In recent weeks string theory has been again getting a lot of press attention, because of claims that new progress is being made in the study of the relation of string theory and the real world, via the study of the “swampland”. This is a very old story, and I’ve often written about it here. I just added a new category, so anyone who wants to can go follow it by clicking on the Swampland category of posts.
Recent press coverage of this includes an article by Clara Moskowitz at Scientific American, entitled String Theory May Create Far Fewer Universes Than Thought. This motivated Avi Loeb to write his own Scientific American piece highlighting the dangers of string theory speculation unmoored to any possible experimental test, which appeared as Theoretical Physics is Pointless without Experimental Tests. Loeb reports:
There is a funny anecdote related to the content of this commentary. In my concluding remarks at the BHI conference we held at Harvard in May 2018, I recommended boarding a futuristic spacecraft directed at the nearest black hole to experimentally test the validity of string theory near the singularity. Nima Arkani-Hamed commented that he suspects I have an ulterior motive for sending string theorists into a black hole. For the video of this exchange, see
Last week Natalie Wolchover reported on this controversy, with an article that appeared at Quanta magazine as Dark Energy May Be Incompatible With String Theory and at the Atlantic as The Universe as We Understand It May Be Impossible (the Atlantic headline writer misidentifies “we” as “string theorists”).
Wolchover accurately explains part of this story as a conflict between string theorists over whether certain solutions (such as the KKLT solution and the rest of the so-called “string theory landscape”) to string theory really exist. Vafa argues they may not exist, since the proposed solutions are complicated and “Usually in physics, we have simple examples of general phenomena.” In response Eva Silverstein argues:
They [Vafa and others] essentially just speculate that those things don’t exist, citing very limited and in some cases highly dubious analyses.
On Twitter, Jim Baggott explains the problem
Let’s be clear. This is not a ‘test’ of string theory. There is no ‘evidence’ here. This is yet another conjecture that ‘might be true’, on which there is no consensus in the string theory community.
and in a retweet, Will Kinney accurately notes that
The landscape is a conjecture. The “swampland” is a conjecture built on a conjecture.
The landscape itself is already a conjecture build on a conjecture, the latter being strings to begin with. So: conjecture strings, then conjecture the landscape (so you don’t have to admit the theory isn’t unique), then conjecture the swampland because it’s still not working.
The Simons Center summer workshop this year has been devoted to Recent Developments in the Swampland, videos are here (this was also the case in 2006, see here). Next month in Madrid a conference will be devoted to Vistas over the Swampland, and I’m sure many more such gatherings are planned.
Unfortunately I think the fundamental problem here somehow never gets clearly explained: String theorists don’t actually have a theory, what they have is an approximation to an unknown theory supposed to be valid in certain limits, and a list of properties they would like the unknown theory to have. If this is all you have, there’s no way to distinguish when you’re on dry land (a solution to string theory) from when you’re in the swamp (a non-solution to string theory). Different string theorists can generate different opinions, conjectures and speculations about whether some location is swamp or dry land, but in the absence of an actual theory, no one can tell who is right and who is wrong. I don’t know why Vafa back in 2005 chose “Swampland” as the metaphor for this subject, but it’s an unfortunately apt one: string theorists are stuck in a swamp, with no way of getting out since they can’t tell what’s dry land and what isn’t.