Strings 2009 Out of Juice?

I had a suspicion that Strings 2009 wasn’t going to be scientifically very active, since not much has been going on in that field recently, but I still found it surprising how little news from the conference was making its way out to the internet. The conference is nearly half over, no evidence of any activity has appeared on the conference web-site, and until now I couldn’t find anything at all on the internet discussing what is going on there.

However, something did just turn up. Over at the Bad Astronomy and Universe Today Forum, under the topic heading “Off-Topic Babbling”, there have been two communications from Terry Giblin. In the first, written on Sunday, Terry writes that he’s on the road to Rome for the conference, and since it looks like he’ll be late, he’d like someone from the stage or audience to call him on Skype so he can ask the opening speaker (David Gross) a “strings question on quantum tunneling and singularities.”

That doesn’t seem to have worked out. In his latest communication, he says that he finally did make it to Rome, where he reports:

It would appear that I have not missed much over the past two days, yesterday the internet at the conference was only working slowly.

Today they had a power outage, so the conference was cancelled.

I hope I have more success tomorrow or the coming week.

Its amazing to think you can change the outcome of a conference, without being physically present……….

Update: A twitter from Marco Baumgartl has made it out to the internet, bringing more confirmation of problems:

I’d loved to give you live updates from the Strings 2009 conference, but they have severe wifi problems there, can’t connect

Update: An anonymous correspondent attending the conference reports that disorganization is a problem, and that there have been no major announcements. David Gross’s talk listed 8 fundamental problems for string theory and gave the string community a grade of A-F for progress on each problem (this sounds familiar, I vaguely recall him giving such a report card at some other talk a few years ago, I wonder if the grades have changed…)

The atmosphere was much like in other recent years: some disillusionment in the air, but people continuing to work along similar lines. The talks were described as sketchy and mostly incomprehensible to much of the audience, with many of the younger string theorists rather bitter about the lack of much of an attempt on the part of the speakers to give clear explanations and put their work in any sort of context (the audience of 450 has widely varying backgrounds, this is not a specialist conference).

Update: Well, the conference is over now, but still no slides of talks, or any blogging from anyone there, other than Jacques Distler’s attempt to find someone to go to dinner with a week ago. Reports I’ve gotten from the conference describe Vafa’s talk as “Good, in fact too good to be true”, and claim that Arkani-Hamed showed up two hours late for his talk, then went over time by 20 minutes.

Update: Still nothing on the conference web-site about the talks, or on blogs. Physics World does have a report from Edwin Cartlidge, who noted that the scientific talks were appropriately held at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas, named after the great Scholastic philosopher. He also reports on the public talks held yesterday. Witten appears to have decided the best thing to do was to not talk about string theory, but instead talk about particle physics, the LHC, dark matter and supersymmetry. He left string theory to Brian Greene, who somehow convinced Cartlidge that what this is all about is “that 10500 is somewhat bigger than 10120, and that’s a measure of how much we don’t understand dark energy.”

Greene pointed out that string theory requires an extra 6 (or 7) dimensions of space in addition to the three that we are aware of. Helpfully, these dimensions are so small that we can’t see them, but unhelpfully there are rather a lot of ways of curling these extra dimensions up – some 10500 different ways as it turns out. And we would have to study all 10500 if we want to find out whether or not string theory describes the real world.

For Greene, all is not lost, however. He pointed out that 10500 is somewhat bigger than 10120, and that’s a measure of how much we don’t understand dark energy. In a nutshell he argued that if we happen to live in one of the few of the 10500 universes where conditions are just right for us to exist then there’s a damn good chance that we could have such an apparently statistically unlikely dark energy. For Greene, this suggests we might be on the right lines with string theory. Others may be less convinced.

Update: The exponent problem has been fixed.

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33 Responses to Strings 2009 Out of Juice?

  1. M says:

    Any word on the food? People do not go to conferences for free wi-fi really.

  2. tomate says:

    Still sure you can’t blame our medieval gap? I think this might be symbolic of the status of research and university here.
    At least the food will be just fine.

  3. Per says:

    My girlfriend is Italian she told me before it started – the organization is so gonna break down. Guess that’s what happened. It’s hard not to like Italians, but their skills in organizing and planning sometimes lacks a bit behind 🙂

  4. Tim vB says:

    Hello Peter,
    “I had a suspicion that Strings 2009 wasn’t going to be scientifically very active, since not much has been going on in that field recently…”
    Asking with honest interest, since I do not follow the field intensely: This statement is based on what observation(s)?
    P.S.: A little note on my background to provide some context to my question: I graduated in theoretical physics from the University of Heidelberg and stumbled upon your book and Lee’s while trying to decide what to do next, in order to get a second resp. n’th opinion on string theory. Almost everything I know of the subject itself comes from Barton Zwiebach’s book – I know it is addressed at toddlers, but one has to start somewhere.

