Inside the tangled world of string theory

Matthew Chalmers in New Scientist:

Edward Witten, a leading architect of string theory, works at the cutting edge of mathematics and physics in his quest for a “theory of everything”. Matthew Chalmers met up with him to ask how it feels to work in an area so rarefied that it's a problem simply conveying to other people what he's up to.

LISTENING to Ed Witten talk physics can be a little unsettling. His concise sentences resemble steps in a logical proof: his grammar is flawless and his eyes occasionally close as he translates the great sweep of knowledge that has earned him exospheric academic status. This softly spoken man leaves you in a state of mental disarray.

This year Witten is in Europe, on sabbatical at the CERN particle physics lab near Geneva in Switzerland, where the mathematical foundations of reality are about to be rocked by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). As it happened, he turned up on the day last September that the LHC switched on. “Ed's very active, so it's great to have him around,” says Luis Alvarez-Gaume, head of CERN's theory department. “He's a genius, it's as simple as that.”

Such accolades haven't secured Witten a plush office, as I discovered when I met him in his sparse accommodation at CERN. Nor does he appear comfortable with the effusive descriptions sometimes applied to him – such as the “world's cleverest man” or “Einstein's successor”. “Believe me,” he says, “I'm definitely no Einstein.” Yet these monikers are founded in more than mere hyperbole. For the past 25 years Witten has been at the forefront of attempts to unify nature's four fundamental forces in a single framework – a goal pursued for a similar period by Einstein. And he has been credited with writing the largest number of high-impact papers of any living physicist.