No announcement yet.

Three Consequences of Stiff Strings

  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

  • Three Consequences of Stiff Strings

    THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Brian Greene, 1999, 2003
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 6 - Nothing but Music: The Essentials of Superstring Theory
    Three Consequences of Stiff Strings
    First, whereas the ends of a violin or a piano string are pinned down, ensuring that they have a fixed length, no analogous constraining frame pins down the size of a fundamental string. Instead, the huge string tension causes the loops of string theory to contract to a minuscule size. Detailed calculation reveals that being under Planck tension translates into a typical string having Planck length—10^-33 centimeters—as previously mentioned. 8

    Second, because of the enormous tension, the typical energy of a vibrating loop in string theory is extremely high. To understand this, we note that the greater the tension a string is under, the harder it is to get it to vibrate. For instance, it's far easier to pluck a violin string and set it vibrating than it is to pluck a piano string. Two strings, therefore, that are under different tension and are vibrating in precisely the same way will not have the same energy. The string with higher tension will have more energy than the string with lower tension, since more energy must be exerted to set it in motion.

    This alerts us to the fact that the energy of a vibrating string is determined by two things: the precise manner in which it vibrates (more frantic patterns corresponding to higher energies) and the tension of the string (higher tension corresponding to higher energy). At first, this description might lead you to think that by taking on ever gentler vibrational patterns—patterns with ever smaller amplitudes and fewer peaks and troughs—a string can embody less and less energy. But as we found in Chapter 4 in a different context, quantum mechanics tells us that this reasoning is not right. Like all vibrations or wavelike disturbances, quantum mechanics implies that they can exist only in discrete units. Roughly speaking, just as the money carried by a comrade in the warehouse is a whole number multiple of the monetary denomination with which he or she is entrusted, the energy embodied in a string vibrational pattern is a whole number multiple of a minimal energy denomination. In particular, this minimal energy denomination is proportional to the tension of the string (and it is also proportional to the number of peaks and troughs in the particular vibrational pattern), while the whole number multiple is determined by the amplitude of the vibrational pattern.

    The key point for the present discussion is this: Since the minimal energy denominations are proportional to the string's tension, and since this tension is enormous, the fundamental minimal energies are, on the usual scales of elementary particle physics, similarly huge. They are multiples of what is known as the Planck energy. To get a sense of scale, if we translate the Planck energy into a mass using Einstein's famous conversion formula E = mc^2, they correspond to masses that are on the order of ten billion billion (10^19) times that of a proton. This gargantuan mass—by elementary particle standards—is known as the Planck mass; it's about equal to the mass of a grain of dust or a collection of a million average bacteria. And so, the typical mass-equivalent of a vibrating loop in string theory is generally some whole number (1, 2, 3, . . .) times the Planck mass. Physicists often express this by saying that the "natural" or "typical" energy scale (and hence mass scale) of string theory is the Planck scale.

    This raises a crucial question directly related to the goal of reproducing the particle properties in Tables 1.1 and 1.2: If the "natural" energy scale of string theory is some ten billion billion times that of a proton, how can it possibly account for the far-lighter particles—electrons, quarks, photons, and so on—making up the world around us?

    The answer, once again, comes from quantum mechanics. The uncertainty principle ensures that nothing is ever perfectly at rest. All objects undergo quantum jitter, for if they didn't we would know where they were and how fast they were moving with complete precision, in violation of Heisenberg's dictum. This holds true for the loops in string theory as well; no matter how placid a string appears it will always experience some amount of quantum vibration. The remarkable thing, as originally worked out in the 1970s, is that there can be energy cancellations between these quantum jitters and the more intuitive kind of string vibrations discussed above and illustrated in Figures 6.2 and 6.3. In effect, through the weirdness of quantum mechanics, the energy associated with the quantum jitters of a string is negative, and this reduces the overall energy content of a vibrating string by an amount that is roughly equal to Planck energy. This means that the lowest-energy vibrational string patterns, whose energies we would naively expect to be about equal to the Planck energy (i.e., 1 times the Planck energy), are largely canceled, thereby yielding relatively low net-energy vibrations—energies whose corresponding mass-equivalents are in the neighborhood of the matter and force particle masses shown in Tables 1.1 and 1.2. It is these lowest energy vibrational patterns, therefore, that should provide contact between the theoretical description of strings and the experimentally accessible world of particle physics. As an important example, Scherk and Schwarz found that for the vibrational pattern whose properties make it a candidate for the graviton messenger particle, the energy cancellations are perfect, resulting in a zero-mass gravitational-force particle. This is precisely what is expected for the graviton; the gravitational force is transmitted at light speed and only massless particles travel at this maximal velocity. But low-energy vibrational combinations are very much the exception rather than the rule. The more typical vibrating fundamental string corresponds to a particle whose mass is billions upon billions times greater than that of the proton.

    This tells us that the comparatively light fundamental particles of Tables 1.1 and 1.2 should arise, in a sense, from the fine mist above the roaring ocean of energetic strings. Even a particle as heavy as the top quark, with a mass about 189 times that of the proton, can arise from a vibrating string only if the string's enormous characteristic Planck-scale energy is canceled by the jitters of quantum uncertainty to better than one part in a hundred million billion. It's as if you were playing The Price Is Right and Bob Barker gives you ten billion billion dollars and challenges you to purchase products that will cost—cancel, so to speak—all but 189 of the dollars, not a dollar more or less. Coming up with such an enormous yet precise expenditure, without being privy to the exact prices of the individual items, would severely tax the acumen of even the world's most expert shoppers. In string theory, where the currency is energy as opposed to money, approximate calculations have conclusively shown that analogous energy cancellations certainly can occur, but for reasons that will become increasingly clear in subsequent chapters, verifying the cancellations to such a high level of precision is generally beyond our theoretical ken at present. Even so, as indicated before, we shall see that many other properties of string theory that are less sensitive to these finest of details can be extracted and understood with confidence.

    This takes us to the third consequence of the enormous value of the string tension. Strings can execute an infinite number of different vibrational patterns. For instance, in Figure 6.2 we showed the beginnings of a never-ending sequence of possibilities characterized by an ever greater number of peaks and troughs. Doesn't this mean that there would have to be a corresponding never-ending sequence of elementary particles, seemingly in conflict with the experimental situation summarized in Tables 1.1 and 1.2?

    The answer is yes: If string theory is right, each of the infinitely many resonant patterns of string vibration should correspond to an elementary particle. An essential point, however, is that the high string tension ensures that all but a few of these vibrational patterns will correspond to extremely heavy particles (the few being the lowest-energy vibrations that have near-perfect cancellations with quantum string jitters). And again, the term "heavy" here means many times heavier than the Planck mass. As our most powerful particle accelerators can reach energies only on the order of a thousand times the proton mass, less than a millionth of a billionth of the Planck energy, we are very far from being able to search in the laboratory for any of these new particles predicted by string theory.

    There are more indirect approaches by which we could search for them, though. For instance, the energies involved at the birth of the universe would have been high enough to produce these particles copiously. In general one would not expect them to survive to the present day, as such super-heavy particles are usually unstable, relinquishing their enormous mass by decaying into a cascade of ever lighter particles, ending with the familiar, relatively light particles in the world around us. However, it is possible that such a super-heavy vibrational string state—a relic from the big bang—did survive to the present. Finding such particles, as we discuss more fully in Chapter 9, would be a monumental discovery, to say the least.
    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe