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Why Is String Theory So Important?

String theory yields many fascinating subjects for thought, but you may be wondering about the practical importance of it. For one thing, string theory is the next step in our growing understanding of the universe.

If that’s not practical enough, then there’s this consideration: Your tax money goes to fund scientific research, and the people trying to get that money want to use it to study string theory (or its alternatives).

A completely honest string theorist would be forced to say that there are probably no practical applications for string theory, at least in the foreseeable future. This doesn’t look that great on either the cover of a book or a magazine column, so it gets spiced up with talk about parallel universes, extra time dimensions, and discovering new fundamental symmetries of nature.

They might exist, but the theory’s predictions make it so that they’re unlikely to ever be particularly useful, so far as we know.

Understanding the nature of the universe better is a good goal in its own right — as old as humanity, some might say — but when you’re looking at funding multibillion dollar particle accelerators or research satellite programs, you might want something tangible for your money and, unfortunately, there’s no reason to think that string theory is going to give you anything practical.

No one knows where a scientific theory will lead until the theory is developed and tested.

In 1905, when Albert Einstein first presented his famous equation E = mc2, he thought it was an intriguing relationship but had no idea that it would result in something as potent as the atomic bomb. He had no way of knowing the corrections to time calculations demanded by special relativity and general relativity would someday be required to get the worldwide global positioning system (GPS) to operate correctly.

Quantum physics, which on the surface is about as theoretical of a study as they come, is the basis for the laser and transistor, two pieces of technology that are at the heart of modern computers and communication systems.

Even though we don’t know what a purely theoretical concept like string theory may lead to, history has shown that it will almost certainly lead somewhere profound.

For an example of the unexpected nature of scientific progress, consider the discovery and study of electricity, which was originally seen as a mere parlor trick. You could predict some technologies from the discovery of electricity, such as the light bulb. But some of the most profound discoveries are things that may never have been predicted — radio and television, the computer, the Internet, the cellphone, and so on.

The impact of science extends into culture as well. Another byproduct of electricity is rock and roll music, which was created with the advent of electric guitars and other electric musical instruments.

If electricity can lead to rock and roll and the Internet, then imagine what sort of unpredicted (and potentially unpredictable) cultural and technological advances string theory could lead to!

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