Tuesday, August 12, 2008

String Theory: Postmodern, or Romantic?

Jim Holt’s compelling article on string theory (Oct. 2, 2006) turns on a complicated question: “Is physics, then, going postmodern?” Holt follows up this query by invoking John Keats’s 1819 poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” which ends with the tautological puzzle, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Importantly, though, Keats was not a “postmodern” poet; he was a Romantic. Strictly speaking, postmodernism has very little serious interest in considerations of objective beauty or unification. One wonders if Holt is in fact trying to suggest that physics, via string theory, is going Romantic in its expansively enumerated attempts to articulate a final, unifying theory. If so, Holt might have illuminated the current state of string theory with the words of another Romantic poet, Byron: “What is the end of fame? ‘t is but to fill / A certain portion of uncertain paper” (Don Juan: Canto the First, lines 1736-1737).