The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory - Brian Greene (2010)
Part III. The Cosmic Symphony
Chapter 9. The Smoking Gun: Experimental Signatures
Nothing would please string theorists more than to proudly present the world with a list of detailed, experimentally testable predictions. Certainly, there is no way to establish that any theory describes our world without subjecting its predictions to experimental verification. And no matter how compelling a picture string theory paints, if it does not accurately describe our universe, it will be no more relevant than an elaborate game of Dungeons and Dragons.
Edward Witten is fond of declaring that string theory has already made a dramatic and experimentally confirmed prediction: "String theory has the remarkable property of predicting gravity."1 What Witten means by this is that both Newton and Einstein developed theories of gravity because their observations of the world clearly showed them that gravity exists, and that, therefore, it required an accurate and consistent explanation. On the contrary, a physicist studying string theory—even if he or she was completely unaware of general relativity—would be inexorably led to it by the string framework. Through its massless spin-2 graviton pattern of vibration, string theory has gravity thoroughly sewn into its theoretical fabric. As Witten has said, "the fact that gravity is a consequence of string theory is one of the greatest theoretical insights ever."2 In acknowledging that this "prediction" is more precisely labeled a "postdiction" because physicists had discovered theoretical descriptions of gravity before they knew of string theory, Witten points out that this is a mere accident of history on earth. In other advanced civilizations in the universe, Witten fancifully argues, it is quite possible that string theory was discovered first, and a theory of gravity found as a stunning consequence.
Since we are bound to the history of science on our planet, there are many who find this postdiction of gravity unconvincing experimental confirmation of string theory. Most physicists would be far happier with one of two things: a bona fide prediction from string theory that experimentalists could confirm, or a postdiction of some property of the world (like the mass of the electron or the existence of three families of particles) for which there is currently no explanation. In this chapter we will discuss how far string theorists have gone toward reaching these goals.
Ironically, we will see that although string theory has the potential to be the most predictive theory that physicists have ever studied—a theory that has the capacity to explain the most fundamental of nature's properties—physicists have not as yet been able to make predictions with the precision necessary to confront experimental data. Like a child who receives his or her dream gift for Christmas but can't quite get it to work because a few pages of the instructions are missing, today's physicists are in possession of what may well be the Holy Grail of modern science, but they can't unleash its full predictive power until they succeed in writing the full instruction manual. Nevertheless, as we discuss in this chapter, with a bit of luck, one central feature of string theory could receive experimental verification within the next decade. And with a good deal more luck, indirect fingerprints of the theory could be confirmed at any moment.
Is string theory right? We don't know. If you share the belief that the laws of physics should not be fragmented into those that govern the large and those that govern the small, and if you also believe that we should not rest until we have a theory whose range of applicability is limitless, string theory is the only game in town. You might well argue, though, that this highlights only physicists' lack of imagination rather than some fundamental uniqueness of string theory. Perhaps. You might further argue that, like the man searching for his lost keys solely under a street light, physicists are huddled around string theory merely because the vagaries of scientific history have shed one random ray of insight in this direction. Maybe. And, if you're either relatively conservative or fond of playing devil's advocate, you might even say that physicists have no business wasting time on a theory that postulates a new feature of nature some hundred million billion times smaller than anything we can directly probe experimentally.
