The Exchange: The Range and Edward Witten discuss the state of String Theory.

The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.

In this installment, we’ve brought together electronic recording artist, The Range, and theoretical physicist, Edward Witten.

The Range is the recording alias of James Hinton, an electronic music producer from Providence, Rhode Island. Hinton’s music typically utilizes manipulated vocal samples found on YouTube as well as from hip-hop, R&B, or dancehall reggae. He combines these samples with bright, sentimental melodies and simmering beats that reference jungle and footwork, playing with a slow/fast dynamic. His tracks have enough bass to work in a club, but they seem far more geared toward lonely late-night introspection. First gaining attention with his 2013 full-length debut Nonfiction, he signed to and released Potential in 2016, and returned with the vivid Mercury in 2022.

Edward Witten is an American mathematical and theoretical physicist. He is a Professor Emeritus in the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Witten is a researcher in string theory, quantum gravity, supersymmetric quantum field theories, and other areas of mathematical physics. Witten’s work has also significantly impacted pure mathematics. In 1990, he became the first physicist to be awarded a Fields Medal by the International Mathematical Union, for his 1981 proof of the positive energy theorem in general relativity. He is considered the practical founder of M-theory.

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The Range. (CREDIT: Elizabeth Weinberg)

THE RANGE: My question is regarding the current state of balance between theoretical and experimental physics. When I was graduating high school and entering college to study Physics we were just in the beginning throes of defeatism around the promise of String Theory. 

I remember feeling at that time in 2006 that we were just around the bend of finally finding the Theory of Everything and, thereby, making some new profound experimental predictions a la Einstein in the early 1900s. It feels safe to say that, at this point, the string theoretic approach is at best very difficult to test, if not a total theoretical failure. In terms of advancing on the Standard Model, it seems like we have hit a theoretical impasse and it seems to me from the outside that this branch of theoretical physics is slightly listless. 

Having been away from Physics for a long time I am curious if, outside of the slow march towards higher and higher energy particle physics, are there any big advances taking place in theoretical physics that have the promise to deliver on some profound experimental results in the next decade? 

EDWARD WITTEN:  The most exciting development right now in theoretical physics is the exploration of the relationship between gravity and quantum information theory.

The first sign of this connection was the discovery half a century ago by Stephen Hawking that at the quantum level, a black hole is not truly black but emits radiation at a temperature proportional to Planck’s constant (meaning that an astrophysical black hole emits only very faint radiation, but is not strictly black).

In modern times, this has been elaborated into a remarkable and remarkably deep relationship between gravity and quantum theory.  Somehow, Einstein’s equations for the gravitational field, even though they are purely classical field equations,  “know” about the quantum nature of the universe.

We will have to see where this endeavor leads. My hope is that it will  lead to a general insight about the nature of quantum gravity,  possibly also leading to a new understanding of string theory, which is relevant since it is the framework that provides us with consistent (but not fully understood) models of quantum gravity.

Edward Witten. (CREDIT: Institute for Advanced Study, School of Natural Sciences)

EDWARD WITTEN: I have more a comment than a question. You can respond as you wish. The beauty of music depends on the interplay between a basic tone and its higher harmonics. For example a violin or piano string produces a mixture of harmonics (different multiples of a fundamental frequency) that sounds appealing to the ear. A tuning fork produces a pure note (definite frequency) and it sounds harsh.   In the sort of string theory that I work on, the different elementary particles correspond to the various harmonics (modes of vibration) of one basic string. That is how unification of particles and forces is achieved.

THE RANGE: I really like that phrasing Edward and remember it from your interview in 2000 (and thank you for your reply). I agree that your string theory models are beautiful mathematically and I love the analogy to the Fourier transform properties of complex tones in music. Thanks so much for your work, it’s been inspiring not just to those who stayed in physics but to everyone who loves math and physics in the wider world. 

COVER IMAGE: Sri Vrushank.

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