Tag Archives: quantum gravity

You Can’t Smooth the Big Bang

As a kid, I was fascinated by cosmology. I wanted to know how the universe began, possibly disproving gods along the way, and I gobbled up anything that hinted at the answer.

At the time, I had to be content with vague slogans. As I learned more, I could match the slogans to the physics, to see what phrases like “the Big Bang” actually meant. A large part of why I went into string theory was to figure out what all those documentaries are actually about.

In the end, I didn’t end up working on cosmology due my ignorance of a few key facts while in college (mostly, who Vilenkin was). Thus, while I could match some of the old popularization stories to the science, there were a few I never really understood. In particular, there were two claims I never quite saw fleshed out: “The universe emerged from nothing via quantum tunneling” and “According to Hawking, the big bang was not a singularity, but a smooth change with no true beginning.”

As a result, I’m delighted that I’ve recently learned the physics behind these claims, in the context of a spirited take-down of both by Perimeter’s Director Neil Turok.

neil20turok_cropped_photo20credit20jens20langen

My boss

Neil held a surprise string group meeting this week to discuss the paper I linked above, “No smooth beginning for spacetime” with Job Feldbrugge and Jean-Luc Lehners, as well as earlier work with Steffen Gielen. In it, he talked about problems in the two proposals I mentioned: Hawking’s suggestion that the big bang was smooth with no true beginning (really, the Hartle-Hawking no boundary proposal) and the idea that the universe emerged from nothing via quantum tunneling (really, Vilenkin’s tunneling from nothing proposal).

In popularization-speak, these two proposals sound completely different. In reality, though, they’re quite similar (and as Neil argues, they end up amounting to the same thing). I’ll steal a picture from his paper to illustrate:

neilpaperpic

The picture on the left depicts the universe under the Hartle-Hawking proposal, with time increasing upwards on the page. As the universe gets older, it looks like the expanding (de Sitter) universe we live in. At the beginning, though, there’s a cap, one on which time ends up being treated not in the usual way (Lorentzian space) but on the same footing as the other dimensions (Euclidean space). This lets space be smooth, rather than bunching up in a big bang singularity. After treating time in this way the result is reinterpreted (via a quantum field theory trick called Wick rotation) as part of normal space-time.

What’s the connection to Vilenkin’s tunneling picture? Well, when we talk about quantum tunneling, we also end up describing it with Euclidean space. Saying that the universe tunneled from nothing and saying it has a Euclidean “cap” then end up being closely related claims.

Before Neil’s work these two proposals weren’t thought of as the same because they were thought to give different results. What Neil is arguing is that this is due to a fundamental mistake on Hartle and Hawking’s part. Specifically, Neil is arguing that the Wick rotation trick that Hartle and Hawking used doesn’t work in this context, when you’re trying to calculate small quantum corrections for gravity. In normal quantum field theory, it’s often easier to go to Euclidean space and use Wick rotation, but for quantum gravity Neil is arguing that this technique stops being rigorous. Instead, you should stay in Lorentzian space, and use a more powerful mathematical technique called Picard-Lefschetz theory.

Using this technique, Neil found that Hartle and Hawking’s nicely behaved result was mistaken, and the real result of what Hartle and Hawking were proposing looks more like Vilenkin’s tunneling proposal.

Neil then tried to see what happens when there’s some small perturbation from a perfect de Sitter universe. In general in physics if you want to trust a result it ought to be stable: small changes should stay small. Otherwise, you’re not really starting from the right point, and you should instead be looking at wherever the changes end up taking you. What Neil found was that the Hartle-Hawking and Vilenkin proposals weren’t stable. If you start with a small wiggle in your no-boundary universe you get, not the purple middle drawing with small wiggles, but the red one with wiggles that rapidly grow unstable. The implication is that the Hartle-Hawking and Vilenkin proposals aren’t just secretly the same, they also both can’t be the stable state of the universe.

Neil argues that this problem is quite general, and happens under the following conditions:

  1. A universe that begins smoothly and semi-classically (where quantum corrections are small) with no sharp boundary,
  2. with a positive cosmological constant (the de Sitter universe mentioned earlier),
  3. under which the universe expands many times, allowing the small fluctuations to grow large.

