String theory

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General Physics

Interaction in the subatomic world: world lines of pointlike particles in the  Standard Model or a world sheet swept up by closed strings in string theory
Interaction in the subatomic world: world lines of pointlike particles in the Standard Model or a world sheet swept up by closed strings in string theory

String theory is a model of fundamental physics whose building blocks are one-dimensional extended objects ( strings) rather than the zero-dimensional points ( particles) that are the basis of the Standard Model of particle physics. String theorists are attempting to adjust the Standard Model by removing the assumption in quantum mechanics that particles are point-like. By removing this assumption and replacing the point-like particles with strings, it is hoped that string theory will develop into a sensible quantum theory of gravity. Moreover, string theory appears to be able to "unify" the known natural forces (gravitational, electromagnetic, weak and strong) by describing them with the same set of equations.

No experimental verification or falsification of the theory has yet been possible, thus leading many experts to turn to the alternate model, Loop quantum gravity. However, with the construction of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland scientists may produce relevant data.

Studies of string theory have revealed that it predicts not just strings, but also higher-dimensional objects ( branes). String theory strongly suggests the existence of ten or eleven (in M-theory) spacetime dimensions, as opposed to the relativistic four (three spatial and one time).


The basic idea behind all string theories is that the fundamental constituents of reality are strings of extremely small scale (possibly Planck length, about 10-35 m) which vibrate at specific resonant frequencies. Thus, any particle should be thought of as a tiny vibrating object, rather than as a point. This object can vibrate in different modes (just as a guitar string can produce different notes), with every mode appearing as a different particle (electron, photon etc.). Strings can split and combine, which would appear as particles emitting and absorbing other particles, presumably giving rise to the known interactions between particles.

In addition to strings, string theories also include objects of higher dimensions, such as D-branes and NS-branes. Furthermore, all string theories predict the existence of degrees of freedom which are usually described as extra dimensions. String theory is thought to include some 10, 11 or 26 dimensions, depending on the specific theory and on the point of view.

Interest in string theory is driven largely by the hope that it will prove to be a consistent theory of quantum gravity or even a theory of everything. It can also naturally describe interactions similar to electromagnetism and the other forces of nature. Superstring theories include fermions, the building blocks of matter, and incorporate supersymmetry, a conjectured (but unobserved) symmetry of nature. It is not yet known whether string theory will be able to describe a universe with the precise collection of forces and particles that is observed, nor how much freedom the theory allows to choose those details.

String theory as a whole has not yet made falsifiable predictions that would allow it to be experimentally tested, though various planned observations and experiments could confirm some essential aspects of the theory, such as supersymmetry and extra dimensions. In addition, the full theory is not yet understood. For example, the theory does not yet have a satisfactory definition outside of perturbation theory; the quantum mechanics of branes (higher dimensional objects than strings) is not understood; the behaviour of string theory in cosmological settings (time-dependent backgrounds) is still being worked out; finally, the principle by which string theory selects its vacuum state is a hotly contested topic (see string theory landscape).

String theory is thought to be a certain limit of another, more profound theory - M-theory - which is only partly defined and is not well understood.

A key consequence of the theory is that there is no obvious operational way to probe distances shorter than the string length.


String theory
  • bosonic string theory
  • superstring theory
    • type I string
    • type II string
    • heterotic string
  • M-theory ( simplified)
  • string field theory
  • strings
  • branes
Related topics
  • quantum field theory
    • gauge theory
    • conformal field theory
    • topological field theory
  • supersymmetry
  • supergravity
  • general relativity
  • quantum gravity
See also
  • string theory topics

String theory was originally invented and explored during the late 1960s and early 1970s, to explain some peculiarities of the behaviour of hadrons ( subatomic particles such as the proton and neutron which experience the strong nuclear force). In particular, Yoichiro Nambu (and later Lenny Susskind and Holger Nielsen) realized in 1970 that the dual resonance model of strong interactions could be explained by a quantum mechanical model of strings. This approach was abandoned as an alternative theory, quantum chromodynamics, gained experimental support.

During the mid- 1970s it was discovered that the same mathematical formalism can be used to describe a theory of quantum gravity. This led to the development of bosonic string theory, which is still the version first taught to many students.

Between 1984 and 1986, physicists realized that string theory could describe all elementary particles and the interactions between them, and hundreds of them started to work on string theory as the most promising idea to unify theories of physics. This is known as the first superstring revolution.

In the 1990s, Edward Witten and others found strong evidence that the different superstring theories were different limits of a new 11-dimensional theory called M-theory. These discoveries sparked the second superstring revolution.

In the mid 1990s, Joseph Polchinski discovered that the theory requires the inclusion of higher-dimensional objects, called D-branes. These added an additional rich mathematical structure to the theory, and opened many possibilities for constructing realistic cosmological models in the theory.

In 1997 Juan Maldacena conjectured a relationship between string theory and a gauge theory called N=4 supersymmetric Yang-Mills theory. This conjecture, called the AdS/CFT correspondence has generated a great deal of interest in the field and is now well accepted. It is a concrete realization of the holographic principle, which has far-reaching implications for black holes, locality and information in physics, as well as the nature of the gravitational interaction. Through this relationship, string theory may be related in the future to quantum chromodynamics and lead, eventually, to a better understanding of the behaviour of hadrons, thus returning to its original goal.

Recently, the discovery of the string theory landscape, which suggests that string theory has an exponentially large number of different vacua, led to discussions of what string theory might eventually be expected to predict, and to the worry that the answer might continue to be nothing.

Basic properties

String theory is formulated in terms of an action principle, either the Nambu-Goto action or the Polyakov action, which describes how strings move through space and time. Like springs, the strings want to contract to minimize their potential energy, but conservation of energy prevents them from disappearing, and instead they oscillate. By applying the ideas of quantum mechanics to strings it is possible to deduce the different vibrational modes of strings, and that each vibrational state appears to be a different particle. The mass of each particle, and the fashion with which it can interact, are determined by the way the string vibrates — the string can vibrate in many different modes, just like a guitar string can produce different notes. The different modes, each corresponding to a different kind of particle, make up the " spectrum" of the theory. Strings can split and combine, which would appear as particles emitting and absorbing other particles, presumably giving rise to the known interactions between particles.

String theory includes both open strings, which have two distinct endpoints, and closed strings, where the endpoints are joined to make a complete loop. The two types of string behave in slightly different ways, yielding two different spectra. For example, in most string theories, one of the closed string modes is the graviton, and one of the open string modes is the photon. Because the two ends of an open string can always meet and connect, forming a closed string, there are no string theories without closed strings.

The earliest string model - the bosonic string, which incorporated only bosons, describes - in low enough energies - a quantum gravity theory, which also includes (if open strings are incorporated as well) gauge fields such as the photon (or, more generally, any Yang-Mills theory). However, this model has problems. Most importantly, the theory has a fundamental instability, believed to result in the decay (at least partially) of space-time itself. Additionally, as the name implies, the spectrum of particles contains only bosons, particles which, like the photon, obey particular rules of behaviour. Roughly speaking, bosons are the constituents of radiation, but not of matter, which is made of fermions. Investigating how a string theory may include fermions in its spectrum led to the invention of supersymmetry, a mathematical relation between bosons and fermions. String theories which include fermionic vibrations are now known as superstring theories; several different kinds have been described, but all are now thought to be different limits of one theory (the M-theory).

While understanding the details of string and superstring theories requires considerable mathematical sophistication, some qualitative properties of quantum strings can be understood in a fairly intuitive fashion. For example, quantum strings have tension, much like regular strings made of twine; this tension is considered a fundamental parameter of the theory. The tension of a quantum string is closely related to its size. Consider a closed loop of string, left to move through space without external forces. Its tension will tend to contract it into a smaller and smaller loop. Classical intuition suggests that it might shrink to a single point, but this would violate Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. The characteristic size of the string loop will be a balance between the tension force, acting to make it small, and the uncertainty effect, which keeps it "stretched". Consequently, the minimum size of a string is related to the string tension.


Imagine a point-like particle. If we draw a graph which depicts the progress of the particle as time passes by, the particle will draw a line in space-time. This line is called the particle's worldline. Now imagine a similar graph depicting the progress of a string as time passes by; the string (a one-dimensional object - a small line - by itself) will draw a surface (a two-dimensional manifold), known as the worldsheet. The different string modes (representing different particles, such as photon or graviton) are surface waves on this manifold.

A closed string looks like a small loop, so its worldsheet will look like a pipe, or - more generally - as a Riemannian surface (a two-dimensional oriented manifold) with no boundaries (i.e. no edge). An open string looks like a short line, so its worldsheet will look like a strip, or - more generally - as a Riemann surface with a boundary.

Strings can split and connect. This is reflected by the form of their worldsheet (more accurately, by its topology). For example, if a closed string splits, its worldsheet will look like a single pipe splitting (or connected) to two pipes (often referred to as a pair of pants--see drawing at the top of this page). If a closed string splits and its two parts later reconnect, its worldsheet will look like a single pipe splitting to two and then reconnecting, which also looks like torus connected to two pipes (one representing the ingoing string, and the other - the outgoing one). An open string doing the same thing will have its worldsheet looking like a ring connected to two strips.

Note that the process of a string splitting (or strings connecting) is a global process of the worldsheet, not a local one: locally, the worldsheet looks the same everywhere and it is not possible to determine a single point on the worldsheet where the splitting occurs. Therefore these processes are an integral part of the theory, and are described by the same dynamics that controls the string modes.

In some string theories (namely closed strings in Type I and string in some version of the bosonic string), strings can split and reconnect in an opposite orientation (as in a Möbius strip or a Klein bottle). These theories are called unoriented. Formally, the worldsheet in these theories is an non-orientable surface.


Before the "duality revolution" there were believed to be five distinct versions of string theory, plus the (unstable) bosonic and gluonic theories.

String Theories
Type Spacetime dimensions
Bosonic 26 Only bosons, no fermions means only forces, no matter, with both open and closed strings; major flaw: a particle with imaginary mass, called the tachyon, representing an instability in the theory.
I 10 Supersymmetry between forces and matter, with both open and closed strings, no tachyon, group symmetry is SO(32)
IIA 10 Supersymmetry between forces and matter, with closed strings and open strings bound to D-branes, no tachyon, massless fermions spin both ways (nonchiral)
IIB 10 Supersymmetry between forces and matter, with closed strings and open strings bound to D-branes, no tachyon, massless fermions only spin one way (chiral)
HO 10 Supersymmetry between forces and matter, with closed strings only, no tachyon, heterotic, meaning right moving and left moving strings differ, group symmetry is SO(32)
HE 10 Supersymmetry between forces and matter, with closed strings only, no tachyon, heterotic, meaning right moving and left moving strings differ, group symmetry is E8×E8

Note that in the type IIA and type IIB string theories closed strings are allowed to move everywhere throughout the ten-dimensional space-time (called the bulk), while open strings have their ends attached to D-branes, which are membranes of lower dimensionality (their dimension is odd - 1,3,5,7 or 9 - in type IIA and even - 0,2,4,6 or 8 - in type IIB, including the time direction).

Before the 1990s, string theorists believed there were five distinct superstring theories: type I, types IIA and IIB, and the two heterotic string theories ( SO(32) and E8×E8). The thinking was that out of these five candidate theories, only one was the actual correct theory of everything, and that theory was the theory whose low energy limit, with ten dimensions spacetime compactified down to four, matched the physics observed in our world today. It is now known that this picture was naive, and that the five superstring theories are connected to one another as if they are each a special case of some more fundamental theory. These theories are related by transformations that are called dualities. If two theories are related by a duality transformation, it means that the first theory can be transformed in some way so that it ends up looking just like the second theory. The two theories are then said to be dual to one another under that kind of transformation. Put differently, the two theories are two mathematically different descriptions of the same phenomena.

These dualities link quantities that were also thought to be separate. Large and small distance scales, strong and weak coupling strengths – these quantities have always marked very distinct limits of behaviour of a physical system, in both classical field theory and quantum particle physics. But strings can obscure the difference between large and small, strong and weak, and this is how these five very different theories end up being related.


Suppose we are in ten spacetime dimensions, which means we have nine space dimensions and one time. Take one of those nine space dimensions and make it a circle of radius R, so that traveling in that direction for a distance L = 2πR takes you around the circle and brings you back to where you started. A particle traveling around this circle will have a quantized momentum around the circle, because its momentum is linked to its wavelength (see Wave-particle duality), and 2πR must be a multiple of that. In fact, the particle momentum around the circle - and the contribution to its energy - is of the form n/R (in standard units, for an integer n), so that at large R there will be many more states compared to small R (for a given maximum energy). A string, in addition to traveling around the circle, may also wrap around it. The number of times the string winds around the circle is called the winding number, and that is also quantized (as it must be an integer). Winding around the circle requires energy, because the string must be stretched against its tension, so it contributes an amount of energy of the form wR/L_{st}^2, where Lst is a constant called the string length and w is the winding number (an integer). Now (for a given maximum energy) there will be many different states (with different momenta) at large R, but there will also be many different states (with different windings) at small R. In fact, a theory with large R and a theory with small R are equivalent, where the role of momentum in the first is played by the winding in the second, and vice versa. Mathematically, taking R to L_{st}^2/R and switching n and w will yield the same equations. So exchanging momentum and winding modes of the string exchanges a large distance scale with a small distance scale.

This type of duality is called T-duality. T-duality relates type IIA superstring theory to type IIB superstring theory. That means if we take type IIA and Type IIB theory and compactify them both on a circle (one with a large radius and the other with a small radius) then switching the momentum and winding modes, and switching the distance scale, changes one theory into the other. The same is also true for the two heterotic theories. T-duality also relates type I superstring theory to both type IIA and type IIB superstring theories with certain boundary conditions (termed orientifold).

Formally, the location of the string on the circle is described by two fields living on it, one which is left-moving and another which is right-moving. The movement of the string centre (and hence its momentum) is related to the sum of the fields, while the string stretch (and hence its winding number) is related to their difference. T-duality can be formally described by taking the left-moving field to minus itself, so that the sum and the difference are interchanged, leading to switching of momentum and winding.


Every force has a coupling constant, which is a measure of its strength, and determines the chances of one particle to emit or absorb another particle. For electromagnetism, the coupling constant is proportional to the square of the electric charge. When physicists study the quantum behaviour of electromagnetism, they can't solve the whole theory exactly, because every particle may emit and absorb many other particles, which may also do the same, endlessly. So events of emission and absorption are considered as perturbations and are dealt with by a series of approximations, first assuming there is only one such event, then correcting the result for allowing two such events, etc (this method is called Perturbation theory). This is a reasonable approximation only if the coupling constant is small, which is the case for electromagnetism. But if the coupling constant gets large, that method of calculation breaks down, and the little pieces become worthless as an approximation to the real physics.

This also can happen in string theory. String theories have a coupling constant. But unlike in particle theories, the string coupling constant is not just a number, but depends on one of the oscillation modes of the string, called the dilaton. Exchanging the dilaton field with minus itself exchanges a very large coupling constant with a very small one. This symmetry is called S-duality. If two string theories are related by S-duality, then one theory with a strong coupling constant is the same as the other theory with weak coupling constant. The theory with strong coupling cannot be understood by means of perturbation theory, but the theory with weak coupling can. So if the two theories are related by S-duality, then we just need to understand the weak theory, and that is equivalent to understanding the strong theory.

Superstring theories related by S-duality are: type I superstring theory with heterotic SO(32) superstring theory, and type IIB theory with itself.

Furthermore, type IIA theory in strong coupling behaves like an 11-dimensional theory, with the dilaton field playing the role of an eleventh dimension. This 11-dimensional theory is known as M-theory.

Unlike the T-duality, however, S-duality has not been proven to even a physics level of rigor for any of the aforementioned cases. It remains, strictly speaking, a conjecture, although most string theorists believe in its validity.

Extra dimensions

One intriguing feature of string theory is that it predicts the possible number of dimensions in the universe. Nothing in Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism or Einstein's theory of relativity makes this kind of prediction; these theories require physicists to insert the number of dimensions "by hand". The first person to add a fifth dimension to Einstein's general relativity was German mathematician Theodor Kaluza in 1919. The reason for the unobservability of the fifth dimension (its compactness) was suggested by the Swedish physicist Oskar Klein in 1926 (see Kaluza–Klein theory).

Unlike general relativity, string theory allows one to compute the number of spacetime dimensions from first principles. Technically, this happens because, for a different number of dimensions, the theory has a gauge anomaly. This can be understood by noting that in a consistent theory which includes a photon (technically, a particle carrying a force related to an unbroken gauge symmetry), it must be massless. The mass of the photon which is predicted by string theory depends on the energy of the string mode which represents the photon. This energy includes a contribution from Casimir effect, namely from quantum fluctuations in the string. The size of this contribution depends on the number of dimensions since for a larger number of dimensions, there are more possible fluctuations in the string position. Therefore, the photon will be massless — and the theory consistent — only for a particular number of dimensions.

When the calculation is done, the universe's dimensionality is not four as one may expect (three axes of space and one of time). Bosonic string theories are 26-dimensional, while superstring and M-theories turn out to involve 10 or 11 dimensions. In bosonic string theories, the 26 dimensions come from the Polyakov equation. However, these results appear to contradict the observed four dimensional space-time.

Two different ways have been proposed to resolve this apparent contradiction. The first is to compactify the extra dimensions; i.e., the 6 or 7 extra dimensions are so small as to be undetectable in our phenomenal experience. In order to retain the supersymmetric properties of string theory, these spaces must be very special. The 6-dimensional model's resolution is achieved with Calabi-Yau spaces. In 7 dimensions, they are termed G2 manifolds. These extra dimensions are compactified by causing them to loop back upon themselves.

A standard analogy for this is to consider multidimensional space as a garden hose. If the hose is viewed from a sufficient distance, it appears to have only one dimension, its length. Indeed, think of a ball just small enough to enter the hose. Throwing such a ball inside the hose, the ball would move more or less in one dimension; in any experiment we make by throwing such balls in the hose, the only important movement will be one-dimensional, that is, along the hose. However, as one approaches the hose, one discovers that it contains a second dimension, its circumference. Thus, an ant crawling inside it would move in two dimensions (and a fly flying in it would move in three dimensions). This "extra dimension" is only visible within a relatively close range to the hose, or if one "throws in" small enough objects. Similarly, the extra compact dimensions are only visible at extremely small distances, or by experimenting with particles with extremely small wave lengths (of the order of the compact dimension's radius), which in quantum mechanics means very high energies (see wave-particle duality).

Another possibility is that we are stuck in a 3+1 dimensional (i.e. three spatial dimensions plus the time dimension) subspace of the full universe. This subspace is supposed to be a D-brane, hence this is known as a braneworld theory. Many people believe that some combination of the two ideas – compactification and branes – will ultimately yield the most realistic theory.

In either case, gravity acting in the hidden dimensions affects other non-gravitational forces such as electromagnetism. In fact, Kaluza and Klein's early work demonstrated that general relativity with five large dimensions and one small dimension actually predicts the existence of electromagnetism. However, because of the nature of Calabi-Yau manifolds, no new forces appear from the small dimensions, but their shape has a profound effect on how the forces between the strings appear in our four dimensional universe. In principle, therefore, it is possible to deduce the nature of those extra dimensions by requiring consistency with the standard model, but this is not yet a practical possibility. It is also possible to extract information regarding the hidden dimensions by precision tests of gravity, but so far these have only put upper limitations on the size of such hidden dimensions.


Another key feature of string theory is the existence of D-branes. These are membranes of different dimensionality (anywhere from a zero dimensional membrane - which is in fact a point - and up, including 2-dimensional membranes, 3-dimensional volumes and so on).

D-branes are defined by the fact that worldsheet boundaries are attached to them. Thus D-branes can emit and absorb closed strings; therefore they have mass (since they emit gravitons) and - in superstring theories - charge as well (since they emit closed strings which are gauge bosons).

From the point of view of open strings, D-branes are objects to which the ends of open strings are attached. The open strings attached to a D-brane are said to "live" on it, and they give rise to gauge theories "living" on it (since one of the open string modes is a gauge boson such as the photon). In the case of one D-brane there will be one type of a gauge boson and we will have an Abelian gauge theory (with the gauge boson being the photon). If there are multiple parallel D-branes there will be multiple types of gauge bosons, giving rise to a non-Abelian gauge theory.

Thus D-branes are gravitational sources, on which a gauge theory "lives". This gauge theory is coupled to gravity (which is said to exist in the bulk), so that normally each of these two different viewpoints is incomplete.

Gauge-gravity duality

In certain cases the gauge theory on the D-branes is decoupled from the gravity living in the bulk; thus open strings attached to the D-branes are not interacting with closed strings. Such a situation is termed a decoupling limit.

In those cases, the D-branes have two independent alternative descriptions. As discussed above, from the point of view of closed strings, the D-branes are gravitational sources, and thus we have a gravitational theory on spacetime with some background fields. From the point of view of open strings, the physics of the D-branes is described by the appropriate gauge theory. Therefore in such cases it is often conjectured that the gravitational theory on spacetime with the appropriate background fields is dual (i.e. physically equivalent) to the gauge theory on the boundary of this spacetime (since the subspace filled by the D-branes is the boundary of this spacetime). So far, this duality has not been proven in any cases, so there is also disagreement among string theorists regarding how strong the duality applies to various models.

The most known example and the first one to be studied is the duality between Type IIB supergravity on AdS5 * S5 (a product space of a five-dimensional Anti de Sitter space and a five-sphere) on one hand, and N=4 supersymmetric Yang-Mills theory on the four-dimensional boundary of the Anti de Sitter space (either a flat four-dimensional spacetime R3,1 or a three-sphere with time S3* R). This is known as the AdS/CFT correspondence, a name often used for Gauge / gravity duality in general.

This duality can be thought of as follows: suppose there is a spacetime with a gravitational source, for example an extremal black hole. When particles are far away from this source, they are described by closed strings (i.e. a gravitational theory, or usually supergravity). As the particles approach the gravitational source, they can still be described by closed strings; alternatively, they can be described by objects similar to QCD strings, which are made of gauge bosons ( gluons) and other gauge theory degrees of freedom. So if one is able (in a decoupling limit) to describe the gravitational system as two separate regions - one (the bulk) far away from the source, and the other close to the source - then the latter region can also be described by a gauge theory on D-branes. This latter region (close to the source) is termed the near-horizon limit, since usually there is an event horizon around (or at) the gravitational source.

In the gravitational theory, one of the directions in spacetime is the radial direction, going from the gravitational source and away (towards the bulk). The gauge theory lives only on the D-brane itself, so it does not include the radial direction: it lives in a spacetime with one less dimension compared to the gravitational theory (in fact, it lives on a spacetime identical to the boundary of the near-horizon gravitational theory). Let us understand how the two theories are still equivalent:

The physics of the near-horizon gravitational theory involves only on-shell states (as usual in string theory), while the field theory includes also off-shell correlation function. The on-shell states in the near-horizon gravitational theory can be thought of as describing only particles arriving from the bulk to the near-horizon region and interacting there between themselves. In the gauge theory these are "projected" onto the boundary, so that particles which arrive at the source from different directions will be seen in the gauge theory as ( off-shell) quantum fluctuations far apart from each other, while particles arriving at the source from almost the same direction in space will be seen in the gauge theory as ( off-shell) quantum fluctuations close to each other. Thus the angle between the arriving particles in the gravitational theory translates to the distance scale between quantum fluctuations in the gauge theory. The angle between arriving particles in the gravitational theory is related to the radial distance from the gravitational source at which the particles interact: the larger the angle, the closer the particles has to get to the source in order to interact with each other. On the other hand, the scale of the distance between quantum fluctuations in a quantum field theory is related (inversely) to the energy scale in this theory. So small radius in the gravitational theory translates to low energy scale in the gauge theory (i.e. the IR regime of the field theory) while large radius in the gravitational theory translates to high energy scale in the gauge theory (i.e. the UV regime of the field theory).

A simple example to this principle is that if in the gravitational theory there is a setup in which the dilaton field (which determines the strength of the coupling) is decreasing with the radius, then its dual field theory will be asymptotically free, i.e. its coupling will grow weaker in high energies.

Unsolved problems in physics: Is string theory, superstring theory, or M-theory, or some other variant on this theme, a step on the road to a " theory of everything," or just a blind alley?

Problems and controversy

String theory remains to be confirmed. No version of string theory has yet made an experimentally verified prediction that differs from those made by other theories. In this sense, string theory is still in a "larval stage": it is not a proper physical theory. It possesses many features of mathematical interest and may yet become important in our understanding of the universe, but it requires further developments before it is accepted or discarded. Since string theory may not be tested in the foreseeable future, some scientists have asked if it even deserves to be called a scientific theory: it is not falsifiable in the sense of Popper.

