Over the weekend, someone said to me, breathlessly, that they’d read that “Results from the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] have blown string theory out of the water.”
Good Heavens! I replied. Who fed you that line of rubbish?!
Well, I’m not sure how this silliness got started, but it’s completely wrong. Just in case some of you or your friends have heard the same thing, let me explain why it’s wrong.
First, a distinction — one that is rarely made, especially by the more rabid bloggers, both those who are string lovers and those that are string haters. [Both types mystify me.] String theory has several applications, and you need to keep them straight. Let me mention two.
- Application number 1: this is the one you’ve heard about. String theory is a candidate (and only a candidate) for a “theory of everything” — a silly term, if you ask me, for what it really means is “a theory of all of nature’s particles, forces and space-time”. It’s not a theory of genetics or a theory of cooking or a theory of how to write a good blog post. But it’s still a pretty cool thing. This is the theory (i.e. a set of consistent equations and methods that describes relativistic quantum strings) that’s supposed to explain quantum gravity and all of particle physics, and if it succeeded, that would be fantastic.
- Application number 2: String theory can serve as a tool. You can use its mathematics, and/or the physical insights that you can gain by thinking about and calculating how strings behave, to solve or partially solve problems in other subjects. (Here’s an example.) These subjects include quantum field theory and advanced mathematics, and if you work in these areas, you may really not care much about application number 1. Even if application number 1 were ruled out by data, we’d still continue to use string theory as a tool. Consider this: if you grew up learning that a hammer was a religious idol to be worshipped, and later you decided you didn’t believe that anymore, would you throw out all your hammers? No. They’re still useful even if you don’t worship them.
BUT: today we are talking about Application Number 1: string theory as a candidate theory of all particles, etc.