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String theory at 30

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2014

As a young graduate student, Brian Greene caught the very beginning of the superstring revolution in physics. 30 years later, Greene provides an accessible overview of string theory’s current status.

While spectacularly successful at predicting the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles, the quantum laws looked askance at Einstein’s formulation of gravity. This set the stage for more than a half-century of despair as physicists valiantly struggled, but repeatedly failed, to meld general relativity and quantum mechanics, the laws of the large and small, into a single all-encompassing description.

Such was the case until December 1984, when John Schwarz, of the California Institute of Technology, and Michael Green, then at Queen Mary College, published a once-in-a-generation paper showing that string theory could overcome the mathematical antagonism between general relativity and quantum mechanics, clearing a path that seemed destined to reach the unified theory.

The idea underlying string unification is as simple as it is seductive. Since the early 20th century, nature’s fundamental constituents have been modeled as indivisible particles-the most familiar being electrons, quarks and neutrinos-that can be pictured as infinitesimal dots devoid of internal machinery. String theory challenges this by proposing that at the heart of every particle is a tiny, vibrating string-like filament. And, according to the theory, the differences between one particle and another — their masses, electric charges and, more esoterically, their spin and nuclear properties — all arise from differences in how their internal strings vibrate.