4. The Superstring World (I of IV)

Posted by Spinning the superweb |

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Abstract: In essay 1, “On Facts in Superstring Theory,” I described part of the process by which I think the AdS/CFT correspondence became widely thought of as a scientific fact. I devoted special attention to the discourses sustaining that idea and stated that a strict differentiation among participants was needed in order to understand the function of such discourses: experts/non-experts; members/non-members; insiders/outsiders. The strongest claim put forward was that discourses around the conjecture moved freely from the “in” to the “out,” and from the “out” to the “in,” giving rise eventually to the fact. In this essay, instead, I focus more on persons rather than on discourses. The idea is to highlight the collective nature of the process leading to a string theory fact. This will be illustrated by considering the participation of some individuals whose contributions to the acceptance of a scientific fact are currently discarded as irrelevant. The final aim, then, is to show that the boundary between the “in” and the “out” so far assumed is quite artificial. It is the huge network of coordinate activities involving social and ideational links between the “in” and the “out” that in the end determines what string theory is. This approach to the history of string theory defines what I have been calling the “Superweb.”


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Even today, five hundred years after the scientific revolution and in the midst of an era where scientific collaboration has reached global scale, many physicists still think that the scientific fact is the sudden discovery of an inspired individual. The flash of insight – the “aha” moment, currently pictured as a light bulb appearing over the head of somebody having an unexpected brilliant idea – is a personal experience, and the social and cultural context has nothing to do with it. It is said that the real genius works isolated from the external world; the influence of the latter could only lead him astray from the road to truth. Once the revolutionary hypotheses of this unknown man are finally made public, the myth continues, they are aggressively repelled by those supporting the established system of beliefs. But, since natural truths are universal, at the end of the day the new ideas become adopted and the discoverer receives public recognition. The penchant for the biographical genre of many accounts on the history of physics is a clear sign of the broad acceptance of this myth of the lone genius. Examples of these extraordinary individuals are Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Stephen Hawking. The young Newton secluded himself in Cambridge with the intention of sheltering from the plague; there, he discovered the laws governing the fall and motion of earthy and heavenly bodies. Einstein was destined, due to incomprehension from his incompetent peers, to squander his most creative years on a tedious job at a patent office; there, he transformed forever our understanding of space and time. Curie worked all her life in a gloomy laboratory like an old alchemist; there, she discovered radioactivity. And Hawking, though reduced for decades to living in a wheelchair, has achieved what Einstein could not do: the unification of gravitation and quantum mechanics!

The tendency to conceive the scientific discovery as purely individual is explicit in the following quote:

Consider the mad but brilliant scientist, long deprived of food, sleep, soap, and water, pacing the hallways until the “aha” insight hits at 4 a.m. Say he has just solved a fundamental problem in modern physics concerning the behaviour of subatomic particles. If he can demonstrate through a mathematical proof his logic ... his tenure worries are probably behind him. True, he must be able to convince one journal to publish his idea. However, even if his idea is not well received by his immediate colleagues, as long as it is recognized by eminent members of the scientific community, his future is relatively secure.[source]

According to these two psychologists of creativity, the fundamental step is done by the lone particle physicist; the task of the other physicists is simply to approve, or reject, the proposal. We can summarize the previous individualist approach by saying that the essence of the process underlying creativity occurs in the individual’s mind.

The unprecedented scale and complexity of contemporary science – a phenomenon normally attributed to the events of the Second World War – has awakened the interest of psychologists, sociologists, and historians, in the cooperative character of works of science. Historians of physics, in particular, have realized this aspect of modern science and nowadays physical facts or theories are most of the time rightly described as collective undertakings. Whether the subject is the discovery of X-rays, the theory of relativity, the spectral lines of atoms, or the quarks, these studies explicitly take into account the collective side of the endeavour. In this way, and contrary to most pre-war accounts that emphasized the role of the isolated scientist producing unique breakthroughs, the involvement of a large number of participants is preferred in present discussions.