If the universe avoids one of those conditions (maybe the cosmological constant changes in the future and the universe stops expanding, for example) then you might be able to avoid Neil’s argument. But if not, you can’t have a smooth semi-classical beginning and still have a stable universe.

Now, no debate in physics ends just like that. Hartle (and collaborators) don’t disagree with Neil’s insistence on Picard-Lefschetz theory, but they argue there’s still a way to make their proposal work. Neil mentioned at the group meeting that he thinks even the new version of Hartle’s proposal doesn’t solve the problem, he’s been working out the calculation with his collaborators to make sure.

Often, one hears about an idea from science popularization and then it never gets mentioned again. The public hears about a zoo of proposals without ever knowing which ones worked out. I think child-me would appreciate hearing what happened to Hawking’s proposal for a universe with no boundary, and to Vilenkin’s proposal for a universe emerging from nothing. Adult-me certainly does. I hope you do too.

Scattering Amplitudes at KITP

I’ve been visiting the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara for a program on scattering amplitudes. This week they’re having a conference, so I don’t have time to say very much.

scamp-c17

The conference logo, on the other hand, seems to be saying quite a lot

We’ve had talks from a variety of corners of amplitudes, with major themes including the web of theories that can sort of be described by string theory-esque models, the amplituhedron, and theories you can “square” to get other theories. I’m excited about Zvi Bern’s talk at the end of the conference, which will describe the progress I talked about last week. There’s also been recent progress on understanding the amplituhedron, which I will likely post about in the near future.

We also got an early look at Whispers of String Theory, a cute short documentary filmed at the IGST conference.

The Road to Seven-Loop Supergravity

There’s an obvious way to put together a theory of quantum gravity. And it doesn’t work.

Do the same thing you would with any other theory, and you get infinity. You get repeated infinities, an infinity of infinities. And while you could fix one or two infinities, fixing an infinite number requires giving up an infinity of possible predictions, so in the end your theory predicts nothing.

String theory fixes this with its own infinity, the infinite number of ways a string can vibrate. Because this infinity is organized and structured and well-understood, you’re left with a theory that is still at least capable of making predictions.

(Note that this is an independent question from whether string theory can make predictions for experiments in the real world. This is a much more “in-principle” statement: if we knew everything we might want to about physics, all the fields and particles and shapes of the extra dimensions, we could use string theory to make predictions. Even if we knew all of that, we still couldn’t make predictions from naive quantum gravity.)

Are there ways to fix the problem that don’t involve an infinity of vibrations? Or at least, to fix part of the problem?

That’s what Zvi Bern, John Joseph Carrasco, Henrik Johansson, and a growing cast of collaborators have been trying to find out.

They’re investigating N=8 supergravity, a theory that takes gravity and adds on a host of related particles. It’s one of the easiest theories to get from string theory, by curling up extra dimensions in a particularly simple way and ignoring higher-energy vibrations.

Bern, along with Lance Dixon and David Kosower, invented the generalized unitarity technique I talked about last week. Along with Carrasco and Johansson, he figured out another important trick: the idea that you can do calculations in gravity by squaring the appropriate part of calculations in Yang-Mills theory. For N=8 supergravity, the theory you need to square is my favorite theory, N=4 super Yang-Mills.

Using this, they started pushing forward, calculating approximations to greater and greater precision (more and more loops).

What they found, at each step, was that N=8 supergravity behaved better than expected. In fact, it behaved like N=4 super Yang-Mills.

N=4 super Yang-Mills is special, because in four dimensions (three space and one time, the dimensions we’re used to in daily life) there are no infinities to fix. In a world with more dimensions, though, you start getting infinities, and with more and more loops you need fewer and fewer dimensions to see them.

N=8 supergravity, unexpectedly, was giving infinities in the same dimensions that N=4 super Yang-Mills did (and no earlier). If it kept doing that, you might guess that it also had no infinities in four dimensions. You might wonder if, at least loop by loop, N=8 supergravity could be a way to fix quantum gravity without string theory.

Of course, you’d only really know if you could check in four dimensions.

If you want to check in four dimensions, though, you run into a problem. The fewer dimensions you’re looking at, the more loops you need before N=8 supergravity could possibly give infinity. In four dimensions, you need a forbidding seven loops of precision.

