“So what would you do if string theory is wrong?” asks string theorist Moataz Emam of Clark University, US, in a paper posted on arXiv yesterday. It’s obvious, you might think. String theorists would briefly mourn the 40 years of misspent speculation and leave furtively through the back door, while anti-string theorists would celebrate in light of their vindication.
Not so, says Emam — string theory will continue to prosper, and might even become its own discipline independent of physics and mathematics.
Oddly, the reason Emam gives for this prediction is precisely the same reason why many physicists despise string theory. For example, in reducing the 10 dimensions of string theory to our familiar four, string theorists have to fashion a “landscape” of at least 10500 solutions. Emam says that such a huge number of solutions — of which only one exists for our universe — may make string theory unattractive, but in studying them physicists are gaining “deep insights into how a physical theory generally works”:
So even if someone shows that the universe cannot be based on string theory, I suspect that people will continue to work on it…The theory would be studied by physicists and mathematicians who might no longer consider themselves either. They will continue to derive beautiful mathematical formulas and feed them to the mathematicians next door. They also might, every once in a while, point out interesting and important properties concerning the nature of a physical theory which might guide the physicists exploring the actual theory of everything over in the next building.
Peter Woit, author of the string-theory polemic Not Even Wrong, notes on his blog that physicists looking to pursue string theory for its beauty should “go and work in a maths department”:
The argument Emam is making reflects in somewhat extreme form a prevalent opinion among string theorists, that the failure of hopes for the theory, even if real, is not something that requires them to change what they are doing. This attitude is all too likely to lead to disaster.