Our standard model of physics is triumphant in the laboratory, but it cannot explain why particles and forces are as they are. An invincible string armada set forth in 1984 to meet this grand challenge. In its halcyon days, a naive and infectious optimism prevailed: Ameory of Everything seemed imminent. “There appear to be no insuperable obstacles to derive all known laws of physics,” one admiral in this armada was heard to boast. Sadly, after five years adrift, the superstring is still caught up at the Planck mass, far from any land of doable experiment or testable theory. As profound mathematical obstacles are overcome, even more formidable ones appear at the horizon and show how remote string theory is from accessible physical phenomena.

Most of the crews have aban doned their ships, having found the original goal to be a mirage. Survivors cling to mathematical lifeboats, cleverly navigating the shifting...

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