(To compare, the highest precision of things we’ve actually tested in the real world is four loops.)

Still, Bern, Carrasco, and Johansson were up to the challenge. Along with Lance Dixon, David Kosower, and Radu Roiban, they looked at three loops, calculating an interaction of four gravitons, and the pattern continued. Four loops, and it was still going strong.

At around this time, I had just started grad school. My first project was a cumbersome numerical calculation. To keep me motivated, my advisor mentioned that the work I was doing would be good preparation for a much grander project: the calculation of whether the four-graviton interaction in N=8 supergravity diverges at seven loops. All I’d have to do was wait for Bern and collaborators to get there.

I named this blog “4 gravitons and a grad student”, and hoped I would get a chance to contribute.

And then something unexpected happened. They got stuck at five loops.

The method they were using, generalized unitarity, is an ansatz-based method. You start with a guess, then refine it. As such, the method is ultimately only as good as your guess.

Their guesses, in general, were pretty good. The trick they were using, squaring N=4 to get N=8, requires a certain type of guess: one in which the pieces they square have similar relationships to the different types of charge in Yang-Mills theory. There’s still an infinite number of guesses that can obey this, so they applied more restrictions, expectations based on other calculations, to get something more manageable. This worked at three loops, and worked (with a little extra thought) at four loops.

But at five loops they were stuck. They couldn’t find anything, with their restrictions, that gave the correct answer when “cut up” by generalized unitarity. And while they could drop some restrictions, if they dropped too many they’d end up with far too general a guess, something that could take months of computer time to solve.

So they stopped.

They did quite a bit of interesting work in the meantime. They found more theories they could square to get gravity theories, of more and more unusual types. They calculated infinities in other theories, and found surprises there too, other cases where infinities didn’t show up when they were “supposed” to. But for some time, the N=8 supergravity calculation was stalled.

And in the meantime, I went off in another direction, which long-time readers of this blog already know about.

Recently, though, they’ve broken the stall.

What they realized is that the condition on their guess, that the parts they square be related like Yang-Mills charges, wasn’t entirely necessary. Instead, they could start with a “bad” guess, and modify it, using the failure of those relations to fill in the missing pieces.

It looks like this is going to work.

We’re all at an amplitudes program right now in Santa Barbara. Walking through the halls of the KITP, I overhear conversations about five loops. They’re paring things down, honing their code, getting rid of the last few bugs, and checking their results.

They’re almost there, and it’s exciting. It looks like finally things are moving again, like the train to seven loops has once again left the station.

Increasingly, they’re beginning to understand the absent infinities, to see that they really are due to something unexpected and new.

N=8 supergravity isn’t going to be the next theory of everything. (For one, you can’t get chiral fermions out of it.) But if it really has no infinities at any loop, that tells us something about what a theory of quantum gravity is allowed to be, about the minimum necessary to at least make sense on a loop-by-loop level.

And that, I think, is worth being excited about.

What Space Can Tell Us about Fundamental Physics

Back when LIGO announced its detection of gravitational waves, there was one question people kept asking me: “what does this say about quantum gravity?”

The answer, each time, was “nothing”. LIGO’s success told us nothing about quantum gravity, and very likely LIGO will never tell us anything about quantum gravity.

The sheer volume of questions made me think, though. Astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology fascinate people. They capture the public’s imagination in a way that makes them expect breakthroughs about fundamental questions. Especially now, with the LHC so far seeing nothing new since the Higgs, people are turning to space for answers.

Is that a fair expectation? Well, yes and no.

Most astrophysicists aren’t concerned with finding new fundamental laws of nature. They’re interested in big systems like stars and galaxies, where we know most of the basic rules but can’t possibly calculate all their consequences. Like most physicists, they’re doing the vital work of “physics of decimals”.

At the same time, there’s a decent chunk of astrophysics and cosmology that does matter for fundamental physics. Just not all of it. Here are some of the key areas where space has something important to say about the fundamental rules that govern our world:

 

1. Dark Matter:

Galaxies rotate at different speeds than their stars would alone. Clusters of galaxies bend light that passes by, and do so more than their visible mass would suggest. And when scientists try to model the evolution of the universe, from early images to its current form, the models require an additional piece: extra matter that cannot interact with light. All of this suggests that there is some extra “dark” matter in the universe, not described by our standard model of particle physics.

