Strings: History, Development, Impact

Done: All three parts of my lecture for a general audience on String Theory are up now…

Beyond the Hype: The Weird World of String Theory (Science on Tap, Seattle, WA, September 25, 2006). Though a few years old, this talk is still very topical; it covers the history, development, context and impact of string theory from its earliest beginnings to the (then) present.

Be forewarned: although the audio is pretty good, this was an amateur video taken by one of the organizers of the talk, and because the place was small and totally packed with people, it’s not great quality… but good enough to follow, I think, so I’ve posted it.

  1. Part 1 (10 mins.): String theory’s beginnings in hadron physics and the early attempts to use it as a theory of quantum gravity.
  2. Part 2 (10 mins.): String theory was shown to be a mathematically consistent candidate for a theory of all of quantum gravity and particle physics, and became a really popular idea.
  3. Part 3 (9 mins.): How string theory evolved through the major technical and conceptual advances of the 1990s.

By the way, if you’re interested in other talks I’ve given for a general audience, you can check out my video clips, which include a recent hour-long talk on the Quest for the Higgs Boson.

31 responses to “Strings: History, Development, Impact

  1. Matt, Just learned from Part 3 that you were at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1996. DRAT!! Missed you there by a measley two years!! (although I was in the School of Mathematics). How enriching it would have been for me to have met you two decades earlier. Time to start working on my time machine…

  2. Thanks, Matt. I taught high school physics for my career. String questions came up now and then. It was hard to give good answers. Your video series helped put a lot of pieces into perspective for me. Too bad I am not in the classroom any more. I will forward this to my former colleague. He will appreciate it.

  3. Matt, you definitely have that ease of public speaking gene, shared with people like Nima Arkani-Hamed, Brian Greene, Leonard Susskind etc.

    Will you be videoing advanced lectures to the guys and gals at Harvard, and putting them on the web, as is becoming the norm nowadays?

    • John, You are so right. Matt definitely has the gene, as do the others you mention.

      Another *extremely* gifted lecturer/educator is the Indian physicist Venkataraman Balakrishnan. I’m not sure you’ve heard of him, but I’m confident you’d really enjoy his “Intro to Quantum Physics” course, which is captured online, starting with Lecture 1 here:


      • Thanks for this tip! I just watched the first minutes and I’m already impressed. A very clear and insightful lecturer from what I’ve seen so far. Generally the Indian NPTEL program is worth a look.

  4. The sound is so poor I can’t understand a lot of what you say.

    • I often find that using good headphones helps a lot with videos of suboptimal sound quality. It makes ambient noise much less distracting than over the notebook speakers, for example. Worked for me also for these videos.

  5. This idea, born in string theory, has been used to calculate stuff in a lot of other branches of physics, going from QCD in heavy ion collisions to superconducting materials. So even if it would turn out in the end that the elementary particles are not little strings, string theory already had its victories, purely by its mathematical machinery, what it has thought us about physics and how we can use this in other branches of physics.

    Regarding the string theory, the experiments are artifice – and shows the experimentalists are always correct and axiomatic ?

  6. We live in era of great equipments like LHC to do super experiments in the history of humankind. As Mr.Arkani-Hamed said, otherwise we would never discover(ed) particles like Higgs in our normal energy scale.

    But by the same experiment T pertains to matter and energy affecting the structure of spacetime, is valid only if photon is massless, means 2 helicity degree of freedom (concrete spacetime) – then massive particles have 3 degree of freedom. But for Higgs “0″ spin, there is no discontinuous difference in the number of degree of freedom from massless to massive spin zero particles. There is no reson (concrete spacetime) why the particles to be massive at point scale region.
    Because hypothetical graviton is massless, compactification occur if there is no evident of concrete spacetime. So experiment elude here.

    If the “rest mass” is a physical reality, then the Cosmological constant Λ is zero, this reduces to the original field equation of general relativity. But like in Impossible Escher-style triangle, “rest mass” is only a artifice of local symmetry.
    The Cosmological constant may be non zero as in Calculation 1 or in Calculation 2 (Planck length) – and at high energy will create sudden new space ( if the Standard Model is correct). ??

  7. the problem with the great minds trying to find the so called god particle is simple. its men with high intel but no heart. once the heart is pure, or the human awakes up out of there sleep to realize that life isnt what you might think then maybe will will get somewhere. if you want to try finding the higgs maybe you shld look at the sun and see if you see a black hole, or maybe you shld take off your mask and live the way your heart wants you to live. the whole system in which we live in is bullshit but there knowledge is there for all of us to understand. once u wake up you realize the number system we use is bs. people that really understand this are aware of this, look at vortex math. my point is it in order to for the world to make its next jump people that think outside the box and who are awake need to be working with the nerds bc the nerds arent awake… there are probably going to be every smart people that read this and have no idea what i even mean by awake. the only real people that can truly talk about string theory and the select few that are able to see ghost and have other powers.

    • Nitpick and clarification:

      - The “so called god particle” is _never_ called that except by sensationalist journalists. It is a Higgs particle.

      - That people “are able to see ghost and have other powers” is exactly what the completion of the Standard Model, sufficiently finished by a Higgs field particle found, tells us _can’t_ exist.

      The EM sector is sufficiently protected in energy scale by QED precision measurements that any magic trying to observe the states of the brain (with its 10^14 neurons, each ~ 10 000 synapses) overpowers that bound with a factor of at least 1000 (more realistically a factor of at least 10 000), even if it is itself energy less (i.e. magic). The brain has no “soul”/deathlife/”ghost”/rebirth, “other powers”, “prayer observers” et cetera et cetera, just biochemistry as we know it. Or the LHC would have gotten different results.

      This is no surprise since WMAP and Planck tell us the same on general principles of Friedmann universes, with their local energymomentum conservation by SR from GR low energy. But a nice, independent confirmation that there is no remaining gap for your magic.

      By the way, I am heartened by this now observable fact. (Well, if you go by classical thermodynamics you could arguably have seen this in the 80′s at the latest, by a 3d independent route. But I am digressing…) Not only does it satisfy my curiosity big time, it means somewhat less woo peddling in the future.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

      Also, I should mention that I owe Matt/Dr Strassler the insight that allowed the easy back-of-the-envelope estimate* that enlightened me.

      Before I read this blog I didn’t know or had conceptualized (from, say my feeble layman knowledge of Feynman path integrals) that in the quantum vacuum “everything not disallowed will happen”. E.g. that one has to rethink the lazy outside-of-particle-physics “symmetries tells us what will happen (laws)” as the precise “symmetries tells us what will not (is much less likely to) happen”.

      * Another way to state it is that an LHC ensured woo gap would have needed brains that consume > 1 MW instead of ~ 100 W. I wonder if the future response will be, if AI can be realized, that cloud computing will be considered having woo attributes but biological brains not.

      Considering that also in social circles “”everything possible will happen”, I assume it will. But it will likely never become popular. =D

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

        Oops, need moar coffee, my poorly english speaking brain parts messed up: “an LHC ensured woo gap”.

        Make that “a woo gap safeguarded from LHC”.

      • Always interested in anti-woo arguments – just trying to understand the reasoning – is it coming from the position that woo particles must be beyond the LHC energy scale, otherwise they would have been detected? How do you get to the 1MW consumed-by-brain estimate?

    • “there are probably going to be every (sic) smart people that read this and have no idea what i even mean by awake.”

      I totally agree with this.

  8. String theory in a nutshell, assume one dimensional ‘point particles’ are actually two dimensional strings in order to grant the math a greater degree of freedom. Pray tell, how are your zero width strings touching anything since they are just lengths with no width? How are your zero thickness superstrings having tensile properties or vibrating? How are your zero thickness superstrings knotting or tangling without a third dimension in which to do so?
    If you have actual answers to any of these questions that does not involve hand waving, I’d be glad to listen.

  9. The detonation will not occur without the “rest mass” – means there must be concrete spacetime (spacetime metric) – like Euclidean space on 2D earth surface with atmosphere and gravity.
    At the absence of concrete space time, we can conclude compactification (or extra dimensions). But explosions (Gamma-ray burst) of stars do occur in space, its explosions were not absorbed into extra dimensions.

    If there are Higgs particles, the hadron collisions eliminates the rest mass – means in various plots of accelerators, there must be peaks at particular energy disappearing into the space. But this energy (rest mass) must affect the spacetime metric. If not, it may be also massless (1 =1).

    “Spin” means angular momentum (moment of inertia) of particles. The rest mass is created by angular momentum. Eliminating the rest mass means, stopping the angular momentum. If there is no spin the “rest mass” will disappear.
    So the debris of particle collisions also have no spin, because they deprived of rest mass. That means, no energies could be detected at surrounding detectors
    – all the energies will disappear into “new space” with an explosion.

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  13. Regrettably the poor sound and video quality make it impossible to follow what is surely a stimulating lecture.

    • Did you try listening on a computer with a good sound system? Some people have complained bitterly about the sound; some haven’t complained at all. I suspect that the problem is that you can’t use a cell phone or a computer with a bad speaker.

      • Yes my desktop sound system is excellent. The problem is the substandard mic is picking up the echo in the room plus adding feedback, which means you can just barely make out what you’re saying especially as you are delving into quite a complex topic. Unfortunately most people neglect the audio aspect when they’re capturing video. Having a clip on mic/talking into a mic capture next time would make a big difference (also: a tripod/steady hands/less coffee at the very least.) Your presentations really deserve a higher quality of A/V production!

        • Thanks for the reply. It’s interesting, when I listen to it it sounds clear enough to me, which I guess is the bias of having been the speaker. And again, some people have said they love the video and haven’t complained. But ok, clearly it isn’t about having a good speaker.

          I wonder if I can have the audio processed for noise reduction.

          In any case, the video was made by someone works for Science On Tap, and I had no control over the quality. Maybe I should try to give this talk again, but the energy in the room was really good that night…

          • My advice it to give it another shot. I’m sure there are plenty of other enthusiastic audiences out there who would love to hear you in person (I’m one!) Yes there is probably software out there that will clean up your audio but it’s a lot more of a challenge to do these things post-fact. Video production is so cheap and so easy these days (about 10,000,000,000,000,000 times easier than LHC physics I reckon) there’s no reason not to do it right. Most unis/lecture halls already come set up with the equipment to capture good audio and the youtube generation (ie grad students) can do this stuff in their sleep.

            The most important thing really is the audio because that is the meat. As long as you make sure you’re speaking into a mic for a video, either clipped on or at a lectern, you’ll be good.

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