by Alexander Bastidas Fry
Imagine that reality is as strange as string theory predicts. String theory calls for ten perhaps eleven space-time dimensions where strings and membranes vibrate to generate the particles and ultimately all emergent phenomena of the natural world. The dynamics of such a universe quickly escapes our ability to describe it with ordinary language or to conceive of it at all. A theory that successfully predicts the behavior of the universe is good, but a theory that precisely describes nature while it simultaneously inspires our imaginations would be best. String theory wallows in that cross roads of imagination and science such that if you don't know what string theory is yet you aren't just missing science you are missing critical modern culture.
Issues of interpretation are not uncommon in science. “People slowly accustomed themselves to the idea that that the physical states of space itself were the final reality” Einstein said. He was commenting on the fundamental principle of his theory of general relativity wherein the distribution of energy and matter determines the geometry of space time. Einstein spoke to the public with precise words. Here he is stating that the reality we experience is given by space-time itself. He is also suggesting a larger kind of scientific realism where there is an objective world independent of our capacity to know it. In this view reality is a purely physical manifestation of the natural laws of physics. Yet, the underlying dynamics of nature are not directly accessible to human perception, as Einstein said it, “imagination is everything.”
“Should overwhelming evidence gathered using a diversity of methods confirm the existence of a phenomenon in the world, it ought to be taken to be objectively real; for example, that the universe consists of three spatial dimensions: length, height, and breadth” states Sean Miller in his 2013 book Strung Together. The existence of extra dimensions is prescribed by the formalism of string theory (in M-theory there are ten dimensions of space and one of time). This claim contradicts current theories. String theory will attain the status of scientific knowledge only if predictions like this can be validated. String theory makes such sweeping claims about our universe that it is a so called theory of everything. Though regardless of whether or not string theory is strictly correct our imaginative understanding of what it means may continue to progress.
Physics is not accessible to the layperson. Similarly, inaccessible dimensions are not accessible, tautologically so, to anyone. Through great practice of thought a physicist can comprehend and intuit many subtle facets of reality. However, physicists cannot use their direct faculties of human observation except by way of mediating instruments to observe fundamental particles or other complex phenomena in the universe. That humans can train their minds in this manner gives us hope that we, or someone, may one day be able grasp a theory of everything, but it is not conclusive. All vital data that would constrain theories of everything must be run through formal frameworks. Even if extra dimensions beyond length, height, and breadth are found it would still be hard to comprehend how these extra dimensions are real. Math is just another way to explain our universe so this may all come down to semantics, metaphor, and imagination. What is the purpose of extra dimensions where nothing is hidden except the existence of the extra dimension?
If we create theories which successfully predict the behavior of the universe we have accomplished something, but how we implement and think about those theories is arguably more important. With something as abstract (or more bluntly, impractical) as string theory the cultural capital of the idea may be as important as the idea itself. String theory is brandished in our culture as a scientific conquest for truth. A body of scientific imaginary has grown from popularizations of string theory. With respect to cultural resonance, it may not matter whether the scientific imaginary is a fair depiction of a conquest for truth in the same way a mythology is not fair to the truth, but it is the story that continues to be told. The scientific imaginary allows everyone to face the complexity, technical barriers, and formalisms of string theory.
You would like to know what string theory is. I want to tell you what string theory is. Alas, I cannot wrap my head around string theory. All I can offer is banal platitudes. All my work in physics brings me close to the edge of knowledge, but really I only know enough to know that I don't know. I can only offer you glimpses. First, it is not heterogeneous. There are many theories physicists call string theory. A first incarnation emerged in the early 1970s from which many variations grew. After two string theory revolutions most of the competing versions of string theory have now been shown to be part of a larger unified stringy theory called M-theory. M-theory is a theoretical frame work in which the traditional point like particles of physics are replaced by strings or membranes which oscillate in various numbers of dimensions in particular ways. Each particular vibrational mode of these string objects is a particular particle in the same way for example that when a string vibrates at 440 Hz you hear the musical note A. Look how quickly I am off in the weeds using analogy to explain these mathematical objects. You should read a book about string theory to learn what it is. The book will be filled with metaphors. I have read a tangled pile of popularizing books on string theory and even a few mind melting research papers on it. The books were enlightening, but not concrete. The research papers are concrete, but opaque.