If we want to understand this dark matter, we need to know more about its properties, and much of that can be learned from astronomy. If it turns out dark matter isn’t really matter after all, if it can be explained by a modification of gravity or better calculations of gravity’s effects, then it still will have important implications for fundamental physics, and astronomical evidence will still be key to finding those implications.

2. Dark Energy (/Cosmological Constant/Inflation/…):

The universe is expanding, and its expansion appears to be accelerating. It also seems more smooth and uniform than expected, suggesting that it had a period of much greater acceleration early on. Both of these suggest some extra quantity: a changing acceleration, a “dark energy”, the sort of thing that can often be explained by a new scalar field like the Higgs.

Again, the specifics: how (and perhaps if) the universe is expanding now, what kinds of early expansion (if any) the shape of the universe suggests, these will almost certainly have implications for fundamental physics.

3. Limits on stable stuff:

Let’s say you have a new proposal for particle physics. You’ve predicted a new particle, but it can’t interact with anything else, or interacts so weakly we’d never detect it. If your new particle is stable, then you can still say something about it, because its mass would have an effect on the early universe. Too many such particles and they would throw off cosmologists’ models, ruling them out.

Alternatively, you might predict something that could be detected, but hasn’t, like a magnetic monopole. Then cosmologists can tell you how many such particles would have been produced in the early universe, and thus how likely we would be to detect them today. If you predict too many particles and we don’t see them, then that becomes evidence against your proposal.

4. “Cosmological Collider Physics”:

A few years back, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Juan Maldacena suggested that the early universe could be viewed as an extremely high energy particle collider. While this collider performed only one experiment, the results from that experiment are spread across the sky, and observed patterns in the early universe should tell us something about the particles produced by the cosmic collider.

People are still teasing out the implications of this idea, but it looks promising, and could mean we have a lot more to learn from examining the structure of the universe.

5. Big Weird Space Stuff:

If you suspect we live in a multiverse, you might want to look for signs of other universes brushing up against our own. If your model of the early universe predicts vast cosmic strings, maybe a gravitational wave detector like LIGO will be able to see them.

6. Unexpected weirdness:

In all likelihood, nothing visibly “quantum” happens at the event horizons of astrophysical black holes. If you think there’s something to see though, the Event Horizon Telescope might be able to see it. There’s a grab bag of other predictions like this: situations where we probably won’t see anything, but where at least one person thinks there’s a question worth asking.

 

I’ve probably left something out here, but this should give you a general idea. There is a lot that fundamental physics can learn from astronomy, from the overall structure and origins of the universe to unexplained phenomena like dark matter. But not everything in astronomy has these sorts of implications: for the most part, astronomy is interesting not because it tells us something about the fundamental laws of nature, but because it tells us how the vast space above us actually happens to work.

Popularization as News, Popularization as Signpost

Lubos Motl has responded to my post from last week about the recent Caltech short, Quantum is Calling. His response is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, including the cameos by Salma Hayek and Kaley Cuoco.

The only surprise was his lack of concern for accuracy. Quantum is Calling got the conjecture it was trying to popularize almost precisely backwards. I was expecting that to bother him, at least a little.

Should it bother you?

That depends on what you think Quantum is Calling is trying to do.

Science popularization, even good science popularization, tends to get things wrong. Some of that is inevitable, a result of translating complex concepts to a wider audience.

Sometimes, though, you can’t really chalk it up to translation. Interstellar had some extremely accurate visualizations of black holes, but it also had an extremely silly love-powered tesseract. That wasn’t their attempt to convey some subtle scientific truth, it was just meant to sound cool.

And the thing is, that’s not a bad thing to do. For a certain kind of piece, sounding cool really is the point.

Imagine being an explorer. You travel out into the wilderness and find a beautiful waterfall.

south_falls_silver_falls_state_park

Example:

How do you tell people about it?

One option is the press. The news can cover your travels, so people can stay up to date with the latest in waterfall discoveries. In general, you’d prefer this sort of thing to be fairly accurate: the goal here is to inform people, to give them a better idea of the world around them.

