Finally back from vacation, postings may appear somewhat more regularly…
Science journalist Tom Siegfried has been one of the most vociferous proponents of string theory for many, many years (see here), but even his faith seems like it might be failing as the decades roll on. His latest on the topic starts out:
Sometimes it’s nice to reflect nostalgically on the last couple of decades of the 20th century. You know, the era of Madonna and Duran Duran, Cheers and The X-Files, McGwire and Sosa, the Macarena, and superstring theory.
The article does try and mount an argument that string theory may not be moribund, with the hope for the future coming from a new paper by Bars and Rychkov entitled Is String Interaction the Origin of Quantum Mechanics?. The idea here seems to be that if you assume you somehow have a fully consistent string field theory, not based on quantum mechanics, then the occurrence in this theory of non-commutative phenomena would “explain” quantum mechanics. To me, this seems to deserve some sort of award for the most desperate attempt yet to justify string theory, but Siegfried is a fan, explaining:
For decades, explaining why nature observes the mysterious rules of quantum physics has perplexed physicists everywhere. Nobody could explain why those rules worked. The connection between string physics and the quantum math may now lead the way to an answer.
I’ll write more soon about those “mysterious rules of quantum physics”, but I just don’t see at all how string field theory (which supposedly is based on quantum mechanics…) makes anything about quantum mechanics less mysterious.
Siegfried of course is not just a fan of string theory, but also of the multiverse, so he ends with:
On top of all that, the string-quantum connection suggests an intriguing insight into the nature of reality. Quantum physics is notorious for implying the existence of multiple realities, as articulated in the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Superstring theory has also annoyed many physicists by forecasting the existence of a huge “landscape” of different vacuum states, essentially a multiverse comprising multiple universes with a wide range of physical properties (many not suitable for life, but at least one that is). If string interactions really are responsible for the rules of quantum physics, maybe there’s some connection between the multiple quantum realities and the superstring landscape. For fans of the late 20th century, it seems like an idea worth exploring.
One thing remarkable about this is that he has another piece that recently appeared, an interview with Katherine Freese, where he tries to convince her about the multiverse, but doesn’t get anywhere:
Theory predicts vastly more vacuum energy than the amount actually observed. Wouldn’t this huge disparity be explained if there are multiple universes, a multiverse, and each has a different density of vacuum energy? Then the reason we have a low amount in ours is because that’s the only way we could exist in it.
I don’t like that idea. A lot of people like it because of string theory. Originally people thought that string theory would give a unique solution to the vacuum-energy equations. But it turns out that in string theory there are maybe 10-to-the-500th different vacuum states. So the idea is that they’re all out there, but we have to live in one with a value of the cosmological constant close to the one we have. But I don’t like anthropic arguments. They rely on the fact that human life can only come to exist under certain conditions, so that of the many universes out there it’s not surprising we live in the one that supports our type of life. That’s not a good enough explanation for me. I feel there are physics problems that we have to answer, and we can answer them in this universe, in this piece of the universe we live in. I think it’s our job to try to do that, and it’s not good enough for me to give up on it and say, well, it has to have this value because otherwise we couldn’t exist. I think we can do better than that. I know, I’m old-fashioned.
Isn’t part of the question whether there is a multiverse or not? If you had really strong evidence that there is a multiverse, then the anthropic explanation becomes better motivated. Inflation, the rapid burst of expansion right after the Big Bang, supposedly can produce a multiverse by way of “eternal inflation.”
I do believe in inflation, so can inflation give you a multiverse or not? Because if it can, then I’m forced to consider this possibility. I recently wrote a paper with Will Kinney on this. We concluded that what we observe in the cosmic microwave background radiation is not giving rise to eternal inflation. So how do you know that ever happened?
Are the recent results on the cosmic microwave background from the BICEP2 experiment relevant to this issue?
If you take the BICEP data literally, which I’m not saying you should, you never have eternal inflation. So you don’t have to have eternal inflation, if you ask me. I was very happy about that.