Sean Miller, Strung Together: The Cultural Currency of String Theory as a Scientific Imaginary

Sean Miller, Strung Together: The Cultural Currency of String Theory as a Scientific Imaginary (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2013), 256pp. $50. ISBN 978-0-472-11866-3.


O dieses ist das Tier, das es nicht gibt.
Sie wußtens nicht und habens jeden Falls
- sein Wandeln, seine Haltung, seinen Hals,
bis in des stillen Blickes Licht - geliebt.

Zwar war es nicht. Doch weil sie's liebten, ward
ein reines Tier. Sie ließen immer Raum.
Und in dem Raume, klar und ausgespart,
erhob es leicht sein Haupt und brauchte kaum

zu sein. Sie nährten es mit keinem Korn,
nur immer mit der Möglichkeit, es sei.

[Oh this is the animal that never was.
They hadn't seen one; but just the same, they loved
its graceful movements, and the way it stood
looking at them calmly, with clear eyes.

It had not been. But for them, it appeared
in all its purity. They left space enough.
And in the space hollowed out by their love
it stood up all at once and didn’t need

existence. They nourished it, not with grain,
but with the mere possibility of being.]

Rainer Maria Rilke's "Sonnet to Orpheus" II.4 is nominally about the unicorn, but it might very well have been written to describe many other fabulous scientific creations of the past century, including superstrings, n-rays, neutrons, gravitons genes and superstrings, that have been nourished with the possibility of being real. They have at times appeared not to need existence in order to enjoy the possibility of being.

In her poem “String Theory Sutra”, a weave of Independence Day reflections and questions about string theory, Brenda Hillman imagines the unicorn in a medieval tapestry asking “sleepily”: “How am I so unreal & yet my thread is real”. Physicists are inclined to leave 'immer Raum' [always space] for these graceful constituents of matter called superstrings, even though no experiment has ever confirmed the slightest trace of their existence. I may be unfair to unicorns in suggesting they don’t exist. Philosopher Markus Gabriel recently defended unicorns from such scepticism. In his TED talk about his theory of transcendental ontology, 'Why the world does not exist', he offers a seeming paradox: 'I believe that the world does not exist but I do believe that unicorns exist'. His point is that it makes sense to credit even images, fictions, and ideas with existence, but not the concept of a totality to which all lesser things are connected. But we must not let these fabulous creatures lead us on a wild unicorn chase away from our theme, which is superstrings and the attempt to understand their significance as some form of imaginary material or material imaginary.

In his study of string theory, the leading physicist Lee Smolin argues that the failure, in the more than thirty years during which this physical theory of the universe has flourished, to provide any empirical confirmation of the existence of superstrings, these entities more fundamental even than the sub-atomic quarks, should give physicists pause. Maybe there is no empirical or theoretical nourishment that could sustain superstrings. Maybe string theorists are searching for unicorns. Whatever the theorists are doing, they would appear to be sustaining their decades long enquiries into the possibility that the material universe is constructed of strings rather than particles by an act of heroic imagination. This leads to the thought: what sort of imagination is at work, and why?

In this recent timely study of physics and literature Sean Miller argues that a close study of the rhetoric and imagery used by scientists and writers to discuss string theory gives access to an important example of the more general workings of what he calls the “scientific imaginary”. His book is divided into three topics: close readings of the treatment of strings in both technical papers and popularisations; literary criticism of poetic and narrative responses to string theory; and a conceptual analysis of the very idea of string theory as a scientific imaginary. To a certain extent the book is a companion to Riffing on Strings: Creative Writing Inspired by String Theory (Scriblerus Press, 2008), the compendious anthology of creative writings about string theory that he edited with Shveta Verma. Material from the anthology forms a substantial part of the creative literature that he discusses.

Miller's close readings of both technical papers and lively mass-market books are informative and interesting. He provides useful histories of the development of the theory, and draws out of the technical papers the mechanisms at work in the rhetorical appeals to the experience of familiar objects in order to represent hypothetical entities at scales of magnitude far beyond the reach of human perception. He points out that even when the theorists are writing for each other they have to find explanatory analogies based on familiar things and happenings, analogies whose heterogeneity results in a certain amount of incoherence when readers attempt to imagine how they integrate to form the world that these imagined entities bring into being. He makes a bold claim about this process: “the further theorists push back the boundary of the known into the unknown, the imaginaries through which they mediate that encounter with natural origins will become ever more hodgepodge”. He rightly draws our attention to the seeming indifference shown by physicists to the cultural entanglements of the names they choose for their theoretically defined entities: quarks, branes, strings, charm and so forth. These close readings of specialist papers on string theory will be of interest to anyone who has tried to understand string theory and its rhetorical engineering. Again and again Miller identifies troubling features of the discourse of string theory that will be familiar to anyone who has read the technical scientific literature of the past half-century, a mixture of indifference and ideological slant in the use of language by professional scientists which creates both hooks for political appropriation and a semantic excess that beckons for further interpretation.

