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Is String Theory worth the resources it's taking?

  1. Jul 17, 2012 #1
    Now obviously String Theory has been responsible for some valuable research, and even if the theory were completely disproven (although I don't see how; my understanding is that it is still too vague in it's predictions and descriptions to be proven or disproven conclusively). But String Theory (all versions of it) seems to have been researched a very long time and taken a very high proportion of resources, in terms of what it's actually produced.

    What I'm saying is, String Theory has made no provable predictions, there is no experimental results which can strongly vouch for its correctness, there are very few certain boundaries within the theory... would it be more productive to assign resources elsewhere, to areas of physics research which can actually produce results? I find String Theory very interesting but it is seeming to me more and more like many String Theorists becoming blinded by the idea of an elegant theory of everything, at the cost of perspective; there are major flaws being ignored and it hasn't come up with much actually useful.

    I was wondering what people's opinions would be on reassigning funding elsewhere, to areas which can actually demonstrate that they have justification for the resources.
    (I'm not criticizing anyone here, this is just a general discussion purely for the sake of curiosity and interest, I am not complaining about funding distribution, I'm just interested about which theories people feel are most in need of resources).
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 17, 2012 #2
    One of the arguments against string theory is that due to the fact that it can't be tested through experiments, it is not science. Rather, it is philosophy.

    I agree with you that string theory's foundations aren't very strong. However, I don't think that we should completely abandon string theory, as there are cases where the illogical became logical (i'm not implying that string theory is illogical, nothing is illogical until proven illogical.) For example, back in the day it was considered to be one of the upmost atrocities to assume that the earth wasn't the center of the solar system, or anything for that matter. Today, however, we know with certainty that it is not the center of the solar system and certainly not the galaxy or the universe.

    One way I like to think of it is that everything grows and branches from a seed. This seed can be as simple as an idea (Inception reference) or as complex as an incredible discovery. Often, it can take a long time for this seed to develop into something truly substantial, and to stop watering it because we don't see anything remarkable arise immediately will prevent us from ever seeing what it could be. It can take hundreds of years for ecological succession to convert a barren land into a flourishing environment, we might see the same for string theory.

    I personally don't believe that string theory is putting too much of a dent in terms of the financial aspects of physics research. The Higgs Boson is devouring the resources at a much larger expense. Condensed matter physics is also a significant area of research.

  4. Jul 17, 2012 #3


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    I don't think we are in the position to make such judgements.

    And I am afraid that string theory shares this fate with many (all?) other theories addressing quantum gravity or Planck scale physics. So strictly speaking, we should stop doing physics beyond 100 TeV or something like that
  5. Jul 17, 2012 #4


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    Even though the promise of string theory has not been fulfilled even after more than 25 years of research and theorizing, the promise is so stupefyingly tremendous that I don't find it odd that people still work on it. It MAY turn out to be a mathematically elegant dead end, but if it DOESN'T then somebody, or some team, is in for a Nobel Prize and fame equal to that of Einstein.
  6. Jul 17, 2012 #5


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    Is String Theory worth the resources it's taking? I'd say the opposite: most of the resources (aka researchers) currently working on String Theory are not worthy of it.
  7. Jul 17, 2012 #6
    In commercial industry, scientific efforts are measured in terms of results. If string theory has not made any predictions that have been confirmed, then there are no results for all the effort put into it.
  8. Jul 17, 2012 #7
    Quantum gravity isn't the commercial industry.

    I don't think any theory of quantum gravity makes an currently testable predictions. Some models of LQG (not mainstream LQG) predicted Lorentz violations, but these were never found. Quantum gravity deals with ridiculously small scales and extremely high energies. Of course predictions aren't going to be easy to come by.
  9. Jul 17, 2012 #8
    Just because something turns out to be a dead end in one field doesn't mean it's not useful in others. It turns out string theory is extemely useful on wall street (whether you think that is good or not is a good thing is another story). The math being explored could be useful in a lot of other complex fields.

    And what costs? Dollar wise or brain power? In money, very little is devoted to string theory (hell, with the amount of documentaries out it may generate revenue). Experimental physics is always the most expensive.
  10. Jul 18, 2012 #9


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    another thought: where do we waste more money - in string theory, at the LHC, ...? in commercial industry we have KPIs like CAPEX, OPEX, CAGR, EBIT; in science we haven't
  11. Jul 18, 2012 #10


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    Science according to which criteria? I think that in the past physics has reshapen the philosophy of science already quite some times. In that sense you could wonder what the content is of expressions such as "ST is not science".
  12. Jul 18, 2012 #11


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    If we should not fund research that does not result in testable predictions, then string theory is not the only human activity that we should stop fund. We should also stop fund research in pure mathematics, but also in philosophy, art, literature, history, ... How many people think that we should not fund anything of those? And how many think that we should ONLY stop funding string theory?

    It is not important whether we call something science or not, or how do we define "science". What is important is whether some human activity has a value. Anyone who thinks that string theory does not have a value should ask himself whether research on pure mathematics, or philosophy, or art, or literature, or history ... has a value.

    Also, just because some result is empirically testable and thus formally satisfies a conservative definition of "science" does not automatically imply that it has a value.
  13. Jul 18, 2012 #12
    In 1917 Johann Radon found an obscure result about integral transforms.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radon_transform. This old research forms the basis of modern CAT scans that revolutionised medicine.

    You just don't know where research will lead.
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