Am I a String Theorist?

Perimeter, like most institutes of theoretical physics, divides their researchers into semi-informal groups. At Perimeter, these are:

  • Condensed Matter
  • Cosmology
  • Mathematical Physics
  • Particle Physics
  • Quantum Fields and Strings
  • Quantum Foundations
  • Quantum Gravity
  • Quantum Information
  • Strong Gravity

I’m in the Quantum Fields and Strings group, which many people seem to refer to simply as the String Theory group. So for the past week or so, I’ve been introducing myself as a String Theorist. As I briefly mention in my Who Am I? post, this isn’t completely accurate.

Am I a String Theorist?

The theories that I study do derive from string theory. They were first framed by string theorists, and research into them is still deeply intertwined with string theory research. I’ve definitely had occasion to compare my results to those of string theorists, or to bring in calculations by string theorists to advance my work.

And if you’re the kind of person who views the world as a competition between string theory and its rivals (like Loop Quantum Gravity) then I suppose I’m on the string theory “side”. I’m optimistic, at least, that the reason why string theory research is so much more common than any other approach to quantum gravity is simply because string theory provides many more interesting and viable projects for researchers.

On the other hand, though, there’s the basic fact that the theories I work with are not, themselves, string theories. They’re quantum field theories, the broader class that encompasses the modern synthesis of quantum mechanics and special relativity. The theories I work with are often reasonably close to the well-tested theories of the real world, close enough that the calculations are more “particle physics” than the they are “string theory”.

Of course, all of that could change. One of the great things about string theory is the way it connects lots of different interesting quantum field theories together. There’s a “string”, the “GKP string”, involved in the work of Basso, Sever, and Vieira, work that I will probably get involved with here at Perimeter. The (2,0) theory is a quantum field theory, but it’s much closer to string theory than to particle physics, so if I get more involved with the (2,0) theory would that make me a string theorist?

The fact is, these days string theory is so ubiquitous that the question “Am I a String Theorist?” doesn’t actually mean anything. String theory is there, lurking in the background, able to get involved at any time even if it’s not directly involved at present. Theoretical physicists don’t fall into neat categories.

I am a String Theorist. Also, I am not.

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4 thoughts on “Am I a String Theorist?

      1. nueww

        ok, if i understand you well, it could be that he’s secretly (still) working within the (extended) framework of string theory, but he can’t tell the children (yet)…

        i just red lance’s interview again with that in mind and it still feels weird. of course, when you hear nima talking about the yet-to-be-discovered structure behind the scene where the amplitudeologists are playing, without spacetime, without locality nor unitarity, i can easily imagine that the quantum-gravity-duck is growing another leg à la M-theory or AdS/CFT, something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue… but it seems to mme that this is the scary part, the one you should better hide to the children if you want them to keep sleeping at night, without worrying too much about the disappearance of the spacetime under their beds, and not the good old stringy wisdom behind e.g. KLT or SUGRA.

        today i red again the anecdote about gell-mann and his pheasant meat cooking class to extract the algebraic structure of QFTs which are then discarded. and it’s clear now that it is exactly what i see when i read lance’s interview.

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