Princeton, New Jersey November 28, 2007
Q: What did the string theorist say when he was caught by his wife with another woman?
A: I can explain everything!
At 1 Einstein Drive in Princeton, New Jersey is the Institute for Advanced Studies. What a happy surprise to be here! At IAS Einstein finished his career in a fruitless search for a Unified Field Theory. Walking here from the train station, one can easily imagine the old man walking the same streets to work every day. Why don’t they call this Einstein Walk? This week of November 26-30 IAS was location of a Conference on Gauge Theory and Representation Theory. For this small field, it was a major meeting. Thanks to Peter Woit for taking the train here!
Edward Witten gave an eagerly anticipated talk Wednesday at 10 AM, “Gauge Theory and Wild Ramification.” The subtitle was Geometric Langlands and Topological Field Theory. Witten went over a lot of maths very quickly; my notes cover 6 pages. Here and in other talks, there was much mention of Lie groups. The hope is that all this can be reduced to mirror symnetry or Geometric Langlands Duality. Witten made no mention of strings. This is a highly speculative venture, not to mention complicated.
An equally interesting talk was left for Sergei Gukov immediately afterward, “D-Branes and Representations.” Gukov subtitled his talk, “Work in progress by Edward Witten,” so we all know whom he was speaking for. The work is a 4-dimensional topological gauge theory, which can be reduced to a boundary condition of Supersymnetry. Only passing mention was made of relating any of this to reality. Peter Woit gives a much longer history of this work in Not Even Wrong.
The Witten-Gukov work is still highly speculative, for Supersymnetry may not be provable. While SUSY has kept theorists busy, the many particles predicted have never been found. As an example of Representation Theory, Gukov showed a reduction to the Gibbons-Hawking formula. Strings were only mentioned as a way of linking branes. Do you hear that, string religionists? High priest Witten is working in 4 dimensions!
Witten is known for making broad statements that have been picked up by the press. “String theory is a bit of 21st century physics that fell by chance into the 20th century. String theory has the unique property of predicting gravity.” These pronouncements helped pressure researchers into devoting careers to strings. Easily digestible, these statements have become better known than Witten’s other work.
Somewhat like Einstein, Witten was earlier tagged as a genius. His supporters expect him to come up with a Theory of Everything. Unlike Einstein, Witten had not paid the dues of uncovering Relativity. A genius prize can make an academic career easier, avoiding the funding pitfalls that face so many of us. Like a dolphin’s tag left by scientists, a label can also be an albatross. Einstein’s years at IAS without producing a theory must have been disappointing.
After the work devoted to a Theory of Everything, scientists should stop and reconsider. If one theory explained everything, there would be no more need for physicists. The Standard Model of particle physics has at least 20 free parameters. Quantum Theory and Relativity can be linked starting with the parameters h and c, but big jobs are best done in small steps. If too high a bar is set, then useful steps might be rejected for not solving everything at once. We have seen ideas ignored because they do not fit with the string enterprise. Out of the limelight, many advances in Theory are being made. Stringy promises of a Theory of Everything have held back real progress in science.
Here at Fuld Hall, tea will be served in the Common Room at 3:30.