  5. H-I-G-G-S says:

    Good to see that you have such reliable sources. In one his postings Mr. Giblin says “This equation also implies that an electron and a photon cannot, exist together.” He seems to be a crank. Wifi problems, yes. Conference cancelled, I doubt it.

  6. Peter Woit says:


    We Report. You Decide…

    Tim vB,

    I’ve been following the field quite closely for 25 years, and don’t think it’s a very controversial statement that the last few years haven’t seen any major developments. The planned titles of the talks are online, and from that there doesn’t appear to be anything dramatically new, although one can’t really know without having access to the talks themselves.

  7. Pingback: ¿Por qué nadie habla de lo que está pasando en Strings 2009 (Roma)? « Francis (th)E mule Science’s News

  8. Bee says:

    Totally off-topic: On mouseover the “latest comment” feed in the sidebar says “Last comment was 39 years, 6 months ago…”

  9. woit says:

    Hi Bee,

    That bug has been around for a while, you’ve encouraged me to try and fix it. Right now it looks like it is fixed for all but this posting, maybe my adding this comment will do the trick….

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Fix seems to have improved matters, but not completely fixed the problem. I think I’ll not spend more time on this now though…

  11. brief aside says:


    I have been reading your lecture notes on Hamiltonian Mechanics and Symplectic Geometry, which I found on your site. In particular, ‘Quantum Field Theory for Mathematicians: Hamiltonian Mechanics and Symplectic Geometry’

    On page 7 I came across the equations z = p + iwq and… z(t) = Cexp(iwt). I would be thrilled if you could please tell me where I can get more material on these equations. Do you have indepth lectures on this? If you have any free material could you please direct me to it. Thanks.

  12. brief aside says:

    I mean those equations in particular. Thanks.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    brief aside,

    The equations you mention are just the standard trick of expressing a pair of canonical variables in terms of a complex variable. This is in almost every quantum mechanics book, when you solve the harmonic oscillator by writing annihilation and creation operators (a and a^*) in terms of position and momentum operators. For some long expository related pieces by John Baez, see

    and, at a higher level

    I hope this helps. I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time or energy now to devote this blog to basic expository questions like this. Some day in the distant future I would like to write up some much more detailed lecture notes on QM and representation theory, but that project is a ways off…

  14. Tim vB says:

    Hello Peter,
    the article by Edwin Cartlidge seems to be a joke along the line “you all know that no one can possibly make any sense of what these nerds say”.
    This is unfair to Brian Greene and to string theory (not that I am a fan of one or the other).
    Meanwhile Lubos has blogged about the conference, so if there were anything dramatically new we would know by now,
    therefore confirming your expectations.
    He talks about applications of string theory in many body problems,
    with experts telling us that “string theory computes things that we
    acutally see in experiments”, any opinion on this claim?

    P.S.: Almost every journalist misunderstands 10^500 as 10500, disregarding the hat
    (humans tend to ignore signs they do not understand 🙂
    Maybe we should all switch to “10 to the power of 500”, at least when
    writing an email to a non-specialist.

  15. Simplicio says:

    17985 is an exact measure of the amount by which I don’t understand where 10120 comes from.

  16. Peter Woit says:

    Tim vB,

    It’s quite true that sometimes in this business you can’t tell what’s a joke and what isn’t. That isn’t a good thing….

    Applications of AdS/CFT duality to studying strongly coupled models that may have something to do with heavy-ion physics and condensed-matter physics has become a large and active subject. I confess to not having a lot of interest in it, since it says nothing about particle theory and nothing mathematically interesting. From what I have seen, some of this may definitely be useful, but there also appears to be a lot of hype going on. I was interested to see that Lubos describes some of this negatively as “an industrial activity”, which “has become a routine”.

    Lubos’s blogging about the conference talks seems to be based purely on the titles of the talks. When and if the talks are on-line, perhaps he’ll have some more substantive comments.

  17. observer says:

    I am currently half-watching a program on the Science channel about Hawking’s endorsment of string theory and how it’s the best candidate for TOF. The program calls the development of string theory a “break through” discovery that unites gravity and QCD. There is no evidence presented but I am not sure the listening public cares. Will it matter if Strings 2009 collapses but the spoon-fed public absorbs it as the current theory of everything? The violin and banjo sounds demonstrating the theory are a nice touch (even if its truly a horrible analog).

  18. Michael Thaddeus says:

    For what it’s worth, Lubos has some discussion of the Strings 2009 talks on his blog… but I preferred his pronouncement about Michael Jackson: “His pale skin could have been caused by a skin disorder.”

  19. Tom O'Bulls says:

    Lubos M has a simple rule in deciding who he likes, viz. he just has to ask how similar they are to himself. Hence his worship of intensely insecure and obnoxious historical figures like Pauli and Feynman. The fact that he liked Michael Jackson is therefore deeply revealing.

  20. nbutsomebody says:

    String 2009 is really out of juice. At least string theorists are not at all talking about it. Not only in blogosphere but also in real life. May be it is time people stop a yearly Strings meeting and go for a longer cycle like 2-4 years.

