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The More Precise Answer

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  • The More Precise Answer

    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
    THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Brian Greene, 1999, 2003
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 6 - Nothing but Music: The Essentials of Superstring Theory
    The More Precise Answer
    The rough answer captures the essence of why string theory prevails where previous point-particle theories failed. And so, if you like, you can go on to the next section without losing the logical flow of our discussion. But having developed the essential ideas of special relativity in Chapter 2, we already have the necessary tools for describing more accurately how string theory calms the violent quantum jitters.

    In the more precise answer, we rely upon the same core idea as in the rough answer, but we express it directly at the level of strings. We do this by comparing, in some detail, point-particle and string probes. We will see how the extended nature of the string smears out the information that would be obtainable by point-particle probes, and therefore, again, how it happily does away with the ultra-short-distance behavior responsible for the central dilemma of contemporary physics.

    We first consider the way in which point particles would interact, if they were actually to exist, and hence how they could be used as physical probes. The most basic interaction is between two point particles moving on a collision course so that their trajectories will intersect, as in Figure 6.5. If these particles were billiard balls they would collide, and each would be deflected onto a new trajectory. Point-particle quantum field theory shows that essentially the same thing happens when elementary particles collide—they scatter off one another and continue on deflected trajectories—but the details are a little different.

    Figure 6.5 Two particles interact—they "slam together"—and cause the path of each to be deflected.

    For concreteness and simplicity, imagine that one of the two particles is an electron and the other is its antiparticle, the positron. When matter and antimatter collide, they can annihilate in a flash of pure energy, producing, for example, a photon. 9 To distinguish the ensuing trajectory of the photon from the previous trajectories of the electron and positron, we follow a traditional physics convention and draw it with a wiggly line. The photon will typically travel for a bit and then release the energy derived from the initial electron-positron pair by producing another electron-positron pair with trajectories as indicated on the far right of Figure 6.6. In the end, two particles are fired at each other, they interact through the electromagnetic force, and finally they emerge on deflected trajectories, a sequence of events that bears some similarity to our description of colliding billiard balls.

    Figure 6.6 In quantum field theory, a particle and its antiparticle can momentarily annihilate one another, producing a photon. Subsequently, this photon can give rise to another particle and antiparticle traveling along different trajectories.
    We are concerned with the details of the interaction—specifically, the point where the initial electron and positron annihilate and produce the photon. The central fact, as will become apparent, is that there is an unambiguous, completely identifiable time and place where this happens: It is marked in Figure 6.6.

    How does this description change if, when we closely examine the objects we thought were zero-dimensional points, they turn out to be one-dimensional strings? The basic process of interaction is the same, but now the objects on a collision course are oscillating loops, as shown in Figure 6.7. If these loops are vibrating in just the right resonance patterns, they will correspond to an electron and a positron on collision course, just as in Figure 6.6. Only when examined at the most minute distance scales, far smaller than anything our present technology can access, is their true stringlike character apparent. As in the point-particle case, the two strings collide and again annihilate each other in a flash. The flash, a photon, is itself a string in a particular vibrational pattern. Thus, the two incoming strings interact by merging together and producing a third string, as shown in Figure 6.7. Just as in our point-particle description, this string travels a bit, and then releases the energy derived from the two initial strings by dissociating into two strings that travel onward. Again, from any but the most microscopic perspective, this will look just like the point-particle interaction of Figure 6.6.

    Figure 6.7 (a) Two strings on a collision course can merge into a third string, which subsequently can split apart into two strings travelling along deflected trajectories. (b) The same process as shown in (a), emphasizing string motion. (c) A "time-lapse photograph" of two interacting strings sweeping out a "world-sheet."

    There is, however, a crucial difference between the two descriptions. We emphasized that the point-particle interaction occurs at an identifiable point in space and time, a location that all observers can agree on. As we shall now see, this is not true for interactions between strings. We will show this by comparing how George and Gracie, two observers in relative motion as in Chapter 2, would describe the interaction. We will see that they do not agree on where and when the two strings touch for the first time.

