String Theory, Part One

The following blather is the first part in a continuing series of essays addressing the inherent pragmatism of modern physics. Let's call this a "Primer" on String Theory.

So, string theory is in trouble.

For those readers who haven't watched the excellent NOVA special "The Elegant Universe" in the form of streaming Quicktime movies on the PBS website, and hence do not know what is meant by the phrase "string theory:" more power to you. You are exactly in the same place as me on this plane of understanding, and I've spent the last week and a half pushing my glasses up the bridge of my nose, poring over endless layman's explanations of the stuff.

There is a little I've managed to infer. I know that the most exciting and relevant thing about string theory is its attempt to consolidate the two existing major theories of modern physics: General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. As they stand, GR and QM contradict one another significantly, making it practically impossible for physicists to explore crucial problems -- the birth of the Universe, for example -- without negating one of these two conceptual pillars. String theory, like Supersymmetry before it, ostensibly brings the two together. Scientists, therefore, consider it a building block for a potential "Theory of Everything," making it a big deal in essentially every conception of the phrase.


String theory supposes, radically, that the Universe is not made up of infinitesimally small particles as we've pretty much always believed, but rather of equally small (in fact, smaller!) pulsating, coiling, psychedelic little strings. In order to make this assumption mathematically, we must imagine a Universe with significantly more dimensions than our three-dimensional minds can conceive of. In this case, the word "dimension" refers to mathematical dimension: as, in a certain sense, time is considered a "fourth" dimension of the known world. We can't see the seven extra dimensions that string theory postulates, because they are outside of the realm of scientific and human understanding. However, we guess that they're everywhere -- even right here, right now. Insane extrapolations of string theory have professors rationally, calmly, informing the lay public that there do, in fact, exist unknown and infinite amounts of parallel universes within grasp of our own, perhaps mere inches away from our noses, that we will never be able to touch.

Obviously the idea of string theory being "in trouble," conceptually, is completely incomprehensible. How can its supposedly solid foundations be shaken, right? It seems to me that the foundations of string theory are already firmly planted in a puddle of dreamcatchers and "Sliders" re-runs. I mean, to most of humanity -- the people, I think, primarily concerned with an ultimate understanding of the universe (UUU) -- a world made of tiny strings is as much a stretch of the imagination as is a world made up of tiny atoms, or of a world created by a divine being, for that matter. I'd take it further: I think that for most people, it is harder to believe in 11 dimensions than it is to believe in God. At least God is like, a dude.

On some level, string theory is completely pragmatic in the sense that it is a truth seemingly embraced entirely for its function -- as a peacemaker for the frustrating rift between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and as an easy (albeit, theoretically, so complex that I imagine only a few luminary people fully understand it) way out of an embarrassing theoretical problem.

NEXT ENTRY: Why is String Theory in trouble? Who is defending it? Are the proponents of Intelligent Design gnashing at the gates now? Isn't it cool to live in a Multiverse?


More like this

That NOVA special had the best special effects ever.

I like how one can almost reverse-engineer the genesis of certain ideas in physics through sheer ignorance. As in, "how can one particle move another from across space? Perhaps they are stringed together?" Yes! Or I guess maybe no. But.

To hear Neils Bohr tell it, that's kind of the way some of those guys work. He said he wasn't much of a math guy, just aware enough of the basic parameters, and brutally creative.

a stretch yes (since it's not technically a "theory")! but at least we can see the atoms!

mathematically? maybe. though it's all based on approximations right?

By open organ (not verified) on 19 Jan 2006 #permalink

i knew nothing of string theory before this, and now i am literally on the edge of my seat, waiting.

By getting educated (not verified) on 23 Jan 2006 #permalink

This is an exciting blog. I am so happy to be introduced to the LA Alternative.
Claire and other Universers, check out this event:

It's a meeting at USC of business types interested in the privitization of space. Here are some bullet points:

"Forum Benefits
* Network with the pioneers of the emerging private space industry.
* Learn about opportunities to start businesses and find careers in private space enterprise
* See how USC will play a vital role in this dynamic industry by providing the education needed to create the next generation of space entrepreneurs
* Learn how private space ventures are reinvigorating the space industry in Southern California."

What the...?

The following terms are so weird to me:
1. "the emerging private space industry."
2. "private space enterprise"
3. "space entrepreneurs"
4. "private space ventures"
5. "reinvigorating the space industry"

When you look at it like that, the term "space" becomes so absurd and vague. It becomes a cartoon.

"where are you going?"
"will you pick me up something?"
"sure. What do you need?"

i want to know more about it.

By Prassanna (not verified) on 13 Jun 2007 #permalink