There’s a nice article this week in Nature about AdS/CMT, entitled String Theory Finds a Bench Mate. According to the article, the whole thing is (partly) my fault:
But in 2006, string theory took a public battering in two popular books: Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit, a mathematician at Columbia, and The Trouble With Physics by Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. Both books excoriated the theory’s isolation from experiment.
“It’s hard to say whether the interest in condensed-matter applications is a direct response to those books because that’s really a psychological question,” says Joseph Polchinski, a string theorist at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara. “But certainly string theorists started to long for some connection to reality.”
The main point of the story is to tell about what is probably the hottest topic in hep-th these days, attempts to use AdS/CFT to say something about some models in condensed matter physics. For some idea of what this is all about, see the review article What can gauge-gravity duality teach us about condensed matter physics? by Subir Sachdev, and take a look at the online talks from the KITP workshop Holographic Duality and Condensed Matter Physics.
The article does go into the history of this in some detail, including its roots in efforts to use AdS/CFT to say something about heavy-ion physics phenomena observed at RHIC (for the string theory promotional campaign surrounding this, see e.g. here). I had expected to see a lot about this topic when higher energy results from heavy-ion collisions at the LHC were released earlier this year, but it seems to have gone quiet, perhaps because of the kind of comparison of data with AdS/CFT predictions that Sabine Hossenfelder points out here:
As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words, but since links and image sources have a tendency to deteriorate over time, let me spell it out for you: The AdS/CFT scaling does not agree with the data at all.
My knowledge of condensed matter theory is minimal, and the hype level surrounding string theory makes it hard to know whether to take at face value many of the claims being made. On general principles, this looks a bit more promising than the heavy-ion case, since there are many different kinds of systems one might look at, and the connections are more to QFT than to string theory. Experts quoted in the Nature article give opinions ranging from:
Polchinski admits that the condensed-matter sceptics have a point. “I don’t think that string theorists have yet come up with anything that condensed-matter theorists don’t already know,” he says. The quantitative results tend to be re-derivations of answers that condensed-matter theorists had already calculated using more mundane methods.
to condensed matter theorist Andrew Green’s:
“Maybe string theory is not a unique theory of reality, but something deeper — a set of mathematical principles that can be used to relate all physical theories,” says Green. “Maybe string theory is the new calculus.”
Time will tell whether this suffers the same fate as in the case of heavy ions.