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Essentials : The Odyssey

The history of string theory is not one of continuous progress along a clear direction. Indeed, much crucial work was done before physicists even realised the importance of strings. The story of progress can be divided into several eras. We first uncover some prehistory: ideas that were developed before string theory, but  find a natural home alongside strings. A superb example of this [...]

The Ancients : Fragments of a Theory (Pre 1968)

As is so often the case, string theory arose from a collection of discredited ideas. Over a period of 50 years vital pieces of the puzzle came to light, only to be ignored in favour of more fashionable topics. When string theory became mainstream, physicists realised that these early insights were extraordinarily prescient. The story begins in 1919 with a little known Polish [...]

Inception : The Emergence of Strings (1968 - 1974)

The first time strings were used to model particles, it was as a convenient way to look at data. In 1968 Gabriele Veneziano, a young researcher at CERN, was trying to describe the strong force. He realised that an equation, written by Leonard Euler several centuries earlier, seemed to do the job. But while this approach worked well, no one really understood why. Several people began to [...]

The First Revolution : Superstring Physics (1984 - 1994)

For about a decade, string theory was a totally marginal subject in theoretical physics. Very few people worked on it and those who did found it very hard to get jobs. It had failed as a theory of the strong force. Although touted as a possible theory of quantum gravity, this seemed implausible to the few experts. Quantum theories of both gravity and matter particles were known to [...]

The Second Revolution : Beyond Strings (Post 1995)

The first superstring revolution left us with five consistent theories, where one-dimensional strings moved around in ten-dimensional spacetime. They all seemed to describe different worlds. Which, if any, was the correct one? In 1995, Edward Witten gave a talk at the yearly “Strings” conference. He proposed that these five theories were actually all part of a single framework. But [...]