When I think of our relationship to string theory over the years, I am reminded of an art dealer who represented a friend of mine. When we met, he mentioned that he was also a good friend of a young writer whose book I had admired; we can call her “M.” A few weeks later, he called me and said, “I was speaking to M. the other day, and, you know, she is very interested in science. Could I get you two together sometime?” Of course I was terribly flattered and excited and accepted the first of several dinner invitations. Halfway through a very good meal, the art dealer’s cell phone rang. “It’s M.,” he announced. “She’s nearby. She would love to drop by and meet you . Is that OK?” But she never came. Over dessert, the dealer and I had a great talk about the relationship between art and science. After a while, my curiosity about whether M. would actually show up lost to my embarrassment of over my eagerness to meet her, so I thanked him and went home.A few weeks later he called, apologized profusely, and invited me to dinner again to meet her. Of course I went. For one thing, he ate only in the best restaurants; it seems that the managers of some art galleries have expense accounts that exceed the salaries of academic scientists. But the same scene was repeated that time and at several subsequent dinners. She would call, then an hour would go by, sometimes two, before his phone rang again: “Oh, I see, you’re not feeling well” or “The taxi driver didn’t know where the Odeon is? He took you to Brooklyn? What is this city coming to? Yes, I’m sure, very soon…” After two years of this, I became convinced that the picture of the young woman on her book jacket was a fake. One night I told him that I finally understood: He was M. He just smiled and said, “Well, yes… but she would have so enjoyed meeting you.”
The story of string theory is like my forever postponed meeting with M. You work on it even though you know it’s not the real thing, because it’s as close as you know how to get. Meanwhile the company is charming and the good is good. From time to time, you hear that the real theory is about to be revealed, but somehow that never happens. After a while, you go looking for it yourself. This feels good, but it, too, never comes to anything. In the end, you have little more than you started with: a beautiful picture on the jacket of a book you can never open.
Lee Smolin, The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, Boston, 2006, pp. 147-148