My best friend from college, the strange and wonderful Mary Parker, is getting her master's degree in journalism at Boston University. She's been a journalist for some time now, but is grad-schooling it up on her way to the science journalism world, her dream niche. On her newborn blog, Mary has written a short article about string theory that I am loving. It's concise and explanatory, plus wise and funny. And I've gotten Mary's permission to repost it. Enjoy, science wonderers!
by Mary Parker
The conflict: Euclid and Newton (among others) gave us an excellent and accurate system for mathematically describing most of the universe. Their math can predict the action of balls on a pool table and planets in a solar system.
However: Traditional physics breaks down completely at superfast speeds and atomic sizes. New physical models were created to deal with light speed and atoms, like Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. We now have two working methods to cover pretty much everything in the universe, from the small to the large, the fast to the slow. Good enough, right?
WRONG! Physicists hate this divide. It’s annoying; untidy. Ever since they came up with new physics vs. old physics they have tried to unite them in the elusive Theory of Everything (TOE). Even though it is likely that the TOE would be much more complicated than either of the two current models, they keep trying to find it.
String theory is the most vocal candidate for the TOE. String theory postulates that the smallest elements in the universe, the elements that make quarks and atoms and Belgium and everything, are like vibrating strings. Depending on the frequency of the vibrations, you get energy and solid matter. The only problem is this “theory” is impossible to test.
Physicists can construct beautiful and moving math equations from string theory, but not one single testable, reproducible, empirical experiment. See the problem? String theory is not unlike a religion: it seems to explain the world, but no one can prove it. As a result, some physicists spend their careers championing string theory while others spend a good deal of time complaining about it. Even the new claim from Imperial College comes with emotional baggage. Physicist Michael Duff noticed at a conference that someone else’s equations for quantum entanglement matched his equations for a string theory explanation of black holes. Quantum entanglement has nothing much to do with sting theory, and a test of this find would not prove that the theory is valid. Furthermore, quantum entanglement can be explained already with the conference presenter’s original equations. And yet noticing this strange coincidence merited a paper in Physical Review Letters and a dozen articles on physics news websites.
This last point of Mary's – that string theory is almost like a religion – gave me an idea. What if string theory, the almost-known but seemingly unknowable all-spark, is God's secret M.O.? Like those fluffy clouds that look like cotton swabs, trying to touch it will always leave you empty-handed, as concrete and huggable as it looks when you're flying past.
Seems feasible to me. But I'm no science journalist.