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String Theory and Unification

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  • String Theory and Unification

    THE FABRIC of the COSMOS, Brian Greene, 2004
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 12 - The World on a String
    String Theory and Unification
    That's string theory in brief, but to convey the power of this new approach, I need to describe conventional particle physics a little more fully. Over the past hundred years, physicists have prodded, pummeled, and pulverized matter in search of the universe's elementary constituents. And, indeed, they have found that in almost everything anyone has ever encountered, the fundamental ingredients are the electrons and quarks just mentioned — more precisely, as in Chapter 9, electrons and two kinds of quarks, up-quarks and down-quarks, that differ in mass and in electrical charge. But the experiments also revealed that the universe has other, more exotic particle species that don't arise in ordinary matter. In addition to up-quarks and down-quarks, experimenters have identified four other species of quarks (charm-quarks, strange-quarks, bottom-quarks, and top-quarks) and two other species of particles that are very much like electrons, only heavier (muons and taus). It is likely that these particles were plentiful just after the big bang, but today they are produced only as the ephemeral debris from high-energy collisions between the more familiar particle species. Finally, experimenters have also discovered three species of ghostly particles called neutrinos (electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos) that can pass through trillions of miles of lead as easily as we pass through air. These particles — the electron and its two heavier cousins, the six kinds of quarks, and the three kinds of neutrinos — constitute a modern-day particle physicist's answer to the ancient Greek question about the makeup of matter. 11

    The laundry list of particle species can be organized into three "families" or "generations" of particles, as in Table 12.1. Each family has two of the quarks, one of the neutrinos, and one of the electronlike particles; the only difference between corresponding particles in each family is that their masses increase in each successive family. The division into families certainly suggests an underlying pattern, but the barrage of particles can easily make your head spin (or, worse, make your eyes glaze over). Hang on, though, because one of the most beautiful features of string theory is that it provides a means for taming this apparent complexity.

    According to string theory, there is only one fundamental ingredient — the string — and the wealth of particle species simply reflects the different vibrational patterns that a string can execute. It's just like what happens with more familiar strings like those on a violin or cello. A cello string can vibrate in many different ways, and we hear each pattern as a different musical note. In this way, one cello string can produce a range of different sounds. The strings in string theory behave similarly: they too can vibrate in different patterns. But instead of yielding different musical tones, the different vibrational patterns in string theory correspond to different kinds of particles. The key realization is that the detailed pattern of vibration executed by a string produces a specific mass, a specific electric charge, a specific spin, and so on — the specific list of properties, that is, which distinguish one kind of particle from another. A string vibrating in one particular pattern might have the properties of an electron, while a string vibrating in a different pattern might have the properties of an up-quark, a down-quark, or any of the other particle species in Table 12.1. It is not that an "electron string" makes up an electron, or an "up-quark string" makes up an up-quark, or a "down-quark string" makes up a down-quark. Instead, the single species of string can account for a great variety of particles because the string can execute a great variety of vibrational patterns.

    Table 12.1 The three families of fundamental particles and their masses (in multiples of the proton mass). The values of the neutrino masses are known to be nonzero but their exact values have so far eluded experimental determination.

    As you can see, this represents a potentially giant step toward unification. If string theory is correct, the head-spinning, eye-glazing list of particles in Table 12.1 manifests the vibrational repertoire of a single basic ingredient. Metaphorically, the different notes that can be played by a single species of string would account for all of the different particles that have been detected. At the ultramicroscopic level, the universe would be akin to a string symphony vibrating matter into existence.

    This is a delightfully elegant framework for explaining the particles in Table 12.1, yet string theory's proposed unification goes even further. In Chapter 9 and in our discussion above, we discussed how the forces of nature are transmitted at the quantum level by other particles, the messenger particles, which are summarized in Table 12.2. String theory accounts for the messenger particles exactly as it accounts for the matter particles. Namely, each messenger particle is a string that's executing a particular vibrational pattern. A photon is a string vibrating in one particular pattern, a W particle is a string vibrating in a different pattern, a gluon is a string vibrating in yet another pattern. And, of prime importance, what Schwarz and Scherk showed in 1974 is that there is a particular vibrational pattern that has all the properties of a graviton, so that the gravitational force is included in string theory's quantum mechanical framework. Thus, not only do matter particles arise from vibrating strings, but so do the messenger particles — even the messenger particle for gravity.

    Table 12.2 The four forces of nature, together with their associated force particles and their masses in multiples of the proton mass. (There are actually two W particles—one with charge +1 and one with charge -1 — that have the same mass; for simplicity we ignore this detail and refer to each as a W particle.

    And so, beyond providing the first successful approach for merging gravity and quantum mechanics, string theory revealed its capacity to provide a unified description of all matter and all forces. That's the claim that knocked thousands of physicists off their chairs in the mid-1980s; by the time they got up and dusted themselves off, many were converts.
    Last edited by Reviewer; 10-01-2012, 10:27 AM.