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The Elegant Universe

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Part 2 - the String's the Thing

PBS/NOVA October, 2003

[Gabriele Veneziano] (CERN): We accidentally discovered string theory.

[Narrator]: ...the humble beginnings of a revolutionary idea.

[Leonard Susskind] (Stanford University): I was completely convinced it was going to say "Susskind is the next Einstein."

[Joseph Lykken] (Fermilab): This seemed crazy to people.

[Leonard Susskind]: I was depressed, I was unhappy. The result was I went home and got drunk.

[Narrator]: Obsession drives scientists to pursue the "Holy Grail" of physic. But are they ready for what they discover? Step into the bizarre world of ^ The Elegant Universe right now.

[Brian Greene]: It's a little known secret. But for more than half-a-century, a dark cloud has been looming over modern Science. Here's the problem: our understanding of the Universe is based on 2 separate theories. One is Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. That's a way of understanding the biggest things in the Universe -- things like stars and galaxies. But the littlest things in the Universe -- atoms and subatomic particles -- play by an entirely different set of rules called Quantum Mechanics.

These 2 sets of rules are each incredibly accurate in their own domain. But whenever we try to combine them to solve some of the deepest mysteries in the Universe, disaster strikes.

Take the beginning of the Universe -- the "Big Bang". At that instant, a tiny nugget erupted violently. Over the next 14 billion years, the Universe expanded and cooled into the stars, galaxies, and planets that we see today. But if we run the cosmic film in reverse, everything that's now rushing apart comes back together. So the Universe gets smaller, hotter, and denser as we head back to the beginning of time.

As we reach the Big Bang when the Universe was both enormously heavy and incredibly tiny, our projector jams. Our 2 laws of physics -- when combined -- break down. [StealthSkater note: the Inflationary part of the Big Bang may be replaced by the Ekpyrotic model. Instead of everything evolving from an infinitely-dense infinitely-small singularity, the Universe may have evolved from collision between 2 5-D parallel branes in the Multiverse. This model gives the same results but without the need for hard-to-imagine infinite point singularities, magnetic monopoles, and gravitational waves. Interestingly, it was superstring and M-brane theory which gave rise to the Ekpytoric model => doc pdf URL . Matti Pitkanen's TGD physics allows for the existence of monopoles in a different mathematical framework => doc pdf URL ]

But what if we could unite Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity and see the cosmic film in its entirety?

Well, a new set of ideas called "string theory" may be able to do that. And if it's right, it would be one of the biggest blockbusters in the history of Science. Someday, string theory may be able to explain all of Nature from the tiniest bits of matter to the farthest reaches of the cosmos using just one single ingredient: tiny vibrating strands of energy called "strings".

But why do we have to rewrite the laws of physics to accomplish this? Why does it matter if the 2 laws that we have are incompatible? Well, you can think of it like this. Imagine you lived in a city ruled not by one set of traffic laws but by 2 separate sets of laws that conflicted with each other. As you can see, it would be pretty confusing.

To understand this place, you'd need to find a way to put those 2 conflicting sets of laws together into one all-encompassing set that makes sense.

[Michael Duff] (University of Michigan): We work on the assumption that there is a theory out there. And it's our job -- if we're sufficiently smart and sufficiently industrious -- to figure out what it is. [StealthSkater note: I would emphasize the word "assumption".]

[Steven Weinberg] (University of Texas at Austin): We don't have a guarantee -- it isn't written in the stars that we're going to succeed -- but in the end, we hope we will have a single theory that governs everything.

[Brian Greene]: But before we can find that theory, we need to take a fantastic journey to see why the 2 sets of laws we have conflict with each other. And the first stop on this strange trip is the realm of very large objects.

To describe the Universe on large scales, we use one set of laws -- Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. That's a theory of how gravity works. General Relativity pictures space as sort of like a trampoline -- a smooth fabric that heavy objects like stars and planets can warp and stretch.

Now according to the theory, these warps and curves create what we feel as gravity. That is, the gravitational pull that keeps the Earth in orbit around the Sun is really nothing more than our planet following the curves and contours that the Sun creates in the spatial fabric.

But the smooth, gently curving image of space predicted by the laws of General Relativity is not the whole story. To understand the Universe on extremely small scales, we have to use our other set of laws -- Quantum Mechanics. And as we'll see, Quantum Mechanics paints a picture of space so drastically different from General Relativity that you'd think they were describing 2 completely separate universes.

To see the conflict between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics we need to shrink way, way, way down in size. And as we leave the world of large objects behind and approach the microscopic realm, the familiar picture of space in which everything behaves predictably begins to be replaced by a world with a structure that is far less certain.

