Witten’s talk this morning at the KITP on “The Future of String Theory” is now available. He only talked for about fifteen minutes and then took some questions. I thought it was a rather weird performance. Not only did Witten not really have anything to say about the future of string theory, he didn’t even discuss the present state of the theory. The most recent thing about string theory he mentioned is the now seven year-old AdS/CFT correspondence. He drew the standard picture of Feynman diagram vs. string world-sheet, claiming it indicates that space-time is an “emergent phenomenon”. He even noted that he has been drawing the same picture for nearly twenty years now and he still doesn’t know in what sense this “emergent space-time” idea is true, although AdS/CFT is the closest thing to the kind of thing he is looking for. Now not only space-time is supposed to be “emergent”, but so is the string itself, although he admits he doesn’t know what this means.
Instead of looking optimistically to the future, Witten’s talk was extremely defensive. He started off trying to defend why string theorists work on string theory (basically because it is a non-trivial extension of QFT, contains gravity and has lead to important mathematical results). Much of his very short talk was taken up by mentioning criticisms of string theory and giving unconvincing responses to them. He didn’t say anything in the bulk of his talk about the Landscape or twistor string theory, or anything else going on these days in the field.
There were several questions from the audience. Someone asked him if he would still believe as strongly in string theory if the LHC didn’t find supersymmetry. He somewhat evaded the question, saying he would be less optimistic about how well we can ever understand the world, but implying that he wouldn’t consider this as evidence against string theory itself, repeating the same defense of why he did string theory that his talk started with.
The last question was about the anthropic principle and the Landscape. He began his answer with something like “Well…..(nervous laughter)… uh…..” then finally said more or less “I’d be happy if it is not right, but there are serious arguments for it, and I don’t have any serious arguments against it.” So I guess he comes down on the Weinberg side (“I don’t like it, but maybe we have to accept that our fundamental theory can’t explain any of the things it is supposed to”) vs. the Gross side (“people who think this way have given up doing physics”).