February 7, 05

Vol. 20 , No. 07   

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String Theory: Reaching for Einstein's Dream

A century ago, a young clerk working in a Berlin patent office was thinking about three major problems of physics. One of those problems was reconciling the Newtonian common sense view that time in one place is exactly the same for time in any other with James Clerk Maxwell's theory of light. So, when not evaluating patents for better pop-guns, the clerk reasoned that light must be constant, no matter how fast you are moving. As a consequence, time actually becomes slower with greater speed and lengths and masses contract. The clerk was Albert Einstein, and his 1905 paper revealed a stunning new theory of space and time that became known as "special relativity" and the most celebrated equation in science, E=MC(2).

If "special relativity" and Einstein's later application of it to gravity called "general relativity" ruled the world of the very large, quantum mechanics, a highly probabilistic theory more radically dependent on the observer than relativity, seemed to reign in the realm of the small, of the atomic and subatomic. In fact, one of Einstein's other two 1905 papers included a study of the photoelectric effect, and that gave rise to quantum mechanics.

It was the dream of Einstein's mature years and the dream of many theoretical physicists since to reconcile the conflict of relativity and quantum mechanics and to produce a Theory of Everything. Brian Greene, a mathematician and physicist, has been a pioneer and expositor of string theory, one the most recent prominent attempts to unify the laws of physics. In explaining cosmology and the big hang, Greene has presented an encompassing vision of an eleven-dimensional "multiverse" that challenges Einstein's relativistic conception of spacetime.

In addition to his numerous scientific contributions to String Theory, Greene is the author of two lucid books on contemporary physics and cosmology: The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ulitimate Theory (2000) and The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (2004). Greene was graduated from Harvard University, and received his Ph.D. in physics from Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He is a professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University. Greene comes to CMC in conjunction with Professor Robert Faggen's seminar on "Science and Faith in Modern Literature" and is funded, in part, by the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies.