Crap or Misunderstood?

What is the ‘string theory’ of your field?

Following the success of Chad’s last two memes I’ve decided to pose my own question. From the outside, it looks like string theory is a legitimate research area that is controversial amongst non-string-theorists. It appears to be misunderstood or unappreciated. Some physicists (yeah, I hate the way I phrased that . . . I’m sorry) do not think there is anything worth learning from string theory. Just to clarify, intelligent design is not the string theory of evolutionary biology — no one takes it seriously. Maybe something like evolutionary psychology would be more appropriate. I guess I’ve kinda given the physicists their answer, but feel free to nominate something else. So, what’s the string theory of your area of research?


  1. #1 Peter Woit
    February 2, 2006

    I’m curious to hear what people think are analogs of string theory in other disciplines. To me it seems quite a special case, driven by the very peculiar position that particle theory has found itself in.

    The description of string theory as a legitimate research area that is controversial is on target, but the “misunderstood and unappreciated” much less so. It’s certainly “misunderstood” in the sense of “not well understood” by lots of people, including string theorists themselves, who will admit that they don’t really know what the theory is yet, that it’s more the hope of a hope that a theory of a certain kind exists. “misunderstood” together with “unappreciated” implies that non string theorists don’t know about the accomplishments of string theory. The situation is rather the opposite, with most physicists having been exposed to a huge amount of hype about the theory, and thus believing there is more to it than there really is. “unappreciated” is far off-base, given that the theory groups at the leading universities in this country (especially Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, but most others too) are heavily dominated by string theorists. Whatever rewards academia offers, it you look at how string theorists are doing, “unappreciated” isn’t at all accurate.

  2. #2 razib
    February 2, 2006

    I’m curious to hear what people think are analogs of string theory in other disciplines.

    some ppl would tell you the stuff that the sante fe institution ppl produce in a host of disciplines. i’ve heard negative stuff said about ‘em in evolutionary genetics. but they are sexy. and are stuart kauffman’s ideas about gene-gene networks testable?

  3. #3 RPM
    February 2, 2006

    Let’s replace unappreciated with ‘overhyped’ following Peter Woit’s comment.

  4. #4 urs
    February 3, 2006

    To some extent, the following statement has some truth to it:

    “Category theory is the string theory of mathematics.”

    At least, one can see people passionately talking about category theory being attacked by others who accuse them of indulging in an empty exercise that does not produce any valuable output.

    As with every analogy, there are tight limits to how far this one can be pushed. On the other hand, in some deeper sense there is more truth to this than it might seem.

  5. #5 Peter Woit
    February 3, 2006

    I don’t agree with Urs about the role of category theory in mathematics. The basics of category theory that were developed during the 40s and 50s are part of the lingua franca of mathematics. We teach this in many of our first year graduate courses, and there is no question that it is an important and useful set of ideas.

    Less obviously useful are “higher” categories. There are some well-known places where this seems to be a useful language, especially in thinking about stacks, which is an important concept that has an increasingly large number of applications.

    Over the years, there have been people who have worked on pure category theory and promoted the idea that it holds the key to various deep mathematical problems. But this isn’t taken too seriously by most of the mathematics community, which refers to this field affectionately as “abstract nonsense”. Few if any of the leading research universities in the US that I know of have senior faculty doing this kind of research, which is very different than the situation of string theory, which dominates the field.

  6. #6 Kapitano
    February 9, 2006

    A few from a humanities student who also reads science:

    Sociology – Cultural Theory
    Media Studies – Television Studies
    Computer Programming – Recursive Algorithms
    Music – Atonalism
    Literature – Reception Theory
    Environmental Science – Gaia
    Economics – Marxism