If you voiced these complaints in the 1980s when string theory first made its splash, you would have been joined by some of the most respected physicists of our age. For instance, in the mid-1980s Nobel Prize-winning Harvard physicist Sheldon Glashow, together with physicist Paul Ginsparg, then also at Harvard, publicly disparaged string theory's lack of experimental accessibility:
In lieu of the traditional confrontation between theory and experiment, superstring theorists pursue an inner harmony, where elegance, uniqueness and beauty define truth. The theory depends for its existence upon magical coincidences, miraculous cancellations and relations among seemingly unrelated (and possibly undiscovered) fields of mathematics. Are these properties reasons to accept the reality of superstrings? Do mathematics and aesthetics supplant and transcend mere experiment?3
Elsewhere, Glashow went on to say,
Superstring theory is so ambitious that it can only be totally right, or totally wrong. The only problem is that the mathematics is so new and difficult that we won't know which for decades to come.4
And he even questioned whether string theorists should "be paid by physics departments and allowed to pervert impressionable students," warning that string theory was was undermining science, much as medieval theology did during the Middle Ages.5
Richard Feynman, shortly before he died, made it clear that he did not believe that string theory was the unique cure for the problems—the pernicious infinities, in particular—besetting a harmonious merger of gravity and quantum mechanics:
My feeling has been—and I could be wrong—that there is more than one way to skin a cat. I don't think that there's only one way to get rid of the infinities. The fact that a theory gets rid of infinities is to me not a sufficient reason to believe its uniqueness.6
And Howard Georgi, Glashow's eminent Harvard colleague and collaborator, was also a vociferous string critic in the late 1980s:
If we allow ourselves to be beguiled by the siren call of the "ultimate" unification at distances so small that our experimental friends cannot help us, then we are in trouble, because we will lose that crucial process of pruning of irrelevant ideas which distinguishes physics from so many other less interesting human activities.7
As with many issues of great importance, for each of these naysayers, there is an enthusiastic supporter. Witten has said that when he learned how string theory incorporates gravity and quantum mechanics, it was "the greatest intellectual thrill" of his life.8 Cumrun Vafa, a leading string theorist from Harvard University, has said that "string theory is definitely revealing the deepest understanding of the universe which we have ever had."9 And Nobel Prize-winner Murray Gell-Mann has said that string theory is "a fantastic thing" and that he expects that some version of string theory will someday be the theory of the whole world.10
As you can see, the debate is fueled in part by physics and in part by distinct philosophies about how physics should be done. The "traditionalists" want theoretical work to be closely tied to experimental observation, largely in the successful research mold of the last few centuries. But others think that we are ready to tackle questions that are beyond our present technological ability to test directly.
Different philosophies notwithstanding, during the past decade much of the criticism of string theory has subsided. Glashow attributes this to two things. First, he notes that in the mid-1980s,
String theorists were enthusiastically and exuberantly proclaiming that they would shortly answer all questions in physics. As they are now more prudent with their enthusiasm, much of my criticism in the 1980s is no longer that relevant.11
Second, he also points out,
We non-string theorists have not made any progress whatsoever in the last decade. So the argument that string theory is the only game in town is a very strong and powerful one. There are questions that will not be answered in the framework of conventional quantum field theory. That much is clear. They may be answered by something else, and the only something else I know of is string theory.12
Georgi reflects back on the 1980s in much the same way:
At various times in its early history, string theory has gotten oversold. In the intervening years I have found that some of the ideas of string theory have led to interesting ways of thinking about physics which have been useful to me in my own work. I am much happier now to see people spending their time on string theory since I can now see how something useful will come out of it.13
Theorist David Gross, a leader in both conventional and string physics, has eloquently summed up the situation in the following way:
It used to be that as we were climbing the mountain of nature the experimentalists would lead the way. We lazy theorists would lag behind. Every once in a while they would kick down an experimental stone which would bounce off our heads. Eventually we would get the idea and we would follow the path that was broken by the experimentalists. Once we joined our friends we would explain to them what the view was and how they got there. That was the old and easy way (at least for theorists) to climb the mountain. We all long for the return of those days. But now we theorists might have to take the lead. This is a much more lonely enterprise.14
String theorists have no desire for a solo trek to the upper reaches of Mount Nature; they would far prefer to share the burden and the excitement with experimental colleagues. It is merely a technological mismatch in our current situation—a historical asynchrony—that the theoretical ropes and crampons for the final push to the top have at least been partially fashioned, while the experimental ones do not yet exist. But this does not mean that string theory is fundamentally divorced from experiment. Rather, string theorists have high hopes of "kicking down a theoretical stone" from the ultra-high-energy mountaintop to experimentalists working at a lower base camp. This is a prime goal of present-day research in string theory. No stones have as yet been dislodged from the summit to be sent hurtling down, but, as we now discuss, a few tantalizing and promising pebbles certainly have.