And if we keep shrinking, getting billions-and-billions of times smaller than even the tiniest bits of matter -- atoms and the tiny particles inside of them-- the laws of the very small (Quantum Mechanics) say that the fabric of space becomes bumpy and chaotic. Eventually we reach a world so turbulent that it defies common sense.

Down here, space and time are so twisted and distorted that the conventional ideas of left-and-right, up-and-down, even before-and-after break down. There's no way to tell for certain that I'm here or there or both places at once. Or maybe I arrived here before I arrived there.

In the quantum world, you just can't pin everything down. It's an inherently wild and frenetic place. [StealthSkater note: or else there is a more fundamental theory than QM that will allow one to "pin down" the quantum world.]

[Walter H.G. Lewin] (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): The laws in the quantum world are very different from the laws that we are used to. And is that surprising? Why should the world of the very small (at an atomic level) … why should that world obey the same kind of rules and laws that we are used to in our world with apples and oranges and walking around on the street? Why would that world behave the same way?

[Brian Greene]: The fluctuating jittery picture of space and time predicted by Quantum Mechanics is in direct conflict with the smooth, orderly, geometric model of space and time described by General Relativity. But we think that everything -- from the frantic dance of subatomic particles to the majestic swirl of galaxies -- should be explained by just one grand physical principle, one Master equation.

If we can find that equation, how the Universe really works at every time and place will at last be revealed. You see, what we need is a theory that can cope with the very tiny and the very massive -- one that embraces both Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity and never breaks down -- ever.

For physicists, finding a theory that unites General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics is the "Holy Grail" because that framework would give us a single mathematical theory that describes all the forces that rule our Universe. General Relativity describes the most familiar of those forces: gravity. But Quantum Mechanics describes 3 other forces: the strong nuclear force that's responsible for gluing protons and neutrons together inside of atoms; electromagnetism which produces light, electricity and magnetic attraction; and the weak nuclear force that's the force responsible for radioactive decay.

Albert Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life searching for a way to describe the forces of Nature in a single theory. And now string theory may fulfill his dream of unification.

For centuries, scientists have pictured the fundamental ingredients of Nature --atoms and the smaller particles inside of them -- as tiny balls or points. But string theory proclaims that at the heart of every bit of matter is a tiny, vibrating strand of energy called a "string". And a new breed of scientist believes these miniscule strings are the key to uniting the world of the Large and the world of the small in a single theory.

[Joseph Lykken]: The idea that a scientific theory that we already have in our hands could answer the most basic questions is extremely seductive.

[S. James Gates, Jr.]: For about 2,000 years, all of our physics essentially has been based on... essentially we were talking about billiard balls. The very idea of the string is such a paradigm shift because instead of billiard balls, you have to use little strands of spaghetti.

[Brian Greene]: But not everyone is enamored of this new theory. So far, no experiment has been devised that can prove that these tiny strings exist.

[Sheldon Lee Glashow] (Boston University): And let me put it bluntly. There are 'physicists' and there are 'string theorists'. It is a new discipline. A new … You may call it a tumor, you can call it what you will. But they have focused on questions which experiment cannot address. They will deny that, these string theorists. But it's a kind of physics which is not yet testable. It does not make predictions that have anything to do with experiments that can be done in the laboratory or with observations that could be made in space or from telescopes. And I was brought up to believe -- and I still believe -- that physics is an experimental science. It deals with the results to experiments or -- in the case of astronomy -- observations.

[Brian Greene]: From the start, many scientists thought string theory was simply too far out. And frankly, the strange way the theory evolved -- in a series of twists, turns and accidents -- only made it seem more unlikely.

In the late 1960s, a young Italian physicist named ^ Gabriele Veneziano was searching for a set of equations that would explain the strong nuclear force -- the extremely powerful "glue" that holds the nucleus of every atom together binding protons to neutrons. As the story goes, he happened on a dusty book on the history of mathematics. And in it he found a 200-year old equation -- first written down by a Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler. Veneziano was amazed to discover that Euler's equations -- long thought to be nothing more than a mathematical curiosity -- seemed to describe the strong force.

He quickly published a paper and was famous ever after for this "accidental" discovery.

[Gabriele Veneziano] (CERN): I see occasionally written in books that this model was invented by chance or was found in the math book. And this makes me feel pretty bad. What is true is that the function was the outcome of a long year of work. We accidentally discovered string theory.

[Brian Greene]: However it was discovered, Euler's equation -- which miraculously explained the strong force -- took on a life of its own. ^ This was the birth of string theory. Passed from colleague to colleague, Euler's equation ended up on the chalkboard in front of a young American physicist Leonard Susskind.

