string theory: maybe not so great


IT IS almost a century since Einstein did his finest work; more than 30 years since theoretical physicists developed the standard model that describes the basic building blocks of nature. Not a lot has happened since, despite the best efforts of thousands of theorists and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars. Two new books blame string theory.

String theory is an attempt to unify two fundamental ideas in physics—quantum theory and general relativity—by building everything in the universe from tiny strings and membranes existing in 10 or 11 dimensions. The theory has been the dominant area of research in theoretical physics for the past 20 years. Unfortunately its promise remains unfulfilled. As yet, string theory has made no predictions that could prove it to be wrong. Since being falsifiable is one of the tests of what constitutes a science, Lee Smolin and Peter Woit have come to the conclusion that string theory is unscientific; not only that, they regard it as mere conjecture and unworthy of being called a theory at all.

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