The Road to Experiment
Without monumental technological breakthroughs, we will never be able to focus on the tiny length scales necessary to see a string directly. Physicists can probe down to a billionth of a billionth of a meter with accelerators that are roughly a few miles in size. Probing smaller distances requires higher energies and this means larger machines capable of focusing that energy on a single particle. As the Planck length is some 17 orders of magnitude smaller than what we can currently access, using today's technology we would need an accelerator the size of the galaxy to see individual strings. In fact, Shmuel Nussinov of Tel Aviv University has shown that this rough estimate based on straightforward scaling is likely to be overly optimistic; his more careful study indicates that we would require an accelerator the size of the whole universe. (The energy required to probe matter at the Planck length is roughly equal to a thousand kilowatt-hours—the energy needed to run an average air conditioner for about one hundred hours—and so is not particularly outlandish. The seemingly insurmountable technological challenge is to focus all of this energy on a single particle, that is, on a single string.) As the U.S. Congress ultimately canceled funding for the Superconducting Supercollider—an accelerator a "mere" 54 miles in circumference—don't hold your breath while waiting for the money for a Planck-probing accelerator. If we are going to test string theory experimentally, it will have to be in an indirect manner. We will have to determine physical implications of string theory that can be observed on length scales that are far larger than the size of a string itself.15
In their groundbreaking paper, Candelas, Horowitz, Strominger, and Witten took the first steps toward this goal. They not only found that the extra dimensions in string theory must be curled up into a Calabi-Yau shape, but they also worked out some of the implications this has on the possible patterns of string vibrations. One central result they found highlights the amazingly unexpected solutions string theory offers to long-standing particle-physics problems.
Recall that the elementary particles that physicists have found fall into three families of identical organization, with the particles in each successive family being increasingly massive. The puzzling question for which there was no insight prior to string theory is, Why families and why three? Here is string theory's proposal. A typical Calabi-Yau shape contains holes that are analogous to those found at the center of a phonograph record, or a doughnut, or a "multidoughnut", as shown in Figure 9.1. In the higher-dimensional Calabi-Yau context, there are actually a variety of different types of holes that can arise—holes which themselves can have a variety of dimensions ("multidimensional holes")—but Figure 9.1 conveys the basic idea. Candelas, Horowitz, Strominger, and Witten closely examined the effect that these holes have on the possible patterns of string vibration, and here is what they found.
There is a family of lowest-energy string vibrations associated with each hole in the Calabi-Yau portion of space. Because the familiar elementary particles should correspond to the lowest-energy oscillatory patterns, the existence of multiple holes—somewhat like those in the multidoughnut—means that the patterns of string vibrations will fall into multiple families. If the curled-up Calabi-Yau has three holes, then we will find three families of elementary particles.16 And so, string theory proclaims that the family organization observed experimentally, rather than being some unexplainable feature of either random or divine origin, is a reflection of the number of holes in the geometrical shape comprising the extra dimensions! This is the kind of result that makes a physicist's heart skip a beat.
Figure 9.1 A doughnut, or torus, and its multihandled cousins.
You might think that the number of holes in the curled-up Planck-sized dimensions—mountaintop physics par excellence—has now kicked an experimentally testable stone down to accessible energies. After all, experimentalists can establish—in fact, already have established—the number of particle families: 3. Unfortunately, the number of holes contained in each of the tens of thousands of known Calabi-Yau shapes spans a wide range. Some have 3. But others have 4, 5, 25, and so on—some even have as many as 480 holes. The problem is that at present no one knows how to deduce from the equations of string theory which of the Calabi-Yau shapes constitutes the extra spatial dimensions. If we could find the principle that allows the selection of one Calabi-Yau shape from the numerous possibilities, then indeed a stone from the mountaintop would go tumbling down into the experimentalists' camp. If the particular Calabi-Yau shape singled out by the equations of the theory were to have three holes, we would have found an impressive postdiction from string theory explaining a known feature of the world that is otherwise completely mysterious. But finding the principle for choosing among Calabi-Yau shapes is a problem that as yet remains unsolved. Nevertheless—and this is the important point—we see that string theory provides the potential for answering this basic puzzle of particle physics, and this in itself is substantial progress.