[Leonard Susskind]: To this day I remember the formula. The formula was... and I looked at it and I said, "This is so simple that even I can figure out what this is!"

[Brian Greene]: Susskind retreated to his attic to investigate. He understood that this ancient formula described the strong force mathematically. But beneath the abstract symbols, he had caught a glimpse of something new.

[Leonard Susskind]: And I fiddled with it. I monkeyed with it. I sat in my attic, I think for 2 months on and off. But the first thing I could see in it, it was describing some kind of particles which had internal structure which could vibrate, which could do things, which wasn't just a point particle. And I began to realize that what was being described here was a string -- an elastic string like a rubber band or like a rubber band cut in half. And this rubber band could not only stretch and contract but also wiggle. And marvel of marvels, it exactly agreed with this formula!

I was pretty sure at that time that I was the only one in the World who knew this.

[Brian Greene]: Susskind wrote up his discovery introducing the revolutionary idea of strings. But before his paper could be published, it had to be reviewed by a panel of experts.

[Leonard Susskind]: I was completely convinced that when it came back it was going to say "Susskind is the next Einstein" or maybe even "the next Newton." And it came back saying, "This paper's not very good, probably shouldn't be published."

I was truly knocked off my chair. I was depressed, I was unhappy. I was saddened by it. It made me a nervous wreck. And the result was I went home and got drunk.

[Brian Greene]: As Susskind drowned his sorrows over the rejection of his far-out idea, it appeared string theory was dead.

Meanwhile, mainstream science was embracing particles as points, not strings. For decades, physicists had been exploring the behavior of microscopic particles by smashing them together at high speeds and studying those collisions. In the showers of particles produced, they were discovering that Nature is far richer than they thought.

[Sheldon Lee Glashow]: Once a month, there'd be a discovery of a new particle: the Rho meson, the Omega particle, the B particle, the B1 particle, the B2 particle, Phi, Omega... more letters were used than exist in most alphabets. It was a population explosion of particles.

[Steven Weinberg]: It was a time when graduate students would run through the halls of a physics building saying they discovered another particle and it fit the theories. And it was all so exciting.

[Brian Greene]: And in this zoo of new particles, scientists weren't just discovering building blocks of matter. Leaving string theory in the dust, physicists made a startling and strange prediction: that the forces of Nature can also be explained by particles.

Now this is a really weird idea. But it's kind of like a game of catch in which the players like me and me are particles of matter. And the ball we're throwing back-and-forth is a particle of force. It's called a messenger particle.

For example, in the case of magnetism, the electromagnetic force -- this ball -- would be a photon. The more of these messenger particles or photons that are exchanged between us, the stronger the magnetic attraction. And scientists predicted that it's this exchange of messenger particles that creates what we feel as "force". Experiments confirmed these predictions with the discovery of the messenger particles for electromagnetism -- the strong force and the weak force.

And using these newly-discovered particles, scientists were closing in on Einstein's dream of unifying the forces. Particle physicists reasoned that if we rewind the cosmic film to the moments just after the Big Bang (some 14 billion years ago when the Universe was trillions of degrees hotter), the messenger particles for electromagnetism and the weak force would have been indistinguishable. Just as cubes of ice melt into water in the hot Sun, experiments show that as we rewind to the extremely hot conditions of the Big Bang, the weak and electromagnetic forces meld together and unite into a single force called "the electroweak". [StealthSkater note: as I noted above, the new Ekpyrotic model produces the same end results of the Inflationary part of the Big Bang but without the need for such extreme conditions and things like magnetic monopoles which have never been observed.]

And physicists believe that if you roll the cosmic film back even further, the electroweak would unite with the strong force in one grand "super-force". Although that has yet to be proven, Quantum Mechanics was able to explain how 3 of the forces operate on the subatomic level. [StealthSkater note: the Brookhaven HRIC collider is supposed to collide gold atoms to produce a quark-gluon plasma that represents the extreme conditions of the Big Bang as explained by the Inflationary model => ]

[Sheldon Lee Glashow]: And all of a sudden, we had a consistent theory of elementary particle physics which allows us to describe all of the interactions -- weak, strong, and electromagnetic -- in the same language. It all made sense, and it's all in the textbooks.

[Steven Weinberg]: Everything was converging toward a simple picture of the known particles and forces -- a picture which eventually became known as the "Standard Model of particle physics". I think I gave it that name.

[Brian Greene]: The inventors of the Standard Model -- both the name and the theory -- were the toasts of the scientific community, receiving Nobel Prize after Nobel Prize. But behind the fanfare was a glaring omission. Although the Standard Model explained 3 of the forces that rule the world of the very small, it did not include the most familiar force -- gravity.

