The Scientific Indian

Unstrung in the New Yorker

An excellent essay on the current state of physics at The New Yorker by Jim Holt.

It is the best of times in physics. Physicists are on the verge of obtaining the long-sought Theory of Everything. In a few elegant equations, perhaps concise enough to be emblazoned on a T-shirt, this theory will reveal how the universe began and how it will end. The key insight is that the smallest constituents of the world are not particles, as had been supposed since ancient times, but “strings”–tiny strands of energy. By vibrating in different ways, these strings produce the essential phenomena of nature, the way violin strings produce musical notes. String theory isn’t just powerful; it’s also mathematically beautiful. All that remains to be done is to write down the actual equations. This is taking a little longer than expected. But, with almost the entire theoretical-physics community working on the problem–presided over by a sage in Princeton, New Jersey–the millennia-old dream of a final theory is sure to be realized before long.

It is the worst of times in physics. For more than a generation, physicists have been chasing a will-o’-the-wisp called string theory. The beginning of this chase marked the end of what had been three-quarters of a century of progress. Dozens of string-theory conferences have been held, hundreds of new Ph.D.s have been minted, and thousands of papers have been written. Yet, for all this activity, not a single new testable prediction has been made, not a single theoretical puzzle has been solved. In fact, there is no theory so far–just a set of hunches and calculations suggesting that a theory might exist. And, even if it does, this theory will come in such a bewildering number of versions that it will be of no practical use: a Theory of Nothing. Yet the physics establishment promotes string theory with irrational fervor, ruthlessly weeding dissenting physicists from the profession. Meanwhile, physics is stuck in a paradigm doomed to barrenness.

So which is it: the best of times or the worst of times?