The number of families is but one experimental consequence of the geometrical form of the extra dimensions. Through their effect on possible patterns of string vibrations, other consequences of the extra dimensions include the detailed properties of the force and matter particles. As one primary example, subsequent work by Strominger and Witten showed that the masses of the particles in each family depend upon—hang on, this is a bit tricky—the way in which the boundaries of the various multidimensional holes in the Calabi-Yau shape intersect and overlap with one another. It's hard to visualize, but the idea is that as strings vibrate through the extra curled-up dimensions, the precise arrangement of the various holes and the way in which the Calabi-Yau shape folds around them has a direct impact on the possible resonant patterns of vibration. Although the details get difficult to follow and are really not all that essential, what is important is that, as with the number of families, string theory can provide us with a framework for answering questions—such as why the electron and other particles have the masses they do—on which previous theories are completely silent. Once again, though, carrying through with such calculations requires that we know which Calabi-Yau space to take for the extra dimensions.
The preceding discussion gives some idea of how string theory may one day explain the properties of the matter particles recorded in Table 1.1. String theorists believe that a similar story will one day also explain the properties of the messenger particles of the fundamental forces, listed in Table 1.2. That is, as strings twist and vibrate while meandering through the extended and curled-up dimensions, a small subset of their vast oscillatory repertoire consists of vibrations with spin equal to 1 or 2. These are the candidate force-carrying string-vibrational states. Regardless of the shape of the Calabi-Yau space, there is always one vibrational pattern that is massless and has spin-2; we identify this pattern as the graviton. The precise list of spin-1 messenger particles—their number, the strength of the force they convey, the gauge symmetries they respect—though, does depend crucially on the precise geometrical form of the curled-up dimensions. And so, once again, we come to realize that string theory provides a framework for explaining the observed messenger-particle content of our universe, that is, for explaining the properties of the fundamental forces, but that without knowing exactly which Calabi-Yau shape the extra dimensions are curled into, we cannot make any definitive predictions or postdictions (beyond Witten's remark regarding the postdiction of gravity).
Why can't we figure out which is the "right" Calabi-Yau shape? Most string theorists blame this on the inadequacy of the theoretical tools currently being used to analyze string theory. As we shall discuss in some detail in Chapter 12, the mathematical framework of string theory is so complicated that physicists have been able to perform only approximate calculations through a formalism known as perturbation theory. In this approximation scheme, each possible Calabi-Yau shape appears to be on equal footing with every other; none is fundamentally singled out by the equations. And since the physical consequences of string theory depend sensitively on the precise form of the curled-up dimensions, without the ability to select one Calabi-Yau space from the many, no definitive experimentally testable conclusions can be drawn. A driving force behind present-day research is to develop theoretical methods that transcend the approximate approach in the hope that, among other benefits, we will be led to a unique Calabi-Yau shape for the extra dimensions. We will discuss progress along these lines in Chapter 13.
So you might ask: Even though we can't as yet figure out which Calabi-Yau shape string theory selects, does any choice yield physical properties that agree with what we observe? In other words, if we were to work out the corresponding physical properties associated with each and every Calabi-Yau shape and collect them in a giant catalog, would we find any that match reality? This is an important question, but, for two main reasons, it is also a hard one to answer fully.
