Jeff Harvey sent in a comment correcting me on a point of history in my last posting. I’d read somewhere about Green and Schwarz fed-exing their paper to Witten, and had assumed this was their idea. Harvey, who was at Princeton at the time, recalls that it was Larry Yaffe who brought news of Green and Schwarz’s result from the Aspen Workshop to Witten at Princeton, and Witten was the one who asked Green and Schwarz to fed-ex him the paper.
Harvey also strongly disagrees with the statement that people were not impressed by the work independently of Witten. He was at Princeton at the time, so knows far more about what attitudes there were. For those who weren’t at Princeton or at Aspen, news of Green and Schwarz’s paper and Witten’s arrived more or less at the same time (they were published in the 13 and 20 December issues of Physics Letters B, the preprints were circulating in October). At that time any new paper by Witten was a major event, especially one in which he took up a new topic. I stand by my recollection that for people I was talking to at the time, the fact that Witten was working on the subject overshadowed the Green-Schwarz result itself.
This morning I tracked down my original source for what happened at Aspen. It is John Schwarz’s article entitled “Superstrings – a Brief History”, published in the proceedings of a conference on the history of particle physics held at Erice in 1994. The volume is entitled “History of Original Ideas and Basic Discoveries in Particle Physics” and contains many things very much worth reading. Schwarz describes in detail what happened at Aspen, ending with the following remarks:
“But still, given our previous experiences, neither of us had any idea of how sudden and enthusiastic the response of the physics world would be. In my opinion this was largely due to the influence of Edward Witten, who immediately grasped the implications of our result. Without that, string theory would probably have emerged much more gradually. As soon as our letter came off the printer we sent Witten a copy by Federal Express. (This was before the days of TeX and email!). I am told that the next day everyone in Princeton was studying it. Our letter on anomaly cancellation was submitted September 10, 1984. The deluge began 18 days later with Witten’s letter suggesting ways to compactify SO(32) superstrings to get anomaly-free theories in four dimensions.”
This is what led me to believe that it was Schwarz and Green’s idea to Fed Ex Witten their paper. Presumably Harvey is right that he had asked them to do this. But that’s about the only thing that I think I got wrong in the original posting.