Keeping the blogosphere posted on the goings on of the world of submarines since late 2004... and mocking and belittling general foolishness wherever it may be found. Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog. (If you don't like something on this blog, please E-mail me; don't call me at home.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Theory Of Everything

Fellow Idaho blogger Clayton Cramer -- whose 1,000 hits a day (garnered by that insidious combination of "interesting commentary" and "thoughtful insights" he offers) are all that's keeping me from fulfilling my dream of being recognized as "Idaho's Most Visited Blogger" -- asks an interesting question about one of my favorite topics: string theory.

He read an article in the January 2006 Astronomy magazine that questions the validity of string theory and poses these problems:

Problem one: String theory won't work in our reality of three dimensions plus the fourth dimension of time. To make it work, its creators had to invent six or seven additional dimensions, which contradicts our own senses and the rest of science. None of these extra dimensions can be possibly be tested. They have to be taken on faith.
Problem two: String theory is untestable -- no experiment can tell if it's right or wrong.

Clayton goes on to ask: Is string theory untestable--does it have to be "taken on faith"?

Now, I'm not a physicist -- I'm just a nuclear power guy with a strong amateur interest in string theory. My basis for claiming to be able to answer this question is that I've read both of Brian Greene's popular books on string theory: "The Elegant Universe" and "The Fabric of the Cosmos". I also watched the Nova documentary on "The Elegant Universe".

String theory offers the hope of reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity, a problem that's been insoluble so far -- the math just falls apart. The way string theory does this is by 1) postulating that all particles are one dimensional "strings" in our space, vice no-dimensional points, and 2) postulating the existence of a "graviton" -- a force particle that transmits the force of gravity in the same way that a photon transmits the electromagnetic force and gluons transmit the strong force. If gravitons really exist, then gravitation can be described in terms of more familiar particle interactions, rather than the Einsteinian "warping" of space-time (which, according to string theory, isn't wrong -- it's just an excellent way of describing the effects of gravitons continually issuing out from all particles with mass and interacting with other particles -- the interaction causes the particle interacted with to be pulled slightly towards where the graviton came from).

The "problem" that the extra dimensions can't be tested is valid -- if all particles in our universe are limited to our four dimensions of space-time, by definition we can't go outside of them. (Some versions of string, or "M", theory postulate that gravitons actually don't have this limitation.) Likewise, it seems that it would be problematic to make a machine that would detect gravitons -- since the machine would have to have mass, it would be continually emitting gravitons itself, which would screw with any readings you get.

Probably the best hope for experimentally "proving" that string theory might be valid would come from detecting the postulated "sparticles" that could exist at very high energies. First, some background. Consider a closed vibrating string; it looks like a circle that morphs into an egg and back. If you raise it to the next fundamental resonance level, it becomes kind of a vibrating cloverleaf, looking something like this:

Now, what if you start vibrating it at the next resonance above that, it'll look something like this:

(A good demonstration of how this concept looks in motion can be found here; you can move the "energy" bar on the right to see what the different resonances look like.)

All the particles we know about today, according to string theory, are different vibrational patterns, in 11 dimensions (our normal four, plus seven small "curled up" dimensions of very small size) of the first fundamental resonance of strings. It's thought that the next generation of particle accelerators (after the Large Hadron Collider that's going to open next year) might be able to reach high enough energies to create particles based on the next resonance level. If it does so, and the properties of these particles are as predicted by string theory, it'd be a pretty strong sign that the string theorists are on the right track; the "standard model" of particle physics doesn't predict these at all.

I look forward to seeing what the next 50 years bring...


Blogger Vigilis said...

BH, apparently Cramer agrees with me that:
The state of modern physics is in such flux, however, between the standard model and a reliable, unified theory that physics is increasingly unfit for explaining observations in ways that compel major technological advances.

Charm, flavor and the 10-dimension minimum need work, as those theories are unresolved, right now. Perpetual motion is also relative. The tides, for instance, have been in fairly perpetual motion for some time.
comments atDr. Mills's 'Hydrinos'?

1/11/2006 1:07 AM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

My complaints against the "hydrinos" are that they violate the observed laws of physics in relying on 'fractional' quantum states; string theory doesn't do that. I'm inclined to believe in string theory more simply because of its' elegance... it just 'feels' right to me.

1/11/2006 5:33 AM

Blogger PigBoatSailor said...

Wow, I thought I was the physics geek around here =) Good round up, though.

I have to agree with you - it is odd, but the things in physics that tend to end up working out are the theories that 'felt' right in the first place, which, I think, is why string theory has proven popular. It just seems, on some non-technical level, to make sense and fit.

1/11/2006 7:24 AM

Blogger rachaelmh18 said...

you should permalink to specific posts. that's the time stamp at the bottom of each entry. your link to cramer sends me only to his main page

1/16/2006 6:22 AM

Blogger M. Simon said...

The most interesting part of string theory for me is that Maxwells equations are inherent in the theory.

i.e. Once you get above 4 dimensions Maxwell's equations fall out naturally.

Other than the fact that Maxwell's equations work they have never been the result of any previous theory. You had to take them on faith (and experiment).

1/16/2006 5:18 PM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

m&m: The "asks an interesting question" link (the 3rd one in the post) is the one that links to Clayton's post on string theory...

1/19/2006 8:40 PM

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