Real World Strings

Quite a few people have written in to point out to me a recent paper by some condensed matter physicists about the possibility of trapping a fermionic atomic gas in a vortex inside a Bose-Einstein condensate. As far as I can tell, about the only thing this has in common with superstring models of quantum gravity and elementary particles is that their abstract starts the same way as many superstring abstracts: “Supersymmetric string theory is widely believed to be the most promising candidate for a ‘theory of everything'”. This article has gotten wide attention in the press and on the internet at Slashdot which informs us that this will “(provide) the first experimental evidence to support superstring theory.” At Slashdot you can also read comments from large numbers of confused souls who now believe that experimental confirmation of superstring theory is right around the corner. Obviously this is about as absurd as believing that the existence of my shoelaces provides excellent experimental confirmation of the existence of open strings.

Another weird related phenomenon is the wide-spread idea that violin strings somehow have something to do with superstring theory. For some reason it always seems to be violin strings rather than, say, electric guitar strings. Maybe string theory would be more popular if it would make the connection with a more popular music form. The violinist Jack Liebeck has been going around with physicist Brian Foster, with Liebeck giving concerts in which he “demonstrates superstring concepts on his violin.” The performance ends “with a duet for two violins in which lecturer and soloist join forces to illustrate the production of mini Black Holes” at the LHC. I really think an electric guitar would be a lot better for this purpose.

These performances are taking place at dozens of locations around the world, are somehow part of “World Year of Physics 2005”, and supposedly educating people about science. They invoke the memory of poor Albert Einstein, implying that he has something to do with superstring theory since he played the violin and searched for a unified theory. Unfortunately Foster and Liebeck don’t seem to be coming to New York, although they were at Cornell this past weekend.

Along the same lines, for something truly weird, get a copy of Einstein’s Violin: A Conductor’s Notes on Music, Physics and Social Change, by Joseph Eger, the music director of the Symphony for United Nations. This book, besides also invoking poor Einstein, goes on in an extremely repetitive fashion about how superstring theory shows that music and fundamental physics are all the same thing. Eger has all sorts of original insights including for instance:

“Science had its heyday during Sputnik and then gradually faded until the eighties, when string theory came to the fore.”

“Religious fundamentalists, big business, and politicians, especially of the neo-conservative variety, have been quick to appropriate quantum mechanics and a perversion of the new music to sell their fundamentalist religion, anti-Darwin ideologies, and biological nightmares.”

“On this cosmological scale, and since we are postulating that the universe is music and that music expresses and explains the universe, then we can take the next logical step, that music could hold the key to a T. O. E.”

Evidently Witten is guilty of at least not discouraging the author, a sin for which I hope he is punished by having to read this book:

“One day in the eighties, driving with Ed to New York from Princeton, he responded to my question about what he was working on by excitedly telling me about string theory and its ten or more dimensions. Bewildered yet emboldened by this brilliant scientist, I tentatively spoke of my theory that the universe is made of music. Half expecting polite derision, he thought for a few seconds and calmly responded affirmatively.”

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20 Responses to Real World Strings

  1. Roy says:

    M.S. El Naschie is of course, the editor of Chaos, Solitons and Fractals. The rest of the gang(not say that they are tainted by association with their boss) are here,

    In between chuckles, I am extremely disturbed that a reputed publisher would publish stuff that looks like it’s excerpted from an anti-Sokal parody. Does Reed Elsevier publish more of these journals?

  2. ksh95 says:

    …was making fun of the idea of theoretical physics thinking it had something to do with music, in this case a certain sort of popular music performance. If you can’t make fun of popular music, what can you make fun of?

    I thought it was the modern-day cyber incarnation of blackface comedy, but after a little research it turns out that “50 cent” is a highly successful rap artist…my fault I guess?

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Maybe I’ve got it wrong, but it seemed to me that whoever wrote that little bit of parody wasn’t making fun of anyone disadvantaged or different than them, but was making fun of the idea of theoretical physics thinking it had something to do with music, in this case a certain sort of popular music performance. If you can’t make fun of popular music, what can you make fun of?

  4. ksh95 says:

    But beware of making fun of any of this. Surely Mr. El Nachie is a member of one disadvantaged group or another, so some commenters here will be offended.

    Hmmm, Maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t think that “…they’re different than me, hahaha…” is funny.

    And just for the record. I’m not a disadvantaged minority, gay, deaf, female, christian, or liberal. It just seems to me that the person who looks at different cultures and then proceeds to burst into gut-busting laughter…can’t be very intelligent.

    Maybe I’m wrong

  5. JC says:

    Just looking at El Naschie’s listing of papers on SPIRES, it looks like he published around 56 papers over the last 4 years. This would be around 14 papers per year, or a paper every 3 or 4 weeks! When was the last time a bigshot, like an Ed Witten or John Ellis, published this many single-authored papers in one year?

    On the surface it looks like El Naschie is using the journal “Chaos Solitons Fractals” as if it was his own personal “vanity” journal. In the publishing business the publishers with the lowest reputation seem to be the “vanity” publishers, who will publish just about anything for a fee. (These are usually the publishers of last resort for authors who have been turned down by just about every other publisher). Have some journal publishers stooped down to the point of offering “vanity” journals?

