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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

String theory?

I'm fascinated by physics, a carryover from my days as a faculty wife and all 'roun cocktail party intellectual in the 70s and 80s. The space probes draw me in and chew me up with every new landing attempt. I'm known to lose days on end while watching as if in a trance -- images on the small screen of pretty ordinary rocks and rills that I could probably see if I just hiked a few miles up into the nearby hills. You can imagine the joy when on a recent Citroen Club outing with Tom I found myself sitting in the Space Science Center at the Ames Laboratories in Mountain View. The films and exhibits brought the Mars probes into consciousness as nothing else could have. The chance to hear lectures from those who were a part of the great adventure was truly mind-boggling.

Last night I watched a PBS-NOVA special on the String Theory. It didn't take very long to find myself hanging on by my fingernails to keep up. I have tried in the past to barely fathom Stephen Hawking's mechanical voice that tended to add to the futuristic edge of his words. I have a fragmented understanding of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, but somewhere along the way Quantum Theory entered from stage left and there was a "Big Bang" of my right cortex! Now we're dealing with Ed Witten and his "M Theory" involving "gravitons." According to the narrator, no one knows what the "M" stands for, but Witten teasingly implies that it may mean "murky." And I was just beginning to deal with quarks and opened-ended and/or enclosed strings, and none too successfully at that.

Einstein's work upon which so much of the understanding of the universe depends was incomplete. Those who arrived at the Big Bang theory of beginnings were having to yield to the Quantum theorists -- the two theories were in conflict and could not be reconciled. There are many who've now come to believe that Witten is Einstein's successor and that requires a re-evaluation of all that has gone before.

It is in these instances that I so regret growing old. Most of the time my age is simply a fact of being and evidence of movement toward non-existence ... but there are times when I begin to see how bitterly I resent having been born just a few years too soon ...

Having acquired some reasonable understanding of 5 then 10 dimensions, the scientific world is now faced with at least 21 -- and according to some, the number is infinite and probably involves multiple parallel universes; universes that are in the continual process of banging into one another and being absorbed ... the "Big Bang" gone wild!

The images, matrixes, diagrams and analogies incorporated into the NOVA show were so fabulous that even this struggling aging brain was able to hang in and pull it together -- if precariously.

There is no longer a single exciting String Theory, but at least five! That being so, the world of physics is back to square one. Except for Whitten (Witten?) who has put forth the hypothesis that the five are simply complex aspects of the original one. And now we're off to the races again. The prize of discovery will surely be revealed within the next dozen or so years. Scientists are out after the Holy Grail of physics with competing laboratories working at breakneck speed both here and in Switzerland.

It was the kind of presentation that begs to be bought on video or DVD and added to the collection of fascinating studies I will watch again some day but rarely do. The world keeps revealing itself in hints that offer promise of answers to mysteries now just barely beyond our reach.

God stuff?

(...and capitalizing the god word in this case feels right. It all depends upon how one interprets it, I suspect.)









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