What to Do if a String Theorist Corners You at a Cocktail Party

Don’t panic. It could be worse. You could be cornered by a chemist, in which case you should immediately retreat to the hors d’oeuvres table and seek out the Gorgonzola. Pretty much everybody hated chemistry in high school, including future chemists, and how they get on at parties is a mystery.

String theorists, on the other hand, have much on their minds. After all, they are trying to create a theory to unify all of physics, a feat that — cue violins — even Einstein couldn’t accomplish. Indeed, it is a feat so audacious that extra dimensions are required. Never mind where these extra dimensions are — possibly Connecticut — the important thing is that despite all lack of experimental evidence, they could exist. They keep string theorists awake at night.

So, conversation with a string theorist could be a challenge. Still, you’ve got much to gain. Much more than if you were cornered by a cosmologist, who can only shrug when you ask what ninety-five percent of the universe is made of, or a biologist, whose thoughts are likely mutating over the latest sequenced genomes (Motto: “Two hundred species down, ten million to go!”). And do what you can to avoid being cornered by a climate scientist — the news is as bad as you’ve heard. It’s a party, after all.

String theorists are the only mathematicians masquerading as scientists who think they’re doing something truly fundamental. So, whatever you do, don’t bring up the Higgs boson, the latest fundamental particle whose spirographic portrait is now hanging on a wall somewhere in southern Frantzerland. This smashing experimental success, the charm of thousands of particle physicists who now await the phone call from Stockholm, is likely only to estrange your stringed friend, who undoubtedly longs to even make a single experimental prediction.

But all is not lost, because for its encore, the LHC (that ginormous particle pulverizer in southern Frantzerland, not the Latvia History Channel) could discover new particles that hint at the existence of new dimensions, which in turn will electrify string theorists and help justify their raison d’être. After all, why is gravity so much weaker than the strong force, the weak force, and the force that causes you to check your email every five minutes? This is a perfect question for a string theorist, who might tell you there are particles that have a larger presence in other dimensions than in the ho-hum three spatial dimensions that we’re aware of, sort of like infinitesimal icebergs. It’s speculative, but incredibly heady stuff — perfect material for an enlightening cocktail party conversation.

If, however, you do get cornered by a chemist instead of a string theorist, be sure to ask something radical, like how the first molecules replicated themselves. We all want to know.


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