I read in this Quanta article that although many critics say that it is far removed from nature, it has developed many powerful tools. Furthermore some don’t care if it’s a theory of everything and just apply it to real physical problems and get results.

“Once the elementary things we’re probing spaces with are strings instead of particles,” said Beem, the strings “see things differently.” If it’s too hard to get from A to B using quantum field theory, reimagine the problem in string theory, and “there’s a path,” Beem said.

In cosmology, string theory “packages physical models in a way that’s easier to think about,” Silverstein said.

To me, this seems reminiscent of the early days of the atomic theory where the likes Maxwell, Boltzmann and Gibbs developed tools of statistical mechanics that reinterpreted thermodynamics as a statistical outcome of atomic interactions.

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    $\begingroup$ No, not really. There is a similarity in that it was complained that atoms are not sufficiently tangible experimentally, but even opponents acknowledged that atomic theory makes testable predictions. They (e.g. Mach) complained that it was too "mechanistic" and restricted freedom of theoretical constructions, while misleadingly suggesting that atoms behave like familiar large objects. String theory is not mechanistic and theorizes very freely. Too freely, say opponents, and the main complaint is that it does not generate testable predictions. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 9:40
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    $\begingroup$ MIght add to @Conifold 's response that, so far at least, ST hasn't provided a useful description of "life the universe and everything" that outperforms previous models/theories. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ Atomic theory had numerous independent experimental proofs, string theory has nothing. Sad, but so is it. $\endgroup$
    – peterh
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 5:49

1 Answer 1


Lots of mathematical physicists don't actually care about the physics and focus on the mathematics. This is not new with string theory. What is new with string theory is that a great deal of mathematics which did not seem to have direct physical applications were found to have such an interpretation. This in itself isn't particularly surprising since a great deal of mathematics has been discovered by 'upping the dimension'. For example, Fourier analysis is basically harmonic analysis on a circle. The circle is the simplest compact 1d Lie group. Now see how the theory changes when you exchange this parameter for say a higher dimensional Lie group. String theory, in one interpretation, is simply taking physical theory for the relativistic point, and exchanging it for the relativistic line. One can see immediately that lines can close up (which points can't) hence closed strings. That strings can carry vibrations (which again points can't). Then we up the dimension again by arguing for membranes rather than just strings and so on and on.

It's actually much closer to the really early days of atomic theory (or 2,500 years ago) rather than the renaissance of atomic theory in the modern era, simply because the Planck scale is so unimaginably far from what we can probe with today's technology. It's no accident that quantum mechanics was discovered both theoretically and experimentally. It's one of those auspicious times when theory and experiment develop together.


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