constructed with an intention. The machine was supposed to tell us what happens when both quantum and gravitational effects are important, but it didn't quite work. Witten started to fix it up, but when he did, he got an unpleasant surprise. There were 10 to the power 500 ways to put in a crucial component but no way to decide which way to put it in without just trying each way to see how it performed. No one could ever try all 10 to the power 500 different ways.

    The only solution seemed to be to hope that he could build a machine that would do the same thing but in a slightly different way so that none of the components presented him with so many different ways to put them in. But he had no idea how to build such a machine. It was a total mystery.

  2. Let us hope that Witten wakes up one day.