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.
Anybody have any good guesses as to how physics could have turned out in an alternate world, if George McGovern had won the American presidency in 1972 against Nixon, and Witten became a presidential speech writer and/or got a low level post in the McGovern administration?
I don’t think there ever has been anyone quite comparable to Witten. Einstein never had the same sort of influence, and he was always kind of working off by himself, whereas Witten has always been very much in the mainstream of what the majority of the field is doing.
All this hero worship is missing the point. String theory *as physics* was a ridiculous idea at face value. I don’t know how I knew this, or how my advisor knew it, or why we were right – but my absolute initial reaction was one of total, utter disgust that such a thing would be taken seriously. Now, in the course of learning a lot of things that were complex, weird, or both, I *never* had this kind of visceral reaction to anything but string theory. The idea of setting the pointer of physics back to before Democritus was, in itself, ridiculous on the face of it, without further consideration. The world could *never possibly* have been arranged like that.
My question is – why is this aspect of physics – that is, intuition – practically ignored? Physics is not mathematics, it’s not even really *similar* to mathematics. Physics is about the actual world and its patterns. To get at these patterns, you need something other than the ability to crank out vast amounts of math, be it ever so interesting.
Something pathological got into physics, and I would like to know when and where. Note that if you succeed in demolishing the entire string society, you’ll still be stuck with dark matter, inflation, the first three minutes, Euclidean continuations, wave functions of the universe etc. etc. etc. String theory in itself is not the problem – it’s a kind of uncritical global credulity that affects all intellectual endeavor.
Can you think of anybody else in recent times, who had the sort of influence Witten had over the last 25+ years, in the sense of “monkey see Witten, monkey tries to do Witten’s work”?
I can’t think of anyone offhand in physics history, other than maybe Einstein.
Without Witten, I think Green and Schwarz would have slowly gotten more attention for superstring theory, partly because no other ideas were really working. Their anomaly cancellation result would have helped get some attention, but on nothing like the scale that Witten’s interest generated. It might still be percolating along as a subject with a relatively small group of people working on it.
It’s very hard to guess what would have happened to particle theory without the dominance of string theory. Witten did amazing work relating QFT and mathematics during the late 80s and early 90s that was completely independent of string theory (including the work that got him the Fields medal) and presumably he would still have done this. My own prejudice is that if he hadn’t put so much effort into string theory, and instead had put it into the new insights into QFT and math that he was getting, he and others following along with him would have achieved even more along these lines and the field would be in much better shape.
Do you think string theory would have faded away with a whimper or would have died a painful death, if Witten never became a huge advocate of string theory? It sure seemed like nobody really paid attention to Schwarz and Green for more than a decade, when they were working on string theory in obscurity during the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Particle theory in general has always been quite faddish, although often the fads have been driven by a new experimental result, or by the appearance of a good explanation of some previously unexplained experimental data. I don’t know of any previous example in the history of physics of the whole field swinging so quickly behind a very speculative idea without experimental backing.
‘t Hooft’s work certainly generated interest in the Weinberg-Salam model, which had been pretty much ignored until then. It was quickly followed by asymptotic freedom in 1973 and the “November revolution” in 1974 when the J/Psi was discovered. The standard model did quickly fall into place during 1971-74 and then dominate particle theory, but this was a series of related theoretical discoveries finding quick experimental support, a situation much more comparable to QM in 1925-26 to string theory in 1984.
Can you think of any other scenarios in the past which had tons of people jumping onto the same bandwagon after a particular paper was published, similar in spirit to how string theory became very popular after the Schwarz-Green result?
One that I can think offhand would be perhaps be the ‘t Hooft result which showed that gauge theories are renormalizable. Perhaps other cases would be the BCS superconductivity paper, or going as far back to the original Heisenberg & Schroedinger papers on quantum mechanics along with Wolfgang Pauli’s review paper on the subject.