Evaluation, Creation, Existence, Time...
String theory, in particle physics, a theory that attempts to merge quantum mechanics with Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The name string theory comes from the modeling of subatomic particles as tiny one-dimensional “stringlike” entities rather than the more conventional approach in which they are modeled as zero-dimensional point particles. The theory envisions that a string undergoing a particular mode of vibration corresponds to a particle with definite properties such as mass and charge. In the 1980s, physicists realized that string theory had the potential to incorporate all four of nature’s forces—gravity, electromagnetism, strong force, and weak force—and all types of matter in a single quantum mechanical framework, suggesting that it might be the long-sought unified field theory. While string theory is still a vibrant area of research that is undergoing rapid development, it remains primarily a mathematical construct because it has yet to make contact with experimental observations.
Dimensions And Vibrations
Because of these obstacles, the number of physicists working on the theory had dropped to two—Schwarz and Michael Green of Queen Mary College, London—by the mid-1980s. But in 1984 these two die-hard string theorists achieved a major breakthrough. Through a remarkable calculation, they proved that the equations of string theory were consistent after all. By the time word of this result had spread throughout the physics community, hundreds of researchers had dropped what they were working on and turned their full attention to string theory.
Within a few months, string theory’s unified framework took shape. Much as different vibrational patterns of a violin string play different musical notes, the different vibrations of the tiny strands in string theory were imagined to yield different particles of nature. According to the theory, the strings are so small that they appear to be points—as particles had long been thought to be—but in reality they have length (about 10−33 cm); the mass and charge of a particle is determined by how a string vibrates. For example, string theory posits that an electron is a string undergoing one particular vibrational pattern; a quark is imagined as a string undergoing a different vibrational pattern. Crucially, among the vibrational patterns, physicists argued, would also be the particles found by experiment to communicate nature’s forces. Thus, string theory was proposed as the sought-for unification of all forces and all matter.
What of the six extra spatial dimensions required by string theory? Following a suggestion made in the 1920s by Theodor Kaluza of Germany and Oskar Klein of Sweden, string theorists envisioned that dimensions come in two distinct varieties. Like the unfurled length of a long garden hose, dimensions can be big and easy to see. But like the shorter, circular girth of the garden hose, dimensions can also be far smaller and more difficult to detect. This becomes more apparent by imagining that the circular cross section of the garden hose is shrunk ever smaller, below what can be seen with the naked eye, misleading a casual observer into thinking the garden hose has only one dimension, its length. Similarly, according to string theory, the three dimensions of common experience are large and manifest, while the other six dimensions are crumpled so small that they have so far evaded detection.
Relativity And Quantum Mechanics
In 1905 Einstein unified space and time (see space-time) with his special theory of relativity, showing that motion through space affects the passage of time. In 1915 Einstein further unified space, time, and gravitation with his general theory of relativity, showing that warps and curves in space and time are responsible for the force of gravity. These were monumental achievements, but Einstein dreamed of an even grander unification. He envisioned one powerful framework that would account for space, time, and all of nature’s forces—something he called a unified theory. For the last three decades of his life, Einstein relentlessly pursued this vision. Although from time to time rumours spread that he had succeeded, closer scrutiny always dashed such hopes. Most of Einstein’s contemporaries considered the search for a unified theory to be a hopeless, if not misguided, quest.
In contrast, the primary concern of theoretical physicists from the 1920s onward was quantum mechanics—the emerging framework for describing atomic and subatomic processes. Particles at these scales have such tiny masses that gravity is essentially irrelevant in their interactions, and so for decades quantum mechanical calculations generally ignored general relativistic effects. Instead, by the late 1960s the focus was on a different force—the strong force, which binds together the protons and neutrons within atomic nuclei. Gabriele Veneziano, a young theorist working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), contributed a key breakthrough in 1968 with his realization that a 200-year-old formula, the Euler beta function, was capable of explaining much of the data on the strong force then being collected at various particle accelerators around the world. A few years later, three physicists—Leonard Susskind of Stanford University, Holger Nielsen of the Niels Bohr Institute, and Yoichiro Nambu of the University of Chicago—significantly amplified Veneziano’s insight by showing that the mathematics underlying his proposal described the vibrational motion of minuscule filaments of energy that resemble tiny strands of string, inspiring the name string theory. Roughly speaking, the theory suggested that the strong force amounted to strings tethering together particles attached to the strings’ endpoints.
Evolution, theory in biology postulating that the various types of plants, animals, and other living things on Earth have their origin in other preexisting types and that the distinguishable differences are due to modifications in successive generations. The theory of evolution is one of the fundamental keystones of modern biological theory.
The diversity of the living world is staggering. More than 2 million existing species of organisms have been named and described; many more remain to be discovered—from 10 million to 30 million, according to some estimates. What is impressive is not just the numbers but also the incredible heterogeneity in size, shape, and way of life—from lowly bacteria, measuring less than a thousandth of a millimetre in diameter, to stately sequoias, rising 100 metres (300 feet) above the ground and weighing several thousand tons; from bacteria living in hot springs at temperatures near the boiling point of water to fungi and algae thriving on the ice masses of Antarctica and in saline pools at −23 °C (−9 °F); and from giant tube worms discovered living near hydrothermal vents on the dark ocean floor to spiders and larkspur plants existing on the slopes of Mount Everest more than 6,000 metres (19,700 feet) above sea level.
The virtually infinite variations on life are the fruit of the evolutionary process. All living creatures are related by descent from common ancestors. Humans and other mammals descend from shrewlike creatures that lived more than 150 million years ago; mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes share as ancestors aquatic worms that lived 600 million years ago; and all plants and animals derive from bacteria-like microorganisms that originated more than 3 billion years ago. Biological evolution is a process of descent with modification. Lineages of organisms change through generations; diversity arises because the lineages that descend from common ancestors diverge through time.
The 19th-century English naturalist Charles Darwin argued that organisms come about by evolution, and he provided a scientific explanation, essentially correct but incomplete, of how evolution occurs and why it is that organisms have features—such as wings, eyes, and kidneys—clearly structured to serve specific functions. Natural selection was the fundamental concept in his explanation. Natural selection occurs because individuals having more-useful traits, such as more-acute vision or swifter legs, survive better and produce more progeny than individuals with less-favourable traits. Genetics, a science born in the 20th century, reveals in detail how natural selection works and led to the development of the modern theory of evolution. Beginning in the 1960s, a related scientific discipline, molecular biology, enormously advanced knowledge of biological evolution and made it possible to investigate detailed problems that had seemed completely out of reach only a short time previously—for example, how similar the genes of humans and chimpanzees might be (they differ in about 1–2 percent of the units that make up the genes).