    To do so, imagine that we view the interaction between two strings with a camera whose shutter is kept open so that the whole history of the process is captured on one piece of film. 10 We show the result—known as a string world-sheet—in Figure 6.7(c). By "slicing" the world-sheet into parallel pieces—much as one slices a loaf of bread—the moment-by-moment history of the string interaction can be recovered. We show an example of this slicing in Figure 6.8. Specifically, in Figure 6.8(a) we show George, intently focused on the two incoming strings, together with an attached plane that slices through all events in space that occur at the same time, according to his perspective. As we have done often in previous chapters, we have suppressed one spatial dimension in this diagram for visual clarity. In reality, of course, there is a three-dimensional array of events that occur at the same time according to any observer. Figures 6.8(b) and 6.8(c) give a couple of snapshots at subsequent times—subsequent "slices" of the world-sheet—showing how George sees the two strings approach each other. Of central importance, in Figure 6.8(c) we show the instant in time, according to George, when the two strings first touch and merge together, producing the third string.

    Let's now do the same for Gracie. As discussed in Chapter 2, the relative motion of George and Gracie implies that they do not agree on what events occur at the same time. From Gracie's perspective the events in space that occur simultaneously lie on a different plane, as shown in Figure 6.9. That is, from Gracie's perspective, the world-sheet of Figure 6.7(c) must be "sliced" into pieces at a different angle in order to reveal the moment-by-moment progression of the interaction.

    Figure 6.9 The two incoming strings from Gracie's perspective at three consecutive moments in time. In (a) and (b) the strings are getting closer together; at (c) they touch for the first time, from her viewpoint.

    In Figures 6.9(b) and 6.9(c) we show subsequent moments in time, now according to Gracie, including the moment when she sees the two incoming strings touch and produce the third string.

    By comparing Figures 6.8(c) and 6.9(c), as we do in Figure 6.10, we see that George and Gracie do not agree on when and where the two initial strings first touch—where they interact. The string, being an extended object, ensures that there is no unambiguous location in space or moment in time when the strings first interact—rather, it depends upon the state of motion of the observer.

    If we apply exactly the same reasoning to the interaction of point particles, as summarized in Figure 6.11, we recover the conclusion stated earlier—there is a definite point in space and moment in time when the point particles interact. Point particles cram all of their interaction into a definite point. When the force involved in an interaction is the gravitational force—that is, when the messenger particle involved in the interaction is the graviton instead of the photon—this complete packing of the force's punch into a single point leads to disastrous results, such as the infinite answers we alluded to earlier. Strings, by contrast, "smear" out the place where interactions occur. Because different observers perceive that the interaction takes place at various locations along the left part of the surface of Figure 6.10, in a real sense this means that the interaction location is smeared out among all of them. This spreads out the force's punch and, in the case of the gravitational force, this smearing significantly dilutes its ultramicroscopic properties—so much so that calculations yield well-behaved finite answers in place of the previous infinities. This is a more precise version of the smearing encountered in the rough answer of the last section. And once again, this smearing results in a smoothing of the ultramicroscopic jitteriness of space as sub-Planck-length distances are blurred together.

    Figure 6.10 George and Gracie do not agree on the location of the interaction.

    Like viewing the world through glasses that are too weak or too strong, fine sub-Planckian details that would be accessible to a point-particle probe are smeared together by string theory and rendered harmless. And unlike the case with poor eyesight, if string theory is the ultimate description of the universe, there is no corrective lens to bring the supposed sub-Planck-scale fluctuations into sharp focus. The incompatibility of general relativity and quantum mechanics—which would become apparent only on sub-Planck-scale distances—is avoided in a universe that has a lower limit on the distances that can be accessed, or even said to exist, in the conventional sense. Such is the universe described by string theory, in which we see that the laws of the large and the small can be harmoniously merged together as the supposed catastrophe arising on ultramicroscopic distances is summarily done away with.
    Figure 6.11 Observers in relative motion agree on when and where two point particles interact with another.
    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe