Superstring theory

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Superstring theory is an attempt to explain all of the particles and fundamental forces of nature in one theory by modelling them as vibrations of tiny supersymmetric strings.

'Superstring theory' is a shorthand for supersymmetric string theory because unlike bosonic string theory, it is the version of string theory that incorporates fermions and supersymmetry.

Since the second superstring revolution the five superstring theories are regarded as different limits of a single theory tentatively called M-theory, or simply string theory.


The deepest problem in theoretical physics is harmonizing the theory of general relativity, which describes gravitation and applies to large-scale structures (stars, galaxies, super clusters), with quantum mechanics, which describes the other three fundamental forces acting on the atomic scale.

The development of a quantum field theory of a force invariably results in infinite (and therefore useless) probabilities. Physicists have developed mathematical techniques (renormalization) to eliminate these infinities which work for three of the four fundamental forces—electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear forces—but not for gravity. The development of a quantum theory of gravity must therefore come about by different means than those used for the other forces.[1]

According to the theory, the fundamental constituents of reality are strings of the Planck length (about 10−33 cm) which vibrate at resonant frequencies. Every string, in theory, has a unique resonance, or harmonic. Different harmonics determine different fundamental particles. The tension in a string is on the order of the Planck force (1044 newtons). The graviton (the proposed messenger particle of the gravitational force), for example, is predicted by the theory to be a string with wave amplitude zero.

No Evidence

Superstring theory is based on supersymmetry. No supersymmetric particles have been discovered and recent research at LHC and Tevatron has excluded some of the ranges.[2][3][4][5] For instance, the mass constraint of the Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model squarks has been up to 1.1 TeV, and gluinos up to 500 GeV.[6] No report on suggesting large extra dimensions has been delivered from LHC. There have been no principles so far to limit the number of vacua in the concept of a landscape of vacua.[7]

Some particle physicists became disappointed[8] by the lack of experimental verification of supersymmetry, and some have already discarded it; Jon Butterworth at the University College London said that we had no sign of supersymmetry, even in higher energy region, excluding the superpartners of the top quark up to a few TeV. Ben Allanach at the University of Cambridge states that if we do not discover any new particles in the next trial at the LHC, then we can say it is unlikely to discover supersymmetry at CERN in the foreseeable future.[8]

Extra dimensions

See also: Why does consistency require 10 dimensions?

Our physical space is observed to have only three large dimensions and—taken together with duration as the fourth dimension—a physical theory must take this into account. However, nothing prevents a theory from including more than 4 dimensions. In the case of string theory, consistency requires spacetime to have 10 (3+1+6) dimensions. The fact that we see only 3 dimensions of space can be explained by one of two mechanisms: either the extra dimensions are compactified on a very small scale, or else our world may live on a 3-dimensional submanifold corresponding to a brane, on which all known particles besides gravity would be restricted.

If the extra dimensions are compactified, then the extra six dimensions must be in the form of a Calabi–Yau manifold. Within the more complete framework of M-theory, they would have to take form of a G2 manifold. Calabi-Yaus are interesting mathematical spaces in their own right. A particular exact symmetry of string/M-theory called T-duality (which exchanges momentum modes for winding number and sends compact dimensions of radius R to radius 1/R),[9] has led to the discovery of equivalences between different Calabi-Yaus called Mirror Symmetry.

Superstring theory is not the first theory to propose extra spatial dimensions. It can be seen as building upon the Kaluza–Klein theory which proposed a 4+1-dimensional theory of gravity. When compactified on a circle, the gravity in the extra dimension precisely describes electromagnetism from the perspective of the 3 remaining large space dimensions. Thus the original Kaluza–Klein theory is a prototype for the unification of gauge and gravity interactions, at least at the classical level, however it is known to be insufficient to describe nature for a variety of reasons (missing weak and strong forces, lack of parity violation, etc.) A more complex compact geometry is needed to reproduce the known gauge forces. This is not all: In order to obtain a consistent, fundamental, quantum theory the upgrade to string theory is also necessary, not just the extra dimensions.

List of unsolved problems in physics
Is string theory, superstring theory, or M-theory, or some other variant on this theme, a step on the road to a "theory of everything", or just a blind alley?

