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String theory
John H. Schwarz
California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA

energies, it is present in exactly the form proposed by

This article presents the basic concepts of string the-
Einstein. This is significant, because it is arising within
ory followed by an overview of the peculiar history
of how it arose. the framework of a consistent quantum theory. Ordinary
quantum field theory does not allow gravity to exist;
string theory requires it! The second general fact is that
M ANY of the major developments in fundamental phys- YangMills gauge theories of the sort that comprise the
ics of the past century arose from identifying and over- standard model, naturally arise in string theory. We do
coming contradictions between existing ideas. For not understand why the specific SU(3) SU(2) U(1)
example, the incompatibility of Maxwells equations gauge theory of the standard model should be preferred,
and Galilean invariance led Einstein to propose the spe- but (anomaly-free) theories of this general type do arise
cial theory of relativity. Similarly, the inconsistency of naturally at ordinary energies. The third general feature
special relativity with Newtonian gravity led him to of string theory solutions is supersymmetry. The
develop the general theory of relativity. More recently, mathematical consistency of string theory depends cru-
the reconciliation of special relativity with quantum cially on supersymmetry, and it is very hard to find
mechanics led to the development of quantum field the- consistent solutions (quantum vacua) that do not pre-
ory. We are now facing another crisis of the same char- serve at least a portion of this supersymmetry. This pre-
acter, namely general relativity appears to be diction of string theory differs from the other two
incompatible with quantum field theory. Any straight- (general relativity and gauge theories) in that it really is
forward attempt to quantize general relativity leads to a prediction. It is a generic feature of string theory that
a nonrenormalizable theory. In my opinion, this means has not yet been discovered experimentally.
that the theory is inconsistent and needs to be modified
at short distances or high energies. The way that string
theory does this is to give up one of the basic assump- Supersymmetry
tions of quantum field theory, the assumption that ele-
mentary particles are mathematical points, and instead As we have just said, supersymmetry is the major pre-
to develop a quantum field theory of one-dimensional diction of string theory that could appear at accessible
extended objects, called strings. There are very few energies, that has not yet been discovered. A variety of
consistent theories of this type, but superstring theory arguments, not specific to string theory, suggest that the
shows great promise as a unified quantum theory of all characteristic energy scale associated with supersym-
fundamental forces, including gravity. There is no real- metry breaking should be related to the electro-weak
istic string theory of elementary particles that could scale, in other words in the range 100 GeV1 TeV. The
serve as a new standard model, since there is much that symmetry implies that all known elementary particles
is not yet understood. But that, together with a deeper should have partner particles, whose masses are in this
understanding of cosmology, is the goal. This is still a general range. This means that some of these superpart-
work in progress. ners should be observable at the CERN Large Hadron
Even though string theory1,2 is not yet fully formu- Collider (LHC), which will begin operating in the mid-
lated, and we cannot yet give a detailed description of dle part of this decade. There is even a chance that Fer-
how the standard model of elementary particles should milab Tevatron experiments could find superparticles
emerge at low energies, there are some general features earlier than that.
of the theory that can be identified. These are features In most versions of phenomenological supersym-
that seem to be quite generic irrespective of how vari- metry, there is a multiplicatively conserved quantum
ous details are resolved. The first, and perhaps most number called R-parity. All known particles have even
important, is that general relativity is necessarily incor- R-parity, whereas their superpartners have odd R-parity.
porated in the theory. It gets modified at very short dis- This implies that the superparticles must be pair-
tances/high energies but at ordinary distances and produced in particle collisions. It also implies that the
lightest supersymmetry particle (or LSP) should be ab-
e-mail: solutely stable. It is not known with certainty which

CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 81, NO. 12, 25 DECEMBER 2001 1547


particle is the LSP, but one popular guess is that it is a Basic concepts of string theory
neutralino. This is an electrically neutral fermion that
is a quantum-mechanical mixture of the partners of the In conventional quantum field theory the elementary
photon, Z0 , and neutral Higgs particles. Such an LSP particles are mathematical points, whereas in perturbat-
would interact very weakly, more or less like a neutrino. ive string theory the fundamental objects are one-
It is of considerable interest, since it is an excellent dimensional loops (of zero thickness). Strings have a
dark-matter candidate. Searches for dark-matter parti- characteristic length scale, which can be estimated by
cles called WIMPS (weakly interacting massive parti- dimensional analysis. Since string theory is a relativistic
cles) could discover the LSP some day, though current quantum theory that includes gravity, it must involve
experiments might not have sufficient detector the fundamental constants c (the speed of light),
volume to compensate for the exceedingly small cross- (Plancks constant divided by 2), and G (Newtons
sections. gravitational constant). From these one can form a
There are three unrelated arguments that point to the length, known as the Planck length
same mass range for superparticles. The one we have
just been discussing, a neutralino LSP as an important 3/ 2
component of dark matter, requires a mass of order lp = 3 = 1 .6 10 33 cm . (1)
100 GeV. The precise number depends on the mixture c
that comprises the LSP, what its density is, and a num-
ber of other details. A second argument is based on the Similarly, the Planck mass is
famous hierarchy problem. This is the fact that standard
model radiative corrections tend to renormalize the 1/ 2
Higgs mass to a very high scale. The way to prevent mp = = 1 .2 10 19 GeV / c 2 . (2)
this is to extend the standard model to a supersymmetric G
standard model and to have the supersymmetry be
broken at a scale comparable to the Higgs mass, and Experiments at energies far below the Planck energy
hence to the electro-weak scale. The third argument that cannot resolve distances as short as the Planck length.
gives an estimate of the susy-breaking scale is Thus, at such energies, strings can be accurately ap-
grand unification. If one accepts the notion that the proximated by point particles. From the viewpoint of
standard model gauge group is embedded in a larger string theory, this explains why quantum field theory
gauge group such as SU(5) or SO(10), which is broken has been so successful.
at a high mass scale, then the three standard model cou- As a string evolves in time it sweeps out a two-
pling constants should unify at that mass scale. Given dimensional surface in spacetime, which is called the
the spectrum of particles, one can compute the evolu- world sheet of the string. This is the string counterpart
tion of the couplings as a function of energy using re- of the world line for a point particle. In quantum field
normalization group equations. One finds that if one theory, analysed in perturbation theory, contributions to
only includes the standard model particles, this unifica- amplitudes are associated to Feynman diagrams, which
tion fails quite badly. However, if one also includes all depict possible configurations of world lines. In particu-
the supersymmetry particles required by the minimal lar, interactions correspond to junctions of world lines.
supersymmetric extension of the standard model, then Similarly, pertubative string theory involves string
the couplings do unify at an energy of about world sheets of various topologies. A particularly sig-
2 1016 GeV. For this agreement to take place, it is nificant fact is that these world sheets are generically
necessary that the masses of the superparticles are less smooth. The existence of interaction is a consequence
than a few TeV. of world-sheet topology rather than a local singularity
There is further support for this picture, such as the on the world sheet. This difference from point-particle
ease with which supersymmetric grand unification ex- theories has two important implications. First, in string
plains the masses of the top and bottom quarks and theory the structure of interactions is uniquely deter-
electro-weak symmetry breaking. Despite all these indi- mined by the free theory. There are no arbitrary interac-
cations, we cannot be certain that this picture is correct tions to be chosen. Second, the ultraviolet divergences
until it is demonstrated experimentally. One could sup- of point-particle theories can be traced to the fact that
pose that all this is a giant coincidence, and the correct interactions are associated to world-line junctions at
description of TeV-scale physics is based on something specific spacetime points. Because the string world
entirely different. The only way we can decide for sure sheet is smooth, string theory amplitudes have no ultra-
is by doing the experiments. As I once told a newspaper violet divergences.
reporter, in order to be sure to be quoted: discovery of Perturbation theory is useful in a quantum theory that
supersymmetry would be more profound than life on has a small dimensionless coupling constant, such as
Mars. quantum electrodynamics, since it allows one to com-