Overshadowed by the Standard Model, string theory became a backwater of physics.

[Gabriele Veneziano]: Most people in our community lost -- completely -- interest in string theory. They said, "Okay, that was a very nice elegant thing. But it had nothing to do with Nature."

[S. James Gates, Jr.]: It's not taken seriously by much of the community. But the early pioneers of string theory are convinced that they can smell reality and continue to pursue the idea.

[Brian Greene]: But the more these diehards delved into string theory, the more problems they found.

[Joseph Lykken]: Early string theory had a number of problems. One was that it predicted a particle which we know is unphysical. It's what's called a "tachyon " -- a particle that travels faster than light. [StealthSkater note: at least impossible in our Universe. But who knows what can exist in other dimensions or universes within the postulated "Multiverse" (in which the Ekpyrotic model is used).]

[John H. Schwarz] (California Institute of Technology): There was this discovery that the theory requires 10 dimensions, which is very disturbing of course since it's obvious that that's more than there are.

[Cumrun Vafa] (Harvard University): It had this mass-less particle which was not seen in experiments.

[Michael B. Green]: So these theories didn't seem to make sense.

[Joseph Lykken]: This seemed crazy to people.

[Cumrun Vafa]: Basically, string theory was not getting off the ground.

[Joseph Lykken]: People threw up their hands and said, "This can't be right."

[Brian Greene]: By 1973, only a few young physicists were still wrestling with the obscure equations of string theory. One was John Schwarz who was busy tackling string theory's numerous problems, among them a mysterious mass-less particle predicted by the theory but never seen in Nature, and an assortment of anomalies or mathematical inconsistencies.

[John H. Schwarz]: We spent a long time trying to fiddle with the theory. We tried all sorts of ways of making the dimension be 4 and getting rid of these mass-less particles and the tachyons and so on. But it was always ugly and unconvincing.

[Brian Greene]: For 4 years, Schwarz tried to tame the unruly equations of string theory, changing, adjusting, combining and recombining them in different ways. But nothing worked. On the verge of abandoning string theory, Schwarz had a brainstorm. Perhaps his equations were describing gravity. But that meant reconsidering the size of these tiny strands of energy.

[John H. Schwarz]: We weren't thinking about gravity up until that point. But as soon as we suggested that maybe we should be dealing with a theory of gravity, we had to radically change our view of how big these strings were.

[Brian Greene]: By supposing that strings were a hundred billion billion times smaller than an atom, one of the theory's vices became a virtue.

The mysterious particle that John Schwarz had been trying to get rid of now appeared to be a graviton -- the long sought after particle believed to transmit gravity at the quantum level.

String theory had produced the piece of the puzzle missing from the Standard Model. Schwarz submitted for publication his groundbreaking new theory describing how gravity works in the subatomic world.

[John H. Schwarz]: It seemed very obvious to us that it was right. But there was really no reaction in the community whatsoever.

[Brian Greene]: Once again, string theory fell on deaf ears. But Schwarz would not be deterred. He had glimpsed the "Holy Grail". If strings described gravity at the quantum level, they must be the key to unifying the 4 forces. He was joined in this quest by one of the only other scientists willing to risk his career on strings -- Michael Green.

[Michael B. Green] (University of Cambridge): In a sense, I think, we had a quiet confidence that the string theory was obviously correct. And it didn't matter much if people didn't see it at that point. They would see it down the line.

[Brian Greene]: But for Green's confidence to pay off, he and Schwarz would have to confront the fact that in the early 1980s, string theory still had fatal flaws in the math known as "anomalies". An anomaly is just what it sounds like. It's something that's strange or out of place -- something that doesn't belong.

Now this kind of anomaly is just weird. But mathematical anomalies can spell doom for a theory of physics. They're a little complicated, so here's a simple example. Let's say we have a theory in which these 2 equations describe one physical property of our Universe. Now if I solve this equation over here and find X=1, and if I solve this equation over there and find X=2, I know my theory has anomalies because there should only be one value for X. Unless I can revise my equations to get the same value for X on both sides, the theory is dead.

In the early 1980s, string theory was riddled with mathematical anomalies kind of like these, although the equations were much more complex. The future of the theory depended on ridding the equations of these fatal inconsistencies.

After Schwarz and Green battled the anomalies in string theory for 5 years, their work culminated late one night in the summer of 1984.

[John H. Schwarz]: It was widely believed that these theories must be inconsistent because of anomalies. Well for no really good reason, I just felt that had to be wrong because I felt, "String theory has got to be right; therefore there can't be anomalies." So we decided, "We've got to calculate these things."

