One of my favourite things about Einstein is how I believe he saw God: the one all-encompassing force that governed the universe, which can best be explained through the language of science and mathematics. What could be more beautiful than the science and mathematics of everything? And what is God if not beauty? Through unifying the forces of the universe Einstein could see perhaps not God himself, but certainly experience God’s handiwork.
String Theory, a theory which mathematically encompasses all the forces of the universe, holds promises that it may in fact be the answer Einstein was looking for. Ironically, String Theory developed to its current stage mainly through developments in the world of quantum physics, an area in which Einstein had very little interest.
In 1916, after Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity (synonymous with gravity) he was ready for perhaps the most exciting step of his scientific career: to understand how the only two fundamental forces of the universe known at the time – electromagnetism and gravity – worked together. On achieving this, he’d have a theory of everything – the mathematics and science of God.
The problem was, gravity and electromagnetics just didn’t work together. The descriptions for both were proven to be highly accurate when used in their own separate areas, but he was unable to figure out their mathematical relationship with each other.
When Niels Bohr and his team caught the public’s attention in the 1920s with their work in quantum physics, Einstein wasn’t interested. Bohr had discovered that the atom was not the smallest constituent of nature – an atom consisted a nucleolus of protons and neutrons, orbited by electrons. (Much later quarks were discovered, too). What’s more, the realm of quantum mechanics worked in stark contrast to the way Einstein believed the world to be, with the behaviour of sub-atomic particles chaotic and unpredictable.
Einstein continued his work unifying gravity and electromagnetics, stating: “God does not play dice with the universe”. As I see it, he had limited time (as we all do) and knew the topics he was working on intricately. Why delve into a different area of physics when he could (hopefully) attain the same eventual answers his own way, on a path where outcomes were determinable rather than nonsensical?
In the 1930s, further probing of the atom led to discovering that gravity and electromagnetics are not the only forces ruling the universe. There were two new forces: the strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force. Since gravity is incredibly weak compared to all of the other three forces including electromagnetics, physicists could not even begin to understand how gravity worked on a sub-atomic level.
When Einstein died in 1955, unsuccessful in his quest to unify the forces of electromagnetics and gravity (after which he would have no doubt gone on to unify electromagnetics and gravity with the strong force and the weak force), no-one seemed too worried about picking up where he left off. Scientists continued to use General Relativity to study big heavy objects, such as stars, planets and galaxies, and quantum mechanics to study tiny objects such as atoms and particles. But there was a problem – what about things that fit both realms, such as black holes?
Black holes are a star which has imploded, meaning it is has an incredible mass. This would imply General Relativity is the correct theory to work with. However, the fact that the imploded star is now a tiny little speck suggests that quantum physics is needed, too. But scientists can’t use the two together – they work accurately in their specific areas but make absolutely no sense together. The missing link could not be ignored for ever.
More than a decade after Einstein’s death, new insights which had potential to unify all the four forces were beginning to come to life.
In 1968 Italian philosopher Gabriele Veneziano discovered some 200 year old equations written by Loenhard Euler, which oddly seemed to be useful in describing the Strong Force. American Physicist Leonard Susskind then looked at the equations and saw that they seemed to be describing strings of energy, and wrote a paper on the subject which was not taken seriously enough to even be published. This was the not-so-great beginning of String Theory.
So how does it work?
String Theory states that everything in the universe, all forces and all matter, are made of tiny vibrating strands of energy called “strings”. It is the way each string vibrates that determines a different kind of particle. These strings are said to be within the quarks, meaning they are incredibly small. In fact, these strings are so tiny that according to NOVA, “If an atom were magnified to the size of our solar system, a string would be the size of a tree”.
Perhaps the strangest thing about String Theory is that in order for the mathematics of the theory to work, it also requires extra dimensions beyond the four we can currently see and experience – height, width, depth and time. Extra dimensions around us which we cannot see may sound absurd, but to be fair, which areas of science don’t sound absurd at first?
Soon enough, String Theory became overshadowed by developments in mainstream quantum physics. Physicists had been smashing particles together, and found that the forces of nature could be explained on a sub-atomic level through “particles of force”. Particles of force are little messenger particles which travel between particles to create force in the quantum realm. These messenger particles were found for three of four forces: electromagnetics, strong force and weak force. But where was the gravity messenger particle?
In 1973, John Schwarz was one of the few physicists still tackling String Theory. He was working on sorting out the mathematical anomalies of the earliest versions String Theory, including a strange massless particle. He realised that if the massless particle was a graviton – the messenger particle for gravity on a subatomic level – the maths could actually work. He was joined by Michael Green in the early 80s to sort out the remaining anomalies and by 1984, they achieved their goal.
String Theory was all the rage and quantum mechanics and gravity could finally be stitched together. All was going well until four other versions of String Theory appeared: each version was slightly different, yet still worked mathematically. It made String Theory a little less appealing and somewhat discredited. Which version was correct?
That’s when Edward Witten came along. Sick of having five different versions of String Theory, he did some whiz bang mathematics in 1995 which showed there weren’t five different theories, just five different ways of looking at the same thing. In explaining how each of the existing string theories were actually one, the mathematics also required eleven dimensions. He called it M-Theory.
It may sound like a lot of nonsense with scientists plucking ideas out of their heads , but it involves an incredible amount of hard work and is all based on mathematics, not far-fetched ideas. In my opinion, M-theory is the shiz because it looks like it can even explain how the big bang actually started, which is consistently ignored by most scientists. (I say keep an eye on M-theory).
There’s a big problem, though. Given the size of the tiny strings, many physicists believe String Theory can never be proven – it will always be unobservable and untestable. I believe they will eventually find a way – humans can do remarkable things when they set their intentions towards achieving a goal.
Eventually, I think we will find a version of String Theory is the truth of our reality. Quite simply: maths doesn’t lie. For this theory to be completely wrong when the maths works would be almost incomprehensible. Yet, the fact there are numerous different theories in existence, as well as the fact that the magical M-Theory requires some assumptions, shows that further work is necessary before we really make too much of a fuss about it.
As it stands now, some scientists say String Theory is not actually a theory, since it cannot be observed or tested. Some say it’s a philosophy, which is probably a little harsh. I like to think of it as hovering somewhere nicely in between, as “beautiful mathematics”.
String Theory in its brilliance ties together all the forces to make sense of the universe at all scales, but have we found God’s mathematical handiwork? The answer is not really, not yet. If Einstein were alive, I believe he would still be working on unifying gravity and electromagnetics as the next logical step towards finding God.