Can String Theory Be Tested?

For decades, physicists have been trying to combine quantum physics and general relativity into a single, unified theory. One of the leading contenders is string theory, an elegant vision in which matter and the very forces of nature are vibrating and interacting filaments of energy. It sounds great, but there’s a problem: No one can really figure out a way to test string theory.

Now, we may finally be on the verge of experimentally confirming—or refuting—some key facets of string theory.

String theory describes nature on extremely small size scales and high energies that are all but inaccessible to modern physics. The ideal experiment would provide direct evidence of these strings behaving in ways uniquely predicted by the theory, but that’s not as easy as it sounds, for two reasons. First, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle puts some fundamental limits on how precise measurements can be. On the tiny scale of string theory, these limits may make it impossible to point at data and declare, “Right there, that’s a string!” as we can (or can approach) with the Higgs boson.

Complicating matters further, string theory has so many variants that there are very few unique predictions from the theory, so scientists don’t even know what to look for. Because of the flexibility physicists have in defining the exact parameters of string theory in the high energy realm, some have predicted that there might be as many as 10500 different variants of the theory, far too many to explore one by one.

Still, there are three fundamental pieces of the theory that could be put to the test in the near future. These results would not “prove” string theory, but could certainly be claimed as successes by many string theorists—and would help define some of those parameters.

The Search for Supersymmetry

Supersymmetry is one of the central concepts of string theory. Without supersymmetry, string theory is unable to describe the full range of particles observed in our universe. It can deal with photons, but not electrons. Supersymmetry bridges this divide. It predicts that all of the known particles possess supersymmetric partner particles, or superpartners. These superpartners are unstable and mostly vanished when the universe cooled down from the dense soup of the early universe, but as we crash particles together at ever-higher energies the Large Hadron Collider, we should eventually stumble upon them.

Actually, we may already have our first evidence that can lead us toward confirming supersymmetry, with the potential discovery of the Higgs boson. Supersymmetry predicts not just a single Higgs, but an entire family of Higgs-like particles. In her slim volume “Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space,” Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall describes a variant in which “some superpartners have big masses, whereas others do not.” As Randall explains it, under supersymmetry, “… if the Higgs boson exists, it is most likely part of a larger sector of new particles.” So if scientists are successful at discovering multiple Higgs-like particles, it’s very possible that we’ll end up with direct experimental evidence to support supersymmetry.

Measuring Extra Dimensions

String theory also claims that the universe contains extra dimensions, curled up on the same very tiny distances at which the strings exist—and subject to those pesky uncertainty principle limitations.

Or at least that’s the traditional stance. In 1998, a group of string theorists put forth the bold idea that these extra dimensions may not be so miniscule after all. They suggested at the time that they could potentially be as large as a millimeter! At this size scale, the LHC might have had a chance of exposing them despite the uncertainty principle.

Unfortunately, December 2010 results from the Large Hadron Collider have placed serious constraints on this intriguing model. If extra dimensions do exist, they must be smaller than a millimeter—but perhaps could still be large enough to be detected at the LHC. If discovered, the properties of these extra dimensions could help narrow in on the correct version of string theory.

The Holographic Principle and Superconductors

An important idea at work in string theory is the holographic principle, especially a version called the Maldacena duality, named for the theorist Juan Maldacena ,who first proposed it in 1997.

The Maldacena duality is is a specific way of relating two theories that, at first glance, seem quite different mathematically. You can sort of picture this by imagining a box that contains an entire three-dimensional universe. (For the purposes of this analogy, I’m just going to ignore the dimension of time.) Now imagine that the box’s two-dimensional surface contains information about what’s going on inside the box. The holographic principle basically tells us that the description on the two-dimensional surface can contain all of the same information as in the whole three-dimensional universe itself. There is a perfect correspondence between these two models.

Maldacena’s duality proved that if you had a quantum theory without gravity on a surface, it corresponded to a full string theory and gravity on the space contained within the boundary: a huge boon to theorists, but not something that anyone—including Maldacena himself—would have thought had real practical applications.

And that just goes to show how little “anyone” knows when predicting the future course of science. In 2009, physicists showed that Maldacena’s duality could describe behaviors in high-temperature superconductors. While physicists understand low-temperature superconductors, they still couldn’t explain how materials become superconductive at warmer temperatures. They knew it was linked to electrons entering a quantum critical state, which is the quantum phase change that turns the material into a superconductor, but couldn’t fully understand or model this. As condensed matter theorist Jan Zaanen described the situation, “It has always been assumed that once you understand this quantum critical state, you can also understand high temperature superconductivity. But, although the experiments produced a lot of information, we hadn’t the faintest idea of how to describe this phenomenon.”

