Well, I dashed off a lecture summary to be printed out in time for the public lecture on Thursday:
Title: Strings Everywhere?
Hold it right there. What is the meaning of the title? I’m riffing on two things, one physical and the other sociological. The first, vastly more important theme is the fact that strings are powerful tools that represent one of the major steps in modern “technologies” (like quantum field theory) that are useful in several areas of theoretical physics, and -I suspect- may well become useful in several other areas as the field matures. I have in mind the idea of an “effective theory”: that there are physical phenomena that are not as easily (or in some cases -not at all-) described by standard particle-like theories (quantum field theories, relativistic or otherwise) as they are by string theories. Stringy techniques -quantum mechanics of extended objects- have and (I suspect) will continue to show up in diverse places in physics, and not just particle physics where it began. I hope to give some indication of this in the talk. One of my primary examples will be the contrast between electromagnetism and the strong interactions, I imagine. There are phenomena like quark confinement that are rather hard to describe using standard QFT, but seem to be extremely natural in a string theory framework…
The second, which to my mind is a storm in a teacup, is the issue of strings showing up all over the press, and increasingly (because the press -editors, some writers, and publishers- love a controversy and a David-vs-Goliath fairlytale, sadly sometimes at the expense of painting an accurate picture; see e.g., here) in a negative light as being some useless juggernaut-come-cult. I’ll talk about that a bit too…
Anyway, here is the blurb I dashed off for the background to the lecture:
String theory is a remarkable collection of powerful mathematical tools which may be crucial in our understanding of some of the most fundamental questions in Nature, such as how the strong nuclear interactions work to hold our atoms together, what the nature of black holes in space is; the question of what makes up the unknown 96% of our universe, the issue of why gravity is so relatively weak, what is the true nature of space and time, and many more.
In recent times, String theory has become increasingly the subject of debate in the national press over the issue of whether it has become too successful and too fashionable as field of research, taking resources away from other approaches, including many of the brightest and the best young minds. A common theme is the suggestion that it has failed as a scientific enterprise, and has become more akin to a religion or a cult.
The lecture will describe some of the ideas behind string theory in its current form, showing its promise, its strengths, and its weaknesses, illustrating that it is no different from any other scientific enterprise which addresses truly hard and fundamental questions. It is a work in progress. We cannot know the answers in advance, and so research continues on whatever tools and ideas are the most promising at the time. Currently, those are contained within the fascinating framework of string theory.
Hmmm. Not my best writing, but it’ll do… better go write the actual talk now. (Or maybe calculate a teensy bit first….)