David Gross just finished giving the closing talk at Strings 2008, on the outlook for string theory, following a talk by Hirosi Ooguri summarizing the conference. Strings 2009 will be in Rome next June, and it appears that there is a tentative plan to have Strings 2010 in College Station, Texas.
Gross began his talk by recalling his days as a postdoc at CERN in the late 60s, working on an early version of string theory (e.g. trying to extend the Veneziano model). At the time he felt CERN was a great center of theory, but somewhat of an experimental backwater, with the real action he was interested in happening at SLAC. Now, forty years later both string theory and CERN have flourished. CERN is in the process of becoming the single world umbrella lab doing particle physics, driving all the others out of business. Unfortunately, Gross sees the same thing happening in particle theory and seems rather pleased about it, saying that only one umbrella in theoretical physics will survive, string theory, eating up everything else. Except LQG, which he says has not yet been brought under the umbrella, and “we’re not sure we want to”.
I found this display of string theory triumphalism truly appalling. The fact of the matter is that string theory has failed miserably to do what it was supposed to do, explain unexplained features of the standard model and predict what happens beyond it. Under the circumstances, to claim victory and write out of particle theory anything that doesn’t fit under the string theory “umbrella” is completely inappropriate. The message to any young particle theorist from Gross was clear: fall in line with string theory ideology, or there will be no place for you under the “umbrella”, i.e. no job for you (the phenomenologists have their own umbrella, you better try that one). The fact that HEP experiment is being forced to consolidate in one lab by economic realities is a really unfortunate one. There is no similar reason for HEP theory to be forced to consolidate around one topic.
Later on in the talk, Gross started channeling Lee Smolin and me, urging young people to stop sticking to the same well-worn ideas, to stop looking under the same lampposts, and to go out and search for something really new. He argued that they would find wandering in the darkness less competitive since few people were doing it. It was unclear whether one is allowed to get out from under the umbrella when one goes out to investigate the darkness, presumably not.
While he made lots of positive comments about current work in string theory in order to rally the troops, much of his talk was rather pessimistic and critical of trends in string theory research. He acknowledged that there hadn’t been any “great breakthroughs” in the field in quite a while. String phenomenology was described an attempt to make string theory “a predictive, or at least imitative” framework. He didn’t comment on what it means for theorists to give up on predicting nature, and settling for imitating it.
About the LHC, he acknowledged that it is unlikely to have anything to say about string theory. He finds the idea of seeing black holes, strings, etc. “extremely unlikely”, but is betting that the Higgs and supersymmetry will show up. Unfortunately, even if supersymmetry is found “it’s not clear that we’re going to learn enough”, this won’t answer any deep questions about string theory or prove that it is relevant. His “most optimistic hope” is that the LHC will see something unexpected, and “we will realize that this was an obvious prediction of string theory”. He notes that this is “almost our last chance”, if nothing relevant to string theory shows up at this energy scale, it is unlikely that anything relevant will show up at any energy scale accessible for an extremely long time.
Gross commented on two topics that hadn’t been mentioned in the talks. He’s still hoping for a non-anthropic explanation of the CC, and noted that no speaker had brought up the anthropic landscape explanation of the CC, with it getting a mention only at one after-dinner talk. Despite what Susskind claims, perhaps the battle between the anthropicists and their opponents is not going so well for the anthopic side. They may get pushed out from underneath the umbrella…
The second topic was the still unsolved question of “what is string theory?”. Gross noted that there were no talks on string field theory, since it and most other ideas about how to define string theory non-perturbatively have gone nowhere. The one thing that is still alive is AdS/CFT, which now completely dominates the subject. More and more, particle theory research under the umbrella is focused only on things related to the duality of N=4 SSYM and string theory on AdS5 x S5. Gross noted the progress toward showing this duality, with the planar limit perhaps being done within the next few years.
By the way, in Ooguri’s talk, he mentions an AdS/CFT discrepancy that has been resolved, saying he was surprised that some blogger didn’t claim this discrepancy as disproof of AdS/CFT. Lubos in his commentary helpfully explains that Ooguri was referring to “numerous pigs and Woits”. Since I’ve never argued that there’s a problem with AdS/CFT duality, I guess he must be talking about someone else. Maybe Jacques Distler has some postings about problems with AdS/CFT that I missed.
Gross takes the attitude that there is no more value in working on “tests” of AdS/CFT, that the conjecture is now well-tested and it is time to move on to try and understand what AdS/CFT is good for, especially what it says about the question of “what string theory is?”. The planar limit is just the classical limit, and he discusses prospects for moving beyond it [and beyond AdS/CFT, to other backgrounds]. On the QFT side, this means deforming the gauge theory by non-renormalizable operators, so it is not clear what to do.
David Gross summed it all up, took stock of where we are, and where we aren’t, and looked forward. A sort of “state of the union” speech if you like. And the state is good. Very good indeed.