Like other modern histories of science, my description of the evolution of string theory is not that of a genius discovering the truths of nature. I believe that there is no such book of nature that an elite few are able to read by pure inspiration. (See the discussion of essay 3, “Superstrings, The Most Beautiful of All Existing Theories?”) I too consider the scientific work to be a joint effort where many professionals take active part. Even so, my contextualist approach is still broader than that suggested by previous models.

As a way of clarifying the difference between these two approaches, which I consider complementary, let me refer to a personal anecdote. Just before finishing my PhD, which I did on the AdS/CFT correspondence, I contacted several professional historians of science by email; I hoped they could furnish me with some guidance on my ongoing project on the history of string theory. One of these persons was a historian of physics, director of a distinguished science history department in the USA. As expected, he replied to me. In the email, the scholar told me that he too was very enthusiastic about the history of string theory and that this interest had spurred him to spend two years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Since he did not supply me with extra information concerning his results, and since I did not know about any published material following his stay, I assumed that the research was a sort of ethnographic investigation such as those carried out by traditional laboratory studies: two years trying to decipher what string theory was; what Edward Witten and company had in mind; and, consequently, how progress was made. If my assumption was correct, then, the idea was to grasp string theory by means of a detailed survey of one of the most creative groups in the field. My prior scepticism about this classical approach in science studies grew when the historian of science told me that – during the whole time he spent at the AIS – he could not witness any of the features I sketched in my note. My immediate reaction, which of course I kept for myself, was: but, how can you aspire to understand string theory confining your observations to such a reduced group of theorists? There is no doubt that string theorists at the IAS are leading experts; however, there is much more happening out there. And, I am not just talking about the hundreds of other string theorists currently contributing to the articulation of the theory; I am thinking more broadly. What about all the people that have talked and written about string theory on radio and TV shows, high school classrooms, newspapers, magazines, and the internet? And, what about the audience? What about the millions of people that have read or seen Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe? Are they simply spectators of the plot performed by professional string theorists? If not, what is their role in this huge enterprise called string theory? That, of course, could not be answered within the walls of the IAS.

As stated earlier, it is impossible to properly value the influence of the environmental milieu to scientific creativity within the Romantic perspective of the lone genius; however, from my point of view, a similar misunderstanding results when the collaborative work is reduced to the sole contribution of the specialists in the domain. This is what occurs when people try to understand string theory centring on the thoughts and feelings of Witten and other famous experts. It is my belief that science, like any other human activity, is the product of the cooperation of numerous individuals, both from the “in” and the “out,” and each of them performing an essential task to bring to a conclusion the work of science. This complex web of interactions is what has given rise to string theory as we know it today. (The reference to a “web of interactions” provided the title to this set of essays: “Spinning the Superweb.”)

Accordingly, I sustain that string theory, or a fact within it, is the collaborative product of a huge number of individuals, including – of course – those not trained professionally within the field. We can think of the superstring world, to use the term of the American sociologist Howard Becker[source], as the network of cooperative links among participants; where “participants” means all those, from the inside and the outside, having something to do with the theory. Therefore, a fact in superstring theory, such as the AdS/CFT correspondence, must be seen as the product of the superstring world and not the creation of a single individual (Juan Maldacena) or group of talented theorists (Edward Witten, Igor Klebanov, Alexander Polyakov, etc.).

Like all my previous essays, this one also takes a contextualist stand, i.e., it focuses on the influence of the social and cultural context of string theory. It examines the links of the web of interconnections between the in and the out constituting the superstring world. Consequently, if, as I have argued in essay 1, textbooks and popular science materials have had an impact on the progress of string theory, it is natural to enquire about the function of their authors in the superstring world. This is precisely the subject of the main section of this essay.

The essay is laid out as follows. In the first section, I will revise two ordinary myths about creativity in theoretical physics: the gifted child and the creative dream. Well-known anecdotes will be briefly recounted in order to prepare the ground for the more advanced discussion that follows. The subject of the next section will be the collective nature of string theory. This is the main section of the essay and it is divided into two parts. In the first part, I will describe the network of string theorists who have formulated the AdS/CFT correspondence. In the second part, I will concentrate on those contributors who are usually ignored, such as popular science writers and string theory fanatics. Finally, I will summarize the main results and discuss ways to elaborate on the hypotheses here proposed.