A few years ago the asset value of string theory in the market-place of ideas started to take a tumble due to the increasingly obvious failure of the idea of unifying physics with a 10/11 dimensional string/M-theory. Since then a few string theorists and their supporters have decided to fight back with an effort to regain market-share by misleading the public about what has happened. Because the nature of this failure is sometimes summarized as “string theory makes no experimental predictions”, the tactic often used is to claim that “string theory DOES make predictions”, while neglecting to explain that this claim has nothing to do with string theory unification.
A favorite way to do this is to invoke recent attempts to use conjectural string/gauge dualities to provide an approximate calculational method for some strongly coupled quantum systems. There are active on-going research programs to try and see if such calculational methods are useful in the case of heavy-ion collisions and various condensed-matter systems. In the heavy-ion case, we believe we know the underlying theory (QCD), so any contact between such calculations and experiment is a test not of the theory, but of the calculational method. For the condensed matter systems, what is being tested is the combination of the strongly-coupled model and the calculational method. None of this has anything to do with testing the idea that string theory provides a fundamental unified theory.
The yearly AAAS meeting is the largest gathering where scientists present results to the press and try and draw attention to recent scientific advances. This year’s meeting was held over the past weekend and featured a program Quest for the Perfect Liquid: Connecting Heavy Ions, String Theory, and Cold Atoms. While the presentations were largely a serious attempt to explain this area of research to the public, the fact that this has nothing to do with string theory unification somehow doesn’t seem to have been mentioned, with the result one would expect. The program was reported on under the headline A first: String theory predicts an experimental result, with the story beginning:
One of the biggest criticisms of string theory is that its predictions can’t be tested experimentally–a requirement for any solid scientific idea.
That’s not true anymore.
Another report entitled A prediction from string theory? at Physics World starts off:
Skeptics find much to complain about in string theory, but perhaps their most stinging criticism has been its inability to be falsified by experiment. A few years ago, one string theorist even told me that a particle accelerator big enough to “see” a string would be so large that its opposite ends would be causally disconnected. So this is not a problem we’ll be solving any time soon.
Yet even if we’ll never see a string in the lab, it turns out that string theory does make a few predictions about how matter should behave at the quantum level…
The dramatic news that claims that string theory can’t be tested have been refuted was then spread widely by Digg, so much so that the Symmetry Magazine site featuring the story crashed. The discussion on Digg showed what got through to the public from the efforts of the scientists involved:
Without a testable hypothesis it was only a String MODEL. Now we truly have a String Theory.
Michio Kaku just had an orgasm.
Brian Greene’s next book will be titled “Told You So Bitches!”
The one string theorist involved in all this was Clifford Johnson, who gives a minute-by-minute description of his participation here. It ends by invoking the phrase made famous by the last US president:
Mission accomplished. (Hurrah!)
Update: There a better story on this at Ars Technica, which avoids the misleading “test of string theory” claim.
Update: Another story about this is Experimenting With String Theory?, where the author for some reason also missed the fact that this has nothing to do with unification, writing:
So there you have it: finally, a potential concrete way to experiment with the predictions of string theory. But I’ll let the expert say that:
“This is the first time string theory can help experiments,” Johnson said. “We haven’t proven string theory, but have found a place where string theory has been a modest guide and making testable predictions.”
Another string theorist has a long blog entry about this here, where the punch-line is:
And it is just manifestly wrong to say that the lab tests of the predictions of AdS/QCD or AdS/CMT have nothing to do with string theory’s being the unifying theory of gravity and other forces and matter, or a theory of everything, if you wish. They have everything to do with it.
Update: Chad Orzel has sensible things to say about this here, in the context of a more general debate about the role of science journalists. In the comment section Moshe Rozali’s comment I suspect reflects the feelings of most string theorists about this:
As for the specifics of your example, I would comment on it, but I decided to go and extract my own wisdom tooth instead. I think that would be much more fun.