[Brian Greene]: Amazingly, it all boiled down to a single calculation. On one side of the blackboard they got ^ 496. And if they got the matching number on the other side ,it would prove string theory was free of anomalies.

[Michael B. Green]: I do remember a particular moment when John Schwarz and I were talking at the blackboard and working out these numbers which had to fit. And they just had to match exactly. I remember joking with John Schwarz at that moment because there was thunder and lightning -- there was a big mountain storm in Aspen at that moment -- and I remember saying something like, "We must be getting pretty close because the gods are trying to prevent us completing this calculation." And, indeed, they did match!

[Brian Greene]: The matching numbers meant the theory was free of anomalies. And it had the mathematical depth to encompass all 4 forces.

[John H. Schwarz]: So we recognized not only that the strings could describe gravity but they could also describe the other forces. So we spoke in terms of unification. And we saw this as a possibility of realizing the dream that Einstein had expressed in his later years -- of unifying the different forces in some deeper framework.

[Michael B. Green]: We felt great. That was an extraordinary moment because we realized that no other theory had ever succeeded in doing that.

[John H. Schwarz]: But by now, it's like "crying wolf". Each time we had done something, I figured everyone's going to be excited. And they weren't. So I figured... by now I didn't expect much of a reaction.

[Brian Greene]: But this time the reaction was explosive! In less than a year, the number of string theorists leapt from just a handful to hundreds.

[Michael B. Green]: Up to that moment, the longest talk I'd ever given on the subject was 5 minutes at some minor conference. And then suddenly I was invited all over the World to give talks and lectures and so forth.

[Brian Greene]: String theory was christened the "Theory of Everything". [StealthSkater note: somewhat of a misnomer because while it attempts to unify General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, it doesn't address the metaphysics of consciousness, paranormal events, etc.]

In early fall of 1984, I came here to Oxford University to begin my graduate studies in physics. Some weeks after, I saw a poster for a lecture by Michael Green. I didn't know who he was. But then again, I really didn't know who anybody was. But the title of the lecture was something like "The Theory of Everything." So how could I resist?

This elegant new version of string theory seemed capable of describing all the building blocks of Nature.

Here's how. Inside every grain of sand are billions of tiny atoms. Every atom is made of smaller bits of matter, electrons orbiting a nucleus made of protons and neutrons, which are made of even smaller bits of matter called quarks. But string theory says this is not the end of the line. It makes the astounding claim that the particles making up everything in the Universe are made of even smaller ingredients -- tiny wiggling strands of energy that look like strings. Each of these strings is unimaginably small. In fact, if an atom were enlarged to the size of the Solar System, a string would only be as large as a tree!

What's in an apple (or anything else for that matter)? Well, if you go down far enough in scale, string theorists say, you'll find tiny, vibrating loops of string.

Everything you see and experience -- all the 100-or-so types of atoms that make up your body and everything in the Universe and all of the forces that keep the atoms together and allow them to interact to form molecules, life, stars, and galaxies -- all of this is made up of the fundamental particles listed in the Table below. These particles fall into 2 main categories: matter particles (fermions) and force particles (bosons). There are 3 families of fermions. "Family 1" accounts for practically all of the everyday matter that we encounter in everyday life.










Bosons (forces)




















strong force








Weak Gauge Bosons




weak force

weak force

weak force




Higgs boson

weak force








Fermions (matter)

Leptons (Family 1)


atomic structure








Electronic Neutrino

radioactive decay







electron sneutrino

Quarks (Family 1)


atomic nuclei






up squark


atomic nuclei







down squark

Leptons (Family 2)








muon slepton

Muon Neutrino







muon sneutrino

Quarks (Family 2)







charm squark








strange squark

Leptons (Family 3)








tau slepton

Tau Neutrino







tau sneutrino

Quarks (Family 3)







top squark








bottom squark

The graviton is the theorized force carrier of gravity. Gravity is by far the weakest of the 4 forces -- much weaker than even the weak nuclear force. The reason gravity can seem like a substantial force is that it can only attract. On the other hand, electromagnetism is a repulsive force as well as a attractive one. Its positive and negative charges tend to cancel out each other which neutralizes the overall force. The graviton has not yet been observed or otherwise proven to exist. However, the rate at which the spin of neutron stars slows down is consistent with the calculations that include the radiation of gravitons.

The photon is the carrier of electromagnetic radiation (including radio waves, light, X-rays, and gamma rays). Photons and their associated electromagnetic field also keep atoms together from the attraction among negatively-charged electrons and positively-charged atomic nuclei. The electromagnetic force is also responsible for the interaction between atoms and molecules. Without this force, your finger would pass through your computer mouse (not to mention, the atoms and molecules that make up your body would no longer be bound together).

The gluon -- which is the carrier of the strong nuclear force -- works at tiny distances (10-13 cm or less). The strong force works like glue, tightly binding quarks together in groups of 3s to form protons and neutrons and in different combinations to form other particles. The strong force also holds together the protons and neutrons that comprise an atomic nucleus. Without the strong force, the protons would move away from each other due to the repulsion caused by their like electrical charges.

W+, W-, and Z+ are the weak gauge bosons, carriers of the weak nuclear force. The weak force triggers radioactive decay by causing a down quark within a neutron to change to an up quark. This change transforms the neutron into a proton, releasing an electron in the process. The weak force can also transform a proton into a neutron.

Higgs boson (the "God particle"): particle physicists expected the weak gauge bosons to be mass-less particles. Instead, these bosons have been shown by experiment to have substantial mass. The Higgs boson was postulated to explain this mass. According to the hypothesis, the Higgs field slows down the weak gauge bosons which would otherwise travel at the speed-of-light. This slowing down gives the boson an effective mass. At high enough temperatures, the effects of the Higgs field disappear, allowing the weak gauge bosons to become mass-less and travel at the speed-of-light.

The electron is a negatively-charged particle that surrounds the nucleus of an atom. It is attracted to the positively-charged protons within the atom's nucleus, keeping them bound to the nucleus. The way in which electrons assemble in the shells around an atom help to determine the chemical characteristics of that atom. The electron's negative charge also keeps atoms from passing through one another. The repulsion caused by the like charges keeps the atoms apart.

The electron neutrino is able to travel great distances through matter without interacting with it. About 600 trillion neutrinos from the Sun alone pass through your body every second. Neutrinos shoot through the Earth virtually unimpeded. So the number moving through you is the same even if it is nighttime and the Sun is on the other side the Earth. The reason is that they are mass-less (or nearly mass-less) and that they interact with matter only through gravity and the weak nuclear force.

The muon -- like the electron -- is a charged particle. But unlike the electron, it is more massive and unstable. 67% of all muons decay into an electron, a muon neutrino, and an electron anti-neutriono within about 2 microseconds after they come into existence. The muon was the next elementary particle discovered after the electron, the proton, and the neutron.

The muon neutriono was discovered in 1961 and shown to be a different particle than the electron neutrino. Electron neutrinos are associated with a type of radioactive decay that produces an electron along with a neutrino. The type of radioactive decay that produces muon neutrinos also produces muons, which are elementary particles that are like electrons but more massive.

The Tau lepton is identical to the electron except that it is 3,500 times heavier and unstable. It exists for less than a trillionth of a second before it decays into other particles.

Tau neutrino: only recently discovered by an international collaboration of physicists, it is the most massive of the 3 types of neutrinos. Its existence was confirmed when a particle that could only have been a tau neutrino hit the nucleus of an atom and became a tau lepton.

The up quark is the least massive of the 6 quarks. It combines with the down quark to make up the matter that we experience in daily life. Although individual quarks have never been observed, there is indirect evidence that convinces particle physicists that they do indeed exist.

Down quarks and up quarks make up the protons and neutrons that form atomic nuclei. They are therefore responsible for the vast bulk of all matter that we see and experience. 2 down quarks and 1 up quark comprise a neutron (-⅓ + -⅓ + ⅔ = 0). 1 down quark and 2 up quarks comprise a proton (-⅓ + ⅔ + ⅔ = 1).

The charm quark -- which is similar to the up quark but more massive -- was the 4th quark found following the discoveries of the up, down, and strange quarks.

The strange quark was given its name because of its "strange" behavior. When it was first discovered, it lived much longer than had been predicted. Like other quarks, evidence of the strange quark's existence was indirect. It was found within a larger particle that contained it along with an up quark and a down quark.

The top quark was the 6th and final quark to be detected. The mass of a single top quark is equivalent to that of the nucleus of an atom of gold which contains 197 protons and neutrons. (These 197 protons and neutrons are made up of 591 up and down quarks!)

The bottom quark was the 5th quark detected. Its discovery led physicists to predict that there would be a 6th quark (the top quark) which was discovered later in 1995.

[Brian Greene]: And here's the key idea. Just as different vibrational patterns or frequencies of a single cello string create what we hear as different musical notes, the different ways that strings vibrate give particles their unique properties such as mass and charge. For example, the only difference between the particles making up you and me and the particles that transmit gravity and the other forces is the way these tiny strings vibrate.

Composed of an enormous number of these oscillating strings, the Universe can be thought of as a grand cosmic symphony. And this elegant idea resolves the conflict between our jittery unpredictable picture of space on the subatomic scale and our smooth picture of space on the large scale.