Alternatively, you can advertise. You put signposts up around town pointing toward the waterfall, complete with vivid pictures. Here, accuracy matters a lot less: you’re trying to get people excited, knowing that as they get closer they can get more detailed information.

In science popularization, the “news” here isn’t just news. It’s also blog posts, press releases, and public lectures. It’s the part of science popularization that’s supposed to keep people informed, and it’s one that we hope is mostly accurate, at least as far as possible.

The “signposts”, meanwhile, are things like Interstellar. Their audience is as wide as it can possibly be, and we don’t expect them to get things right. They’re meant to excite people, to get them interested in science. The expectation is that a few students will find the imagery interesting enough to go further, at which point they can learn the full story and clear up any remaining misconceptions.

Quantum is Calling is pretty clearly meant to be a signpost. The inaccuracy is one way to tell, but it should be clear just from the context. We’re talking about a piece with Hollywood stars here. The relative star-dom of Zoe Saldana and Keanu Reeves doesn’t matter, the presence of any mainstream film stars whatsoever means they’re going for the broadest possible audience.

(Of course, the fact that it’s set up to look like an official tie-in to the Star Trek films doesn’t hurt matters either.)

They’re also quite explicit about their goals. The piece’s predecessor has Keanu Reeves send a message back in time, with the goal of inspiring a generation of young scientists to build a future paradise. They’re not subtle about this.

Ok, so what’s the problem? Signposts are allowed to be inaccurate, so the inaccuracy shouldn’t matter. Eventually people will climb up to the waterfall and see it for themselves, right?

What if the waterfall isn’t there?

wonder_mountain_dry_backside_waterfall

Like so:

The evidence for ER=EPR (the conjecture that Quantum is Calling is popularizing) isn’t like seeing a waterfall. It’s more like finding it via surveying. By looking at the slope of nearby terrain and following the rivers, you can get fairly confident that there should be a waterfall there, even if you can’t yet see it over the next ridge. You can then start sending scouts, laying in supplies, and getting ready for a push to the waterfall. You can alert the news, telling journalists of the magnificent waterfall you expect to find, so the public can appreciate the majesty of your achievement.

What you probably shouldn’t do is put up a sign for tourists.

As I hope I made clear in my last post, ER=EPR has some decent evidence. It hasn’t shown that it can handle “foot traffic”, though. The number of researchers working on it is still small. (For a fun but not especially rigorous exercise, try typing “ER=EPR” and “AdS/CFT” into physics database INSPIRE.) Conjectures at this stage are frequently successful, but they often fail, and ER=EPR still has a decent chance of doing so. Tying your inspiring signpost to something that may well not be there risks sending tourists up to an empty waterfall. They won’t come down happy.

As such, I’m fine with “news-style” popularizations of ER=EPR. And I’m fine with “signposts” for conjectures that have shown they can handle some foot traffic. (A piece that sends Zoe Saldana to the holodeck to learn about holography could be fun, for example.) But making this sort of high-profile signpost for ER=EPR feels irresponsible and premature. There will be plenty of time for a Star Trek tie-in to ER=EPR once it’s clear the idea is here to stay.

What’s in a Conjecture? An ER=EPR Example

A few weeks back, Caltech’s Institute of Quantum Information and Matter released a short film titled Quantum is Calling. It’s the second in what looks like will become a series of pieces featuring Hollywood actors popularizing ideas in physics. The first used the game of Quantum Chess to talk about superposition and entanglement. This one, featuring Zoe Saldana, is about a conjecture by Juan Maldacena and Leonard Susskind called ER=EPR. The conjecture speculates that pairs of entangled particles (as investigated by Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen) are in some sense secretly connected by wormholes (or Einstein-Rosen bridges).

The film is fun, but I’m not sure ER=EPR is established well enough to deserve this kind of treatment.

At this point, some of you are nodding your heads for the wrong reason. You’re thinking I’m saying this because ER=EPR is a conjecture.

I’m not saying that.

The fact of the matter is, conjectures play a very important role in theoretical physics, and “conjecture” covers a wide range. Some conjectures are supported by incredibly strong evidence, just short of mathematical proof. Others are wild speculations, “wouldn’t it be convenient if…” ER=EPR is, well…somewhere in the middle.

Most popularizers don’t spend much effort distinguishing things in this middle ground. I’d like to talk a bit about the different sorts of evidence conjectures can have, using ER=EPR as an example.

octopuswormhole_v1

Our friendly neighborhood space octopus

The first level of evidence is motivation.

At its weakest, motivation is the “wouldn’t it be convenient if…” line of reasoning. Some conjectures never get past this point. Hawking’s chronology protection conjecture, for instance, points out that physics (and to some extent logic) has a hard time dealing with time travel, and wouldn’t it be convenient if time travel was impossible?

For ER=EPR, this kind of motivation comes from the black hole firewall paradox. Without going into it in detail, arguments suggested that the event horizons of older black holes would resemble walls of fire, incinerating anything that fell in, in contrast with Einstein’s picture in which passing the horizon has no obvious effect at the time. ER=EPR provides one way to avoid this argument, making event horizons subtle and smooth once more.

Motivation isn’t just “wouldn’t it be convenient if…” though. It can also include stronger arguments: suggestive comparisons that, while they could be coincidental, when put together draw a stronger picture.

In ER=EPR, this comes from certain similarities between the type of wormhole Maldacena and Susskind were considering, and pairs of entangled particles. Both connect two different places, but both do so in an unusually limited way. The wormholes of ER=EPR are non-traversable: you cannot travel through them. Entangled particles can’t be traveled through (as you would expect), but more generally can’t be communicated through: there are theorems to prove it. This is the kind of suggestive similarity that can begin to motivate a conjecture.

(Amusingly, the plot of the film breaks this in both directions. Keanu Reeves can neither steal your cat through a wormhole, nor send you coded messages with entangled particles.)

rjxhfqj

Nor live forever as the portrait in his attic withers away

Motivation is a good reason to investigate something, but a bad reason to believe it. Luckily, conjectures can have stronger forms of evidence. Many of the strongest conjectures are correspondences, supported by a wealth of non-trivial examples.

In science, the gold standard has always been experimental evidence. There’s a reason for that: when you do an experiment, you’re taking a risk. Doing an experiment gives reality a chance to prove you wrong. In a good experiment (a non-trivial one) the result isn’t obvious from the beginning, so that success or failure tells you something new about the universe.

In theoretical physics, there are things we can’t test with experiments, either because they’re far beyond our capabilities or because the claims are mathematical. Despite this, the overall philosophy of experiments is still relevant, especially when we’re studying a correspondence.

“Correspondence” is a word we use to refer to situations where two different theories are unexpectedly computing the same thing. Often, these are very different theories, living in different dimensions with different sorts of particles. With the right “dictionary”, though, you can translate between them, doing a calculation in one theory that matches a calculation in the other one.

Even when we can’t do non-trivial experiments, then, we can still have non-trivial examples. When the result of a calculation isn’t obvious from the beginning, showing that it matches on both sides of a correspondence takes the same sort of risk as doing an experiment, and gives the same sort of evidence.

Some of the best-supported conjectures in theoretical physics have this form. AdS/CFT is technically a conjecture: a correspondence between string theory in a hyperbola-shaped space and my favorite theory, N=4 super Yang-Mills. Despite being a conjecture, the wealth of nontrivial examples is so strong that it would be extremely surprising if it turned out to be false.

ER=EPR is also a correspondence, between entangled particles on the one hand and wormholes on the other. Does it have nontrivial examples?

Some, but not enough. Originally, it was based on one core example, an entangled state that could be cleanly matched to the simplest wormhole. Now, new examples have been added, covering wormholes with electric fields and higher spins. The full “dictionary” is still unclear, with some pairs of entangled particles being harder to describe in terms of wormholes. So while this kind of evidence is being built, it isn’t as solid as our best conjectures yet.

I’m fine with people popularizing this kind of conjecture. It deserves blog posts and press articles, and it’s a fine idea to have fun with. I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with the Bohemian Gravity guy doing a piece on it, for example. But for the second installment of a star-studded series like the one Caltech is doing…it’s not really there yet, and putting it there gives people the wrong idea.

I hope I’ve given you a better idea of the different types of conjectures, from the most fuzzy to those just shy of certain. I’d like to do this kind of piece more often, though in future I’ll probably stick with topics in my sub-field (where I actually know what I’m talking about 😉 ). If there’s a particular conjecture you’re curious about, ask in the comments!