Less convincing is the claim that string theory at the technical level is a form of romance. Miller uses Northrop Frye's notion of romance to argue that the string theorists bring their branes and gravitons “back out of the unknown - a highly abstracted form of wilderness, analogous to Frye's concept of the 'lower world' - to be offered up to patronizing authorities as a prize, a quasi-domesticated object”. Miller's own rhetoric here and elsewhere begs many questions, not least why and how string theory viewed in this manner is any different from any other branch of science which theorises in advance what it hopes to discover by experimentation and field-work. Science is a technique for handling the unknown. When Miller turns to popularizations this emplotment of string theory is more convincing. He builds on the work of Elizabeth Leane's Reading Popular Physics to offer entertainingly readable and insightful accounts of three recent books: Michio Kaku's Hyperspace, Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, and Lisa Randall's Warped Passages. Miller drily notes that Kaku is so keen to emphasise that the strings vibrate, he even inadvertently depicts the theory itself as vibrating. Miller's discussion is a timely reminder that much of what the public calls science is the invention of popularisers.

The readings of creative literature come as something of a disappointment after the searching, astute readings of the scientists and popularisers.The problem is partly the paucity of strong texts, and partly the insistence on tracking how literary accounts of string theory work with their borrowed images in the terms set by Michelle le Doeuf’s theory of the philosophical imaginary. Many of the texts briefly discussed are science fiction - there is an interesting outline of a typically subtle story by Adam Roberts. Perhaps the most interesting discussion is devoted to Brenda Hillman's poem “String Theory Sutra”, published in Riffing on Strings, and in her collection Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005). His conclusion that the poem shows an “acute awareness of the radical heterogeneity of string theory” and resists simply publicising its ideas, instead persistently questioning the implications of its representations, is only hampered by the sometimes dissonant insistence that Hillman is addressing a scientific imaginary.

So far I have discussed two of the three topics of Miller's book. The third, the idea that it is analytically rewarding to identify a domain of social and cultural activity as the scientific imaginary, and that one very active area of this imaginary is to be found in the dissemination of string theory, raises many difficulties. Miller’s avowed source is le Doeuf. The idea that the Western philosophical tradition has relied so much on a collection of images, fables, and other illustrations of key ideas transmitted from philosopher to philosopher across the centuries that this collection could be nominalised as an “imaginary” was introduced by le Doeuf in L'Imaginaire Philosophique (1980). She was extending the use of such a hypostatic abstraction from psychoanalysis, where it was normally applied to a singular subject. A hypostatic abstraction, whereby an adjective is turned into a noun, adds a new predicate to philosophical reasoning with potential for a better understanding of a process such as imagination. Instead of saying that in a particular instance a philosopher uses an image merely illustratively to invite the reader to imagine and thereby better understand an argument, le Doeuf wants us to understand that this image is also part of a body of philosophical activity. More simply, she wants us to grasp that the imagination at work in an image can be as philosophically productive as a line of argument or a formula of logical operators. She wants us to realise that philosophical images image. Her thinking is not so different from Wittgenstein's own interest in the pictures of the world used by philosophers except that she wants to draw attention to their value as well as their obstructionism. Miller attributes to le Doeuf the idea that there is a “binary of concept and image” - I think her point is rather that some philosophers have behaved as if concept and image were distinct parts of philosophical argument, not that she thinks there is such a territorial divide.