Number of superstring theories

Theoretical physicists were troubled by the existence of five separate string theories. A possible solution for this dilemma was suggested at the beginning of what is called the second superstring revolution in the 1990s, which suggests that the five string theories might be different limits of a single underlying theory, called M-theory. This remains a conjecture.[10]

String theories
Type Spacetime dimensions SUSY generators chiral open strings heterotic compactification gauge group tachyon
Bosonic (closed) 26 N = 0 no no no none yes
Bosonic (open) 26 N = 0 no yes no U(1) yes
I 10 N = (1,0) yes yes no SO(32) no
IIA 10 N = (1,1) no no no U(1) no
IIB 10 N = (2,0) yes no no none no
HO 10 N = (1,0) yes no yes SO(32) no
HE 10 N = (1,0) yes no yes E8 × E8 no
M-theory 11 N = 1 no no no none no

The five consistent superstring theories are:

  • The type I string has one supersymmetry in the ten-dimensional sense (16 supercharges). This theory is special in the sense that it is based on unoriented open and closed strings, while the rest are based on oriented closed strings.
  • The type II string theories have two supersymmetries in the ten-dimensional sense (32 supercharges). There are actually two kinds of type II strings called type IIA and type IIB. They differ mainly in the fact that the IIA theory is non-chiral (parity conserving) while the IIB theory is chiral (parity violating).
  • The heterotic string theories are based on a peculiar hybrid of a type I superstring and a bosonic string. There are two kinds of heterotic strings differing in their ten-dimensional gauge groups: the heterotic E8×E8 string and the heterotic SO(32) string. (The name heterotic SO(32) is slightly inaccurate since among the SO(32) Lie groups, string theory singles out a quotient Spin(32)/Z2 that is not equivalent to SO(32).)

Chiral gauge theories can be inconsistent due to anomalies. This happens when certain one-loop Feynman diagrams cause a quantum mechanical breakdown of the gauge symmetry. The anomalies were canceled out via the Green–Schwarz mechanism.

Even though there are only five superstring theories, in order to make detailed predictions for real experiments, information is needed about exactly what physical configuration the theory is in. This considerably complicates efforts to test string theory because there is an astronomically high number – 10500 or more – of configurations that meet some of the basic requirements to be consistent with our world. Along with the extreme remoteness of the Planck scale, this is the other major reason it is hard to test superstring theory.

Another approach to the number of superstring theories refers to the mathematical structure called composition algebra. In the findings of abstract algebra there are just seven composition algebras over the field of real numbers. In 1990 physicists R. Foot and G.C. Joshi in Australia stated that "the seven classical superstring theories are in one-to-one correspondence to the seven composition algebras."[11]

Integrating general relativity and quantum mechanics

General relativity typically deals with situations involving large mass objects in fairly large regions of spacetime whereas quantum mechanics is generally reserved for scenarios at the atomic scale (small spacetime regions). The two are very rarely used together, and the most common case in which they are combined is in the study of black holes. Having "peak density", or the maximum amount of matter possible in a space, and very small area, the two must be used in synchrony in order to predict conditions in such places; yet, when used together, the equations fall apart, spitting out impossible answers, such as imaginary distances and less than one dimension.

The major problem with their congruence is that, at Planck scale (a fundamental small unit of length) lengths, general relativity predicts a smooth, flowing surface, while quantum mechanics predicts a random, warped surface, neither of which are anywhere near compatible. Superstring theory resolves this issue, replacing the classical idea of point particles with loops. These loops have an average diameter of the Planck length, with extremely small variances, which completely ignores the quantum mechanical predictions of Planck-scale length dimensional warping.

Singularities are avoided because the observed consequences of "Big Crunches" never reach zero size. In fact, should the universe begin a "big crunch" sort of process, string theory dictates that the universe could never be smaller than the size of a string, at which point it would actually begin expanding.

The five superstring interactions

The five superstring interactions

There are five ways open and closed strings can interact. An interaction in superstring theory is a topology changing event. Since superstring theory has to be a local theory to obey causality the topology change must only occur at a single point. If C represents a closed string and O an open string, then the five interactions are OOO, CCC, OOC, OCO and COO.

All open superstring theories also contain closed superstrings since closed superstrings can be seen from the fifth interaction, and they are unavoidable. Although all these interactions are possible, in practice the most used superstring model is the closed heterotic E8×E8 superstring which only has closed strings and so only the second interaction (CCC) is needed.

The mathematics

The single most important equation in (first quantized bosonic) string theory is the N-point scattering amplitude. This treats the incoming and outgoing strings as points, which in string theory are tachyons, with momentum ki which connect to a string world surface at the surface points zi. It is given by the following functional integral which integrates (sums) over all possible embeddings of this 2D surface in 26 dimensions:[12]

The functional integral can be done because it is a Gaussian to become:

This is integrated over the various points zi. Special care must be taken because two parts of this complex region may represent the same point on the 2D surface and you don't want to integrate over them twice. Also you need to make sure you are not integrating multiple times over different parameterizations of the surface. When this is taken into account it can be used to calculate the 4-point scattering amplitude (the 3-point amplitude is simply a delta function):

Which is a beta function, known as Veneziano amplitude. It was this beta function which was apparently found before full string theory was developed. With superstrings the equations contain not only the 10D space-time coordinates X but also the Grassmann coordinates θ. Since there are various ways this can be done this leads to different string theories.

