For much of the past week, I’ve been attending off and on (on Zoom) the Strings 2023 conference. This year it’s in a hybrid format, with 200 participants in person at the Perimeter Institute, and another 1200 or so on Zoom. These yearly conferences give a good idea of what some of the most influential string theorists think is currently important, and I’ve been writing about them for twenty years. Videos of the talks are being posted here.
As in many of these Strings conferences in recent years, there was very little discussion of strings at Strings 2023. Of the 24 standard research talks, only 4 appeared to have anything to do with strings. A new innovation this year was to schedule in addition four “challenge talks”, conceived of as talks explicitly about material outside of string theory that might interest string theorists. In particular Edward Frenkel gave a nice survey of a wide range of ideas from quantum integrable systems and ending up with geometric Langlands. He motivated this with reference to what Feynman was working on very late in life and the problem of solving QCD. His slides are here, video here.
In addition there were four morning “Discussion Sessions”, which I attended most of, and at which string theory put in little to no appearance. Today’s discussion featured Nati Seiberg and Anton Kapustin and was about lattice versions of QFT, especially in their topological and geometrical aspects, a very non-stringy topic dear to my heart. Yesterday was It From Qubit, which had Geoff Penington discussing topics related to black holes. The conventional wisdom now seems to be that the information paradox is gone, solved semi-classically, so giving no insight into true quantum gravity dynamics. While this means you can’t see anything interesting at large distances from the black hole, Penington had some new ideas about something that might in principle be observable at atomic-scale distances from a super-massive black hole. Maldacena started off the session with slides promoting the way forward as quantum computer simulations involving 7000 qubits, a variant on the wormhole publicity stunt. The only time string theory made an appearance was in a suggestion by Dan Harlow that perhaps by doing quantum computer simulations theorists could solve the the problem of what “string theory” really is. It’s pretty clear what the leading direction is now for continuing the long tradition in string theory of outrageous hype.
After this week, I’m even more mystified about why the conference was called “Strings 2023” And how does one decide these days what “string theory” is and who is a “string theorist”? Oddly, two of the things that now distinguish this yearly conference from others are a pretty rigid exclusion of both real world physics (Frenkel comments on this here) as well as of what got people excited about string theory, superstring unification and its implications for seeing low energy SUSY at colliders. People still interested in that have split off to other conferences, especially String Phenomenology 2023 and SUSY 2023.
Those conference have their own kinds of mysteries (why do people keep working on ideas that failed long ago?). In particular, the closing talk on the Status and Future of Supersymmetry at SUSY 2023 was all about the great prospects for SUSY at the LHC, and included a Conclusion written (no joke) by ChatGPT:
The future of supersymmetry as a research program holds both exciting challenges and potential breakthroughs. While the LHC experiments have yet to observe direct evidence of supersymmetric particles, ongoing theoretical advancements and reﬁned experimental techniques oﬀer renewed hope. The future of supersymmetry research lies in two key directions. Firstly, novel theoretical models are being explored, including new variants of supersymmetry that incorporate dark matter candidates or non-linear realizations. These approaches push the boundaries of our understanding and allow for further exploration of the particle zoo. Secondly, upcoming experiments, such as the High-Luminosity LHC and future colliders, aim to explore higher energy scales and increase the sensitivity to supersymmetric signals. With these advancements, the quest for supersymmetry will continue to shape the ﬁeld of particle physics, inspiring new theoretical insights and propelling experimental discoveries.
Things just get stranger and stranger…
Update: Speaking of stranger and stranger, you can listen here to Sean Carroll talking by himself for four hours and twenty-two minutes about why there really is no crisis in physics, the whole supersymmetry/string theory thing is going just fine.
Update: I hadn’t realized just how accurate Joe Conlon’s description of the conference as “IAS-centric” was. For the four discussion sections, no IAS in one of them (“strings, QFT and mathematics”, the other 3 sessions were all IAS (two IAS faculty, the rest an assortment of ex or current members).