What are superstrings? (with photos)

Superstrings, or superstring theory, is an exciting field of physics sometimes called the Theory of Everything. Many believe it to be the elusive unifying explanation that Einstein sought that could explain all known forces in the universe.

Until the emergence of superstrings, scientists had two opposing theories about how the laws of nature behaved: Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

Superstrings help support the theory of how the universe formed after the Big Bang.

General Relativity explains the world as we know it on a pretty massive scale. He describes spacetime as a fabric warped by the accounting of mass for orbital systems, galaxies, and the force of gravity. But these laws are broken at the quantum level, where a subatomic particle cannot be measured in terms of its exact position in space at any given time. It is also likely to move backwards or forwards in time, and may even appear to be in two places at once. The world of the infinitesimally small is so bizarre that scientists have coined the term “quantum weirdness” to describe it.

General relativity describes spacetime as a fabric warped by accounting for mass for orbital systems, galaxies, and the force of gravity.

The problem for physicists was to come up with a theory that would link the world as we know it to the quantum world. An explanation to explain all four known forces: gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and electromagnetism. Superstrings might be that answer.

Through mathematical equations, it became obvious that the way we previously thought of particles as “dots” or “balls” of energy was inaccurate. In fact, these tiny bits of matter behaved more like strings that vibrate and sway. Strings are so small that Brian Greene, a physicist and proponent, explains that if a single atom were the size of our solar system, a string would be only the size of a tree. However, strings constitute all matter from the quantum level.

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The way strings vibrate determines the specific properties of each particle, likening the universe to a cosmic symphony of superstrings. But to rid the theory of mathematical anomalies, six extra dimensions were needed. The extra six dimensions form tiny, curled 6-D shapes at every point in our space. Within these 6-D shapes are the strings of superstring theory. The extra six dimensions, plus our three, meant that there really were 9 dimensions. Add one more for time and the total is 10 dimensions. As surprising as it was, it wasn’t the end.

In 1995, different theories of superstrings presented an enigma until M-theory brought them together. The only problem? M-theory mathematically required an 11th dimension. This presented a new picture of strings whereby, given enough energy, a string could stretch into an extremely large floating membrane called a brane. Branes can have different dimensional properties and can grow to the size of a universe. In fact, according to the theory, our entire universe exists on a floating brane – just one of several floating branes that each support their own parallel universe. Each brane represents a slice of a higher dimensional space or volume.

Although the standard model of the 1970s already united three of the four forces into a unified theory, gravity could not be reconciled with the three quantum forces. But a breakthrough in superstrings involved the elusive force of gravity, whispering about the Holy Grail of physics. If a hypothetical massless particle responsible for transmitting gravity – the graviton – exists at the quantum level as a closed string, this would present a direct gravitational link to superstring theory.

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The theory predicts that strings can be open or closed. Open strings, or strings that look like tiny wavy strands of hair, have at least one end point “attached” to the membrane like a tram is attached to a cable above a power line. Strings can move through the membrane but cannot leave it, explaining why we cannot physically see or reach outside of our dimension. The atoms that make up our bodies are made up of open strings that have attached endpoints to our 3-D membrane. Another way of looking at this is to consider a movie screen. People on a screen appear to be three-dimensional, but they can’t really reach our off-screen 3-D world. They are trapped in their 2-D world, just as we are trapped in our 3-D world and cannot reach neighboring dimensions.

But graviton is different. As a closed string or loop with no endpoints attached, it has been theorized that it might be able to escape our 3-D brane and infiltrate other dimensions. This would explain why gravity is many times weaker than the other forces.

However, what if the reverse were true? What if gravity in a parallel membrane is just as strong as the other forces, but it’s weaker here because it’s just leaking into our dimension? Mathematically, superstring theory again worked beautifully and finally presented a plausible explanation for gravity’s weakness in uniting it with the other three forces.

There was just one hurdle left: The unifying theory should also be able to explain the Big Bang. Four physicists traveling together on a train casually tackled this subject. One of them put forth the question, What would happen if two branes collided? The plausible mathematical answer turned out to be the Big Bang.

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Detractors of the theory of superstrings point to lack of proof and the difficulty in providing it. Is it just a beautiful mathematical construct? The philosophy? Or a true explanation of our world? No other theory has come close to mathematically unifying all four forces, much less additionally providing an explanation for the Big Bang. But proving that other dimensions exist — floating branches and parallel universes — has been a major sticking point.

Nevertheless, believers of the elegant theory are eager to see it proven, and scientists have since found that there may be observable proof of astronomically large strings. Thus, the theory of superstrings continues to gain ground. In the end, if successful, from 11 dimensions to parallel universes, from the swirling galaxies to quantum soup, superstrings might just truly be The Theory of Everything.

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