Monday, July 21, 2008

Theory of Every Thing

The ongoing Monsoon Workshop in String Theory at TIFR has provided many amusing little comments for me to recount. If I forget most of them before I can blog about them, it's because the science has been so inspiring.

I'll relate one mildly amusing comment at the end of this posting, but first the science. Today there was a talk by Sean Hartnoll called "Towards an AdS/CMT correspondence" where "CMT" stands for Condensed Matter Theory. It's an attempt to use string theory (actually "M-theory") in 11-dimensional spacetime to understand the physics of quantum critical points in 2-dimensional systems. Some renowned condensed matter theorists like Subir Sachdev are part of this effort.

I can't judge how successful the effort has been so far, and I know there are skeptics, but I feel this is a truly amazing era to live in. From being "only" a Theory of Everything, String Theory is becoming a Theory of Every Thing - capable of shedding new light on familiar phenomena from superconductivity to quark-gluon plasma to hydrodynamics. I'm a woefully narrow particle physicist but seeing what's going on, I wish I had studied all the 9 or so classic physics textbooks by Landau and Lifshitz when I was younger! Meanwhile true-blue plasma physicists and condensed matter physicists are boning up on something called "supergravity in anti-de-Sitter spacetime" which, a couple of years ago, they would have with good reason considered to be mumbo-jumbo (prior to 1997 even most string theorists thought it was mumbo-jumbo!). This kind of cross-fertilisation must surely be the right way to address the hard unsolved problems of physics. I hope I can eventually become part of the effort myself, though I foresee lots of remedial training first.

Now the amusing part. Noted string theorist Kentaro Hori came here over the weekend from Tokyo, via Hongkong. I pointed out to him that the only nonstop flight from Tokyo to Mumbai is by ANA, but it's a "Business Jet", i.e. 30-odd seats and only Business Class. Kentaro remarked "people in our field only travel Economy. Now my younger brother, he travels Business and even First Class." I asked what he worked in, imagining finance or perhaps law. But the answer was "Biology".


bhoboghurey - maveric said...

I am excited to read in your blog that on going cross fertilization is turning "mumbo jumbo" into acceptable ways of solving hard problems of physics. However could you shed some light - perhaps in one of your blogs -into the status of connecting string theory with hard experimental results?

Sunil Mukhi said...

Bhoboghurey - maveric: Thanks for the suggestion, I will certainly try to explain these attempts to connect string theory to experiment (in areas like condensed matter or quark-gluon plasma) in a future blog.

One concern I have is that I'm not sure what level of knowledge to assume on the part of my audience. For example, do you know something about special relativity? Gravity? Since your profile is not publicly viewable I can't tell. This is one of many reasons why I prefer to deal only with non-anonymous bloggers!

- Sunil.