EVOLVING BACKWARDS

So what would it take to actually solve the theory once and for all and end all the speculation and back-biting? There are several approaches. The first is the most direct: try to derive the Standard Model of particle interactions, with its bizarre collection of quarks, gluons, electrons, neutrinos, Higgs bosons, etc. etc. etc. (I must admit that although the Standard Model is the most successful physical theory ever proposed, it is also one of the ugliest.) This might be done by curling up 6 of the 10 dimensions, leaving us with a 4 dimensional theory that might resemble the Standard Model a bit. Then try to use duality and M- theory to probe its non-perturbative region, seeing if the symme- tries break in the correct fashion, giving us the correct masses of the quarks and other particles in the Standard Model.
Witten's philosophy, however, is a bit different. He feels that the key to solving string theory is to understand the under- lying principle behind the theory.
Let me explain. Einstein's theory of general relativity, for example, started from first principles. Einstein had the "happi- est thought in his life" when he leaned back in his chair at the Bern patent office and realized that a person in a falling eleva- tor would feel no gravity. Although physicists since Galileo knew this, Einstein was able to extract from this the Equivalence Principle. This deceptively simple statement (that the laws of physics are indistinguishable locally in an accelerating or a gravitating frame) led Einstein to introduce a new symmetry to physics, general co-ordinate transformations. This in turn gave birth to the action principle behind general relativity, the most beautiful and compelling theory of gravity. Only now are we trying to quantize the theory to make it compatible with the other forces. So the evolution of this theory can be summarized as: Principle -> Symmetry -> Action -> Quantum Theory
According to Witten, we need to discover the analog of the Equivalence Principle for string theory. The fundamental problem has been that string theory has been evolving "backwards." As Witten says, "string theory is 21st century physics which fell into the 20th century by accident." We were never "meant" to see this theory until the next century.