String Theory- The Theory of Everything?
String Theory is essentially is a theory that all particles in the universe are composed of ultra tiny vibrating strands of "energy" called strings. These are both closed like rubber bands and open like vibrating curly hairs. This theory promises to bring all of the phenomina of the universe into one unified theory which is not the current state, but which was the dream of Albert Einstein to his dying day.
String theory has come in and out of fashion in the scientific community for decades. It is almost as old as I am and the source of a great number of Science Fiction ideas that have become quite familiar to the general public even if their source remains a mystery. The concept of parallel universes is just one of those stemming from the idea that there are more dimensions than meet the eye which has often made string theory unpalatable to main stream physicists.
Many physicists feel that it is more a philosophical study than a branch of science because its complex mathematical concepts can not be tested in the laboratory. So if string theory is so controversial and is so difficult to prove or disprove, the question is why wasn’t it thrown out decades ago?
What is Behind String Theory?
If we go back to the days before Newton many of the phenomena observable in our daily lives were mysteries considered beyond man’s ken and were just accepted. Newton and his contemporaries changed all that and started studying and applying mathematical concepts to forces such as gravity, and even when the actual forces could not be comprehended they could be explained, and they could be predicted and used to advance our understanding of the world around us. We gained understanding of the movements of the planets and other heavenly bodies and to this day space exploration is based on nothing more than the principles that began with Newton.
In the 1800s Faraday and Maxwell discovered and codified electromagnetic energy which brought understanding to electricity and magnetism which had previously been considered to be dis-related forces making possible things we take for granted today such as the electric motor. This was a truly significant break through not just for the advance of our understanding of the forces in our environment but for the influence it would have on future thinkers such as Einstein.
The next great advance was made when Einstein unified mass and energy with his famous E=mc^2. Prior to this mass and energy were considered to be two completely dis-related concepts and this idea made possible atomic energy and the atomic bomb. Now while it is debatable whether the atomic bomb was an advance, it did show the tremendous energy that was produced by converting a few pounds of mass into energy. Along with he theory of gravity and its relation to the “fabric of space and time”, Einstein advanced and unified the forces and energies of Physics for a short time.
Unfortunately, In studying the atom, it was found that the world of the atom and sub-atomic particles was governed by a completely different set of rules, bringing us quantum and particle physics. The forces and mathematics of this tiny world seemed to be completely different to the forces and rules of the observable world. In this world we had “the strong force” which kept the positively charged particles in the nucleus of the atom from repelling each other. “The weak force” was another force which was responsible for radioactive decay of the nucleus. These forces along with electromagnetic force were significantly stronger than gravity. In fact gravity was so much weaker that there seemed to be no comparison and the forces of the “small” and the “large’ appeared to have no relation what so ever and so required two completely sets of rules when studying them.
And So Enters String Theory
In the late 1960’s Gabriele Veneziano inadvertently formed the foundations of string theory when he noticed that a formula published by Euler known as the beta function seemed to relate to the strong force of the nucleus of the atom. He did not know at the time that it would lead to a new unifying theory of physics but like all men of Science he had found a “string” of data and had to keep on pulling on it to see where it would lead.
A young physicist, Lenard Susskind, was one of at least 3 theoretical physicists who independently extrapolated Vineziano’s into a theory based on the concepts that became string theory. Hundreds of theoretical physicists built upon this concept over the next decades and out of all of this developed a family of theories called string theory which looked promising as a unifier of the large and the small.
The mathematics of string theory are long and complicated and I do not fully grasp all of it, so if you are looking to learn the mathematics of string theory you won’t get it here. I am only presenting the basic concepts for the non technical reader. So with this in mind I will proceed.
According to Physics as it is taught in high school we have atoms which are composed of protons, electrons and neutrons. The nucleus of the atom is composed of protons and neutrons and the electrons frantically buzz around in erratic patterns but generally can be found 90% of the time in areas called orbitals.
If the text is a bit more advanced it might get into the particles that make up the protons and neutrons called quarks, and leptons. The electron is a lepton and the last time I checked there were supposed to be 6 quarks and 6 leptons, but that could have changed.
This theory explains pretty much everything that happens on a sub atomic level as long as we ignore gravity, which is easy due to the small masses involved. If we had a heavy tiny particle such as that thought to be at the core of a black hole then our theory would be decimated.
Scientists have been trying to unify the realm of gravity with the world of the strong force, the weak force and electro-magnetic forces for decades in order to find a theory that will work in and explain both the large and small domains.
String theory is one of but not the only possible solution being worked on that might possibly explain and unite these two areas. The idea that tiny vibrating strings instead of particles make up everything does have a unique appeal to Sci-Fi buffs especially because it comes with the possibility of parallel universes. The way in which the strings vibrate affect the properties they have.
Up until the 1990s there had been 5 or 6 string theories each based on whether the strings were closed, open, both and the way they vibrated. This made it hard to take the theories seriously because even if string theory was right, which theory was the right theory.
This problem was resolved in 1995 when Edward Witten announced M theory which united all of the string theories in a somewhat organized fashion. So now all was unified and we only had to contend with 11 dimensions. In addition this expanded theory introduced branes, short for membranes, which had been used in various theories earlier but had not been given such a prominent role. The word brane is prefixed by a number which would give the number of dimensions the brane . A 0-brane would be a point and a 1-brane would be a string and a 2-brane would be what we would think of as a membrane. These branes operate accross many dimensions and I won't get into all of that here but I will supply links for those who want the information. I will mention that one of the reasons gravity is supposedly so small compared to the other forces is because it is thought to be spread accross the dimensions and possibly parallel universes.
That the vibrations of tiny strings affect the properties of matter and that changing their vibrations changes these properties does change the concept of harmony in the world. These string vibrations have been compared to a symphony and that is a pleasant thought, but if they were dissonant what effect would that have if any?
String theory deals with such tiny unobservable phenomena that it would be very difficult to prove it in a laboratory or even in the “real world” and because of this situation it is often spoken of as more of a philosophical theory than a scientific one. This does not mean that someone wont come up with an experiment supporting the theory but up until now it has not happened. As with all theories it may not be true at all, but with most theories that are not valid they can be dis-proven by experiment. String theory seems to be “un-provable” one way or another.
Now lets look at this. If string theory is un-provable in the laboratory and has been labeled a philosophical theory, could it be proved by less scientific means? Realize that this is nothing but conjecture bordering on Science Fiction, but lets say for just a moment that man was able to influence vibrations with his mind or his spirit. Might this not account fo magic and mysticism? Suppose that Merlin had existed and that he had mastered the ability to influence the vibrations of stings. Suppose that only man himself could prove the the theory by leaning to control stings either by himself or with the aid of machinery.
Imagine being able to change the weather or the color of things by just adjusting the “string vibrations”. Or even more off the wall -- adjust the vibrations and visit a parallel world as in the old TV show “Sliders”. Of course I can’t even say with any certainty that there is any validity to string theory, and even if there were this stretch might seem to be a bit fa fetched, but I have known people who definitely have a positive effect on the things around them. Things are going bad and they enter the room and suddenly things go better.
I have also known people who seem to have a dark cloud in tow and nothing but disaster surrounds them. Visualization and affirmations seem to be based on the idea that a person can affect the world around them. Positive thinking or its opposite may have an effect on the string vibrations in the environment.
Perhaps in the future telekinesis and such might have “scientific” explanations and you could buy your next training in “string control” from a late night infomercial from a self help guru. I certainly don’t know with any certainty that anything like this will ever happen, but do you know for certain that it won’t?
Ron runs the Math Doctor Tutoring Service in Glendale CA
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