A sensible start is to focus only on those Calabi-Yau shapes that yield three families. This cuts down the list of viable choices considerably, although many still remain. In fact, notice that we can deform a multihandled doughnut from one shape to a slew of others—an infinite variety, in fact—without changing the number of holes it contains. In Figure 9.2 we illustrate one such deformation of the bottom shape from Figure 9.1. In much the same way, we can start with a three-holed Calabi-Yau space and smoothly deform its shape without changing the number of holes, again through what amounts to an infinite sequence of shapes. (When we mentioned earlier that there were tens of thousands of Calabi-Yau shapes, we were already grouping together all those shapes that can be changed into one another by such smooth deformations, and we were counting the whole group as one Calabi-Yau space.) The problem is that the detailed physical properties of string vibrations, their masses and their response to forces, are very much affected by such detailed changes in shape, but once again, we have no means of selecting one possibility over any other. And no matter how many graduate students physics professors might set to work, it's just not possible to figure out the physics corresponding to an infinite list of different shapes.
Figure 9.2 The shape of a multihandled doughnut can be deformed in many ways, one of which is illustrated here, without changing the number of holes it contains.
This realization has led string theorists to examine the physics resulting from a sample of possible Calabi-Yau shapes. Even here, however, life is not completely smooth sailing. The approximate equations that string theorists currently use are not powerful enough to work out the resulting physics fully for any given choice of Calabi-Yau shape. They can take us a long way toward understanding, in the sense of a ballpark estimate, the properties of the string vibrations that we hope will align with the particles we observe. But precise and definitive physical conclusions, such as the mass of the electron or the strength of the weak force, require equations that are far more exact than the present approximate framework. Recall from Chapter 6—and the Price is Right example—that the "natural" energy scale of string theory is the Planck energy, and it is only through extremely delicate cancellations that string theory yields vibrational patterns with masses in the vicinity of those of the known matter and force particles. Delicate cancellations require precise calculations because even small errors have a profound impact on accuracy. As we will discuss in Chapter 12, during the mid-1990s physicists have made significant progress toward transcending the present approximate equations, although there is still far to go.
So where do we stand? Well, even with the stumbling block of having no fundamental criteria by which to select one Calabi-Yau shape over any other, as well as not having all the theoretical tools necessary to extract the observable consequences of such a choice fully, we can still ask whether any of the choices in the Calabi-Yau catalog gives rise to a world that is in even rough agreement with observation. The answer to this question is quite encouraging. Although most of the entries in the Calabi-Yau catalog yield observable consequences significantly different from our world (different numbers of particle families, different number and types of fundamental forces, among other substantial deviations), a few entries in the catalog yield physics that is qualitatively close to what we actually observe. That is, there areexamples of Calabi-Yau spaces that, when chosen for the curled-up dimensions required by string theory, give rise to string vibrations that are closely akin to the particles of the standard model. And, of prime importance, string theory successfully stitches the gravitational force into this quantum-mechanical framework.
With our present level of understanding, this situation is the best we could have hoped for. If many of the Calabi-Yau shapes were in rough agreement with experiment, the link between a specific choice and the physics we observe would be less compelling. Many choices could fit the bill and hence none would appear to be singled out, even from an experimental perspective. On the other hand, if none of the Calabi-Yau shapes came even remotely close to yielding observed physical properties, it would seem that string theory, although a beautiful theoretical framework, could have no relevance for our universe. Finding a small number of Calabi-Yau shapes that, with our present, fairly coarse ability to determine detailed physical implications, appear to be well within the ballpark of acceptability is an extremely encouraging outcome.
Explaining the elementary matter and force particle properties would be among the greatest—if not the greatest—of scientific achievements. Nevertheless, you might ask whether there are any string theoretic pre- dictions—as opposed to postdictions—that experimental physicists could attempt to confirm, either now or in the foreseeable future. There are.
The theoretical hurdles currently preventing us from extracting detailed string predictions force us to search for generic, rather than specific, aspects of a universe consisting of strings. Generic in this context refers to characteristics that are so fundamental to string theory that they are fairly insensitive to, if not completely independent of, those detailed properties of the theory that are now beyond our theoretical purview. Such characteristics can be discussed with confidence, even with an incomplete understanding of the full theory. In subsequent chapters we shall return to other examples, but for now we focus on one: supersymmetry.