The Parable of the Entanglers and the Bootstrappers

There’s been some buzz around a recent Quanta article by K. C. Cole, The Strange Second Life of String Theory. I found it a bit simplistic of a take on the topic, so I thought I’d offer a different one.

String theory has been called the particle physicist’s approach to quantum gravity. Other approaches use the discovery of general relativity as a model: they’re looking for a big conceptual break from older theories. String theory, in contrast, starts out with a technical problem (naive quantum gravity calculations that give infinity) proposes physical objects that could solve the problem (strings, branes), and figures out which theories of these objects are consistent with existing data (originally the five superstring theories, now all understood as parts of M theory).

That approach worked. It didn’t work all the way, because regardless of whether there are indirect tests that can shed light on quantum gravity, particle physics-style tests are far beyond our capabilities. But in some sense, it went as far as it can: we’ve got a potential solution to the problem, and (apart from some controversy about the cosmological constant) it looks consistent with observations. Until actual evidence surfaces, that’s the end of that particular story.

When people talk about the failure of string theory, they’re usually talking about its aspirations as a “theory of everything”. String theory requires the world to have eleven dimensions, with seven curled up small enough that we can’t observe them. Different arrangements of those dimensions lead to different four-dimensional particles. For a time, it was thought that there would be only a few possible arrangements: few enough that people could find the one that describes the world and use it to predict undiscovered particles.

That particular dream didn’t work out. Instead, it became apparent that there were a truly vast number of different arrangements of dimensions, with no unique prediction likely to surface.

By the time I took my first string theory course in grad school, all of this was well established. I was entering a field shaped by these two facts: string theory’s success as a particle-physics style solution to quantum gravity, and its failure as a uniquely predictive theory of everything.

The quirky thing about science: sociologically, success and failure look pretty similar. Either way, it’s time to find a new project.

A colleague of mine recently said that we’re all either entanglers or bootstrappers. It was a joke, based on two massive grants from the Simons Foundation. But it’s also a good way to summarize two different ways string theory has moved on, from its success and from its failure.

The entanglers start from string theory’s success and say, what’s next?

As it turns out, a particle-physics style understanding of quantum gravity doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. Some of the big conceptual questions the more general relativity-esque approaches were interested in are still worth asking. Luckily, string theory provides tools to answer them.

Many of those answers come from AdS/CFT, the discovery that string theory in a particular warped space-time is dual (secretly the same theory) to a more particle-physics style theory on the edge of that space-time. With that discovery, people could start understanding properties of gravity in terms of properties of particle-physics style theories. They could use concepts like information, complexity, and quantum entanglement (hence “entanglers”) to ask deeper questions about the structure of space-time and the nature of black holes.

The bootstrappers, meanwhile, start from string theory’s failure and ask, what can we do with it?

Twisting up the dimensions of string theory yields a vast number of different arrangements of particles. Rather than viewing this as a problem, why not draw on it as a resource?

“Bootstrappers” explore this space of particle-physics style theories, using ones with interesting properties to find powerful calculation tricks. The name comes from the conformal bootstrap, a technique that finds conformal theories (roughly: theories that are the same at every scale) by “pulling itself by its own boostraps”, using nothing but a kind of self-consistency.

Many accounts, including Cole’s, attribute people like the boostrappers to AdS/CFT as well, crediting it with inspiring string theorists to take a closer look at particle physics-style theories. That may be true in some cases, but I don’t think it’s the whole story: my subfield is bootstrappy, and while it has drawn on AdS/CFT that wasn’t what got it started. Overall, I think it’s more the case that the tools of string theory’s “particle physics-esque approach”, like conformal theories and supersymmetry, ended up (perhaps unsurprisingly) useful for understanding particle physics-style theories.

Not everyone is a “boostrapper” or an “entangler”, even in the broad sense I’m using the words. The two groups also sometimes overlap. Nevertheless, it’s a good way to think about what string theorists are doing these days. Both of these groups start out learning string theory: it’s the only way to learn about AdS/CFT, and it introduces the bootstrappers to a bunch of powerful particle physics tools all in one course. Where they go from there varies, and can be more or less “stringy”. But it’s research that wouldn’t have existed without string theory to get it started.