Economics, Politics, Social Commentary and occasionally Superstring Theory.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Superstring Theory 101

The sub-title of my blog says that I will occasionally discuss superstring theory. This is not my field of expertise, but something I keep up on in my free time. Expect the lack of knowledge that I exhibit in economics tol be compounded in superstring theory. Just a heads up.

You may be asking yourself why a blog that's concerned with international economics would post about theoretical physics. After all, I've never taken Chemistry, much less Physics. Both generally make my eyes glaze over and triggers an impulse to run. But, I read a couple of articles out of interest and got hooked on it. Why? Because it's a theory of everything.

The theory attempts to unite the theories of quantum mechanics and Einstein's general relativity. Those two theories are both consistent with what they describe, but force you to make opposite assumptions about how the world works. Quantum mechanics describes how things act at very small scales while general relativity describes how things act at very large scales. String theory started off as an attempt to make the two theories consistent. It evolved into a grand, unifying theory.

The superstring theorists have their critics, but its advocates insist that the theory is simply too beautiful to be wrong. Unfortunately, although it's explained many things, science does not yet have the capability to perform the sorts of experiments that would verify it. Or falsify it, for that matter. Alternative theories that challenge superstring theory normally end up getting absorbed into the theory itself. This has led some critics to call superstring as more of a philosophy than a theory.

At its core, superstring theory postulates that the fundamental element of the universe is not a spherical particle, but a loop of string. We just always thought it was a particle because our microscopes aren't powerful enough to peer to the side of the loop. The loops of string all vibrate at a certain resonance and tension, much like the strings on a violin. The type of vibration determines what form of matter the string takes. The universe is an infinite symphony of different strings vibrating at different frequencies.

It also postulates nine spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension, but that's a topic for another post. The New York Times (registration required) has an excellent introduction, as well.

I think superstring is to physics what comparative advantage is to economics. In physics, our intuition tells us that there are three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension. In economics, our intuition tells us that protectionism is good because it encourages domestic job growth (at first). In physics, superstring was first postulated as a theory. In economics, so was comparative advantage. In either case, we don't have enough data to say that either theory is a law. But we know that they have to because we've tried everything else and it doesn't work.

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