When integrating over surfaces such as the torus, we end up with equations in terms of theta functions and elliptic functions such as the Dedekind eta function. This is smooth everywhere, which it has to be to make physical sense, only when raised to the 24th power. This is the origin of needing 26 dimensions of space-time for bosonic string theory. The extra two dimensions arise as degrees of freedom of the string surface.


D-branes are membrane-like objects in 10D string theory. They can be thought of as occurring as a result of a Kaluza–Klein compactification of 11D M-theory which contains membranes. Because compactification of a geometric theory produces extra vector fields the D-branes can be included in the action by adding an extra U(1) vector field to the string action.

In type I open string theory, the ends of open strings are always attached to D-brane surfaces. A string theory with more gauge fields such as SU(2) gauge fields would then correspond to the compactification of some higher-dimensional theory above 11 dimensions which is not thought to be possible to date. Furthemore, the tachyons attached to the D-branes, show, the instability of those d-branes with respect to the annihilation.We will consider that tachyon total energy is (or reflects) the total energy of the D-branes.

Why five superstring theories?

For a 10 dimensional supersymmetric theory we are allowed a 32-component Majorana spinor. This can be decomposed into a pair of 16-component Majorana-Weyl (chiral) spinors. There are then various ways to construct an invariant depending on whether these two spinors have the same or opposite chiralities:

Superstring model Invariant

The heterotic superstrings come in two types SO(32) and E8×E8 as indicated above and the type I superstrings include open strings.

Beyond superstring theory

It is conceivable that the five superstring theories are approximated to a theory in higher dimensions possibly involving membranes. Because the action for this involves quartic terms and higher so is not Gaussian, the functional integrals are very difficult to solve and so this has confounded the top theoretical physicists. Edward Witten has popularised the concept of a theory in 11 dimensions M-theory involving membranes interpolating from the known symmetries of superstring theory. It may turn out that there exist membrane models or other non-membrane models in higher dimensions which may become acceptable when new unknown symmetries of nature are found, such as noncommutative geometry for example. It is thought, however, that 16 is probably the maximum since O(16) is a maximal subgroup of E8 the largest exceptional lie group and also is more than large enough to contain the Standard Model. Quartic integrals of the non-functional kind are easier to solve so there is hope for the future. This is the series solution which is always convergent when a is non-zero and negative:

In the case of membranes the series would correspond to sums of various membrane interactions that are not seen in string theory.


Investigating theories of higher dimensions often involves looking at the 10 dimensional superstring theory and interpreting some of the more obscure results in terms of compactified dimensions. For example D-branes are seen as compactified membranes from 11D M-theory. Theories of higher dimensions such as 12D F-theory and beyond will produce other effects such as gauge terms higher than U(1). The components of the extra vector fields (A) in the D-brane actions can be thought of as extra coordinates (X) in disguise. However, the known symmetries including supersymmetry currently restrict the spinors to have 32-components which limits the number of dimensions to 11 (or 12 if you include two time dimensions.) Some commentators (e.g. John Baez et al.) have speculated that the exceptional lie groups E6, E7 and E8 having maximum orthogonal subgroups O(10), O(12) and O(16) may be related to theories in 10, 12 and 16 dimensions; 10 dimensions corresponding to string theory and the 12 and 16 dimensional theories being yet undiscovered but would be theories based on 3-branes and 7-branes respectively. However this is a minority view within the string community. Since E7 is in some sense F4 quaternified and E8 is F4 octonified, then the 12 and 16 dimensional theories, if they did exist, may involve the noncommutative geometry based on the quaternions and octonions respectively. From the above discussion, it can be seen that physicists have many ideas for extending superstring theory beyond the current 10 dimensional theory, but so far none have been successful.

Kac–Moody algebras

Since strings can have an infinite number of modes, the symmetry used to describe string theory is based on infinite dimensional Lie algebras. Some Kac–Moody algebras that have been considered as symmetries for M-theory have been E10 and E11 and their supersymmetric extensions.

See also


  1. Polchinski, Joseph. String Theory: Volume I. Cambridge University Press, p. 4.
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  9. Polchinski, Joseph. String Theory: Volume I. Cambridge University Press, p. 247.
  10. Polchinski, Joseph. String Theory: Volume II. Cambridge University Press, p. 198.
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  12. Polchinski, Joseph. String Theory: Volume I. Cambridge University Press, p. 173.



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