Today I continue with my series of posts on fields, strings and predictions.
During the 1980s, as I discussed in the previous post in this series, string theorists learned that of all the possible string theories that one could imagine, there were only five that were mathematically consistent.
What they learned in the first half of the 1990s, culminating in early 1995, is that all five string theories are actually little corners of a single, more encompassing, and still somewhat mysterious theory. In other words, after 30 years of studying various types of theories with strings in them, they ended up with just one!
On the one hand, that sort of sounds like a flop — all that work, by all those people, over two decades, and all we got for our efforts was one new theory?
On the other hand, it’s very tempting to think that the reason that everyone ended up converging on the same theory is that maybe it’s the only consistent theory of quantum gravity! At this point there’s no way to know for sure, but so far there’s no evidence against that possibility. Certainly its a popular idea among string theorists.
This unique theory is called “M theory” today; we don’t know a better name, because we don’t really know what it is. We don’t know what it describes in general. We don’t know a principle by which to define it. Sometimes it is called “string/M theory” to remind us that it is string theory in certain corners.
Note that M theory is very different in one key respect from quantum field theory. As I described in the second post in this series, “quantum field theory” is the term that describes the general case; “a quantum field theory” is a specific example within the infinite number of “quantum field theories”. But there’s no analogue of this distinction for M theory. M theory is (as far as anyone can discern) a unique theory; it is both the general and the specific case. There is no category of “M theories”. However, this uniqueness, while remarkable, is not quite as profound as it might sound… for a reason I’ll return to in a future post.
Incidentally, the relationship between the five apparently very different string theories that appear in M theory is similar to the surprising relationships among various field theories that I described in this post. It’s not at all obvious that each string theory is related to the other four… which is why it took some time, and a very roundabout route involving the study of black holes and their generalizations to black strings and black branes, for this relationship to become clear.
But as it did become clear, it was realized that “M theory” (or “string/M theory”, as it is sometimes called) is not merely, or even mainly, a theory of strings; it’s much richer than that. In one corner it is actually a theory with 10 spatial (11 space-time) dimensions; this is a theory with membranes rather than strings, one which we understand poorly. And in all of its corners, the theory has more than just strings; it has generalizations of membranes, called “branes” in general. [Yes, the joke's been made already; the experts in this subject had indeed been brane-less for years.] Particles are zero-dimensional points; strings are one-dimensional wiggly lines; membranes are two-dimensional surfaces. In the ordinary three spatial dimensions we can observe, that’s all we’ve got. But in superstring theory, with nine spatial dimensions, one doesn’t stop there. There are three-dimensional branes, called three-branes for short; there are four-branes, five-branes, and on up to eight-branes. [There are even nine-branes too, which are really just a way of changing all of space. The story is rich and fascinating both physically and mathematically.] The pattern of the various types of branes — specifically, which ones are found in which corners of M theory, and the phenomena that occur when they intersect one another — is a fantastically elegant story that was worked out in the early-to-mid 1990s.
A brane on which a fundamental string can end is called a “D-brane”. Joe Polchinski is famous for having not only co-discovered these objects in the 1980s but for having recognized, in mid-1995, the wide-ranging role they play in the way the five different string theories are related to each other. I still remember vividly the profound effect that his 1995 paper had on the field. A postdoctoral researcher at the time, I was attending bi-weekly lectures by Ed Witten on the new developments of that year. I recall that at the lecture following Polchinski’s paper, Witten said something to the effect that everything he’d said in his presentations so far needed to be rethought. And over the next few months, it was.
The fact that string/M theory is more than just a theory of strings is strikingly similar to something known about quantum field theory for decades. Although quantum field theory was invented to understand particles in the context of Einstein’s special relativity, it turns out that it often describes more than particles. Field theory in three spatial dimensions can have string-like objects (often called “flux tubes”) and membrane-like objects (often called “domain walls”) and particle-like blobs (“magnetic monopoles”, “baryons”, and other structures). The simplest quantum field theories — those for which successive approximation works — are mainly theories of particles. But flux tubes and domain walls and magnetic monopoles, which can’t be described in terms of particles, can show up even in those theories. So the complexities of M theory are perhaps not surprising. Yet it took physicists almost two decades to recognize that “branes” of various sorts are ubiquitous and essential in string/M theory. (We humans are pretty slow.)
Notably, there are contexts in which M theory exhibits no string-like objects at all. It’s the same with particles and fields; simple field theories have particles, but most field theories aren’t simple, and many complicated field theories don’t have particles. It can happen that the particles that would be observed in experiments may have nothing to do with the fields that appear in the equations of the theory; this was something I alluded to in this article. I also earlier described scale-invariant quantum field theories, which don’t have particles. Quantum field theories on curved space-time don’t have simple, straightforward notions of particles either. Quantum field theory is complex and rich and subtle, and we don’t fully understand it; I wrote seven posts about it in this series, and did little more than scratch the surface. String/M theory is even more complicated, so it will surely be quite a while before we understand it. But specifically, what this means is that what I told you in my last article about “simple superstring theories” is simply not always true. And that means that the first “vague prediction of string theory” that I described might not be reliable… no more than overall predictions of simple field theory, all of which are true in the context of simple field theories, but some of which are often false in more complex ones.
By the way, those of you who’ve read about string theory may wonder: where is supersymmetry in my discussion? Historically, in all these developments, the mathematics and physics of supersymmetry played an important role in making it easier to study and confirm the existence of these branes within string/M theory. However, the branes are present in the theory even when supersymmetry isn’t exact. One must not confuse the technically useful role of supersymmetry in clarifying how string/M theory works for a requirement that supersymmetry has to be an exact (or nearly-exact) symmetry for string/M theory to make sense at all. It’s just a lot harder to study string/M theory in the absence supersymmetry… something which is also true, though to a somewhat lesser extent, of quantum field theory.
To be continued… next, how are quantum field theory and M theory similar and different?