Monday, June 26, 2006

Grasping at strings.

Some time ago I got interested in String Theory. A scientific religion, a philosophy, a hypothesis, a little bit of this and that as near as I could tell. Having never really spent much time pondering it, I am finally sitting down to study it in a little more detail. I, of course, am avoiding the mathy bits but as it stands now I am very unsure of what to think. Nobody has come up with a way to test the theory thus it can’t be proved.

Here is how I understand it, in brief:

Newton believed that Gravity was a force that was constantly grabbing. It pulls the apple to the ground, the man to the earth, and the Earth into orbit around the sun. Think of his model as a tether ball encircling the pole to which it is tied. This model is perfectly useful in most technological applications.

The nifty idea that Einstein came up with that radically changed the way we thought of Gravity involved thinking of space/time as though it was a piece of stretchy fabric, the immensely heavy sun in the middle stretches the fabric down. The Earth is like a ball that is rotating in the indentation that the sun makes. This theory hinges on the idea that if the Sun where to suddenly disappear, the Earth wouldn’t fly off into space like a ball cut from the tether- that would require Earth to travel faster than the speed of light- which Einstein believed was impossible. Instead, the Earth would continue orbiting the space the sun had been in as the space/time fabric sprang back the other direction, sending a ripple (like a pebble thrown into a pond) which would send the Earth off into space.

In the 1920s Quantum Mechanics came into vogue and it was a new way to describe the forces exerted in very tiny things. Atoms have 3 forces at play Electromagnetism, Weak, and Strong nuclear forces. (Radioactivity is the weak- the strong force is the force between the nucleons.) However, Quantum Mechanics does not show a place for Gravity- and that is the purpose of String Theory. Unification of all the forces, all the science that we believe to be true all wrapped up in a tidy package.

We know that Electromagnetism is the force that keeps every object from this computer to my fingers as they type in their adorable shape. If Gravity was the strongest force, we would fly through the Earth to its core. So if Gravity is the force of very large objects and Electromagnetism and the Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces are the forces of very small objects- what happens if an object is incredibly heavy and also incredibly small?

Answer: a black hole. If we smashed the sun down, down, down to a tiny point, the power of its forces would suck everything in- even light.

Now right about here is where my understanding gets iffy. The actual ‘string’ part of the theory comes in at the sub-atomic level. String theorists believe that inside an atom’s nucleus are quarks and inside of quarks are tiny energy loops- like rubber bands except infinitesimally smaller. These loops or strings vibrate and move about in different ways providing different energies thus different particle properties.

Somehow, the theory requires that there be alternate dimensions. I am not entirely certain of why that is (I think it has to do with the unpredictable nature of atomic forces- for example it is really unlikely that you could glide Kitty Pride-like through a wall, but if you kept at it for a certain amount of time maybe you could catch all the elements at the right moment- perhaps in an alternate dimension you could, anyway), but suffice it to say there must be no fewer than 6; all of them running like loops side by side in space/time. (I think they have to be loops in order to have the correct dimensions- meaning that if I were shrunk small enough to walk on a donut I could walk around the outer edge or inner edge, round and round through the hole, or swirling around it both through the hole and around the outer and inner edges.)

So we have this incredibly complex universe with processes and objects for which we have spent the entire span of humanity naming and writing rules. In the case of Quantum Mechanics making rules about chaos. Now in order to make all of our ideas upon which we have pinned careers, dreams, and thousands of years of technology we have to make all of these concepts into a unified whole. Map the inner and outer workings of everything in the universe to show that we are masters of the realm. It’s amazing to me that people don’t believe in God in deference to science. It seems to me that a universe this complex but this orderly at the same time has the touch of God’s hands. That we can create a theory with dimensions and strings and sheets of space/time shows the touch of those same hands. Is it harder to believe that there could be ten alternate dimensions, tiny vibrating energy strings, and black holes or that God could create them?

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