Friday, February 15, 2008

String Theory


I read an interesting review in Third Way magazine, of a book 'The Trouble with Physics: the rise of string theory, the fall of a science, and what comes next', by Lee Smolin. Apparently Smolin argues that physics has to some extent 'lost its way' over the past 30 years, having been caught up in its desire to find a 'grand theory of everything' (i.e. to make it all fit together, whether on a cosmic or subatomic scale) and potentially sidetracked by its focus on string theory, which remains an entirely theoretical construct of how the universe 'works'.
Now, I can fit what I understand about string theory on the back of the proverbial postage stamp (and not one of those big Christmas special ones, either); and yet I find myself strangely compelled by it. It's all those lovely BBC documentaries I've absorbed over the years, most lately with odd camera angles, jump cuts and trippy music. What I've gathered is this, in case there's anyone reading this who feels even less informed than I: string theory is a way of squaring a circle, namely that considering matter and energy as fixed points in the universe does not explain many of the seeming discrepancies that have been noted in the world of physics over the past 100 years (note: this is very similar to 'world of leather', but with less slippy surfaces). It is a way of reconciling the 'standard model', that of particles, with 'quantum mechanics', which is about cats. I think.
String theory imagines (not a very 'physics' word, this: explains why I like it) that all 'stuff' exists as impossibly tiny curled-up oscillating strings. For the theory to work it does not require the usual 4 dimensions (FOUR??! I hear you cry. Yes, 4 - 3D + time), but 10 (don't ask. That's the great thing about string theory: you can just stop trying pretty quickly). Because the strings are oscillating so rapidly they seemingly exist in different universes, parallel to one another - a great literary device, if ever there was one. It even has a whiff of time travel, breaking the understood rules of relativity. If you think this all sounds a bit Alice in Wonderland ("There's no use trying," said Alice; "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."), then you're not the only one.
Of course, as with so many highly specialist and clever-clogs fields of work the media have fed us all a bit of a fib. There's no such thing as the string theory. What there is is several different theories that all play with a similar concept. And we don't seem to be any closer to discovering some 'grand theory' than we were 30 years ago. It's all pretty tricky. I've always thought that we have lifespan against us with this one - by the time someone has done all the relevant background study, and pondered all the various facets of the problem long enough to get within sniffing distance of something Really Rather Clever, they're pushing up the daisies. Which is why I think the only sane approach is this one: write something silly, and don't try so hard. I think it's fab that there are people out there with both the brains and the will to keep trying to understand it all. Personally I'll leave the Really Rather Clever stuff to Him Who Knows...


String Theory

They say the world is made of strings
Vibrating happily, they sing
Of angels, stars and unknown things:
They say the world is made of string.

The universe is made of string
Elastic bands, that just go ‘ping’
They coil and flex and stretch and fling
Ecstatically lassoing.

Your husband: string. Your children: string.
Your house and car and garden: string.
All matter, live or non-living
Is all a seething mass of string.

If stuff is string, then what’s the string?
What makes this constant wriggling?
This elementary particling
Cannot quite explain everything.

If only we could see this string!
Or feel its gentle quivering!
I fear without our monitoring
This twine will start unravelling.

And if they think this solves the riddle
Of why this world’s in such a muddle
The scientists have not a hope:
It’s all just money for old rope.

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