In her new book, Knocking on Heaven's Door, Harvard University theorist Lisa Randall explores how physics may transform our understanding of the fundamental nature of the world. She thinks an extra dimension may exist close to our familiar reality, hidden except for a bizarre sapping of the strength of gravity as we see it. She also ponders the makeup of dark matter, unseen particles that have shaped the growth of the entire cosmos. These ideas, once the sole province of fiction writers, face real tests in a new generation of experiments. Sensitive detectors now sniff for dark matter, while the most complex scientific machine ever created, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), beneath the border of Switzerland and France, smashes subatomic particles into one another at almost the speed of light.
What were your main goals for your new book?
One goal was to describe the science I'm interested in today: the physics happening at the LHC and searches for dark matter. But I also wanted to clarify the nature of science: what it means to be right and wrong, what it means to make measurements, and the roles of uncertainty, risk and creativity.
Do you feel the physics community is on the verge of finding something remarkable?
I certainly hope so. We have a good chance [with the LHC] to see the Higgs particle, which tells us how elementary particles acquire mass. Other deep issues include space-time symmetry and whether there are extra dimensions. We really do have a chance of making inroads on those subjects.
There are a lot of bizarre ideas here, from string theory to a "brane" of extra dimensions right next to our own. Why should we regard these ideas as more than fanciful constructs?
I'm certainly not asking anyone to take on faith any of the ideas that I present. That's part of the point of the book: science proceeds, and we systematically end up with new ideas and explanations, going from the human scales we're very familiar with to scales that are so remote it's hard to have intuition about them. Science is a self-correcting process, too, something that I expect will happen with the recent announcement of neutrinos that may move faster than the speed of light.
Can you describe the essence of your idea about extra dimensions?
There could be more to the universe than the three dimensions we are familiar with. They are hidden from us in some way, perhaps because they're tiny or warped. But even if they're invisible, they could affect what we actually observe in the universe. There are lots of things we cannot see with the naked eye that turn out to be based in reality.
Extra dimensions could be relevant to one of the questions we're trying to answer at the LHC: how particles get their mass, and why they have the masses that they do, which are far smaller than physicists would expect them to be. So our idea is there's an extra dimension that's so warped, the masses would be big in one place and small in another. In other words, gravity could be weaker in one place and stronger in another. If so, it could be a natural explanation both for why particles masses are what they are, and why gravity is so much weaker than the other elementary forces we observe.
This extra dimension could be separated from ours by a million trillion trillionth of a centimeter. Is this a parallel yet inaccessible universe?
It interacts with our dimensions only via gravity. And gravity is extremely weak. An elementary particle at ordinary energies exerts negligible gravitational force. But at the LHC, if this idea is right, we would see evidence of this extra dimension. Particles could carry momentum into the extra dimension, and that could actually be observable.
But it's not something you think of as a "parallel universe?"
Technically, yes, it could exist parallel to our universe. But it's not just a carbon copy of our universe, which a lot of people think of when they hear that phrase.
If physicists do find solid evidence of extra dimensions, how would that affect our view of the universe and our place in it?
You can have very exotic underlying phenomena, but they still would be consistent with the ordinary rules we're familiar with. At some level, it doesn't change anything. However, it means that at some deep underlying level, there's a much richer universe out there. It's just a wonderful thing to know what our universe is made of.
You describe the LHC as a "stupendous achievement."
Technologically, it's a tour de force. The fact that this thing works is amazing. We're looking for very rare events, so you need a very precise, very well understood machine to make them and detectors to understand what you see. You need an extreme amount of energy focused in a very tiny region to make these collisions happen, allowing the subcomponents of protons—quarks and gluons—to collide directly. And when they do, they can make new forms of heavier matter.
Many people feared the LHC would produce a planet-devouring black hole.
Scientists took it very seriously, and they ruled out this possibility not only theoretically, but also by looking at collisions of cosmic rays that create this same type of energy. We live in a world where there are many risks, and it's high time we start taking seriously which ones we should be worried about. Physicists showed this particular one is not a risk.
You offer a forthright discussion about religion and its compatibility with science. Why did you decide to broach that subject?
I almost had to in a book titled Knocking on Heaven's Door. But there is real confusion about what it means to be right and wrong—the difference between what spiritual beliefs are and what science is. I felt that if I was going to explain science, it was important to explain those distinctions. I wanted to take seriously the different views of the universe that people have, but to say there really are differences.
You wrote: "The religious part of your brain cannot act at the same time as the scientific one. They are simply incompatible."
When I say they are incompatible, I mean something very specific: A spiritual belief based on something that isn't based on actual material or cause and effect—the ways we understand scientifically—is just different than science. It's a very specific statement.
When you speak to public audiences, which popular misconception about physics strikes you the most?
You're trying to get me in trouble! It's probably the over-application of quantum mechanics. People think it explains things that it can't. There are a lot of mysteries about quantum mechanics, but they mostly arise in very detailed measurements in controlled settings.
You describe the LHC's giant detectors as works of art. Is probing the nature of the universe just as much an aesthetic endeavor as a scientific one?
Art and science do appeal to some of the same creative instincts. There's an appreciation of something larger than ourselves, which I think both art and science address. However, you can have a beautiful idea in science, and it can be just wrong—not because it's mathematically inconsistent, but because it's not realized in the world.
You wrote the text for an opera, "Hypermusic Prologue: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes," which premiered in 2009 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. How did that arise?
The composer [Hector Parra] wrote to me to ask if I wanted to get involved. It was an interesting opportunity to explore an art-science intersection in a new way. Art often reflects on the ideas of the times. So I really liked working with artists who appreciate that and who incorporate science into a new thing—but not just in a way that copies it. There were major creative challenges, such as how you represent higher dimensions on a stage.
The opera had a two-person cast, a minimalist stage design with abstract projections, and a score that was digitally altered in places. Sitting in the audience must have been quite an experience for you.
I work on pencil and paper or on a computer, so actually having fantastic singers singing my words, accompanied by musicians and a gorgeous set, was just something to see. The parts that went back and forth between the extra-dimensional world and our world were really great. Hector thought [my research] would give him insights into ways to make different types of music, and indeed it did. I think I was asked to put in more physics than I would have ideally, and ultimately the music was very abstract. However, it was great music, and there were moments that were truly beautiful.
You make playful musical references in your book's title and text, from the Police and Suzanne Vega to the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Are you a big popular music fan?
I have this uncanny ability where words stick in my head, so I hear a song and a lot of times it just happens automatically that I use the lyrics later. It may not be the original intention of the words, but they sometimes fit nicely what I'm trying to say.
What's next for you in science?
I've been exploring ideas that relate dark matter to ordinary matter. There is this amazing fact that the energy carried by dark matter in the universe is about six times the energy carried by ordinary matter. The question is, why is that? [The ratio] could have been completely different. So I'm looking at ways the two types of matter might be related, which would explain the coincidence.
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For a more accessible and less technical introduction to this topic, see Introduction to M-theory.
In physics, string theory is a theoretical framework in which the point-like particles of particle physics are replaced by one-dimensional objects called strings. It describes how these strings propagate through space and interact with each other. On distance scales larger than the string scale, a string looks just like an ordinary particle, with its mass, charge, and other properties determined by the vibrational state of the string. In string theory, one of the many vibrational states of the string corresponds to the graviton, a quantum mechanical particle that carries gravitational force. Thus string theory is a theory of quantum gravity.
String theory is a broad and varied subject that attempts to address a number of deep questions of fundamental physics. String theory has been applied to a variety of problems in black hole physics, early universe cosmology, nuclear physics, and condensed matter physics, and it has stimulated a number of major developments in pure mathematics. Because string theory potentially provides a unified description of gravity and particle physics, it is a candidate for a theory of everything, a self-contained mathematical model that describes all fundamental forces and forms of matter. Despite much work on these problems, it is not known to what extent string theory describes the real world or how much freedom the theory allows in the choice of its details.
String theory was first studied in the late 1960s as a theory of the strong nuclear force, before being abandoned in favor of quantum chromodynamics. Subsequently, it was realized that the very properties that made string theory unsuitable as a theory of nuclear physics made it a promising candidate for a quantum theory of gravity. The earliest version of string theory, bosonic string theory, incorporated only the class of particles known as bosons. It later developed into superstring theory, which posits a connection called supersymmetry between bosons and the class of particles called fermions. Five consistent versions of superstring theory were developed before it was conjectured in the mid-1990s that they were all different limiting cases of a single theory in eleven dimensions known as M-theory. In late 1997, theorists discovered an important relationship called the AdS/CFT correspondence, which relates string theory to another type of physical theory called a quantum field theory.
One of the challenges of string theory is that the full theory does not have a satisfactory definition in all circumstances. Another issue is that the theory is thought to describe an enormous landscape of possible universes, and this has complicated efforts to develop theories of particle physics based on string theory. These issues have led some in the community to criticize these approaches to physics and question the value of continued research on string theory unification.
In the twentieth century, two theoretical frameworks emerged for formulating the laws of physics. The first is Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, a theory that explains the force of gravity and the structure of space and time. The other is quantum mechanics which is a completely different formulation to describe physical phenomena using the known probability principles. By the late 1970s, these two frameworks had proven to be sufficient to explain most of the observed features of the universe, from elementary particles to atoms to the evolution of stars and the universe as a whole.
