The theory of 11-dimensional supergravity contains a higher gauge field – the supergravity C-field – that naturally couples to higher electrically charged 2-branes (membranes). By a process called double dimensional reduction, these are related to superstrings (Bergshoeff-Sezgin-Townsend 87).
When in (Witten95) it was argued that the 10-dimensional target space theories of the five types of superstring theories are all limiting cases of one single 11-dimensional target space theory that extends 11-dimensional supergravity (M-theory), it was natural to guess that this supergravity membrane accordingly yields a 3-dimensional sigma-model that reduces in limiting cases to the string sigma-models.
But there were two aspects that make this idea a little subtle, even at this vague level: first, there is no good theory of the quantization of the membrane sigma-model, as opposed to the well understood quantum string. Secondly, Secondly, that hypothetical “theory extending 11-dimensional supergravity” (“M-theory”) has remained elusive enough that it is not clear in which sense the membrane would relate to it in a way analogous to how the string relates to its target space theories (which is fairly well understood).
Later, with the BFSS matrix model some people gained more confidence in the idea, by identifying the corresponding degrees of freedom in a special case (Nicolai-Helling 98).
In a more modern perspective, the M2-brane worldvolume theory appears under AdS4-CFT3 duality as a holographic dual of a 4-dimensional Chern-Simons theory. Indeed, its Green-Schwarz action functional is entirely controled by the super-Lie algebra 4-cocycle of super Minkowski spacetime given by the brane scan. This exhibits the M2-brane worldvolume theory as a 3-dimensional higher WZW model?.
In some situations stacks of M2-branes are accurately described by ABJM theory of the BLG model.
Under AdS-CFT duality the M2-brane is given by AdS4-CFT3 duality. (Maldacena 97, section 3.2, Klebanov-Torri 10).
Table of branes appearing in supergravity/string theory (for classification see at brane scan).
Early speculations trying to model the electron by a relativistic membrane are due to Paul Dirac:
Paul Dirac, An Extensible Model of the Electron, Proc. Roy. Soc. A268, (1962) 57-67.
Paul Dirac, Motion of an Extended Particle in the Gravita- tional Field, in Relativistic Theories of Gravitation, Proceedings of a Conference held in Warsaw and Jablonna, July 1962, ed. L. Infeld, P. W. N. Publishers, 1964, Warsaw, 163-171; discussion 171-175
Paul Dirac, Particles of Finite Size in the Gravitational Field, Proc. Roy. Soc. A270, (1962) 354-356.
The Green-Schwarz sigma-model-type formulation of the supermembrane (as in the brane scan) first appears in
Eric Bergshoeff, Ergin Sezgin, and Paul Townsend, Supermembranes and eleven-dimensional supergravity, Phys. Lett. B189 (1987) 75–78. (pdf)
Mike Duff, K. S. Stelle, Multimembrane solutions of $D = 11$ supergravity, Phys. Lett. B 253, 113 (1991) (spire)
and its quantization was first explored in
B. de Wit, Jens Hoppe, Hermann Nicolai, On the Quantum Mechanics of Supermembranes, Nucl. Phys. B305 (1988) 545.
B. de Wit, W. Lüscher, Hermann Nicolai, The supermembrane is unstable, Nucl. Phys. B320 (1989) 135.
The interpretation of the membrane as as an object related to string theory, hence as the M2-brane was proposed in
around the time when M-theory was envisioned in
The interpretation of the M2-brane worldvolume theory as related to the matrix model of D0-branes is discussed in some detail in
Hermann Nicolai, Robert Helling, Supermembranes and M(atrix) Theory, Lectures given by H. Nicolai at the Trieste Spring School on Non-Perturbative Aspects of String Theory and Supersymmetric Gauge Theories, 23 - 31 March 1998 (arXiv:hep-th/9809103)
Arundhati Dasgupta, Hermann Nicolai, Jan Plefka, An Introduction to the Quantum Supermembrane, Grav.Cosmol.8:1,2002; Rev.Mex.Fis.49S1:1-10, 2003 (arXiv:hep-th/0201182)
Meanwhile AdS-CFT duality was recognized in
where a dual description of the worldvolume theory of M2-brane appears in seciton 3.2. More on this is in
A detailed discussion of this black brane-realization of the M2 and its relation to AdS-CFT is in
Discussion of the history includes
Other recent developments are discussed in
Paul Howe, Ergin Sezgin, The supermembrane revisited, (arXiv:hep-th/0412245)
Igor Bandos, Paul Townsend, SDiff Gauge Theory and the M2 Condensate (arXiv:0808.1583)
Jonathan Bagger, Neil Lambert, Sunil Mukhi, Constantinos Papageorgakis, Multiple Membranes in M-theory (arXiv:1203.3546)
Nathan Berkovits, Towards Covariant Quantization of the Supermembrane (arXiv:hep-th/0201151)
Formulations of multiple M2-branes on top of each other are given by the BLG model and the ABJM model. See there for more pointers. The relation of these to the above is discussed in section 3 of
Discussion of general phenomena of M-branes in higher geometry and generalized cohomology is in
Discussion from the point of view of Green-Schwarz action functional-∞-Wess-Zumino-Witten theory is in
The role of and the relation to duality in string theory of the membrane is discussed in the following articles.
Relation to T-duality:
J.G. Russo, T-duality in M-theory and supermembranes (arXiv:hep-th/9701188)
M.P. Garcia del Moral, J.M. Pena, A. Restuccia, T-duality Invariance of the Supermembrane (arXiv:1211.2434)
Relation to U-duality:
Martin Cederwall, M-branes on U-folds (arXiv:0712.4287)
M.P. Garcia del Moral, Dualities as symmetries of the Supermembrane Theory (arXiv)