Friday, May 11, 2012

A Question on Superstrings

I have been reading Brian Greene’s book ‘The Elegant Universe’, on the theory of superstrings. If nothing else, he has a remarkable gift for getting complex scientific ideas across without simplifying them into uselessness or distorting them into falsehood.* He also know a lot about theoretical physics, having been involved in doing a lot of it for the last 30-odd years. The book leaves out the mathematics, of course, the point of it is to be useful to people who don’t have a background in maths, but its explanation of the concepts is clear and fascinating.

I have a couple of simple and possibly stupid questions about the superstring theory:

Is the theory- the physical ideas and the mathematical physics of it- a description of something real, or just a way of making it possible to talk about it and manipulate it mathematically?

Is it, in fact, possible to tell the difference?

It’s strange to think that, when I was studying Mathematics and Astrophysics at UCL back in the mid-80’s, these ideas were actually being developed in the very building I was drinking learning in. We undergrads didn’t get to much about hear about it, though. We learnt some of the mathematical tools to handle it (I recognised much later) and we learnt from people directly involved in the latest research in other fields, but we were resolutely taught quantum mechanics on the one hand, and general relativity on the other. There was no suggestion that far below, creatures with white skin, thick glasses and an inability to talk to women without giggling were trying to fix the rather serious problem that, as we learnt, and indeed discovered for ourselves, they can’t both be true. I don’t believe I had about superstrings until much later, when I was no longer involved in mathematics.

*Many people seem to think that if they can find an analogy or argument that appears to be coherent, it must automatically be a) true and b) what they were trying so express.

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