In spite of these successes, there are still many problems that remain to be solved. One of the deepest problems in modern physics is the problem of quantum gravity. The general theory of relativity is formulated within the framework of classical physics, whereas the other fundamental forces are described within the framework of quantum mechanics. A quantum theory of gravity is needed in order to reconcile general relativity with the principles of quantum mechanics, but difficulties arise when one attempts to apply the usual prescriptions of quantum theory to the force of gravity. In addition to the problem of developing a consistent theory of quantum gravity, there are many other fundamental problems in the physics of atomic nuclei, black holes, and the early universe.[a]
String theory is a theoretical framework that attempts to address these questions and many others. The starting point for string theory is the idea that the point-like particles of particle physics can also be modeled as one-dimensional objects called strings. String theory describes how strings propagate through space and interact with each other. In a given version of string theory, there is only one kind of string, which may look like a small loop or segment of ordinary string, and it can vibrate in different ways. On distance scales larger than the string scale, a string will look just like an ordinary particle, with its mass, charge, and other properties determined by the vibrational state of the string. In this way, all of the different elementary particles may be viewed as vibrating strings. In string theory, one of the vibrational states of the string gives rise to the graviton, a quantum mechanical particle that carries gravitational force. Thus string theory is a theory of quantum gravity.
One of the main developments of the past several decades in string theory was the discovery of certain "dualities", mathematical transformations that identify one physical theory with another. Physicists studying string theory have discovered a number of these dualities between different versions of string theory, and this has led to the conjecture that all consistent versions of string theory are subsumed in a single framework known as M-theory.
Studies of string theory have also yielded a number of results on the nature of black holes and the gravitational interaction. There are certain paradoxes that arise when one attempts to understand the quantum aspects of black holes, and work on string theory has attempted to clarify these issues. In late 1997 this line of work culminated in the discovery of the anti-de Sitter/conformal field theory correspondence or AdS/CFT. This is a theoretical result which relates string theory to other physical theories which are better understood theoretically. The AdS/CFT correspondence has implications for the study of black holes and quantum gravity, and it has been applied to other subjects, including nuclear and condensed matter physics.
Since string theory incorporates all of the fundamental interactions, including gravity, many physicists hope that it fully describes our universe, making it a theory of everything. One of the goals of current research in string theory is to find a solution of the theory that reproduces the observed spectrum of elementary particles, with a small cosmological constant, containing dark matter and a plausible mechanism for cosmic inflation. While there has been progress toward these goals, it is not known to what extent string theory describes the real world or how much freedom the theory allows in the choice of details.
One of the challenges of string theory is that the full theory does not have a satisfactory definition in all circumstances. The scattering of strings is most straightforwardly defined using the techniques of perturbation theory, but it is not known in general how to define string theory nonperturbatively. It is also not clear whether there is any principle by which string theory selects its vacuum state, the physical state that determines the properties of our universe. These problems have led some in the community to criticize these approaches to the unification of physics and question the value of continued research on these problems.
Main article: String (physics)
The application of quantum mechanics to physical objects such as the electromagnetic field, which are extended in space and time, is known as quantum field theory. In particle physics, quantum field theories form the basis for our understanding of elementary particles, which are modeled as excitations in the fundamental fields.
In quantum field theory, one typically computes the probabilities of various physical events using the techniques of perturbation theory. Developed by Richard Feynman and others in the first half of the twentieth century, perturbative quantum field theory uses special diagrams called Feynman diagrams to organize computations. One imagines that these diagrams depict the paths of point-like particles and their interactions.
The starting point for string theory is the idea that the point-like particles of quantum field theory can also be modeled as one-dimensional objects called strings. The interaction of strings is most straightforwardly defined by generalizing the perturbation theory used in ordinary quantum field theory. At the level of Feynman diagrams, this means replacing the one-dimensional diagram representing the path of a point particle by a two-dimensional surface representing the motion of a string. Unlike in quantum field theory, string theory does not have a full non-perturbative definition, so many of the theoretical questions that physicists would like to answer remain out of reach.
In theories of particle physics based on string theory, the characteristic length scale of strings is assumed to be on the order of the Planck length, or 10−35 meters, the scale at which the effects of quantum gravity are believed to become significant. On much larger length scales, such as the scales visible in physics laboratories, such objects would be indistinguishable from zero-dimensional point particles, and the vibrational state of the string would determine the type of particle. One of the vibrational states of a string corresponds to the graviton, a quantum mechanical particle that carries the gravitational force.
The original version of string theory was bosonic string theory, but this version described only bosons, a class of particles which transmit forces between the matter particles, or fermions. Bosonic string theory was eventually superseded by theories called superstring theories. These theories describe both bosons and fermions, and they incorporate a theoretical idea called supersymmetry. This is a mathematical relation that exists in certain physical theories between the bosons and fermions. In theories with supersymmetry, each boson has a counterpart which is a fermion, and vice versa.