It's the jitteriness of Quantum Theory versus the gentleness of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity that makes it so hard to bridge the two, to stitch them together. Now what string theory does is that it comes along and basically calms the jitters of Quantum Mechanics. It spreads them out by virtue of taking the old idea of a point particle and spreading it out into a string. So the jittery behavior is there, but it's just sufficiently less violent that Quantum Theory and General Relativity stitch together perfectly within this framework.

It's a triumph of mathematics. With nothing but these tiny vibrating strands of energy, string theorists claim to be fulfilling Einstein's dream of uniting all forces and all matter.

But this radical new theory contains a chink in its armor.

[Sheldon Lee Glashow]: No experiment can ever check up what's going on at the distances that are being studied. No observation can relate to these tiny distances or high energies. That is to say that there ain't no experiment that could be done, nor is there any observation that could be made that would say, "You guys are wrong." The theory is safe. Permanently safe. Is that a theory of physics or a philosophy? I ask you.

[Michael B. Green]: People often criticize string theory for saying that it's very far removed from any direct experimental test and it's... surely not reallya branch of physics,for that reason. And my response to that is simply that they're going to be proved wrong.

[Brian Green]: Making string theory even harder to prove is that in order to work, the complex equations require something that sounds like it's straight out of science-fiction: extra dimensions of space.

[Amanda Peet]: We've always thought for centuries that there was only what we can see. You know, this dimension, that one, and another one. There was only 3 dimensions of space and one of time. And people who've said that there were extra dimensions of space have been labeled as, you know, "crackpots" or people ""who were bananas. Well, string theory really predicts it.

[Brian Green]: To be taken seriously, string theorists had to explain how this bizarre prediction could be true. And they claim that the far out idea of extra dimensions may be more down-to-earth than you'd think.

Let me show you what I mean. I'm off to see a guy who was one of the first people to think about this strange idea. I'm supposed to meet him at 4 o'clock at his apartment at Fifth Avenue and 93rd Street on the 2nd floor. Now in order to get to this meeting, I need 4 pieces of information: one for each of the 3 dimensions of space (a street, an avenue, and a floor number) and one more for time (the fourth dimension). You can think about these as the 4 dimensions of common experience: left-right, back-forth, up-down, and time.

As it turns out, the strange idea that there are additional dimensions stretches back almost a century. Our sense that we live in a universe of 3 spatial dimensions really seems beyond question. But in 1919, ^ Theodor Kaluza -- a virtually unknown German mathematician -- had the courage to challenge the obvious. He suggested that maybe, just maybe our Universe has one more dimension that for some reason we just can't see.

: Look! He says here, "I like your idea." So why does he delay?

[Brian Greene]: You see, Kaluza had sent his idea about an additional spatial dimension to Albert Einstein. And although Einstein was initially enthusiastic, he then seemed to waver and for 2 years held up publication of Kaluza's paper. Eventually, Kaluza's paper was published … after Einstein decided extra dimensions were his cup of tea.

Here's the idea. In 1916, Einstein showed that gravity is nothing but warps and ripples in the 4 familiar dimensions of space and time. Just 3 years later, Kaluza proposed that electromagnetism might also be ripples. But for that to be true, Kaluza needed a place for those ripples to occur. So Kaluza proposed an additional hidden dimension of space.

But if Kaluza was right, where is this extra dimension? And what would extra dimensions look like? Can we even begin to imagine them? Well, building upon Kaluza's work, the Swedish physicist ^ Oskar Klein suggested an unusual answer.

Take a look at the cables supporting that traffic light. From this far away, I can't see that they have any thickness. Each one looks like a line -- something with only a single dimension.

But suppose we could explore one of these cables way up close like from the point of view of an ant. Now a second dimension which wraps around the cable becomes visible. From its point-of-view, the ant can move forwards and backwards and also clockwise and counterclockwise.

So dimensions can come in 2 varieties. They can be long and unfurled like the length of the cable. But they can also be tiny and curled up like the circular direction that wraps around it.

The circles represent an additional spatial dimension that is curled up within every point of our familiar 3-dimensional space.

Kaluza and Klein made the wild suggestion that the fabric of our Universe might be kind of like the surface of the cable, having both big extended dimensions (the three that we know about) but also tiny, curled-up dimensions, curled up so tiny -- billions of times smaller than even a single atom -- that we just can't see them. And so our perception that we live in a Universe with 3 spatial dimensions may not be correct after all. We really may live in a Universe with more dimensions than meet the eye.

So what would these extra dimensions look like? Kaluza and Klein proposed that if we could shrink down billions of times, we'd find one extra tiny, curled-up dimension located at every point in space. And just the way an ant can explore the circular dimension that wraps around a traffic light cable, in theory an ant that is billions of times smaller could also explore this tiny, curled-up, circular dimension.

