I’ve been traveling in Italy for the past ten days, and gave talks in Rome and Pisa, on the topic “Is String Theory Testable?”. The slides from my talks are here (I’ll fix a few minor things about them in a few days when I’m back in New York, including adding credits to where some of the graphics were stolen from). It seemed to me that the talks went well, with fairly large audiences and good questions. In Pisa string theorist Massimo Porrati was there and made some extensive and quite reasonable comments afterwards, and this led to a bit of a discussion with some others in the audience.
I don’t think the points I was making in the talk were particularly controversial. It was an attempt to explain without too much editorializing the state of the effort to connect the idea of string-based unification of gravity and particle physics with the real world. This is something that has not worked out as people had hoped and I think it is important to acknowledge this and examine the reasons for it. In one part of the talk I go over a list of the many public claims made in recent years for some sort of “experimental tests” of string theory and explain what the problems with these are.
My conclusion, as you’d expect, is that string theory is not testable in any conventional scientific use of the term. The fundamental problem is that simple versions of the string theory unification idea, the ones often sold as “beautiful”, disagree with experiment for some basic reasons. Getting around these problems requires working with much more complicated versions, which have become so complicated that the framework becomes untestable as it can be made to agree with virtually anything one is likely to experimentally measure. This is a classic failure mode of a speculative framework: the rigid initial version doesn’t agree with experiment, making it less rigid to avoid this kills off its predictivity.
Some string theorists refuse to acknowledge that this is what has happened and that this has been a failure. Most I think just take the point of view that the structures uncovered are so rich that they are worth continuing to investigate despite this failure, especially given the lack of successful alternative ideas about unification of particle physics and gravity. Here we get into a very different kind of argument.
It was very interesting to talk to the particle physicists in Rome and Pisa. They are facing many of the same issues as elsewhere about what sort of research directions to support, with string theory often being pursued as an almost separate subject from the rest of particle theory, leading to conflict over resources and sometimes heated debates between them and the rest of the particle physics community. Many people were curious about how things were different in the US than in Europe, but I’m afraid I couldn’t enlighten them a great deal, mainly because I just don’t know as much about the European situation, although I’ve started to learn more about this on the trip. Several wondered if the phenomenon of theorists going to the press to make overhyped claims about string theory was an American phenomenon. I hadn’t really noticed this, but it does seem to be true. While the hype starts in the US, it does travel to Europe, with the US very influential in this aspect of culture as in many others. In the latest issue of the main Italian magazine about science, there’s an article explaining how certain US theorists have finally figured out how to test string theory with the new LHC…