The Elegant Universe

Brian Greene, USA

Physicist & Author of The Elegant Universe.

(Submitted by Helena Boulos, Greece)

When scientists talk about theories of physics being elegant, what is often meant is that a theory is able to explain a wide range of phenomena, using a very small number of powerful ideas. The elegance comes from the tremendous reach of these few simple ideas.
 
This is the core characteristic of string theory, the idea being that the basic constituents of nature are vibrating strings, whose vibrational patterns dictate the properties of particles, and that they in turn dictate the kinds of forces at work in the world. If the theory is correct, this one simple notion will perhaps be able to explain, in principle, all physical phenomena. That powerful reach is where the elegance resides.
 
One of the strangest features of string theory is that it requires more than the three spatial dimensions that we see directly in the world around us. That sounds like science fiction, but it is an indisputable outcome of the mathematics of string theory. So the question is, where are these extra dimensions? One suggestion is that they're all around us, but that they're small relative to the dimensions that we directly see and therefore are more difficult to detect.

I'd like to think that there aren't limits to how much we can know about the universe, but I suspect that's a little optimistic. An analogy that I'm fond of is that we are certainly aware of intelligent beings on this planet whose capacity to understand the deep laws of the universe is limited. No matter how hard you try to teach your cat general relativity,you're going to fail.

Here we have an example of an intelligent living being that will never know this kind of truth about the way the world is put together. Why in the world should we be any different? We can certainly go further than cats, but why should it be that our brains are somehow so suited to the universe that they will be able to understand its deepest workings?

I believe the universe is consistent, and therefore, that general relativity and quantum mechanics can be put together in a unified theory that makes sense, which is precisely what string theory does: it can be applied to play all sorts of wonderful games, involving all kinds of strategy which will allow us to explore the richness of our universe, to fully understand black holes and stars and galaxies and even the big bang; to fully understand just how things got to be the way they are.

We're just at the beginning.

Extracted from 'The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory' by Brian Greene, Vintage Books, 2000

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