The University Record, January 28, 1997
Physics presentation explores 'Why Einstein Would Love Spaghetti'
Being a theoretical physicist is a little like being a composer of music, says James Gates, professor of physics at the University of Maryland. The difference is that physicists compose with mathematical notation, rather than musical notation. "The measure of our talent is how well our compositions describe what occurs in nature," he says.
Gates writes his compositions for strings---not violins or cellos, but extremely small bits of matter called superstrings. At a physics colloquium held to commemorate Martin Luther King Day last week, Gates reviewed developments in his field in a presentation titled "Superstrings: Why Einstein Would Love Spaghetti in Fundamental Physics."
Since the 1960s, particle physicists have confirmed the existence of six types of quarks---the basic building blocks of everything in the universe, including protons, neutrons and other subatomic particles that make up the nuclei of atoms. These elementary particles behave like small balls spinning on an axis, according to Gates.
Gates and his colleagues believe that strings are an even more fundamental component of everything in the universe, however. Strings inhabit the murky world of quantum mechanics where the traditional laws of physics don't apply, particles have probabilities to exist in two places simultaneously and the very act of observing an experiment changes experimental outcomes.
Strings don't behave at all like individual particles, Gates said. "They are little pieces of one-dimensional spaghetti with length, but no thickness," he explained. "They can be open like a string or closed like a circle. Strings can oscillate or vibrate like the strings on a violin. When they move through space, they create a two-dimensional plane, if the strings are open; or a tube, if the strings are closed."
So why has it taken physicists 2,000 years to find any evidence that strings exist? According to Gates, it is because they are so incredibly tiny that it is impossible for scientists to observe their ultrasmall world.
Although strings may have little impact on our time and place in the universe, Gates says they dominated the first instants of our universe's existence during the Big Bang. They also may provide a complete explanation for how gravity works---a puzzle that still baffles scientists---and help physicists develop Einstein's long-sought "Unified Field Theory," which would reconcile many of the discrepancies between classical physics and quantum mechanics.
Just as the study of electromagnetism led to the development of radio, television and cellular telephones, Gates says the development of string theory could lead to the discovery of entirely new forms of energy or a new way to clean up nuclear waste.
"Throughout history, this type of knowledge has always made it possible for later generations of scientists to develop new devices and processes that could not even be imagined by the actual discoverers of the knowledge," Gates said.