String Theory, Part Three

Definitely the final essay in this series. And no more politics.

In a Universe first, I received in my cool email “box” yesterday a piece of rebuttal about the political implications of the tokes on String Theory in my last essay. What my correspondent pointed out to me was that my comparison of Intelligent Design and String Theory gave me away as an unabashed leftist (duh), and that, furthermore, positing ST as the intellectual’s antithesis to ID is only a detriment to critical thinking, since all I am doing is enacting a typically American (my correspondent is a European) structure of polar ideological binaries. And since, incidentally, String Theory is perhaps as unfounded and illogical a postulation as Intelligent Design is, I am just as much a pseudo-scientific loon as those who champion the latter.

I’m glad. I had originally been very hesitant to raise the Intelligent Design point for many reasons: a) I didn’t want to take part in the media orgy on the subject, b) I am generally misinformed politically (there, I said it), and c) I was worried someone might call me out as accurately as my above correspondent did. As it stands, I have few rebuttals. I am an unabashed drum-circle hackey-sack leftist. But I think the new Universe that String Theory proposes is much more exciting and conceptually problematic than what Intelligent Design offers us — I mean, Creationism is pretty hackneyed.

However, I will cede this point. Godly evolution and Multiverses have one thing in common: neither are examples of hard science. The thing which I think is fundamentally interesting about String Theory, for our purposes here, is that there have been no experiments yet devised that can viably test it. No observations, either, can relate to the properties it discusses — Strings are so profoundly subatomic that we can never see them. On the same token, G-o-d remains as elusive.

Scientific theories, even when admired for their logic and symmetry, are by definition hypotheses awaiting experimental evidence. Both Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity are celebrated because they can be used to make (thus far) infallible empirical predictions. Furthermore, we know that gravity, electromagnetism, and the nuclear forces exist — be they in the form of forces or elementary particles. But Strings? They’re literally so small that we will probably never see them as entities.

What String Theory is, it seems, is a field of non-experimental physics — physics, being, of course an inherently experimental and observational science. Many physicists differentiate themselves disdainfully from String Theorists, who are seen as a radical offshoot group. Supporters argue that this group is revolutionizing the science and opponents consider them mere philosophers. Not to say that philosophy is a radical step down from experimental physics on the chain of legitimacy, but it is certainly a different discipline. If String Theory, after all this, is just philosophy — albeit a mathematical philosophy — then no one, particularly not me, can pronounce it either a necessary ideological and cultural shift nor an intellectual capstone, at least not on the platform of it being a particularly factual development.

The reason that next time you see me I won’t be holding up cardboard signs in the street and handing out flyers, however, is that there is a clear line between philosophical speculation and religious proselytizing. Sure, maybe String Theory is masquerading at science in the same way that Intelligent Design is and with the same fervor — but at least it doesn’t have an agenda.


  1. #1 Jona
    January 31, 2006

    HOT DOG.

  2. #2 mork the delayer
    January 31, 2006

    Damn straight. I’d opt for stringy agendaless multiverses over divine intervention any day of the week.

  3. #3 Cary
    February 1, 2006

    I won’t weigh in one way or the other as to the rest of your conversation with the unnamed European, but I think the assertion that binary thought is a particularly American thought structure is pretty absurd. For my first piece of evidence, I bring your attention to… the entirety of European History up to and including the very idea of binarisms and, well, a European positing an America vs. unAmerica duality.

  4. #4 Richard
    February 1, 2006

    As the unnamed European, I just wanted to make the point that I wasn’t saying that binary thought was an American phenomenon so much as the current climate of politics, in particular the Christian right has created a reactionary left. When opinions become so polarised there is little room for critical thought or indeed any kind of ambiguity. Lets face it both ID and ST are abstract concepts I think a society can only benefit from seeing grey(gray) as opposed to black and white.

  5. #5 OPen ORgan
    February 1, 2006

    but string theory does have an agenda, no?

    plus, an example of the sillier type of science reporting:

    “it’s just like the movie Flatland, right?”

  6. #6 Claire
    February 1, 2006

    They made Flatland into a movie??

  7. #7 Rob
    February 16, 2006

    It’s sad that science is little taught, when taught is not understood, or valued, and rarely is taught in a way that yields true understanding.

    It took me quite a distance in my educational trajectory to internalize the idea of science as models. :There is the universe, nature, and we construct models that predict it’s behavior we can measure or observe. Some are pretty direct mental models – of how billiard balls will move or what will happen if we loose our grip on the Thanksgiving turkey platter. Some are mathematical, as in high energy physics, where we try to indirectly observe the subatomic world by crashing pieces of it together, fast, and picking up the remains.

    The model is not the thing. The model is an approximation which works more or less, sometimes or not, to explain something we can measure.