Miller expands le Doeuff's concept of the imaginary: “It is, in effect, a rather small leap to speak of a scientific imaginary, in the realist tradition”. But is it a small leap? It's true that scholars in several fields have recently been arguing that illustrations are rarely as neutral as they have been supposed (Stephanie Moser, for instance, has been showing how much the artists' illustrations of early humans used in nineteenth-century archeological texts actually shaped archeological theory itself - see her co-edited collection Envisioning the Past (2004) and her account of the rise of Egyptology, Designing Antiquity (2012)). But for several reasons this is a much bigger leap. The notion of a tradition of using the same images is central to le Doeufs argument. It is far from clear what tradition of science corresponds to the philosophical tradition (or for that matter, the traditions of nineteenth-century archeologies of prehistory or Egyptology). Philosophy, according to le Doeuf, has neglected to reflect on the role of its models and images; modern science, however, has been intensely self-conscious and preoccupied with them as Lorraine Daston and others have shown. Le Doeuf's imaginary is a repository of images; Miller's version of the imaginary contains all sorts of proxies for the ungraspable abstractions, not just images. And finally, le Doeuf claims that “most often, philosophical images have this remarkable property of being adopted, in an obvious manner, from precise sources.” Are there precise sources for the images that make up the supposed scientific imaginary, and in what sense? I did wonder if Miller's scientific imaginary was in fact an attempt, an interesting one, to merge the philosophical imaginary with the social imaginary that derives from Cornelius Castoriadis. The concept of a social imaginary has proven useful in contemporary cultural studies because its deliberate avoidance of epistemological issues, its acknowledgement of intersubjectivity without a constraining model of the psyche, along with its definitional elasticity, makes feasible the discussion of the contours of say, a maternal imaginary, or a nuclear imaginary, that plays out across a set of historically bounded texts that would otherwise be difficult to interrelate. One of its best-known recent uses is in Charles Taylor's A Secular Age (2007), which presents a history of the modern world in terms of changing social imaginaries, a series of images and narratives that make up the “unchallenged common sense” by which a society imagines its values and possibilities.

Miller's discussion of the scientific imaginary involves considerable methodological improvisation that can at times result in questionable claims. In the opening pages, Miller argues that the scientific imaginary provides a “connecting tissue” with the known world of experience: without it, “scientific knowledge such as string theory would have no epistemological footing”. The problem with this circular claim is that it is not at all clear that string theory is knowledge, though if it is a kind of knowledge, then it must have some epistemological basis. Later in the book, strings are misleadingly called abstract phenomena when in fact the whole issue at stake is whether or not they are phenomena. If strings are phenomena then they are actual. I think what Miller means here is that strings are abstract mathematical entities that can perform many interesting transformations, and are posited as potential explanations of actual phenomena. Physicists are generally scrupulous in calling experimental data phenomenological when they want to indicate that it is real in the sense of having been measured and observed, even if it lacks theoretical, conceptual explanation. Miller wants to persuade us that string theory typifies the need for mathematical conceptual modelling to be illustrated by recognisable everyday images that themselves are not epistemologically distinct from the conceptual model. This could be a contribution to a long-running philosophical debate about the nature of mathematical entities. Are they real, hypothetical, metaphysical, Platonic, or something else? There are many complex mathematical fields that appear to correspond to nothing in the material world, have no practical use, and yet are regarded as significant by mathematicians. String theory is typical of many kinds of mathematical fantasias whose strange creatures exist in the sense of Gabriel’s unicorns, but not in the sense of Rilke’s.

Overall I was left somewhat puzzled by Strung Together. The boldness with which it questions the specialists is admirable. At the same time it neglects the extensive, and surely relevant, Anglo-American philosophical literature on scientific realism that would give the discussion of a scientific imaginary a participative context within current debates. Mary Hesse on models and metaphors, Bas van Fraassen on “saving the phenomena” and on the scientific image, Ian Hacking on whether being able to spray electrons makes them real, or Hilary Putnam on realism and anti-realism, are just a few of the thinkers whose work might be relevant. The book also has relatively little to say about cognate concepts such as analogy and conceptual schemes, both of which have been forms of imaginary that have played a large part in the twentieth and twenty first century reception of scientific thought beyond the inner sanctums of the hard sciences. Both strategies of theorising could arguably be at work in string theory. As a result I couldn’t quite work out who the book was aimed at. Literary scholars and cultural theorists working in the field of literature and science will find interest here, though they may find the science challenging and the literature limited. Outside literature and science studies I am not sure. The world of science studies is balkanised at present. Historians, sociologists and philosophers of modern science tend to keep to their own territories. There is not yet the fertile exchange of ideas that the relatively recently emerging field of literature and science studies has wished for, and although Strung Together appears to want to encourage cross-disciplinary debate I am not sure it will seem to offer enough new systematical documentary research for the historians, nor enough philosophical dialogue to compel the philosophers of science. That would be a pity. The book does raise interesting questions, and does convincingly suggest that close reading might help us approach the horns of the dilemma: what sort of textual fauna are these superstrings unified field theories, and what do they want from us, what sort of possibility beckons from their approach to us?

Peter Middleton, University of Southampton