Saturday, February 3, 2007

A Brief History of String Theory

Here is a very brief outline of the development of string theory, the details of which will eventually fill many large volumes written by many people directly and indirectly involved in this rich and fascinating story.



Electromagnetism can be derived from gravity in a unified theory if there are four space dimensions instead of three, and the fourth is curled into a tiny circle. Kaluza and Klein made this discovery independently of each other.


Three particle theorists independently realize that the dual theories developed in 1968 to describe the particle spectrum also describe the quantum mechanics of oscillating strings. This marks the official birth of string theory.


Supersymmetry is invented in two contexts at once: in ordinary particle field theory and as a consequence of introducing fermions into string theory. It holds the promise of resolving many problems in particle theory, but requires equal numbers of fermions and bosons, so it cannot be an exact symmetry of Nature.


String theory using closed strings fails to describe hadronic physics because the spin 2 excitation has zero mass. Oops, that makes it an ideal candidate for the missing theory of quantum gravity!! This marks the advent of string theory as a proposed unified theory of all four observed forces in Nature.


Supersymmetry is added to gravity, making supergravity. This progress is especially important to string theory, where gravity can't be separated from the spectrum of excitations.


String theory plus supersymmetry yields an excitation spectrum that has equal numbers of fermions and bosons, showing that string theory can be made totally supersymmetric. The resulting objects are called superstrings.


This was the year for string theory! Deadly anomalies that threatened to make the theory senseless were discovered to cancel each other when the underlying symmetries in the theory belong two special groups. Finally string theory is accepted by the mainstream physics community as an actual candidate theory uniting quantum mechanics, particle physics and gravity.


Interesting work on stringy black holes in higher dimensions leads to a revolution in understanding how different versions of string theory are related through duality transformations. This unlocks a surge of progress towards a deeper nonperturbative picture of string theory.


Using Einstein relativity and Hawking radiation, there were hints in the past that black holes have thermodynamic properties that need to be understood microscopically. A microscopic origin for black hole thermodynamics is finally achieved in string theory. String theory sheds amazing light on the entire perplexing subject of black hole quantum mechanics.

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