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The State of String Theory

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  • The State of String Theory

    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
    THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Brian Greene, 1999, 2003
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 1 - Tied Up with String
    The State of String Theory
    The central concern of this book is to explain the workings of the universe according to string theory, with a primary emphasis on the implications that these results have for our understanding of space and time. Unlike many other exposÚs of scientific developments, the one given here does not address itself to a theory that has been completely worked out, confirmed by vigorous experimental tests, and fully accepted by the scientific community. The reason for this, as we will discuss in subsequent chapters, is that string theory is such a deep and sophisticated theoretical structure that even with the impressive progress that has been made over the last two decades, we still have far to go before we can claim to have achieved full mastery.

    And so string theory should be viewed as a work in progress whose partial completion has already revealed astonishing insights into the nature of space, time, and matter. The harmonious union of general relativity and quantum mechanics is a major success. Furthermore, unlike any previous theory, string theory has the capacity to answer primordial questions having to do with nature's most fundamental constituents and forces. Of equal importance, although somewhat harder to convey, is the remarkable elegance of both the answers and the framework for answers that string theory proposes. For instance, in string theory many aspects of nature that might appear to be arbitrary technical details—such as the number of distinct fundamental particle ingredients and their respective properties—are found to arise from essential and tangible aspects of the geometry of the universe. If string theory is right, the microscopic fabric of our universe is a richly intertwined multidimensional labyrinth within which the strings of the universe endlessly twist and vibrate, rhythmically beating out the laws of the cosmos. Far from being accidental details, the properties of nature's basic building blocks are deeply entwined with the fabric of space and time.

    In the final analysis, though, nothing is a substitute for definitive, testable predictions that can determine whether string theory has truly lifted the veil of mystery hiding the deepest truths of our universe. It may be some time before our level of comprehension has reached sufficient depth to achieve this aim, although, as we will discuss in Chapter 9, experimental tests could provide strong circumstantial support for string theory within the next ten years or so. Moreover, in Chapter 13 we will see that string theory has recently solved a central puzzle concerning black holes, associated with the so-called Bekenstein-Hawking entropy, that has stubbornly resisted resolution by more conventional means for more than twenty-five years. This success has convinced many that string theory is in the process of giving us our deepest understanding of how the universe works.

    Edward Witten, one of the pioneers and leading experts in string theory, summarizes the situation by saying that "string theory is a part of twenty-first-century physics that fell by chance into the twentieth century," an assessment first articulated by the celebrated Italian physicist Daniele Amati. 5 In a sense, then, it is as if our forebears in the late nineteenth century had been presented with a modern-day supercomputer, without the operating instructions. Through inventive trial and error, hints of the supercomputer's power would have become evident, but it would have taken vigorous and prolonged effort to gain true mastery. The hints of the computer's potential, like our glimpses of string theory's explanatory power, would have provided extremely strong motivation for obtaining complete facility. A similar motivation today energizes a generation of theoretical physicists to pursue a full and precise analytic understanding of string theory.

    Witten's remark and those of other experts in the field indicate that it could be decades or even centuries before string theory is fully developed and understood. This may well be true. In fact, the mathematics of string theory is so complicated that, to date, no one even knows the exact equations of the theory. Instead, physicists know only approximations to these equations, and even the approximate equations are so complicated that they as yet have been only partially solved. Nevertheless, an inspiring set of breakthroughs in the latter half of the 1990s—breakthroughs that have answered theoretical questions of hitherto unimaginable difficulty—may well indicate that complete quantitative understanding of string theory is much closer than initially thought. Physicists worldwide are developing powerful new techniques to transcend the numerous approximate methods so far used, collectively piecing together disparate elements of the string theory puzzle at an exhilarating rate.

    Surprisingly, these developments are providing new vantage points for reinterpreting some of the basic aspects of the theory that have been in place for some time. For instance, a natural question that may have occurred to you in looking at Figure 1.1 is, Why strings? Why not little frisbee disks? Or microscopic bloblike nuggets? Or a combination of all of these possibilities? As we shall see in Chapter 12, the most recent in-sights show that these other kinds of ingredients do have an important role in string theory, and have revealed that string theory is actually part of an even grander synthesis currently (and mysteriously) named M-theory. These latest developments will be the subject of the final chapters of this book.

    Progress in science proceeds in fits and starts. Some periods are filled with great breakthroughs; at other times researchers experience dry spells. Scientists put forward results, both theoretical and experimental. The results are debated by the community, sometimes they are discarded, sometimes they are modified, and sometimes they provide inspirational jumping-off points for new and more accurate ways of understanding the physical universe. In other words, science proceeds along a zig zag path toward what we hope will be ultimate truth, a path that began with humanity's earliest attempts to fathom the cosmos and whose end we cannot predict. Whether string theory is an incidental rest stop along this path, a landmark turning point, or in fact the final destination we do not know. But the last two decades of research by hundreds of dedicated physicists and mathematicians from numerous countries have given us well-founded hope that we are on the right and possibly final track.

    It is a telling testament of the rich and far-reaching nature of string theory that even our present level of understanding has allowed us to gain striking new insights into the workings of the universe. A central thread in what follows will be those developments that carry forward the revolution in our understanding of space and time initiated by Einstein's special and general theories of relativity. We will see that if string theory is correct, the fabric of our universe has properties that would likely have dazzled even Einstein.
    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
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