There are several versions of superstring theory: type I, type IIA, type IIB, and two flavors of heterotic string theory (SO(32) and E8×E8). The different theories allow different types of strings, and the particles that arise at low energies exhibit different symmetries. For example, the type I theory includes both open strings (which are segments with endpoints) and closed strings (which form closed loops), while types IIA, IIB and heterotic include only closed strings.
In everyday life, there are three familiar dimensions of space: height, width and length. Einstein's general theory of relativity treats time as a dimension on par with the three spatial dimensions; in general relativity, space and time are not modeled as separate entities but are instead unified to a four-dimensional spacetime. In this framework, the phenomenon of gravity is viewed as a consequence of the geometry of spacetime.
In spite of the fact that the universe is well described by four-dimensional spacetime, there are several reasons why physicists consider theories in other dimensions. In some cases, by modeling spacetime in a different number of dimensions, a theory becomes more mathematically tractable, and one can perform calculations and gain general insights more easily.[b] There are also situations where theories in two or three spacetime dimensions are useful for describing phenomena in condensed matter physics. Finally, there exist scenarios in which there could actually be more than four dimensions of spacetime which have nonetheless managed to escape detection.
One notable feature of string theories is that these theories require extra dimensions of spacetime for their mathematical consistency. In bosonic string theory, spacetime is 26-dimensional, while in superstring theory it is 10-dimensional, and in M-theory it is 11-dimensional. In order to describe real physical phenomena using string theory, one must therefore imagine scenarios in which these extra dimensions would not be observed in experiments.
Compactification is one way of modifying the number of dimensions in a physical theory. In compactification, some of the extra dimensions are assumed to "close up" on themselves to form circles. In the limit where these curled up dimensions become very small, one obtains a theory in which spacetime has effectively a lower number of dimensions. A standard analogy for this is to consider a multidimensional object such as a garden hose. If the hose is viewed from a sufficient distance, it appears to have only one dimension, its length. However, as one approaches the hose, one discovers that it contains a second dimension, its circumference. Thus, an ant crawling on the surface of the hose would move in two dimensions.
Compactification can be used to construct models in which spacetime is effectively four-dimensional. However, not every way of compactifying the extra dimensions produces a model with the right properties to describe nature. In a viable model of particle physics, the compact extra dimensions must be shaped like a Calabi–Yau manifold. A Calabi–Yau manifold is a special space which is typically taken to be six-dimensional in applications to string theory. It is named after mathematicians Eugenio Calabi and Shing-Tung Yau.
Another approach to reducing the number of dimensions is the so-called brane-world scenario. In this approach, physicists assume that the observable universe is a four-dimensional subspace of a higher dimensional space. In such models, the force-carrying bosons of particle physics arise from open strings with endpoints attached to the four-dimensional subspace, while gravity arises from closed strings propagating through the larger ambient space. This idea plays an important role in attempts to develop models of real world physics based on string theory, and it provides a natural explanation for the weakness of gravity compared to the other fundamental forces.
Main articles: S-duality and T-duality
One notable fact about string theory is that the different versions of the theory all turn out to be related in highly nontrivial ways. One of the relationships that can exist between different string theories is called S-duality. This is a relationship which says that a collection of strongly interacting particles in one theory can, in some cases, be viewed as a collection of weakly interacting particles in a completely different theory. Roughly speaking, a collection of particles is said to be strongly interacting if they combine and decay often and weakly interacting if they do so infrequently. Type I string theory turns out to be equivalent by S-duality to the SO(32) heterotic string theory. Similarly, type IIB string theory is related to itself in a nontrivial way by S-duality.
Another relationship between different string theories is T-duality. Here one considers strings propagating around a circular extra dimension. T-duality states that a string propagating around a circle of radius R is equivalent to a string propagating around a circle of radius 1/R in the sense that all observable quantities in one description are identified with quantities in the dual description. For example, a string has momentum as it propagates around a circle, and it can also wind around the circle one or more times. The number of times the string winds around a circle is called the winding number. If a string has momentum p and winding number n in one description, it will have momentum n and winding number p in the dual description. For example, type IIA string theory is equivalent to type IIB string theory via T-duality, and the two versions of heterotic string theory are also related by T-duality.
In general, the term duality refers to a situation where two seemingly different physical systems turn out to be equivalent in a nontrivial way. Two theories related by a duality need not be string theories. For example, Montonen–Olive duality is example of an S-duality relationship between quantum field theories. The AdS/CFT correspondence is example of a duality which relates string theory to a quantum field theory. If two theories are related by a duality, it means that one theory can be transformed in some way so that it ends up looking just like the other theory. The two theories are then said to be dual to one another under the transformation. Put differently, the two theories are mathematically different descriptions of the same phenomena.
