Monday, October 11, 1999

The Old Man and Superstrings

Superstrings are tiny entities of the size on the order of 10-33 cm. Not a small number of theoretical physicists suppose that these would be the ultimate building blocks of matter and that the superstring theory would lead to a Theory of Everything. Good introductory books and a website on the superstrings for laypersons are available [1-4].

As early as in 1988, BBC Radio 3 broadcast the program Desperately Seeking Superstrings to review the state of superstring research. The program included interviews with some of the leading proponents and critics of the superstring theory. The transcripts of the interviews were published as a book [5]. In this book we can read Richard Feynman's skeptic opinion on the superstrings. The interview with him was made just before the year of his death.

The interviewers asked if Feynman thought that theoretical physics was degenerating into philosophy because of financial difficulties experimentally to test the unification of nature's laws at the deepest level. Feynman said, "Maybe theoretical physics is degenerating but I don't know into what." Then, he added [5]:
I have noticed when I was younger, that lots of old man in the field couldn't understand new ideas very well ... such as Einstein not being able to take quantum mechanics. I'm an old man now, and these are new ideas, and they look crazy to me, ... So I could entertain future historians by saying I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and is in the wrong direction.
This was not Feynman's joke considering the following fact. One of the earliest developers of superstring theory, John Schwarz, recollects Feynman's advice given to him to discourage him from wasting his productive years on string theory [1], "Whenever we propose any theory, we must be our own severest critic."

I am a "superstring stuff" fan as well as a Feynman fan, and would like to see future historians being pleased to find that Feynman was really wrong about this stuff.
  1. M. Kaku and J. Thompson, "Beyond Einstein" (Oxford University Press, 1997; first edition by Bantam Books, 1987).
  2. J. Gribbin, "The Search for Superstrings, Symmetry, and the Theory of Everything" (Little, Brown, 1998).
  3. B. Greene, "The Elegant Universe" (W. W. Norton, 1999).
  4. "The Official String Theory Web Site" (U.S.A.)
  5. P. C. W. Davies and J. Brown, ed., "Superstrings" (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Read essays related to Richard Feynman: "What Do I Care What Mr. Feynman Thinks?"

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