including gravity without much more of a structural guidance than the folklore
of the path integral, however useful that had otherwise proven to be.
While everyone involved readily admitted that nobody knew the full answer to
What is string theory?
perhaps it was gradually forgotten that nobody even knew the full answer to
What is quantum field theory?
While a huge discussion ensued on the “landscape” moduli space of backgrounds
for string theory, it was perhaps forgotten that nobody even had anything close to
a full answer to
What is a string theory background?
or even to what should be a simpler question:
What is a classical string theory background?
which in turn is essentially the question:
What is a full 2-dimensional σ-model conformal field theory?
Most of the literature on 2-dimensional conformal field theory (2d CFT) describes
just what is called chiral conformal field theory, formalized in terms of vertex oper-
ator algebras or local conformal nets. But this only captures the holomorphic and
low-genus aspect of conformal field theory and is just one half of the data required
for a full CFT, the remaining piece being the full solution of the sewing constraints
that makes the theory well defined for all genera.
With these questions fundamental as they are for perturbative string theory
seemingly too hard to answer, a plethora of related model and toy model quantum
field theoretic systems found attention instead. A range of topological (quantum)
field theories (T(Q)FTs) either approximates the physically relevant CFTs as in
the topological A-model and B-model, or encodes these holographically in their
boundary theory as for Chern-Simons theory and its toy model, the Dijkgraaf-
Witten theory.
In this way a wealth of worldvolume QFTs appears that in some way or an-
other is thought to encode information about string theory. Furthermore, in each
case what really matters is the full worldvolume QFT: the rule that assigns corre-
lators to all possible worldvolume cobordisms, because this is what is needed even
to write down the corresponding second quantized perturbation series. However,
despite this urgent necessity for understanding QFT on arbitrary cobordisms, the
tools to study or even formulate this precisely were for a long time largely unavail-
able. Nevertheless, proposals for how to make these questions accessible to the
development of suitable mathematical machinery already existed.
Early on it was suggested, based on topological examples, that the path integral
and the state-propagation operators that it is supposed to yield are nothing but
a representation of a category of cobordisms [At88]. It was further noticed that
this prescription is not restricted to TQFTs, and in fact CFTs were proposed to
be axiomatized as representations of categories of conformal cobordisms [Se04]. In
parallel to this development, another school developed a dual picture, now known
as local or algebraic quantum field theory (AQFT) [Ha92], where it is not the
state-propagation the Schr¨ odinger picture of QFT that is axiomatized and
made accessible to high-powered machinery, but rather the assignment of algebras
of observables the Heisenberg picture of QFT.
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