Main article: Brane
In string theory and other related theories, a brane is a physical object that generalizes the notion of a point particle to higher dimensions. For instance, a point particle can be viewed as a brane of dimension zero, while a string can be viewed as a brane of dimension one. It is also possible to consider higher-dimensional branes. In dimension p, these are called p-branes. The word brane comes from the word "membrane" which refers to a two-dimensional brane.
Branes are dynamical objects which can propagate through spacetime according to the rules of quantum mechanics. They have mass and can have other attributes such as charge. A p-brane sweeps out a (p+1)-dimensional volume in spacetime called its worldvolume. Physicists often study fields analogous to the electromagnetic field which live on the worldvolume of a brane.
In string theory, D-branes are an important class of branes that arise when one considers open strings. As an open string propagates through spacetime, its endpoints are required to lie on a D-brane. The letter "D" in D-brane refers to a certain mathematical condition on the system known as the Dirichlet boundary condition. The study of D-branes in string theory has led to important results such as the AdS/CFT correspondence, which has shed light on many problems in quantum field theory.
Branes are frequently studied from a purely mathematical point of view, and they are described as objects of certain categories, such as the derived category of coherent sheaves on a complex algebraic variety, or the Fukaya category of a symplectic manifold.  The connection between the physical notion of a brane and the mathematical notion of a category has led to important mathematical insights in the fields of algebraic and symplectic geometry and representation theory. 
Main article: M-theory
Prior to 1995, theorists believed that there were five consistent versions of superstring theory (type I, type IIA, type IIB, and two versions of heterotic string theory). This understanding changed in 1995 when Edward Witten suggested that the five theories were just special limiting cases of an eleven-dimensional theory called M-theory. Witten's conjecture was based on the work of a number of other physicists, including Ashoke Sen, Chris Hull, Paul Townsend, and Michael Duff. His announcement led to a flurry of research activity now known as the second superstring revolution.
Unification of superstring theories
In the 1970s, many physicists became interested in supergravity theories, which combine general relativity with supersymmetry. Whereas general relativity makes sense in any number of dimensions, supergravity places an upper limit on the number of dimensions. In 1978, work by Werner Nahm showed that the maximum spacetime dimension in which one can formulate a consistent supersymmetric theory is eleven. In the same year, Eugene Cremmer, Bernard Julia, and Joel Scherk of the École Normale Supérieure showed that supergravity not only permits up to eleven dimensions but is in fact most elegant in this maximal number of dimensions.
Initially, many physicists hoped that by compactifying eleven-dimensional supergravity, it might be possible to construct realistic models of our four-dimensional world. The hope was that such models would provide a unified description of the four fundamental forces of nature: electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravity. Interest in eleven-dimensional supergravity soon waned as various flaws in this scheme were discovered. One of the problems was that the laws of physics appear to distinguish between clockwise and counterclockwise, a phenomenon known as chirality. Edward Witten and others observed this chirality property cannot be readily derived by compactifying from eleven dimensions.
In the first superstring revolution in 1984, many physicists turned to string theory as a unified theory of particle physics and quantum gravity. Unlike supergravity theory, string theory was able to accommodate the chirality of the standard model, and it provided a theory of gravity consistent with quantum effects. Another feature of string theory that many physicists were drawn to in the 1980s and 1990s was its high degree of uniqueness. In ordinary particle theories, one can consider any collection of elementary particles whose classical behavior is described by an arbitrary Lagrangian. In string theory, the possibilities are much more constrained: by the 1990s, physicists had argued that there were only five consistent supersymmetric versions of the theory.
Although there were only a handful of consistent superstring theories, it remained a mystery why there was not just one consistent formulation. However, as physicists began to examine string theory more closely, they realized that these theories are related in intricate and nontrivial ways. They found that a system of strongly interacting strings can, in some cases, be viewed as a system of weakly interacting strings. This phenomenon is known as S-duality. It was studied by Ashoke Sen in the context of heterotic strings in four dimensions and by Chris Hull and Paul Townsend in the context of the type IIB theory. Theorists also found that different string theories may be related by T-duality. This duality implies that strings propagating on completely different spacetime geometries may be physically equivalent.
At around the same time, as many physicists were studying the properties of strings, a small group of physicists was examining the possible applications of higher dimensional objects. In 1987, Eric Bergshoeff, Ergin Sezgin, and Paul Townsend showed that eleven-dimensional supergravity includes two-dimensional branes. Intuitively, these objects look like sheets or membranes propagating through the eleven-dimensional spacetime. Shortly after this discovery, Michael Duff, Paul Howe, Takeo Inami, and Kellogg Stelle considered a particular compactification of eleven-dimensional supergravity with one of the dimensions curled up into a circle. In this setting, one can imagine the membrane wrapping around the circular dimension. If the radius of the circle is sufficiently small, then this membrane looks just like a string in ten-dimensional spacetime. In fact, Duff and his collaborators showed that this construction reproduces exactly the strings appearing in type IIA superstring theory.
