I’ve been busy with other things, but after taking a look today at various new things related to quantum gravity, I was struck by how much things have changed sociologically in that subject over the last few years. Back in the days of the “string wars”, debates about quantum gravity were fiercely polarized. Oversimplifying and caricaturing the situation a bit, the two sides of the quantum gravity debate were:
- Those interested in loop quantum gravity as well as other more exotic attempts to reformulate the problem of quantum gravity. These people just considered pure quantum gravity and devoted a lot of effort to analyzing the deep conceptual issues that arise. They sometimes considered highly speculative hypotheses, trying out abandoning the usual basic axioms, for instance replacing fundamental axioms of quantum mechanics. Lee Smolin was an influential figure, and the Perimeter Institute a major center for this research.
- String theorists, who argued that the appearance of spin-two massless mode in the quantized string spectrum showed that string theory was the only way to understand quantum gravity. They claimed that they had a single, very specific and highly technical mathematical structure to study, which obeyed the conventional quantum theory axioms. Their efforts were devoted to specific computations in this theory, and they seemed to regard the other side of the debate as woolly thinkers, caught up in meaningless ill-defined philosophical speculation. The KITP at Santa Barbara, led by David Gross and Joe Polchinski, was a major center for this side of the debate.
These days, things have changed. If you’re at Perimeter, prominent activities include:
- This week’s conference on a very technical issue in string theory, superstring perturbation theory.
- This month’s course of lectures on Explorations in String Theory.
- The next public lecture will feature Amanda Peet promoting string theory. Peet has been one of the more ferocious partisans of the string wars. The text advertising her public talk a few years back at the Center for Inquiry in Toronto warned attendees who might consider “parrotting of critical views by outsiders like Lee Smolin.”
On the other hand, it you’re in Santa Barbara these days, you might be participating in a KITP conference on Quantum Gravity Foundations. This is featuring very little about the technical issues in superstring theory being discussed at Perimeter, but a lot of discussion of deep conceptual issues in quantum gravity. There’s also a lot of willingness to throw out standard axioms of physics, maybe even quantum mechanics. They’re even letting Carlo Rovelli talk.
The sort of speculation going on at the KITP is featured on the cover of this month’s Scientific American, and this week Quanta magazine will be publishing a series of pieces on something related, the “ER=EPR” conjecture. There’s debate whether anyone really understands this and whether it is consistent with standard quantum mechanics. It also features a diagram that people call the “octopus” diagram. Back in the day it was Lee Smolin who was getting grief for an “octopus” diagram (see here), yet another way in which things have changed.
For a more balanced view of quantum gravity issues, you might want to spend your time in France, where the IHES recently hosted an interesting series of surveys of the subject (see here), and the Quantum Gravity in Paris conference featured more specialized talks. In the category of quantum gravity topics I wish I had more time to learn about, Kirill Krasnov’s talk was presumably related to this recent work, which looks intriguing.