'Vibrating strings' may hold the key

Sat, Jul 14, 2012, 01:00

The next time you pour a drink of sparkling water, stop and look at the bubbles. Could our universe be like one of them, a single bubble among many other universes?

That’s was one of the mind-blowing (if speculative) concepts outlined by Prof Brian Greene in his keynote address at Euroscience Open Forum 2012 in the Convention Centre in Dublin.

The focus of his talk was string theory, which, he explained, is an attempt to realise Einstein’s dream of a unified theory of physics.

“It should be a single idea, a single equation that perhaps would describe the big things in the universe such as the stars and galaxies, the small things such as the atoms and molecules and then everything in between,” he told The Irish Times.

So where do the vibrating strings come in?

“The approach is to rewrite our understanding of the basic constituents of nature,” said Prof Greene, who is professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University.

“Instead of thinking of little tiny dots or particles that come together to make bigger things, the dots are replaced by string-like filaments that can vibrate in different ways, and the different vibrations correspond to difference kinds of particles. Everything is basically built from the music of these vibrating strings.”

For now the concept remains hypothetical, he noted, and the strings are so small they are well beyond reach of today’s technology: “String theory has put gravity and quantum mechanics together into one consistent framework, and that’s a big achievement, but we have not been able to experimentally test the theory.”

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