Even the use of the word string in the name of the theory begins us down a symbolic path. I have come to accept the imaginative nature of the whole endeavor. The imaginative culture of string theory has its own intrinsic value which is closely dissected in Sean Miller's book Strung Together, The Cultural Currency of String Theory as a Scientific Imaginary. The book brings many keen observations of string theory to the table and offers a better way to contextualize the adaption of string theory into popular culture. It looks at the culture of the physicists as well as the globalized world that consumes the scientific imaginary that string theory produces. Miller argues several key claims in this book. First, he maintains that imagination is central to production of string theory as scientific knowledge. Second, that we must read string theory popularizations carefully, as they each carry their own particular ideological bias. Third, that there are clumsy and nuanced ways for imaginative writing to adapt string theory ideas, and thus by implication ideas form theoretical physics in general. Finally, that string theory as an imaginary reflects, paradoxically, both an archaic sensibility and the contemporary culture where the ethos of globalization dominates.
All these key claims revolve around the communication of ideas. The communication of physical ideas is mathematically or linguistically constrained at every turn. Miller describes it as thus, “In effect, the non-specialist reader must take the truth-value of the content of a popularization on a certain form of faith endemic to contemporary Anglo-American culture; that is faith in the authority of “hard” science to present the heretofore “hidden” reality of our world. Accordingly, to accept string theory as a legitimate science is to a certain extent, an act of belief.”
A major obstacle in the acceptance of string theory on all levels is the inability of all non-experts, including physicists who specialize in any other field, to verify or deny the legitimacy of string theory's empirical or mathematical consistency. A hallmark of a good theory is that is makes experimentally testable predictions. String theory makes few concrete predictions, and vexingly many of the predictions it does make are untestable with current technology. The largest and most complex machine or physics experiment humans have ever created, the Large Hadron Collider, is inept at probing the energy or size scales necessary to prove or disprove string theory. String theory looks to astrophysics where the universe presents itself as a laboratory. For example, observations of the pervasive cosmic microwave background radiation could bolster or break theories of a stringy universe. So far no such cosmic string signatures have been seen.
Whether it is right or wrong we will never confirm such a theory with our own facilities. String theory has already given theoretical physicists something to think about and now it is giving our larger culture something to think about. Imagination will take everyone further.
With imagination we are able to decide for or against reason. The threat of pseudo science is real here, but a world without imagination is not just a bore, it is not understandable. String theory can only be adequately and accurately described with mathematics. So do popularizations of string theory devoid of mathematics offer culture anything more than imagination? Yes, string theory is a cultural phenomena. It reigns over an entire ecosystem of scientific imaginary by mediating the agency of human thinking with the agency of objects in physics – it grounds scientific concepts to common human experience. Sometimes imaginative thinking is not just artistic expression; it is a vital part of scientific discourse.
The scientific imaginary as spawned by string theory is everywhere. Make your eyes keen to this interplay of science art in the modern world. It has essentially always been the case that pioneering authors have subtly, or overtly been aware of the current pulse of science and philosophy – Voltaire, Lewis, Carroll, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace – these are all formally trained fools or prophets of a particular epistemological and ideological time scape. Visual artists are here too. An infinite landscape of strings is seen in Yayoi Kusama's infinity rooms and M.C. Escher was commenting on space-time surely. And to my delight the last decade has seen an upsurge in science history based theater. Here is an idea: theater generally doesn't need to break past the fourth wall, and physics hasn't needed to break past four dimensions, but perhaps now it is time.
The audience of scientists and laypeople alike seem to be slowly accepting the imaginary of string theory while the prospects of rigorous mathematical or scientific proof for the theory languish. We should not accept that our universe is stringy, but we can imagine it is. We can imagine the whole universe is a symphony of strings and that we will one day untangle it all.