    Mathematics, it’s as poorly taught as science. Mathematicians invent abstract systems which are self consistent. They have their own rules and funny symbols. New math is invented all the time. Invented and put on the shelf. Physicists take it off the shelf all the time and see if they can use it to make a better, but never exact, model of their measurements of the universe.

    Neither the mathematics or the models are perfect descriptions of the universe, just useful ones.

    String theory’s descriptions will in time be replaced by another model with fewer loose ends. Science itself may move closer to explaining love. But science, mathematics and models will forever have their limits, limits as important to understand as their value.

  8. #8 Serge
    February 17, 2006

    Hi Claire,
    Did you know you have some readers in France?
    There is one more dimension among the 11 you mentioned : you invented the poetical dimension of our Universe and its particles.
    The superstring theory is not a revolution for our common sense. It’s far more a revolution for scientists by giving them a simple unique way to describe particles in their full range from known particles up to the hypothetical gravitational particle (graviton).
    Saying it simply, “we” know that sometimes particles have effects that let us consider they are solid points, sometimes they look like waves. So strings are a nice solution because they are material things and can oscillate.
    The revolution will happen for non-scientists when this theory will allow to find new particles or new explanation about the relation between particles and Black Holes for example.

    More poetic is the theory of multiverse as you said. Non-scientists people can help us to imagine what life will be in these worlds!

    For more details visit this place :

    Waiting to read more from you.

  9. #9 Serge
    February 17, 2006

    Something more strange than Strings? The content of “vacuum”. Read this article :
    at chapters 1.3.3 and 1.3.4,
    about creation and annihilation of particles and antiparticles that lead the “vacuum” not to be empty. Don’t be afraid, to avoid confusing, we have to make a distinction between physical vacuum and “subjective vacuum”

  10. #10 Claire
    February 23, 2006

    Serge —

    Des lecteurs en France? Ca me surprend. Comment avez-vous (on se vouvoie dans ce contexte? Je ne connais pas les nuances sociales de l’Internet en France) trouve ce site?

    C’est vrai que cette theorie ne represente pas vraiment de difference conceptuelle: pour moi, et j’imagine pour la plupart des gens, les particules elementaires et les ficelles sont tous les deux egalement impossible a comprendre, ou, plutot, egalement absurdes. C’est pour ca, peut-etre, que tout ca se traduit tres facilement en poesie.


  11. #11 Serge
    February 24, 2006

    Hi Claire,
    There is no difference between french and american Internet way of life. Only one netiquette.
    What makes the physical world so “hermetic” to us, is we only look at its “space” dimensions (they are 3) and we fail to imagine its shape. As soon we think it as a balloon, we think : what is inside or outside the balloon?
    That is different if we take into account 4 of its dimension. We are in a “space-time” universe. Space is the place between particles or planet. And when a particle or planet is somewhere, the space and time around are changed (“distorded”).
    So if you want to think going to the “border” of the universe, change also your time idea.

    Want to be lost for a moment? Look at :


    if you prefer english text.

    Look also what is inside the vacuum.

    Rien n’arrete la poesie, elle peut refaire le monde.

    Thanks for your answer in perfect french.


  12. #12 barbara falasiri
    September 6, 2006

    so i was googling for images for a “ball of string” and found this . . . i read it because this is a relevent topic in my household, where my cosmologist (astro-physisist) son declines to believe string theory — i favor some aspects of it. anyway i emailed an excerpt from this latest essay, finding it funny, and got the following reply:

    that guy doesn’t know what he is talking about. string theory isn’t *currently* testable. neither was CMB polarization until 5 years ago or so when the devices finally got sensitive to see it. effects of relativity or quantum mechanics couldn’t be measured right away. Current sub-millimeter gravity experiments are used to place upper limits on how small the extra dimensions that string theory predicts are. someone is bound to come up with other clever ideas to measure it, too. right now they’re fiddling around with it for mathematical consistency. I’m not saying string theory is true, I don’t care for it, and a lot of folks don’t think it is the right way forward, but it certainly isn’t philosophy. You can’t eventually prove a philosophy wrong, but you can with a theory.

    and by the way — i don’t believe binary thinking is american nor western — ultimately, at thoughts deepest level, it is required to be binary, despite imprinting, formatting, or any other “ing”. we are a conflagration of chemicals that operate like tiny tinker toys. the move about with mechanical precision. they loose electrons and swarm. they flood our minds and bodies with mood altering hormones and a whole host of other things. we are, to put it simply, chemical computers. 0/1 open/close and/nand

  13. #13 Claire
    September 6, 2006

    Funny that he automatically assumes that I’m male.

  14. #14 barbara falasiri
    September 7, 2006

    funny, especially since he works for one of the few female physicists at princeton.

    men and their assumptions, what can i say?

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