1548 CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 81, NO. 12, 25 DECEMBER 2001


pute physical quantities as power series expansions in In 1969, several groups independently discovered N-
the small parameter. In QED, the small parameter is the particle generalizations of the Veneziano four-particle
fine-structure constant ~ 1/137. Since this is quite amplitude5 . The N-point generalization of Virasoros
small, perturbation theory works very well for QED. four-point amplitude was constructed by Shapiro6 . In
For a physical quantity T(), one computes (using short order, it was shown that the Veneziano N-particle
Feynman diagrams) amplitudes could be consistently factorized in terms of
a spectrum of single-particle states described by an infi-
T ( ) = T0 + T1 + 2 T2 + K . (3) nite collection of harmonic oscillators7 . This was a
striking development, because it suggested that these
formulas could be viewed as more than just an ap-
It is the case generically in quantum field theory that
proximate phenomenological description of hadronic
expansions of this type are divergent. More specifically,
scattering. Rather, they could be regarded as the true
they are asymptotic expansions with zero radius con-
approximation to a full-fledged quantum theory. I do
vergence. Nonetheless, they can be numerically useful
not think that anyone had anticipated such a possibility
if the expansion parameter is small. The problem is that
one year earlier.
there are various nonperturbative contributions (such as
Once it was clear that we were dealing with a system
instantons) that have the structure
with a rich spectrum of internal excitations, and not just
a bunch of phenomenological formulas, it was natural to
TNP ~ e(const./). (4)
ask for a physical interpretation. The history of who did
what and when is a little tricky to sort out. As best I can
In a theory such as QCD, there are regimes where per-
tell, the right answer a one-dimensional extended ob-
turbation theory is useful (due to asymptotic freedom)
ject (or string) was discovered independently by
and other regimes where it is not. For problems of the
three people: Nambu, Susskind and Nielsen 8 . The string
latter type, such as computing the hadron spectrum,
interpretation of the dual resonance model was not very
nonperturbative methods of computation, such as lattice
influential in the development of the subject until the
gauge theory, are required.
appearance of the 1973 paper by Goddard et al.9 . It ex-
In the case of string theory the dimensionless string
plained in detail how the string action could be quan-
coupling constant, denoted gs , is determined dynami-
tized in light-cone gauge.
cally by the expectation value of a scalar field called the
dilaton. There is no particular reason that this number
should be small. So it is unlikely that a realistic vacuum The RNS model and world-sheet supersymmetry
could be analysed accurately using perturbation theory.
More importantly, these theories have many qualitative
The original dual resonance model (bosonic string the-
properties that are inherently nonperturbative. So one
ory), developed in the period 196870, suffered from
needs nonperturbative methods to understand them. Un-
several unphysical features: the absence of fermions,
til 1995, it was only understood how to formulate string
the presence of a tachyon, and the need for 26-
theories in terms of perturbation expansions.
dimensional spacetime. These facts motivated the
search for a more realistic string theory. The first im-
A brief history of string theory portant success was achieved in January 1971 by Pierre
Ramond, who had the inspiration of constructing a
The dual resonance model string analogue of the Dirac equation10 . A bosonic
string X (, ) with 0 2 has a momentum den-
String theory grew out of the S-matrix approach to had- sity P (, ) = X (, ), whose zero mode
ronic physics, which was a very hot subject in the
1960s. Some of the relevant concepts were Regge Poles, 2

the bootstrap conjecture, and duality between direct p = P (, ) d
channel and crossed-channel resonances. The bootstrap/ 2
duality programme got a real shot in the arm in 1968,
when Veneziano found a specific mathematical function
is the total momentum of the string. Ramond suggested
that explicitly exhibits the features that people had been
introducing an analogous density (, ), whose zero
discussing in the abstract3 . Within a matter of months
Virasoro found an alternative formula with many of the
same duality and Regge properties4 . Later it would be
understood that whereas Venezianos formula describes

scattering of open-string ground states, Virasoros de- = (, )d
scribes scattering of closed-string ground states. 0

CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 81, NO. 12, 25 DECEMBER 2001 1549


is the usual Dirac matrix. He then defined Fourier obvious that one could truncate the theory to the even
modes of the product P: G-parity sector, and then it would be tachyon-free.
However, we did not emphasize this fact, because we
2 wanted to keep the pions. Our hope at the time was that

1 -in
Fn = e P d , n Z. a mechanism could be found that would shift the
2 tachyonic pion and the massless rho to their desired
The zero mode, In August 1971, Gervais and Sakita presented a paper
proposing an interpretation of the various operators in
F0 = p + oscillator terms terms of a two-dimensional world-sheet action principle12 .
Specifically, they took the X (, ), which transform as
is an obvious generalization of the Dirac operator, sug- scalars in the world-sheet theory, together with free Majo-
gesting a wave equation of the form rana (2-component) fermions (, ). The action is

F0 |> = 0 1
S= d d { X X i },
for a free fermionic string. By postulating the usual
commutation relations for X and P, as well as ( )
where are world-sheet derivatives , and are
two-dimensional Dirac matrices. They noted that this
{ ( , ), ( , )} = 4 ( ), has a global fermionic symmetry: The action S is in-
variant under the supersymmetry transformation
he discovered the super-Virasoro (or N = 1 supercon-
formal) algebra X =

c 1 = i X ,
{ Fm , Fn } = 2 L m + n + m 2 m + n , 0 ,
3 4
where is a constant infinitesimal Majorana spinor. So
m this demonstrated that the theory has global world-sheet
[ Lm , Fn ] = n Fm + n , supersymmetry. I think that this was the first consistent
supersymmetric action to be identified. However, it did
not occur to us at that time to explore whether the cor-
c 3
[ Lm , Ln ] = ( m n ) Lm + n + ( m m )m + n , 0 , responding string theory could also have spacetime
12 supersymmetry. Perhaps the presence of the tachyonic
pion in the spectrum prevented us from considering
extending the well-known Virasoro algebra (given by the possibility. A few years later, this theory was also
the Ln s alone). explored by Zumino13 , a fact which I think was histori-
Neveu and I developed a new bosonic string theory cally important in setting the stage for his subsequent
containing a field H (, ) satisfying the same anti- work with Wess14 on supersymmetric field theory in
commutation relations as (, ), but with boundary four dimensions.
conditions that give rise to half-integral modes. A very
similar super-Virasoro algebra arises, but with half-
integrally moded operators Gravity and unification

Among the massless string states, there is one that has

1 -ir
Gr = e H P d , r Z + 1/ 2 spin two. In 1974, it was shown by Scherk and me15 ,
0 and independently by Yoneya16 , that this particle inter-
acts like a graviton, so the theory actually includes gen-
replacing the Fn s (ref. 11). This model contains a eral relativity. This led us to propose that string theory
tachyon that we identified as a slightly misplaced should be used for unification rather than for hadrons.
pion. We thought that our theory came quite close to This implied, in particular, that the string length scale
giving a realistic description of nonstrange mesons, so should be comparable to the Planck length, rather than
we called it the dual pion model. This identification the size of hadrons (1013 cm) as we had previously as-
arose because only amplitudes with an even number of sumed.
pions were nonzero. Thus we could identify a G-parity In the context of the original goal of string theory
quantum number for which the pions were odd. It was to explain hadron physics extra dimensions are unac-

1550 CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 81, NO. 12, 25 DECEMBER 2001


ceptable. However, in a theory that incorporates general 1829, Jacobi discovered the formula (he used a different
relativity, the geometry of spacetime is determined notation, of course)
dynamically. Thus one could imagine that the theory
admits consistent quantum solutions in which the six fR (w) = fNS (w).
extra spatial dimensions form a compact space, too
small to have been observed. The natural first guess is For him this relation was an obscure curiosity, but we
that the size of this space should be comparable to the now see that it provides strong evidence for supersym-
string scale and the Planck length. metry of the GSO-projected string theory in ten dimen-
A complete proof of supersymmetry for the interact-
Spacetime supersymmetry
ing theory was constructed by Green and me five years
after the GSO paper18 . We developed an alternative
In 1976 Gliozzi et al.17 noted that the RNS spectrum
world-sheet theory to describe the GSO-projected the-
admits a consistent truncation (called the GSO projec-
ory19 . This formulation has as the basic world-sheet
tion), which is necessary for the consistency of the in-
fields X and a , representing ten-dimensional super-
teracting theory. In the NS sector, the GSO projection
space. Thus the formulas can be interpreted as describ-
keeps states with an odd number of b-oscillator excita-
ing the embedding of the world-sheet in superspace.
tions, and removes states with an even number of b-
oscillator excitations. (This corresponds to projecting
onto the even G-parity sector of the dual pion model.) The first superstring revolution
Once this rule is implemented, the spectrum of allowed
masses is integral In the first superstring revolution which took place in
198485, there were a number of important develop-
M2 = 0, 1, 2, . ments2022 that convinced a large segment of the theo-
retical physics community that this is a worthy area of
In particular, the bosonic ground state is now massless, research. By the time the dust settled in 1985 we had
so the spectrum no longer contains a tachyon. The GSO learned that there are five distinct consistent string theo-
projection also acts on the R sector, where there is an ries, and that each of them requires spacetime super-
analogous restriction that amounts to imposing a chiral- symmetry in the ten dimensions (nine spatial
ity projection on the spinors. The claim is that the com- dimensions plus time). The theories are called type I,
plete theory now has spacetime supersymmetry. type IIA, type IIB, SO(32) heterotic, and E8 E8 het-
If there is spacetime supersymmetry, then there erotic. CalabiYau compactification, in the context of
should be an equal number of bosons and fermions at the E8 E8 heterotic string theory, can give a low-
every mass level. Let us denote the number of bosonic energy effective theory that closely resembles a super-
states with M2 = n by d NS (n) and the number of fer- symmetric extension of the standard model. There is
mionic states with M2 = n by d R (n). Then we can encode actually a lot of freedom, because there are very many
these numbers in generating functions different CalabiYau spaces, and there are other arbi-
trary choices that can be made. Still, it is interesting
that one can come quite close to realistic physics. It is
f NS ( w) = d NS ( n ) w
n also interesting that the number of quark and lepton
families that one obtains is determined by the topology
n =0
of the CalabiYau space. Thus, for suitable choices, one
1 1 + wm 1 / 2 1 w m 1 / 2

can arrange to end up with exactly three families. Peo-
2 w m =1 1 w m 1 wm ple were very excited by the picture in 1985. Nowadays,
m =1
we tend to make a more sober appraisal that emphasizes
all the arbitrariness that is involved, and the things that
and do not work exactly right. Still, it would not be surpris-
ing if some aspects of this picture survive as part of the
8 story when we understand the right way to describe the
1 + w m
f R ( w) = d R ( n) w = 8
1 w m .
real world.
n =0 m =1
The second superstring revolution
The 8s in the exponents refer to the number of trans-
verse directions in ten dimensions. The effect of the Around 1995 some amazing discoveries provided the
GSO projection is the subtraction of the second term in first glimpses into nonperturbative features of string
fNS and reduction of coefficient in fR from 16 to 8. In theory2326 . These included dualities that were quickly
CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 81, NO. 12, 25 DECEMBER 2001 1551