Speaking at a string theory conference in 1995, Edward Witten made the surprising suggestion that all five superstring theories were in fact just different limiting cases of a single theory in eleven spacetime dimensions. Witten's announcement drew together all of the previous results on S- and T-duality and the appearance of higher dimensional branes in string theory. In the months following Witten's announcement, hundreds of new papers appeared on the Internet confirming different parts of his proposal. Today this flurry of work is known as the second superstring revolution.
Initially, some physicists suggested that the new theory was a fundamental theory of membranes, but Witten was skeptical of the role of membranes in the theory. In a paper from 1996, Hořava and Witten wrote "As it has been proposed that the eleven-dimensional theory is a supermembrane theory but there are some reasons to doubt that interpretation, we will non-committally call it the M-theory, leaving to the future the relation of M to membranes." In the absence of an understanding of the true meaning and structure of M-theory, Witten has suggested that the M should stand for "magic", "mystery", or "membrane" according to taste, and the true meaning of the title should be decided when a more fundamental formulation of the theory is known.
Main article: Matrix theory (physics)
In mathematics, a matrix is a rectangular array of numbers or other data. In physics, a matrix model is a particular kind of physical theory whose mathematical formulation involves the notion of a matrix in an important way. A matrix model describes the behavior of a set of matrices within the framework of quantum mechanics.
One important example of a matrix model is the BFSS matrix model proposed by Tom Banks, Willy Fischler, Stephen Shenker, and Leonard Susskind in 1997. This theory describes the behavior of a set of nine large matrices. In their original paper, these authors showed, among other things, that the low energy limit of this matrix model is described by eleven-dimensional supergravity. These calculations led them to propose that the BFSS matrix model is exactly equivalent to M-theory. The BFSS matrix model can therefore be used as a prototype for a correct formulation of M-theory and a tool for investigating the properties of M-theory in a relatively simple setting.
The development of the matrix model formulation of M-theory has led physicists to consider various connections between string theory and a branch of mathematics called noncommutative geometry. This subject is a generalization of ordinary geometry in which mathematicians define new geometric notions using tools from noncommutative algebra. In a paper from 1998, Alain Connes, Michael R. Douglas, and Albert Schwarz showed that some aspects of matrix models and M-theory are described by a noncommutative quantum field theory, a special kind of physical theory in which spacetime is described mathematically using noncommutative geometry. This established a link between matrix models and M-theory on the one hand, and noncommutative geometry on the other hand. It quickly led to the discovery of other important links between noncommutative geometry and various physical theories.
In general relativity, a black hole is defined as a region of spacetime in which the gravitational field is so strong that no particle or radiation can escape. In the currently accepted models of stellar evolution, black holes are thought to arise when massive stars undergo gravitational collapse, and many galaxies are thought to contain supermassive black holes at their centers. Black holes are also important for theoretical reasons, as they present profound challenges for theorists attempting to understand the quantum aspects of gravity. String theory has proved to be an important tool for investigating the theoretical properties of black holes because it provides a framework in which theorists can study their thermodynamics.
In the branch of physics called statistical mechanics, entropy is a measure of the randomness or disorder of a physical system. This concept was studied in the 1870s by the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, who showed that the thermodynamic properties of a gas could be derived from the combined properties of its many constituent molecules. Boltzmann argued that by averaging the behaviors of all the different molecules in a gas, one can understand macroscopic properties such as volume, temperature, and pressure. In addition, this perspective led him to give a precise definition of entropy as the natural logarithm of the number of different states of the molecules (also called microstates) that give rise to the same macroscopic features.
In the twentieth century, physicists began to apply the same concepts to black holes. In most systems such as gases, the entropy scales with the volume. In the 1970s, the physicist Jacob Bekenstein suggested that the entropy of a black hole is instead proportional to the surface area of its event horizon, the boundary beyond which matter and radiation is lost to its gravitational attraction. When combined with ideas of the physicist Stephen Hawking, Bekenstein's work yielded a precise formula for the entropy of a black hole. The Bekenstein–Hawking formula expresses the entropy S as
where c is the speed of light, k is Boltzmann's constant, ħ is the reduced Planck constant, G is Newton's constant, and A is the surface area of the event horizon.
Like any physical system, a black hole has an entropy defined in terms of the number of different microstates that lead to the same macroscopic features. The Bekenstein–Hawking entropy formula gives the expected value of the entropy of a black hole, but by the 1990s, physicists still lacked a derivation of this formula by counting microstates in a theory of quantum gravity. Finding such a derivation of this formula was considered an important test of the viability of any theory of quantum gravity such as string theory.