  6. D R Lunsford says:

    M. S. El Naschie = “Les Machines” – could it be those kwazy kwazy Bogdanoffs?


  7. D R Lunsford says:

    “Big Twang” – give that guy a gold star! (Still chuckling and the origin of the big U will never be the same…)


  8. Peter Woit says:

    Hi Kanex,

    Thanks for the comment, those are extremely impressive papers. One might wonder how they got published in an Elsevier journal, since such journals are known for their high prices and correspondingly high editorial standards. The journal is online (if you are at an institution that sends big bucks to Elsevier) at

    The fact that the editor is named M.S. El Naschie may have something to do with why it publishes all those papers.

    But beware of making fun of any of this. Surely Mr. El Nachie is a member of one disadvantaged group or another, so some commenters here will be offended.

  9. Kanex says:

    Hi Peter. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and this is my first post 😉

    I’d like to share with you some amusing papers. I think they are even better than warren siegel’s parodies 😉,+M+S

  10. ksh95 says:

    Bump my new CD, homies, shit contains the world-formula, if you know what I’m saying. But it’s LQG not string stuff, aaiight!?

    Yes, I also think it’s funny to parody disadvantaged urban youth. Maybe tomorrow we can parody gay people.


    When deaf people speak they sound funny and those Arab turbans look weird…maybe you could also touch on them.

    thanks and keep up the good work

  11. Alejandro says:

    “The pleasure you get from math/physics is just like the pleasure you get from music really”

    I am sure that string theoretists get much pleasure by doing their maths. But it doesn’t follow they get much of real physics.

    Personally I were never able to play the violin, Now I am learning to use a theremin.

  12. D R Lunsford says:

    “On the Analysis of Chopsticks and Attendant Phenomena” – Gang of Four^h^h^h^hEleven


  13. Steve says:

    This would be just a Green-Schwarz superstring analog? Interesting actually, if it could be done and string methods could prove powerful tools in condensed matter theory and in ongoing questions in qcd. Confusion among people though and again in the press, just like people thought black holes had actually been made at Brookhaven.

    There is a definite and well-known connection between music ability and math ability. The pleasure you get from math/physics is just like the pleasure you get from music really. Both are a powerful symbolic language. I myself studied classical guitar in the 80s (and still do)and wanted to do music as as degree but ended up doing theo. phys/math instead (also my family did’nt consider music a “real degree” I remember)

    The violin analogy has been used in just about every popular book on string theory: one vibrational mode or note corresponds to an electron, one to a quark etc. A nice enough idea but one that has never actually been made to work, at least with the particles we actually know to exist. Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” solo would probably much better describe the production of black holes at the LHC.

    PS I see you are back Peter. I was wondering if you had gone off to join the cinema line a week early for the first showing of the new Star Wars film:)

  14. Anonymous says:

    Well, string theory was originally studied to understand strong interactions; what we now call QCD strings. Perhaps the study of Bose-Einstein vortices as a noncritical string is a return of string theory to its physical roots. As a phenomelogical model, the Polyakov action fits in with lattice simulations to a remarkably good accuracy. In fact, Polyakov came up with his action while trying to reformulate Yang-Mills theories using Wilson loops. Perhaps the same thing will hold true for vortices as well.

    I think noncritical string theory is worth persuing to understand QCD. The theory where glueballs are closed strings and mesons are open strings with quark flavor Chan-Paton factors. The string network picture of gauge theories certainly adds weight to this idea with the interesting twist that strings can branch.

    In fact, string theorists are trying to do the same thing. They are looking at string theory in AdS_5 as a dual description of QCD.

    It certainly is plausible that there might be an S-dual description of superconductors and superfluids using vortices based upon noncritical string theory just as some gauge theories admits an S-dual description using monopoles. In fact, I think this has already been done by some theorists working on the Kosterlitz-Thouless phase transition.

    The prediction of 26 or 10 dimensions only comes about, I think, if we restrict ourselves to the simplest conformal field theories and insist upon constant dilaton fields, etc..

  15. Ben the Engineer says:

    The idea that the ‘universe is made of music’ is hardly original. It goes back at least to Pythagoras. At least Pythagoras had a solid theorem to his credit.

  16. 50 cent says:

    Bump my new CD, homies, shit contains the world-formula, if you know what I’m saying. But it’s LQG not string stuff, aaiight!?

  17. Maestro says:

    Open ‘E’,STRINGTHEORY, of course can be modified to incorperate the Universal ‘Big-Twang’, or Concerto for T.heoretical O.rchestra E.vents without any major Eighths?, where the Feynman Path integral is replaced by a Conductor Maestro Witten??.. “Marshal feedback”..or ‘My’ feedback theory!..I believe the Proton Decay is replaced with a ‘PHARTON-DECAY’ ideal G.A.S Law?

    It made have its roots in an after dinner speech, which , due to digestive constraints, inflated out of all propotions, causing an ‘Echo’,signal Backreaction around the auditorium, filtered out into the Cosmos, and legend has it, if one was to gently place your Ear to the cosmic soundhole, one can recieve the correct Vacuum Signal, tuned of course to a perfect pitch and chord..G

  18. Wolfgang says:


    I think you should have mentioned the band
    “Superstring”. Their debut album is called
    “artificial stupidity”.

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