recognized to have several major implications. First, was found first. But, fortunately, it often continues to be
they implied that all five of the superstring theories are valid even at strong coupling. T-duality can relate dif-
related to one another. This meant that, in a fundamen- ferent compactifications of different theories. For ex-
tal sense, they are all equivalent. Another way of saying ample, suppose theory A has a compact dimension that
this is that there is a unique underlying theory, and what is a circle of radius RA and theory B has a compact di-
we had been calling five theories are better viewed as mension that is a circle of radius RB . If these two theo-
perturbation expansions of this underlying theory about ries are related by T-duality, this means that they are
five different points (in the space of consistent quantum equivalent provided that
vacua). This was a profoundly satisfying realization,
since we really did not want five theories of nature. RA RB = (ls )2 , (6)
That there is a completely unique theory, without any
dimensionless parameters, is the best outcome one where ls is the fundamental string length scale. This has
could have hoped for. However, it should be empha- the amazing implication that when one of the circles
sized that even though the theory is unique, it is entirely becomes small, the other one becomes large. Later, we
possible that there are many consistent quantum vacua. will explain how this is possible. T-duality relates the
Classically, the corresponding statement is that a unique two type II theories and the two heterotic theories.
equation can admit many solutions. It is a particular There are more complicated examples of the same phe-
solution (or quantum vacuum) that ultimately must de- nomenon involving compact spaces that are more com-
scribe nature. plicated than a circle, such as tori, K3, CalabiYau
A second crucial discovery was that the theory admits spaces, etc.
a variety of nonperturbative excitations, called p-branes,
in addition to the fundamental strings. The letter p la-
bels the number of spatial dimensions of the excitation. Concluding remarks
Thus, in this language, a point particle is a 0-brane, a
string is a 1-brane, and so forth. The reason that p- This article has sketched some of the remarkable suc-
branes were not discovered in perturbation theory is that cesses that string theory has achieved over the past 30
they have tension (or energy density) that diverges as years. There are many others that did not fit in this brief
gs 0. Thus they are absent from the perturbative the- survey. Despite all this progress, there are some very
ory. A special class of p-branes, called D-branes, are important and fundamental questions whose answers are
especially tractable, because they are described by the unknown. It seems that whenever a breakthrough oc-
theory of open strings. The third major discovery was curs, a host of new questions arise, and the ultimate
that the underlying theory also has an eleven- goal still seems a long way off. To convince you that
dimensional solution, which is called M-theory. Later, there is a long way to go, let us list some of the most
we will explain how the eleventh dimension arises. important questions:
One type of duality is called S-duality. (The choice of
the letter S is a historical accident of no great signifi- What is the theory? Even though a great deal is
cance.) Two string theories (let us call them A and B) known about string theory and M-theory, it seems
are related by S-duality, if one of them evaluated at that the optimal formulation of the underlying theory
strong coupling is equivalent to the other one evaluated has not yet been found. It might be based on princi-
at weak coupling. Specifically, for any physical quantity ples that have not yet been formulated.
f, one has We are convinced that supersymmetry is present at
high energies and probably at the electro-weak scale,
fA (gs ) = fB (1/gs ). (5) too. But we do not know how or why it is broken.
A very crucial problem concerns the energy density
Two of the superstring theories type I and SO(32) het- of the vacuum, which is a physical quantity in a
erotic are related by S-duality in this way. The type gravitational theory. This is characterized by the
IIB theory is self-dual. Thus S-duality is a symmetry of cosmological constant, which observationally appears
the type IIB theory, and this symmetry is unbroken if to have a small positive value so that the vacuum
gs = 1. Thanks to S-duality, the strong-coupling behav- energy of the universe is comparable to the energy
iour of each of these three theories is determined by a in matter. In Planck units this is a tiny number
weak-coupling analysis. The remaining two theories, ( ~ 10120 ). If supersymmetry were unbroken, we
type IIA and E8 E8 heterotic, behave very differently could argue that = 0, but if it is broken at the 1 TeV
at strong coupling. They grow an eleventh dimension! scale, that would seem to suggest ~ 1060 , which is
Another astonishing duality, which goes by the name very far from the truth. Despite an enormous amount
of T-duality, was discovered several years earlier. It can of effort and ingenuity, it is not yet clear how super-
be understood in perturbation theory, which is why it string theory will conspire to break supersymmetry at

1552 CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 81, NO. 12, 25 DECEMBER 2001


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sium, 1970; Susskind, L., Nuovo Cimento, 1970, A69, 457; ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. This work was supported in part by the
Frye, G., Lee, C. W. and Susskind, L., Nuovo Cimento, 1970, US Department of Energy under Grant No. DE-FG03-92-ER40701.

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