Derivation within string theory
In a paper from 1996, Andrew Strominger and Cumrun Vafa showed how to derive the Beckenstein–Hawking formula for certain black holes in string theory. Their calculation was based on the observation that D-branes—which look like fluctuating membranes when they are weakly interacting—become dense, massive objects with event horizons when the interactions are strong. In other words, a system of strongly interacting D-branes in string theory is indistinguishable from a black hole. Strominger and Vafa analyzed such D-brane systems and calculated the number of different ways of placing D-branes in spacetime so that their combined mass and charge is equal to a given mass and charge for the resulting black hole. Their calculation reproduced the Bekenstein–Hawking formula exactly, including the factor of 1/4. Subsequent work by Strominger, Vafa, and others refined the original calculations and gave the precise values of the "quantum corrections" needed to describe very small black holes.
The black holes that Strominger and Vafa considered in their original work were quite different from real astrophysical black holes. One difference was that Strominger and Vafa considered only extremal black holes in order to make the calculation tractable. These are defined as black holes with the lowest possible mass compatible with a given charge. Strominger and Vafa also restricted attention to black holes in five-dimensional spacetime with unphysical supersymmetry.
Although it was originally developed in this very particular and physically unrealistic context in string theory, the entropy calculation of Strominger and Vafa has led to a qualitative understanding of how black hole entropy can be accounted for in any theory of quantum gravity. Indeed, in 1998, Strominger argued that the original result could be generalized to an arbitrary consistent theory of quantum gravity without relying on strings or supersymmetry. In collaboration with several other authors in 2010, he showed that some results on black hole entropy could be extended to non-extremal astrophysical black holes.
Main article: AdS/CFT correspondence
One approach to formulating string theory and studying its properties is provided by the anti-de Sitter/conformal field theory (AdS/CFT) correspondence. This is a theoretical result which implies that string theory is in some cases equivalent to a quantum field theory. In addition to providing insights into the mathematical structure of string theory, the AdS/CFT correspondence has shed light on many aspects of quantum field theory in regimes where traditional calculational techniques are ineffective. The AdS/CFT correspondence was first proposed by Juan Maldacena in late 1997. Important aspects of the correspondence were elaborated in articles by Steven Gubser, Igor Klebanov, and Alexander Markovich Polyakov, and by Edward Witten. By 2010, Maldacena's article had over 7000 citations, becoming the most highly cited article in the field of high energy physics.[c]
Overview of the correspondence
In the AdS/CFT correspondence, the geometry of spacetime is described in terms of a certain vacuum solution of Einstein's equation called anti-de Sitter space. In very elementary terms, anti-de Sitter space is a mathematical model of spacetime in which the notion of distance between points (the metric) is different from the notion of distance in ordinary Euclidean geometry. It is closely related to hyperbolic space, which can be viewed as a disk as illustrated on the left. This image shows a tessellation of a disk by triangles and squares. One can define the distance between points of this disk in such a way that all the triangles and squares are the same size and the circular outer boundary is infinitely far from any point in the interior.
One can imagine a stack of hyperbolic disks where each disk represents the state of the universe at a given time. The resulting geometric object is three-dimensional anti-de Sitter space. It looks like a solid cylinder in which any cross section is a copy of the hyperbolic disk. Time runs along the vertical direction in this picture. The surface of this cylinder plays an important role in the AdS/CFT correspondence. As with the hyperbolic plane, anti-de Sitter space is curved in such a way that any point in the interior is actually infinitely far from this boundary surface.
This construction describes a hypothetical universe with only two space dimensions and one time dimension, but it can be generalized to any number of dimensions. Indeed, hyperbolic space can have more than two dimensions and one can "stack up" copies of hyperbolic space to get higher-dimensional models of anti-de Sitter space.
An important feature of anti-de Sitter space is its boundary (which looks like a cylinder in the case of three-dimensional anti-de Sitter space). One property of this boundary is that, within a small region on the surface around any given point, it looks just like Minkowski space, the model of spacetime used in nongravitational physics. One can therefore consider an auxiliary theory in which "spacetime" is given by the boundary of anti-de Sitter space. This observation is the starting point for AdS/CFT correspondence, which states that the boundary of anti-de Sitter space can be regarded as the "spacetime" for a quantum field theory. The claim is that this quantum field theory is equivalent to a gravitational theory, such as string theory, in the bulk anti-de Sitter space in the sense that there is a "dictionary" for translating entities and calculations in one theory into their counterparts in the other theory. For example, a single particle in the gravitational theory might correspond to some collection of particles in the boundary theory. In addition, the predictions in the two theories are quantitatively identical so that if two particles have a 40 percent chance of colliding in the gravitational theory, then the corresponding collections in the boundary theory would also have a 40 percent chance of colliding.
