String Theory Diagram
By MissMJ [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons Different levels of magnification of matter, ending with the string level. Legend: 1. Matter 2. Molecular structure (atoms) 3. Atom (protons, neutrons, electrons) 4. Electron 5. Quarks 6. Strings
I was having so much fun with the Fates that I wanted to talk about more string theory; last time was old old school mythology so why not go ultra modern this time with the cutting edge of physics theory.  Unfortunately, Sheldon Cooper has not written a guide to string theory, but chances are, even if he had none of us would understand it anyway.

It seems to me (as a social scientist), that the hard science String Theory is an attempt by theoretical physicists to explain “life, the universe and everything” (which all Douglas Adams fans will know is 42).  The way I understand it (and I would be really happy to be corrected by an actual physicist), is that String Theory is an attempt to make the laws that govern the behaviour of small things (the  Standard Model of particle physics) play well with the theory of big things (Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity).  Or vice versa.

String Theory does this by describing all the different particles (originally conceived as single points) as different expressions of loops of stuff they call strings.  If that sounds a bit technical, you can think of it as a loop carpet: when you stand up it looks like a smooth plane of points but when you get your face up close you can see that each individual point is ,in fact, a loop of fibre.  And probably some other things that you wish you hadn’t in fact seen…

If the loop moves in one way it shows itself as an electron, if it moves a different way it’s a proton, and so on.   You might compare this to the different vibrations (sounds) a violin string makes depending on the composition, thickness and length of the string, whether it is stopped or unstopped, and/or the composition, speed and pressure of the bow.  This is important because as far as some physicists are concerned without string (or some other missing link) theory, the two generally accepted theories cannot be true at the same time – only one can be true for all things [1].  It may also be important for fans of the late lamented Terry Pratchett, who need closure for The Carpet People.

The social scientist in me finds this interesting from three very different points of view:

  1. That assumption that science results in objective truth.  Those of us forced to read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, know that science is an ongoing, and slightly more civilised version of a screaming match that takes place over long periods of time.  It comes complete with posturing (opposing) theorists calling each other names and insulting each other’s intellectual capacities.  They are fully committed to their points of view, and unable to persuade each other by logic.  But at some point, the weight of support for one or the other (which may or may not be based on relevant topical evidence) causes a paradigm shift where one argument becomes the TRUTH and the other descends into oblivion.  And science moves on from there – we saw this recently with the “God” or Higgs boson particle.
  2. That there can be only one truth.  Any person, who knows any other person, knows that there is never just one truth: who did or did not give way before a car crash, who was going to get the milk, who was going to call back whom, whose turn it was to pay for lunch.  Or my personal favourite, who ate the last Tim Tam.
  3. That big and small things must follow the same rules.  While I agree that Katy does have a significant impact on my life, I wouldn’t say that this is the same as the way that the Federal Government influences my life.  Katy might “forbid” me to do things, but she can’t incarcerate me if I do them anyway (though she might apply other penalties such as social exclusion that might hurt more).  Which then raises more interesting questions about who governs the governors, but those are questions for another day.  And having said that, DB can be a small influence with an enormous fallout zone.

I was never the kind of person that needed to know how things work, so I find the argument passably interesting, but not ultimately relevant – I am just as happy to call it Magic! and leave it at that.  What do you think?   Do the mysteries of how the universe works keep you up at night?  Do you think that it is really important to have a single explanation?  Or are you more concerned about who gets the last Tim Tam?


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