  21. Anonymous says:

    It was interesting to hear Horava’s talk on his new approach to quantum gravity. The idea is unrelated, and most likely incompatible with string theory. It left many of us (including apparently Ed Witten) unconvinced, but I think it is nice that string theorists are willing to devote time to considering such radical departures.

    Peter, I have not seen you mention this development, which strikes me as an interesting new turn in the string theory debate. Perhaps it is does not interest to you because Horava’s approach does not have much to say about electroweak symmetry breaking. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  22. Peter Woit says:


    I have the same problem with the Horava proposal as with all quantum gravity proposals that say nothing at all about unification and particle physics: I don’t see how you can ever know if they are right. Like lots of ideas though, it might be worth studying since you might learn something useful. This particular idea doesn’t involve anything particularly mathematically interesting, so it’s not something I’d personally want to pursue.

    The sociological story is a bit interesting. Even though this has nothing to do with string theory, and would kill the main argument for string theory, it still is getting a respectful hearing from string theorists, who write papers on it, and invite the speaker to Strings XXXX. If Horava was not a fairly prominent string theorist, I doubt this idea would be getting as much attention. And Lubos would not be polite….

  23. Chris W. says:

    As a PS on Peter’s comment, a number of prominent condensed matter theorists (eg, Volovik, Laughlin) have developed broadly similar ideas over the past decade. Volovik has recently commented on Horava’s proposal.

  24. Chris W. says:

    Also see this review by Volovik:

    Emergent physics: Fermi point scenario

  25. Anonymous says:

    I do not think there is any convincing evidence that particle physics at accessible energy scales has much to do with quantum gravity. At one time some people hoped that string theory could have some explanatory power in this regard, but not so much anymore. So I do not think it is quite fair to judge a theory of quantum gravity according to its particle physics implications, anymore than it is fair to judge QED based on it’s implications for geophysics.

    On the mathematical side, Horava mentioned a connection between the RG flow in his theory and the famous Ricci flow. I am not knowledgeable in these matters and am not sure how seriously to take his analogy. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  26. Peter Woit says:


    The problem with your geophysics/QED analogy is that geophysicists deal with experimentally accessible quantities. If your quantum gravity is not going to say anything about physics except at completely inaccessible scales, there is a very real issue of how to pursue the subject as a science.

    I don’t know about Horava’s case. In the case of 2d non-linear sigma models, the relation between the Ricci flow and the renormalization group flow is well-known.

  27. Chris W. says:

    Speaking of problematic analogies, Leonard Susskind has a new article in Physics World:

    Darwin’s legacy

    I think you can guess where it ends up.

  28. Tim vB says:

    Hm, I think I do not want to diskuss if if the idea of the multiverse etc. meets any established standards of science,
    but I think it clearly does not meet established standards of science fiction (it is just not interesting enough).
    Maybe we should sharpen the title of the blog to something like “not even entertaining” or “not even funny”.

  29. nbutsomebody says:

    Slides of the talks are available now. Talks look pretty boring and most speakers are randomly selected without any real reason.

  30. jmars says:


    who precisely do you have in mind?


    can you give an assessment of Vafa’s proposal? It really seems to give a lot of very detailed predictions; since you are the leading critic of string theory unification, this F-theory business (which I assume you are following with great attention) is probably worth a whole blogpost. Don’t take it as a criticism, but the actual research of the leading string theorists about the particle physics phenomenology should probably be much more relevant for the readers of your blog than a press-release from a university in a remote Dutch province… 🙂 On the other hand, it’d be good to have an unbiased and detailed account of the work of Heckman and Vafa from an outsider’s point of view.

  31. Peter Woit says:


    I wrote about this here

    when it was first getting started, more than a year ago, and recently quoted opinions I heard reported second-hand from Strings 2009: “Too good to be true”.

    You can certainly pick some string-inspired model, make lots of choices so that you get something that doesn’t obviously disagree with experiment, and then try to show that with your choices things are constrained enough to make predictions and test the idea. That’s what the people working on this are doing. What I’ve seen of it looks to me highly implausible, but they see it differently and are making a very hard sell of the idea. My impression is that many people share my skepticism (one other blog that has covered this is Resonaances, with a similar point of view).

    In any case, this is a story that can’t go on forever. The true believers here claim they can make predictions that will be tested reasonably soon. Let them make their predictions and see what the LHC says. But note that this is in no sense a “test of string theory”: this is just one of many possible string theory scenarios, if it fails it won’t show string theory to be wrong.

    Some very recent work (arXiv:0906.4672) claims to show that the versions of this idea studied so far don’t actually work, that you need to make even more non-minimal choices to get things to work. It may be that the scenario being studied intensively now will turn out to be inconsistent, and people will lose interest after some more iterations of adding complexity to the story to evade contradiction.

  32. Terry Giblin says:

    who was the opening speaker at Strings 2009?

    Kind Regards

    Terry Giblin

  33. Pingback: Strings 2009 - "The Road to Rome" - Bad Astronomy and Universe Today Forum

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