String theorist Oswaldo Zapata continues (see here for an earlier posting about this) his remarkable series of essays about string theory and how it came to dominate research in theoretical high energy physics. The latest one, entitled The Music of the Superstrings is about the metaphorical use of classical music to promote superstring theory, and it concludes:
Metaphors are powerful rhetorical tools. But, at the same time, they are much more than that. Indeed, when used astutely, that is, when anchored in deep shared meanings and aspirations, they can create an enthusiastic army of supporters to the discourse displayed. This has been one of the strongest weapons of string theorists in the battle for the control of future research in high energy theoretical physics.
Zapata examines how and why string theorists have chosen to advertise string theory to the public by claiming a deep connection to music, especially to classical music. He recalls the many ways this analogy has been promoted by many different string theorists, from Brian Greene, who has made it a prominent part of his popular explanations of the theory, to Edward Witten, who told an interviewer in 1988:
In the case of a violin string, the different harmonics correspond to different sounds. In the case of superstring, the different harmonics correspond to different elementary particles.
I’ve always found this kind of thing grating, for a reason that Zapata doesn’t address. Statements like Witten’s give people the impression that the known fundamental particles of nature somehow correspond to the harmonics produced by vibration of a string. This is rather misleading, since all known particles correspond to the lowest energy state of the string. The quantum states corresponding to “harmonics” of a string are all supposed to be at unobservably high energy. The way the theory is sold to the public, via the musical metaphor that electrons and muons are different “harmonics” of a string vibrating at different frequencies makes it seem that such particles can be matched to the characteristic behavior of the harmonics of a string-like mechanical system, which is simply not true.
Zapata also now has a Reactions page, where he has posted links to commentary about his essays, as well as some comments from Bert Schroer in a recent preprint.