This idea that extra dimensions exist all around us lies at the heart of string theory. In fact, the mathematics of string theory demand not one but 6 extra dimensions, twisted and curled into complex little shapes that might look something like this.

Six-dimensional Calabi-Yau shapes can account for the additional dimensions required by superstring theory.

[Michael Duff]: If string theory is right, we would have to admit that there are really more dimensions out there. And I find that completely mind-blowing.

[Edward Witten] (Institute for Advanced Study): If I take the theory as we have it now literally, I would conclude that the extra dimensions really exist. They're part of Nature.

[Joseph Lykken]: When we talk about extra dimensions, we literally mean extra dimensions of space that are the same as the dimensions of space that we see around us. And the only difference between them has to do with their shape.

[Brian Greene]: But how could these tiny extra dimensions -- curled up into such peculiar shapes -- have any effect on our everyday world? Well, according to string theory, shape is everything.

Because of its shape, a French horn can produce dozens of different notes. When you press one of the keys, you change the note because you change the shape of the space inside the horn where the air resonates. And we think the curled up spatial dimensions in string theory work in a similar way.

If we could shrink down small enough to fly into one of these tiny 6-dimensional shapes predicted by string theory, we would see how the extra dimensions are twisted and curled back on each other influencing how strings -- the fundamental ingredients of our Universe -- move and vibrate. And this could be the key to solving one of Nature's most profound mysteries.

You see, our Universe is kind of like a finely tuned machine. Scientists have found that there are about 20 numbers -- 20 fundamental constants of Nature -- that give the Universe the characteristics we see today. These are numbers like how much an electron weighs, the strength of gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the strong and weak forces. Now as long as we set the dials on our universe machine to precisely the right values for each of these 20 numbers, the machine produces the Universe we know and love.

But if we change the numbers by adjusting the settings on this machine even a little bit, the consequences are dramatic.

For example, if I increase the strength of the electromagnetic force, atoms repel one other more strongly so the nuclear furnaces that make stars shine break down. The stars -- including our Sun -- fizzle out and the Universe as we know it disappears.

So what exactly in Nature sets the values of these 20 constants so precisely? Well, the answer could be the extra dimensions in string theory. That is, the tiny, curled up, 6-dimensional shapes predicted by the theory cause one string to vibrate in precisely the right way to produce what we see as a photon and another string to vibrate in a different way producing an electron. So according to string theory, these miniscule extra-dimensional shapes really may determine all the constants of Nature, keeping the cosmic symphony of strings in tune.

By the mid 1980s, string theory looked unstoppable. But behind the scenes the theory was in tangles. Over the years, string theorists had been so successful that they had constructed not one but 5 different versions of the theory. Each was built on strings and extra dimensions. But in detail, the 5 theories were not in harmony. In some versions, strings were open-ended strands. In others, they were closed loops. At first glance, a couple of versions even required 26 dimensions. All 5 versions appeared equally valid. Bt which one was describing our Universe?

This was kind of an embarrassment for string theorists because on the one hand, we wanted to say that this might be it -- the final description of the Universe. But then in the next breath we had to say, "And it comes in 5 flavors -- 5 variations." Now there's one Universe. You'd expect there to be one theory and not five. So this is an example where more is definitely less.

[Michael B. Green]: One attitude that people who didn't like string theory could take was, "Well, you have 5 theories, so it's not unique."

[John H. Schwarz]: This was a peculiar state of affairs because we were looking just to describe one theory of Nature and not five.

[Joseph Lykken]: If there's 5 of them, well maybe there's smart enough people would find 20 of them. Or maybe there's an infinite number of them and you're back to just searching around at random for theories of the World.

[Cumrun Vafa]: Maybe one of these 5 string theories is describing our Universe. On the other hand, which one? And why? What are the other ones good for?

[Edward Witten]: Having 5 string theories -- even though it's big progress -- raises the obvious question: if one of those theories describes our Universe, then who lives in the other 4 worlds?

[Brian Greene]: String theory seemed to be losing steam once again. And frustrated by a lack of progress, many physicists abandoned the field.

[Narrator]: Will string theory prove to be a "Theory of Everything"? Or will it unravel into a "Theory of Nothing?"

^ The companion website to this NOVA transcript:

note: because important web-sites are frequently "here today but gone tomorrow", the following was archived from on Jan 27, 2006. This is NOT an attempt to divert readers from the aforementioned website. Indeed, the reader should only read this back-up copy if the updated original cannot be found at the original author's site.


The Elegant Universe

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