The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theoryby Brian Greene
In an effort to reconcile the naggingly incompatible worlds of quantum mechanics and general relativity, Brian Greene explores and explains superstring theory, which holds the promise of applying to all matter in all conditions.
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Excerpt from Chapter 1: Tied Up with String
Calling it a cover-up would be far too dramatic. But for more than half a century -- even in the midst of some of the greatest scientific achievements in history -- physicists have been quietly aware of a dark cloud looming on a distant horizon. The problem is this: There are two foundational pillars upon which modern physics rests. One is Albert Einstein's general relativity, which provides a theoretical framework for understanding the universe on the largest of scales: stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and beyond to the immense expanse of the universe itself. The other is quantum mechanics, which provides a theoretical framework for understanding the universe on the smallest of scales: molecules, atoms, and all the way down to subatomic particles like electrons and quarks. Through years of research, physicists have experimentally confirmed to almost unimaginable accuracy virtually all predictions made by each of these theories. But these same theoretical tools inexorably lead to another disturbing conclusion: As they are currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right. The two theories underlying the tremendous progress of physics during the last hundred years -- progress that has explained the expansion of the heavens and the fundamental structure of matter -- are mutually incompatible.
If you have not heard previously about this ferocious antagonism you may be wondering why. The answer is not hard to come by. In all but the most extreme situations, physicists study things that are either small and light (like atoms and their constituents) or things that are huge and heavy (like stars and galaxies), but not both. This means that they need use only quantum mechanics or only general relativity and can, with a furtive glance, shrug off the barking admonition of the other. For fifty years this approach has not been quite as blissful as ignorance, but it has been pretty close.
But the universe can be extreme. In the central depths of a black hole an enormous mass is crushed to a minuscule size. At the moment of the big bang the whole of the universe erupted from a microscopic nugget whose size makes a grain of sand look colossal. These are realms that are tiny and yet incredibly massive, therefore requiring that both quantum mechanics and general relativity simultaneously be brought to bear. For reasons that will become increasingly clear as we proceed, the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics, when combined, begin to shake, rattle, and gush with steam like a red-lined automobile. Put less figuratively, well-posed physical questions elicit nonsensical answers from the unhappy amalgam of these two theories. Even if you are willing to keep the deep interior of a black hole and the beginning of the universe shrouded in mystery, you can't help feeling that the hostility between quantum mechanics and general relativity cries out for a deeper level of understanding. Can it really be that the universe at its most fundamental level is divided, requiring one set of laws when things are large and a different, incompatible set when things are small?
Superstring theory, a young upstart compared with the venerable edifices of quantum mechanics and general relativity, answers with a resounding no. Intense research over the past decade by physicists and mathematicians around the world has revealed that this new approach to describing matter at its most fundamental level resolves the tension between general relativity and quantum mechanics. In fact, superstring theory shows more: Within this new framework, general relativity and quantum mechanics require one another for the theory to make sense. According to superstring theory, the marriage of the laws of the large and the small is not only happy but inevitable.
That's part of the good news. But superstring theory -- string theory, for short -- takes this union one giant step further. For three decades, Einstein sought a unified theory of physics, one that would interweave all of nature's forces and material constituents within a single theoretical tapestry. He failed. Now, at the dawn of the new millennium, proponents of string theory claim that the threads of this elusive unified tapestry finally have been revealed. String theory has the potential to show that all of the wondrous happenings in the universe -- from the frantic dance of subatomic quarks to the stately waltz of orbiting binary stars, from the primordial fireball of the big bang to the majestic swirl of heavenly galaxies -- are reflections of one grand physical principle, one master equation.
Because these features of string theory require that we drastically change our understanding of space, time, and matter, they will take some time to get used to, to sink in at a comfortable level. But as shall become clear, when seen in its proper context, string theory emerges as a dramatic yet natural outgrowth of the revolutionary discoveries of physics during the past hundred years. In fact, we shall see that the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics is actually not the first, but the third in a sequence of pivotal conflicts encountered during the past century, each of whose resolution has resulted in a stunning revision of our understanding of the universe.
The Three Conflicts
The first conflict, recognized as far back as the late 1800s, concerns puzzling properties of the motion of light. Briefly put, according to Isaac Newton's laws of motion, if you run fast enough you can catch up with a departing beam of light, whereas according to James Clerk Maxwell's laws of electromagnetism, you can't. As we will discuss in Chapter 2, Einstein resolved this conflict through his theory of special relativity, and in so doing completely overturned our understanding of space and time. According to special relativity, no longer can space and time be thought of as universal concepts set in stone, experienced identically by everyone. Rather, space and time emerged from Einstein's reworking as malleable constructs whose form and appearance depend on one's state of motion. The development of special relativity immediately set the stage for the second conflict. One conclusion of Einstein's work is that no object -- in fact, no influence or disturbance of any sort -- can travel faster than the speed of light. But, as we shall discuss in Chapter 3, Newton's experimentally successful and intuitively pleasing universal theory of gravitation involves influences that are transmitted over vast distances of space instantaneously. It was Einstein, again, who stepped in and resolved the conflict by offering a new conception of gravity with his 1915 general theory of relativity. Just as special relativity overturned previous conceptions of space and time, so too did general relativity. Not only are space and time influenced by one's state of motion, but they can warp and curve in response to the presence of matter or energy. Such distortions to the fabric of space and time, as we shall see, transmit the force of gravity from one place to another. Space and time, therefore, can no longer be thought of as an inert backdrop on which the events of the universe play themselves out; rather, through special and then general relativity, they are intimate players in the events themselves.
Once again the pattern repeated itself: The discovery of general relativity, while resolving one conflict, led to another. Over the course of the three decades beginning in 1900, physicists developed quantum mechanics (discussed in Chapter 4) in response to a number of glaring problems that arose when nineteenth-century conceptions of physics were applied to the microscopic world. And as mentioned above, the third and deepest conflict arises from the incompatibility between quantum mechanics and general relativity. As we will see in Chapter 5, the gently curving geometrical form of space emerging from general relativity is at loggerheads with the frantic, roiling, microscopic behavior of the universe implied by quantum mechanics. As it was not until the mid-1980s that string theory offered a resolution, this conflict is rightly called the central problem of modern physics. Moreover, building on special and general relativity, string theory requires its own severe revamping of our conceptions of space and time. For example, most of us take for granted that our universe has three spatial dimensions. But this is not so according to string theory, which claims that our universe has many more dimensions than meet the eye -- dimensions that are tightly curled into the folded fabric of the cosmos. So central are these remarkable insights into the nature of space and time that we shall use them as a guiding theme in all that follows. String theory, in a real sense, is the story of space and time since Einstein.
Excerpt reprinted from The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian R. Greene. Copyright © 1999 Brian R. Greene. All rights reserved.
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