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The Power of Translation

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  • The Power of Translation

    THE FABRIC of the COSMOS, Brian Greene, 2004
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 13 - The Universe on a Brane
    The Power of Translation
    Although Figure 13.1 schematically conveys the essential content of Witten's discovery, expressed in this way it might strike you like a bit of inside baseball. Before Witten's breakthrough, researchers thought there were five separate versions of string theory; after his breakthrough, they didn't. But if you'd never known that there were five purportedly distinct string theories, why should you care that the cleverest of all string theorists showed they aren't distinct after all? Why, in other words, was Witten's discovery revolutionary as opposed to a modest insight correcting a previous misconception?

    Figure 13.1 (a): Schematic portrayal of the five string theories, prior to 1995.
    (b) Schematic portrayal of the meta-unification revealed by M-theory.

    Here's why. Over the past few decades, string theorists have been stymied repeatedly by a mathematical problem. Because the exact equations describing any one of the five string theories have proven so difficult to extract and analyze, theorists have based much of their research on approximate equations that are far easier to work with. While there a good reasons to believe that the approximate equations should, in many circumstances, give answers close to those given by the true equations, approximations — like translations — always miss something. For this reason, certain key problems have proved beyond the approximate equations' mathematical reach, significantly impeding progress.

    For the imprecision inherent in textual translations, readers have a couple of immediate remedies. The best option, if the reader's linguist skills are up to the task, is to consult the original manuscript. At the moment, the analog of this option is not available to string theorists. By virtue of the consistency of the dictionary developed by Witten and others, we have strong evidence that all five string theories are different descriptions of a single master theory, M-theory, but researchers have yet to develop a complete understanding of this theoretical nexus. We have learned much about M-theory in the last few years, but we still have far to go before anyone could sensibly claim that it is properly or completely understood. In string theory, it's as if we have five translations of a yet-to-be-discovered master text.

    Another helpful remedy, well known to readers of translations who either don't have the original (as in string theory) or, more commonly, don't understand the language in which it's written, is to consult several translations of the master text into languages with which they are familiar. Passages on which the translations agree give confidence; passages on which they differ flag possible inaccuracies or highlight different interpretations. It is this approach that Witten made available with his discovery that the five string theories are different translations of the same underlying theory. In fact, his discovery provided an extremely powerful version of this line of attack that is best understood through a slight extension of the translation analogy.

    Imagine a master manuscript infused with such an enormous range of puns, rhymes, and offbeat, culture-sensitive jokes, that the complete text cannot be expressed gracefully in any single one of five given languages into which it is being translated. Some passages might translate into Swahili with ease, while other portions might prove thoroughly impenetrable in this tongue. Much insight into some of the latter passages might emerge from the Inuit translation; in yet other sections that translation might be completely opaque. Sanskrit might capture the essence of some of these tricky passages, but for other, particularly troublesome sections, all five translations might leave you dumbfounded and only the master text will be intelligible. This is much closer to the situation with the five string theories. Theorists have found that for certain questions, one of the five may give a transparent description of the physical implications, while the descriptions given by the other four are too mathematically complex to be useful. And therein lies the power of Witten's discovery. Prior to his breakthrough, string theory researchers who encountered intractably difficult equations would be stuck. But Witten's work showed that each such question admits four mathematical translations — four mathematical reformulations — and sometimes one of the reformulated questions proves far simpler to answer. Thus, the dictionary for translating between the five theories can sometimes provide a means for translating impossibly difficult questions into comparatively simple ones.

    It's not foolproof. Just as all five translations of certain passages in that master text might be equally incomprehensible, sometimes the mathematical descriptions given by all five string theories are equally difficult to understand. In such cases, just as we would need to consult the original text itself, we would need full comprehension of the elusive M-theory to make progress. Even so, in a wealth of circumstances, Witten's dictionary has provided a powerful new tool for analyzing string theory.

    Hence, just as each translation of a complex text serves an important purpose, each string formulation does too. By combining insights gained from the perspective of each, we are able to answer questions and reveal features that are completely beyond the reach of any single string formulation. Witten's discovery thus gave theorists five times the firepower for advancing string theory's front line. And that, in large part, is why it sparked a revolution.
    Last edited by Reviewer; 10-02-2012, 04:03 AM.