Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stringy Science

String Theory. You might have heard the term. Maybe you know what it means, but probably not. Since Beam Me Up is both science fact and science fiction, I thought I'd delve into this strange realm and explore it a bit.

Before we go into what String Theory is, let's first state what it's not. It is not something dealing with twine. It has nothing to do with winding something around your finger so you won't forget... It's not about small colored bits of thread or something to tease your cat with. Now that we have that out of the way, what is it?

Wikipedia says:
“String theory is a developing branch of theoretical physics that combines quantum mechanics and general relativity into a quantum theory of gravity. The strings of string theory are one-dimensional oscillating lines, but they are no longer considered fundamental to the theory, which can be formulated in terms of points or surfaces, too.”

While you uncross your eyes, let me see if I can explain that better. We live in three-dimensional space. There’s a limit to how small things can get before we can’t see them with our eyes any more. Fortunately, we have objects called microscopes to help us see those things that are too small. But microscopes have their limits too. Solid objects aren’t really solid as anyone that’s taken high school science knows. Solid objects are composed of things we call molecules. Molecules are made up of atoms and atoms are bits of energy glued together with various atomic forces. We can see all of those things with microscopes. But things get even smaller, the bits of energy become undetectable with our instruments and force us to do weird mathematics in order to learn anything about them.

Since we can’t see these things, and we can’t measure most of them, we call any explanations we come up with “theories” because, well… they aren’t fact. Not fact that we can prove absolutely at least. Strings are one of those things that we can’t see and can’t detect but we think exist because… we see other things that sort of tell us that they might be there.

To start with, strings are only made up of one dimension. Try to get your head around that. Objects that are three dimensional have height, width, and breadth. A box is a good example of a three dimensional object. A two dimensional object has width and height. Our box turns into a square drawn on paper. A one dimensional object has…. Not much of anything. It’s not even a dot. Put a dot on paper and then look at it under a microscope and you’ll see that it has some width and some height. The average size of a string is supposed to be about 10 to the -33 centimeters, or about a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter. That’s incredibly small. So small it’s down into the realm of quantum physics, even though it’s considered part of particle physics.

But just being able to define strings, and figure out how small they are, doesn’t make figuring out other things about them easy. There are as many different theories about what might be going on and what might be causing the strings as there are physicists.

Why are strings important? Why in the world should the world’s brightest minds be worrying about something too small to see? For several reasons, but among them is the fact that all of our wonderful technology is rapidly approaching the miniaturization level where parts will be composed of a few atoms, not a few molecules. Already we have small USB drives that can hold more data than a room full of computers could less than twenty years ago. Imagine a computer with holographic memory, storing all the data in molecular arrays, with what amounts to completely unlimited space. It’s coming. But in order to allow our gadgets and toys to continue in this direction, the scientists that are building them need to know how the basics of reality work. Strings just might be the key to those basics.

Toys. Lots more toys. Yeah!

1 comment:

Upstate said...

You haven't even mentioned that strings ARE atomic particles. They are, according to the proponents of the theory, the fundamental building blocks of nature. They exist in a weird 11 dimensional world that you have to be a math major, at least, to understand. That is our universe is 11 (sic) dimensions not three! I am only a lowly engineer, so don't expect me to understand or explain that.