Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What experiment would disprove string theory?

You may disprove string theory by many observations that will almost certain not occur, for example:
  1. By detecting Lorentz violation at high energies: string theory predicts that the Lorentz symmetry is exact at any energy scale; recent experiments by the Fermi satellite and others have showed that the Lorentz symmetry works even at the Planck scale with an error margin much smaller than O(100%) and the accuracy may improve in the near future
  2. By detecting a violation of the equivalence principle; it's been tested with the relative accuracy of 10−16 and it's unlikely that a violation will occur; string theory predicts that the law is exact
  3. By detecting a mathematical inconsistency in our world, for example that 2+2 can be equal both to 4 as well as 5; such an observation would make the existing alternatives of string theory conceivable alternatives because all of them are mathematically inconsistent as theories of gravity; clearly, nothing of the sort will occur; also, one could find out a previously unknown mathematical inconsistency of string theory - even this seems extremely unlikely after the neverending successful tests

  4. By experimentally proving that the information is lost in the black holes, or anything else that contradicts general properties of quantum gravity as predicted by string theory, e.g. that the high center-of-mass-energy regime is dominated by black hole production and/or that the black holes have the right entropy; string theory implies that the information is preserved in any processes in the asymptotical Minkowski space, including the Hawking radiation, and confirms the Hawking-Bekenstein claims as the right semiclassical approximation
  5. By experimentally proving that the world doesn't contain gravity, fermions, or isn't described by quantum field theories at low energies; or that the general postulates of quantum mechanics don't work; string theory predicts that these approximations work and the postulates of quantum mechanics are exactly valid while the alternatives of string theory predict that nothing like the Standard Model etc. is possible
  6. By experimentally showing that the real world contradicts some of the general features predicted by all string vacua which are not satisfied by the "Swampland" QFTs as explained by Cumrun Vafa; if we lived in the swampland, our world couldn't be described by anything inside the landscape of string theory; the generic predictions of string theory probably include the fact that gravity is the weakest force, moduli spaces have finite volume, and similar predictions that seem to be satisfied so far
  7. By mapping the whole landscape, calculating the accurate predictions of each vacuum for the particle physics (masses, couplings, mixings), and by showing that none of them is compatible with the experimentally measured parameters of particle physics within the known error margins; this route to disprove string theory is hard but possible in principle, too (although the full mathematical machinery to calculate the properties of any vacuum at any accuracy isn't quite available today, even in principle)
  8. By analyzing physics experimentally up to the Planck scale and showing that our world contains neither supersymmetry nor extra dimensions or excited strings and/or other extended objects at any scale. If you check that there is no SUSY up to a certain higher scale, you will increase the probability that string theory is not relevant for our Universe but it won't be a full proof.

The reason why it's hard if not impossible to disprove string theory in practice is that string theory - as a qualitative framework that must replace quantum field theory if one wants to include both successes of QFT as well as GR - has already been established. There's nothing wrong with it; the fact that a theory is hard to exclude in practice is just another way of saying that it is already shown to be "probably true" according to the observations that have shaped our expectations of future observations. Science requires that hypotheses have to be disprovable in principle, and the list above surely shows that string theory is. The "criticism" is usually directed against string theory but not quantum field theory; but this is a reflection of a deep misunderstanding of what string theory predicts; or a deep misunderstanding of the processes of the scientific method; or both.

In science, one can only exclude a theory that contradicts the observations. However, the landscape of string theory predicts the same set of possible observations at low energies as quantum field theories. At long distances, string theory and QFT as the frameworks are indistinguishable; they just have different methods to parameterize the detailed possibilities. In QFT, one chooses the particle content and determines the continuous values of the couplings and masses; in string theory, one only chooses some discrete information about the topology of the compact manifold and the discrete fluxes and branes. Although the number of discrete possibilities is large, all the continuous numbers follow from these discrete choices, at any accuracy.

So the validity of QFT and string theory is equivalent from the viewpoint of doable experiments at low energies. The difference is that QFT can't include consistent gravity, in a quantum framework, while string theory also automatically predicts a consistent quantum gravity. That's an advantage of string theory, not a disadvantage. There is no known disadvantage of string theory relatively to QFT. For this reason, it is at least as established as QFT. It can't realistically go away.

In particular, it's been showed in the AdS/CFT correspondence that string theory is automatically the full framework describing the dynamics of theories such as gauge theories; it's equivalent to their behavior in the limit when the number of colors is large, and in related limits. This proof can't be "unproved" again: string theory has attached itself to the gauge theories as the more complete description. The latter, older theory - gauge theory - has been experimentally established, so string theory can never be removed from physics anymore. It's a part of physics to stay with us much like QCD or anything else in physics. The question is only what is the right vacuum or background to describe the world around us. Of course, this remains a question with a lot of unknowns. But that doesn't mean that everything, including the need for string theory, remains unknown.

What could happen - although it is extremely, extremely unlikely - is that a consistent, non-stringy competitor to string theory that is also able to predict the same features of the Universe as string theory can emerges in the future. (I am carefully watching all new ideas.) If this competitor began to look even more consistent with the observed details of the Universe, it could supersede or even replace string theory. It seems almost obvious that there exists no "competing" theory because the landscape of possible unifying theories has been pretty much mapped, it is very diverse, and whenever all consistency conditions are carefully imposed, one finds out that he returns back to the full-fledged string/M-theory in one of its diverse descriptions.

Even in the absence of string theory, it could hypothetically happen that new experiments will discover new phenomena that are impossible - at least unnatural - according to string theory. Obviously, people would have to find a proper description of these phenomena. For example, if there were preons inside electrons, they would need some explanation. They seem incompatible with the string model building as we know it today.

But even if such a new surprising observation were made, a significant fraction of the theorists would obviously try to find an explanation within the framework of string theory, and that's obviously the right strategy. Others could try to find an explanation elsewhere. But neverending attempts to "get rid of string theory" are almost as unreasonable as attempts to "get rid of relativity" or "get rid of quantum mechanics" or "get rid of mathematics" within physics. You simply can't do it because those things have already been showed to work at some level. Physics hasn't yet reached the very final end point - the complete understanding of everything - but that doesn't mean that it's plausible that physics may easily return to the pre-string, pre-quantum, pre-relativistic, or pre-mathematical era again. It almost certainly won't.


  1. Presumable the stated "precision greater than 100%" simply means within a factor of 2.
    By convention, 100% precision is an exact match. Doing better is not an option.

  2. Haha, it was confusing, indeed. I changed it to "error margin much smaller than O(100%)".

  3. "By detecting a mathematical inconsistency in our world, for example that 2+2 can be equal both to 4 as well as 5"

    Mathematics doesn't depend on experiments made in "our world".No physical experiment can show any inconsistency in mathematics.
    I have a feeling that you meant something different than what I understood, but I can't figure out what it is.

  4. the superstrings implies that the spacetime and the STR

    are mathematically corrects.the violations of lorentz appear as normalization of pt symmetry is the space is curved by the splitted time by two oposed directions.these curvatures of spacetimes are due to the

    symmetry breakdown to transformations of left-handed rotational frame to right-handed rotational frames ans viceversa.