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The Three Conflicts

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  • The Three Conflicts

    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 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 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 to 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.

    To appreciate what string theory actually is, we need to take a step back and briefly describe what we have learned during the last century about the microscopic structure of the universe.
    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
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