Steven Gubser on String Theory

31JDWDEQK9L._SL160_ Over at Five Books:

The first book you’ve chosen is Superstring Theory, Vols 1 and 2. This is pretty technical, isn’t it?

As a practitioner of the subject I am drawn to the serious accounts. The two volumes by Green, Schwarz and Witten are a wonderful early account of the subject. It was a subject that first fluoresced in the mid-80s. The notion of string theory was already present, even in the late 1960s, but only in 1984, with the work of Green and Schwarz, did people realise string theory could really be consistent with quantum mechanics, as well as including gravity, and could provide theories that looked very much like the standard model of particles. So there was this tremendous light-bulb moment, where everybody said, ‘Oh my God! This could work.’ And that book, Superstring Theory, captures that era in a very substantive way – as well as being a fairly readable account. In terms of readability, I would say even non-physicists could get something out of the first chapter, and then later chapters, they’re more for practitioners.

Yes, my nephew, who did a masters degree in physics, didn’t recommend it as one to dive into. He said in a semester-long undergraduate course they only got halfway through the first volume…

Yes, there’s a lot there. What’s amazing is that all this came together in such a hurry – a lot of the material in that book is the result of two-and-a half years’ activity. There was an incredible upwelling of creativity in that era and these two books are the record of it.

It isn’t out of date just because it dates a while back now? It must be a quickly evolving field.

It’s true. John Schwarz once remarked to me that the things he most regrets having left out of that pair of books were the developments that happened shortly after they published it. But that indicated that it was indeed part of a quickly evolving field, and captured what was going on in a really compelling way. It really hastened the development of the field for a while. There must be parallels in other fields, where you have some solid contribution that really pushes the field forward in a remarkable way…

You told me you put your books in order, does this mean this is your favourite?

Yes. There is something unusual and special about Green, Schwarz, Witten. It was a book very much of the moment, and yet a classic – the words instant classic spring to mind. If we compare it, for example, to Polchinski’s book, another great account – in fact the one that I have used myself the most…