For example, while supersymmetry is now seen as a vital ingredient of string theory, supersymmetric models with no obvious connection to string theory are also studied. Therefore, if supersymmetry were detected at the Large Hadron Collider it would not be seen as a direct confirmation of the theory. More importantly, if supersymmetry were not detected, there are vacua in string theory in which supersymmetry would only be seen at much higher energies, so its absence would not falsify string theory. By contrast, if observing the Sun during a solar eclipse had not shown that the Sun's gravity deflected light by the predicted amount, Einstein's general relativity theory would have been proven wrong.

One hope for testing string theory is that a better understanding of how string theory deals with singularities and time-dependent backgrounds would allow physicists to understand the predictions of string theory for the big bang, and see how cosmic inflation can be incorporated into the theory. This has led to some deep theoretical progress, and some early models of string cosmology, such as brane inflation, trans-Planckian effects, string gas cosmology and the ekpyrotic universe, but fundamental progress must be made before it is understood what, if any, distinctive predictions the theory makes for cosmology. A recent popular suggestion is that brane inflation may produce cosmic strings which could be observed through their gravitational radiation, or lensing of distant galaxies or the cosmic microwave background.

On a more mathematical level, another problem is that, like many quantum field theories, much of string theory is still only formulated perturbatively (i.e., as a series of approximations rather than as an exact solution). Although nonperturbative techniques have progressed considerably – including conjectured complete definitions in space-times satisfying certain asymptotics – a full non-perturbative definition of the theory is still lacking.

Philosophically, string theory cannot be truly fundamental in its present formulation because it is background-dependent: each string theory is built on a fixed spacetime background. Since a dynamic spacetime is the central tenet of general relativity, the hope is that M-theory will turn out to be background-independent, giving as solutions the many different versions of string theories, but no one yet knows how such a fundamental theory can be constructed. A related problem is that the best understood backgrounds of string theory preserve much of the supersymmetry of the underlying theory, and thus are time-invariant: string theory cannot yet deal well with time-dependent, cosmological backgrounds.

Another problem is that the vacuum structure of the theory, called the string theory landscape, is not well understood. As string theory is presently understood, it appears to contain a large number of distinct vacua, perhaps 10500 or more. Each of these corresponds to a different universe, with a different collection of particles and forces. What principle, if any, can be used to select among these vacua is an open issue. While there are no known continuous parameters in the theory, there is a very large discretuum (coined in contradistinction to continuum) of possible universes, which may be radically different from each other. Some physicists believe this is a benefit of the theory, as it may allow a natural anthropic explanation of the observed values of physical constants, in particular the small value of the cosmological constant. However, such explanations are not usually regarded as scientific in the Popperian sense.

Popular culture

  • The book The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, Professor of Physics at Columbia University, was adapted into a three-hour documentary for Nova and also shown on British television. It was also shown by Discovery Channel on Indian television, as well as in Australia on SBS.
  • String theory is also a series of books based in the Star Trek: Voyager universe.
  • In the TV series Angel, the character of Winifred Burkle (aka Fred) puts forward a theory about String Theory & Alternate Dimensions to the Physics Institute following her own experience of being trapped in one such delicate alternate dimension for five years. The episode which this is referenced to is "Supersymmetry".
  • Another theory named string theory was used in the science fiction television series Quantum Leap. In the series it relates to a theory of time travel, and is not related to accepted String Theory. It views a person's life as a string that moves from one end to the other. However, if it were possible to roll up this string into a ball it would be possible to leap from one section to another, as the main character of the show does.
  • Both the String Theory and the Calabi-Yau Model are mentioned in reference to teleportation in the popular video game Half-Life 2.
  • In an episode of Criminal Minds, a Schizophrenic hostage taker named Ted Bryar had completed a PhD in string theory in the '80s.
  • In an episode of Masters of Horror directed by Stuart Gordon, a young grad student from Miskatonic University studies interdimensional string theory in his run-down apartment. Based on the short story "Dreams in the Witch-House" by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • On the popular CBS drama, Numb3rs, one of the supporting characters, physicist professor Dr. Larry Fleinhardt ( Peter MacNicol), actively researches string theory at 'Cal-Sci' (based on Caltech).

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