String duality is a class of symmetries in physics that link different string theories, theories which assume that the fundamental building blocks of the universe are strings instead of point particles.
Before the so-called "duality revolution" there were believed to be five distinct versions of string theory, plus the (unstable) bosonic and gluonic theories.
Note that in the type IIA and type IIB string theories closed strings are allowed to move everywhere throughout the ten-dimensional space-time (called the bulk), while open strings have their ends attached to D-branes, which are membranes of lower dimensionality (their dimension is odd - 1,3,5,7 or 9 - in type IIA and even - 0,2,4,6 or 8 - in type IIB, including the time direction).
Before the 1990s, string theorists believed there were five distinct superstring theories: type I, types IIA and IIB, and the two heterotic string theories (SO(32) and E8×E8). The thinking was that out of these five candidate theories, only one was the actual theory of everything, and that theory was the theory whose low energy limit, with ten dimensions spacetime compactified down to four, matched the physics observed in our world today. It is now known that the five superstring theories are not fundamental, but are instead different limits of a more fundamental theory, dubbed M-theory. These theories are related by transformations called dualities. If two theories are related by a duality transformation, each observable of the first theory can be mapped in some way to the second theory to yield equivalent predictions. The two theories are then said to be dual to one another under that transformation. Put differently, the two theories are two mathematically different descriptions of the same phenomena. A simple example of a duality is the equivalence of particle physics upon replacing matter with antimatter; describing our universe in terms of anti-particles would yield identical predictions for any possible experiment.
String dualities often link quantities that appear to be separate: Large and small distance scales, strong and weak coupling strengths. These quantities have always marked very distinct limits of behavior of a physical system, in both classical field theory and quantum particle physics. But strings can obscure the difference between large and small, strong and weak, and this is how these five very different theories end up being related.
This type of duality is called T-duality. T-duality relates type IIA superstring theory to type IIB superstring theory. That means if we take type IIA and Type IIB theory and compactify them both on a circle (one with a large radius and the other with a small radius) then switching the momentum and winding modes, and switching the distance scale, changes one theory into the other. The same is also true for the two heterotic theories. T-duality also relates type I superstring theory to both type IIA and type IIB superstring theories with certain boundary conditions (termed orientifold).
Formally, the location of the string on the circle is described by two fields living on it, one which is left-moving and another which is right-moving. The movement of the string center (and hence its momentum) is related to the sum of the fields, while the string stretch (and hence its winding number) is related to their difference. T-duality can be formally described by taking the left-moving field to minus itself, so that the sum and the difference are interchanged, leading to switching of momentum and winding.
Every force has a coupling constant, which is a measure of its strength, and determines the chances of one particle to emit or absorb another particle. For electromagnetism, the coupling constant is proportional to the square of the electric charge. When physicists study the quantum behavior of electromagnetism, they can't solve the whole theory exactly, because every particle may emit and absorb many other particles, which may also do the same, endlessly. So events of emission and absorption are considered as perturbations and are dealt with by a series of approximations, first assuming there is only one such event, then correcting the result for allowing two such events, etc. (this method is called Perturbation theory). This is a reasonable approximation only if the coupling constant is small, which is the case for electromagnetism. But if the coupling constant gets large, that method of calculation breaks down, and the little pieces become worthless as an approximation to the real physics.
This also can happen in string theory. String theories have a coupling constant. But unlike in particle theories, the string coupling constant is not just a number, but depends on one of the oscillation modes of the string, called the dilaton. Exchanging the dilaton field with minus itself exchanges a very large coupling constant with a very small one. This symmetry is called S-duality. If two string theories are related by S-duality, then one theory with a strong coupling constant is the same as the other theory with weak coupling constant. The theory with strong coupling cannot be understood by means of perturbation theory, but the theory with weak coupling can. So if the two theories are related by S-duality, then we just need to understand the weak theory, and that is equivalent to understanding the strong theory.
Furthermore, type IIA theory in strong coupling behaves like an 11-dimensional theory, with the dilaton field playing the role of an eleventh dimension. This 11-dimensional theory is known as M-theory.
Unlike the T-duality, however, S-duality has not been proven to even a physics level of rigor for any of the aforementioned cases. It remains, strictly speaking, a conjecture, although most string theorists believe in its validity.