In a new preprint of an article entitled “So what will you do if string theory is wrong?”, to appear in the American Journal of Physics, string theorist Moataz Emam gives a striking answer to the question of the title. He envisions a future in which it has been shown that the string theory landscape can’t describe the universe, but string theorists continue to explore it anyway, breaking off from physics departments to found new string theory departments:
So even if someone shows that the universe cannot be based on string theory, I suspect that people will continue to work on it. It might no longer be considered physics, nor will mathematicians consider it to be pure mathematics. I can imagine that string theory in that case may become its own new discipline; that is, a mathematical science that is devoted to the study of the structure of physical theory and the development of computational tools to be used in the real world. The theory would be studied by physicists and mathematicians who might no longer consider themselves either. They will continue to derive beautiful mathematical formulas and feed them to the mathematicians next door. They also might, every once in a while, point out interesting and important properties concerning the nature of a physical theory which might guide the physicists exploring the actual theory of everything over in the next building.
Whether or not string theory describes nature, there is no doubt that we have stumbled upon an exceptionally huge and elegant structure which might be very difficult to abandon. The formation of a new science or discipline is something that happens continually. For example, most statisticians do not consider themselves mathematicians. In many academic institutions departments of mathematics now call themselves “mathematics and statistics.” Some have already detached into separate departments of statistics. Perhaps the future holds a similar fate for the unphysical as well as not-so-purely-mathematical new science of string theory.
This kind of argument may convince physics departments that string theorists don’t belong there, while at the same time not convincing university administrations to start a separate string theory department. Already this spring the news from the Theoretical Particle Physics Rumor Mill is pretty grim for string theorists, with virtually all tenure-track positions going to phenomenologists.
I have some sympathy for the argument that there are mathematically interesting aspects of string theory (these don’t include the string theory landscape), but the way for people to pursue such topics is to get some serious mathematical training and go to work in a math department.
The argument Emam is making reflects in somewhat extreme form a prevalent opinion among string theorists, that the failure of hopes for the theory, even if real, is not something that requires them to change what they are doing. This attitude is all too likely to lead to disaster.
Update: A colleague pointed out this graphic from Wired magazine. Note the lower right-hand corner…
Update: Over at Dmitry Podolsky’s blog, in the context of a discussion of how Lubos’s blog makes much more sense than this one, Jacques Distler explains what it’s like for string theorists these days trying to recruit students:
Unfortunately, I’ve seen a number of prospective graduate students, who spent their undergraduate days as avid readers of Woit’s blog, and whose perspective on high energy physics is now so hopelessly divorced from reality that the best one can do is smile and nod one’s head pleasantly and say, “I hear the condensed matter group has openings.”