Strung Together

Strung Together: The Cultural Currency of String Theory as a Scientific Imaginary. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2013.

Read the Introduction (pdf).

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Read Peter Middleton’s review for the British Society for Literature and Science.

“Sean Miller covers wickedly difficult material with impressive aplomb. He proceeds with laudable lack of pretension in rendering comprehensible the hard mathematical physics at hand, the necessity of its trafficking with concrete imageries, and the cultural desires that it feeds in both its devotees and its lay audiences.”
—Bruce Clarke, Texas Tech University

Since its obscure origins in 1968, string theory has blossomed into a fully-fledged attempt to reconcile the two established theories of matter and force in the universe—quantum theory and general relativity—into one mathematically consistent and empirically valid formalism.  The first popularizations of string theory emerged in 1987 out of the creative foment of what string theorists regard as the “first superstring revolution.”  Thereafter, string theory popularizations have been published—and enthusiastically consumed—with increasing regularity.  This is due, in part, to several factors: the radical transformation of “common sense” that string theory as a theory of physical reality suggests; the controversial nature of string theory’s status as science; and perhaps most significantly, the tradition within contemporary Anglo-American culture for theoretical physicists to serve as the custodians and purveyors of a particularly resonant form of fundamental truth—that which constitutes the cosmic order.  Having captured the popular imagination, string theory imagery now crops up with increasing frequency in both popular culture and literature.

The book’s main claim is that the imaginative component of string theory is both integral and indispensable to it as a scientific discourse. In contrast to an orthodox scientific realism that sorts the “pure” concept of mathematical argument from the “illustrative” image of prose exposition, the book defines a scientific imaginary as a complex of images that: one, grounds scientific concepts in the ordinary cognitive linguistic processes that organize embodied human experience; two, mediates between human agency and the agency of the objects a theory posits as real phenomena; and three, situates the theory within a broader cultural context.  Without this connective tissue, scientific knowledge such as string theory would have no epistemological footing. Within its technical discourse, an imaginary that complements mathematical argument allows string theorists to project themselves into the cosmos in such a way that strings as phenomena become substantiated and legitimized. It is this imaginary, rather than mathematical argument, that survives the move from technical discourse to popularizations and ultimately to literary texts. In effect, a string theory imaginary facilitates a virtual domestication of a cosmos that was heretofore remote, alien, and incomprehensible. By following the migration of the image of the string through these various discourses, we are able to see how string theory as a cosmic order, with all the cultural authority that this implies, is constructed.

Strung Together brings to bear on string theory, and significantly, its technical discourse, a novel method of close reading that synthesizes developments in continental philosophy of science, contemporary cognitive linguistics, and more familiar literary critical methods.  The book also offers new insights into the complications that arise in the consumption by a non-specialist audience of popular science articles and books.  Furthermore, the book suggests a new way for critics to contextualize and evaluate the adaptation of scientific ideas by popular culture and literary works.

The book will be of particular interest to scholars and advanced students of Literature and Science Studies, as well as the more broadly construed Science Studies, including members of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, and the British Society for Literature and Science.  Because of its interdisciplinary synthesis of methods, it will also be of interest to scholars and advanced students in the fields of Science and Technology Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science.  As the first sustained scholarly study of string theory, the book will appeal to practicing physicists, including string theorists themselves.  And as an original account of one prominent example of popular science writing, the book will be of interest to scholars and advanced students in Science Writing programs, as well as science journalists.