Applications to quantum gravity
The discovery of the AdS/CFT correspondence was a major advance in physicists' understanding of string theory and quantum gravity. One reason for this is that the correspondence provides a formulation of string theory in terms of quantum field theory, which is well understood by comparison. Another reason is that it provides a general framework in which physicists can study and attempt to resolve the paradoxes of black holes.
In 1975, Stephen Hawking published a calculation which suggested that black holes are not completely black but emit a dim radiation due to quantum effects near the event horizon. At first, Hawking's result posed a problem for theorists because it suggested that black holes destroy information. More precisely, Hawking's calculation seemed to conflict with one of the basic postulates of quantum mechanics, which states that physical systems evolve in time according to the Schrödinger equation. This property is usually referred to as unitarity of time evolution. The apparent contradiction between Hawking's calculation and the unitarity postulate of quantum mechanics came to be known as the black hole information paradox.
The AdS/CFT correspondence resolves the black hole information paradox, at least to some extent, because it shows how a black hole can evolve in a manner consistent with quantum mechanics in some contexts. Indeed, one can consider black holes in the context of the AdS/CFT correspondence, and any such black hole corresponds to a configuration of particles on the boundary of anti-de Sitter space. These particles obey the usual rules of quantum mechanics and in particular evolve in a unitary fashion, so the black hole must also evolve in a unitary fashion, respecting the principles of quantum mechanics. In 2005, Hawking announced that the paradox had been settled in favor of information conservation by the AdS/CFT correspondence, and he suggested a concrete mechanism by which black holes might preserve information.
Applications to nuclear physics
Main article: AdS/QCD correspondence
In addition to its applications to theoretical problems in quantum gravity, the AdS/CFT correspondence has been applied to a variety of problems in quantum field theory. One physical system that has been studied using the AdS/CFT correspondence is the quark–gluon plasma, an exotic state of matter produced in particle accelerators. This state of matter arises for brief instants when heavy ions such as gold or lead nuclei are collided at high energies. Such collisions cause the quarks that make up atomic nuclei to deconfine at temperatures of approximately two trillionkelvins, conditions similar to those present at around 10−11 seconds after the Big Bang.
The physics of the quark–gluon plasma is governed by a theory called quantum chromodynamics, but this theory is mathematically intractable in problems involving the quark–gluon plasma.[d] In an article appearing in 2005, Đàm Thanh Sơn and his collaborators showed that the AdS/CFT correspondence could be used to understand some aspects of the quark–gluon plasma by describing it in the language of string theory. By applying the AdS/CFT correspondence, Sơn and his collaborators were able to describe the quark gluon plasma in terms of black holes in five-dimensional spacetime. The calculation showed that the ratio of two quantities associated with the quark–gluon plasma, the shear viscosity and volume density of entropy, should be approximately equal to a certain universal constant. In 2008, the predicted value of this ratio for the quark–gluon plasma was confirmed at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Applications to condensed matter physics
Main article: AdS/CMT correspondence
The AdS/CFT correspondence has also been used to study aspects of condensed matter physics. Over the decades, experimental condensed matter physicists have discovered a number of exotic states of matter, including superconductors and superfluids. These states are described using the formalism of quantum field theory, but some phenomena are difficult to explain using standard field theoretic techniques. Some condensed matter theorists including Subir Sachdev hope that the AdS/CFT correspondence will make it possible to describe these systems in the language of string theory and learn more about their behavior.
So far some success has been achieved in using string theory methods to describe the transition of a superfluid to an insulator. A superfluid is a system of electrically neutralatoms that flows without any friction. Such systems are often produced in the laboratory using liquid helium, but recently experimentalists have developed new ways of producing artificial superfluids by pouring trillions of cold atoms into a lattice of criss-crossing lasers. These atoms initially behave as a superfluid, but as experimentalists increase the intensity of the lasers, they become less mobile and then suddenly transition to an insulating state. During the transition, the atoms behave in an unusual way. For example, the atoms slow to a halt at a rate that depends on the temperature and on Planck's constant, the fundamental parameter of quantum mechanics, which does not enter into the description of the other phases. This behavior has recently been understood by considering a dual description where properties of the fluid are described in terms of a higher dimensional black hole.
Main article: String phenomenology
In addition to being an idea of considerable theoretical interest, string theory provides a framework for constructing models of real world physics that combine general relativity and particle physics. Phenomenology is the branch of theoretical physics in which physicists construct realistic models of nature from more abstract theoretical ideas. String phenomenology is the part of string theory that attempts to construct realistic or semi-realistic models based on string theory.
Partly because of theoretical and mathematical difficulties and partly because of the extremely high energies needed to test these theories experimentally, there is so far no experimental evidence that would unambiguously point to any of these models being a correct fundamental description of nature. This has led some in the community to criticize these approaches to unification and question the value of continued research on these problems.
The currently accepted theory describing elementary particles and their interactions is known as the standard model of particle physics