Then Zaanen’s team tried to explain quantum critical states with string theory. They created a string theory model, then applied the Maldacena duality to get a related version of the model—one which matched the experimental results surprisingly well. Maldacena has called this the most impressive and surprising outcome of his conjecture.

But for Zaanen, it is just the beginning. It “should be … viewed as the starting point of a novel line of enquiry for [the Maldacena duality] in general,” says Zaanen. Ideally, this approach will eventually result in testable predictions that could become the focus of experiments.

Even if, ultimately, the results of these experiments do not support string theory, they will have proven something important: That the pursuit of an interesting idea—even a wrong idea—can yield amazing insight into how the universe works.

Go Deeper
Editor’s picks for further reading

FQXi: Tying Down the Multiverse with String
Physicists Andrei Linde and Renata Kallosh are working at the intersection of string theory and cosmology.

NOVA: The Elegant Universe
Author-physicist Brian Greene presents the nuts, bolts, and sometimes outright nuttiness of string theory in this four-part NOVA special.

Not Even Wrong: Is String Theory Testable?
On his blog “Not Even Wrong,” mathematician and physicist Peter Woit takes a critical eye to string theory.

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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

    Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a known member of organizations such as American Mensa and the National Association of Science Writers. Having earned a degree in physics from Wabash College and a master's degree in Mathematics Education from Purdue University, he has gone on to such disreputable activities as becoming the Physics Expert at About.com Physics and co-authoring String Theory For Dummies, and occasionally publishing works of philosophy, reviews of board games, and other leisurely activities. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

    • useherface

      I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that in order to probe for strings we’d need a collider roughly the diameter of the galaxy.

      • No..Not at all !!!

        However it’s true that the energy levels required to observe strings working for real are tremendous..so much so that they are practically inaccessible to us as Andrew have also mentioned in this article..and to be honest..even if we manage to attain those ultra energy levels required..our efforts will simply be doomed by the uncertainties of nature..

        • John Yang

          The two slit experiment, and string theory led me to find the ultimate truth about the true nature of the universe if anyone truly wants to know let me know lol, but this isn’t for those who don’t have basic grasp of physics, nor is this for those without an open mind , and i dont have the time for the ego and the ugly negatives of man so if your not truly open to the truth and are the type to be scared of something you don’t understand then don’t bother. Until then I hope inquisitive minds poke and prode for the truth of nature.

    • neal

      have you ever thought if you ever go small enough you will fall through space-time into another world. world are like dimensions

    • Hey Andrew..what’s up mate ??..I’ve been missing all these action here for the last 3 months due to all those exams and stuffs..however Glad to be back now..

      Anyways..after reading this one..unusually I got a bit confused..because I read a few months ago..probably in the Guardian newspaper that Physicist at CERN have found evidences that strings do exist in nature for real..however You are saying that since there are so many variants of the theory..it is practically untestable..which I also think is what the fact is..but still I would like you to clear the conflict a bit..

    • guest

      how string theory is supported.

    • John Yang

      Doesn’t the double slit experiment proves String Theory=smallest thing is made of energy vibration strings+ E=MC2 hence at that level matter behaves like energy waves, hence even when one small matter or atom in this case is sent through at one time will still produce a wave pattern because it’s still riding on waves from other sources of energy like a spacial demensions, or it’s own vibrational energy wave…….there gimme the nobel prize, this will prove everything including dark matter, dark energy, everything makes sense everything ties together. 11/06/2014

      The two slit experiment is demensional causality because we are seeing the affects of demesional causality and actually affecting it at the same time, or my other weird thought, when the recording of the experiment is done at that level you are creating some sort of energy loop that takes away vibrational evergy waves or some how affecting it.?

      • Cleroth Sun

        I hope you’re joking.

        • do i have to enter my name?

          oh he may not realize, but he added an equation with a sentence.
          we can dismiss him.

      • John Yang

        That was my first rough theory, but the real fact the real nature of the universe is dimensions of information, aka observed in equal opposite
        information exchange in quantum entanglement.

    • John Yang


    • bjt

      How does any body know for sure this so called string theory is even real?

    • The more general M-theory predicts 11 dimmentions of which 1 is very wide and containing many universes, and that gravity will interact between those universes. But that means that gravity in our universe must seem to vary from area to area or from time to time, according to the density of mass or according to movement in nearby universes, when measured. So if one can measure variations in gravity between areas of space, that would give a hint.