As we have discussed, a fundamental property of string theory is that it is highly symmetric, incorporating not only intuitive symmetry principles but respecting, as well, the maximal mathematical extension of these principles, supersymmetry. This means, as discussed in Chapter 7, that patterns of string vibrations come in pairs—superpartner pairs—differing from each other by a half unit of spin. If string theory is right, then some of the string vibrations will correspond to the known elementary particles. And due to the supersymmetric pairing, string theory makes the prediction that each such known particle will have a superpartner. We can determine the force charges that each of these superpartner particles should carry, but we do not currently have the ability to predict their masses. Even so, the prediction that superpartners exist is a generic feature of string theory; it is a property of string theory that is true, independent of those aspects of the theory we haven't yet figured out.
No superpartners of the known elementary particles have ever been observed. This might mean that they do not exist and that string theory is wrong. But many particle physicists feel that it means that the superpartners are very heavy and are thus beyond our current capacity to observe experimentally. Physicists are now constructing a mammoth accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland, called the Large Hadron Collider. Hopes run high that this machine will be powerful enough to find the superpartner particles. The accelerator should be ready for operation before 2010, and shortly thereafter supersymmetry may be confirmed experimentally. As Schwarz has said, "Supersymmetry ought to be discovered before too long. And when that happens, it's going to be dramatic."17
You should bear in mind two things, though. Even if superpartner particles are found, this fact alone will not establish that string theory is correct. As we have seen, although supersymmetry was discovered by studying string theory, it has also been successfully incorporated into point-particle theories and is therefore not unique to its stringy origins. Conversely, even if superpartner particles are not found by the Large Hadron Collider, this fact alone will not rule out string theory, since it might be that the superpartners are so heavy that they are beyond the reach of this machine as well.
Having said this, if in fact the superpartner particles are found, it will most definitely be strong and exciting circumstantial evidence for string theory.
Fractionally Charged Particles
Another experimental signature of string theory, having to do with electric charge, is somewhat less generic than superpartner particles but equally dramatic. The elementary particles of the standard model have a very limited assortment of electric charges: The quarks and antiquarks have electric charges of one-third or two-thirds, and their negatives, while the other particles have electric charges of zero, one, or negative one. Combinations of these particles account for all known matter in the universe. In string theory, however, it is possible for there to be resonant vibrational patterns corresponding to particles of significantly different electric charges. For instance, the electric charge of a particle can take on exotic fractional values such as 1/5, 1/11, 1/13, or 1/53, among a variety of other possibilities. These unusual charges can arise if the curled-up dimensions have a certain geometrical property: Holes with the peculiar property that strings encircling them can disentangle themselves only by wrapping around a specified number of times.18 The details are not particularly important, but it turns out that the number of windings required to get disentangled manifests itself in the allowed patterns of vibration by determining the denominator of the fractional charges.
Some Calabi-Yau shapes have this geometrical property while others do not, and for this reason the possibility of unusual electric-charge fractions is not as generic as the existence of superpartner particles. On the other hand, whereas the prediction of superpartners is not a unique property of string theory, decades of experience have shown that there is no compelling reason for such exotic electric-charge fractions to exist in any point-particle theory. They can be forced into a point-particle theory, but doing so would be as natural as the proverbial bull in a china shop. Their possible emergence from simple geometrical properties that the extra dimensions can have makes these unusual electric charges a natural experimental signature for string theory.
As with the situation with superpartners, no such exotically charged particles have ever been observed, and our understanding of string theory does not allow for a definitive prediction of their masses should the extra dimensions have the correct properties to generate them. One explanation for not seeing them, again, is that if they do exist, their masses must be beyond our present technological means—in fact, it is likely that their masses would be on the order of the Planck mass. But should a future experiment come across such exotic electric charges, it would constitute very strong evidence for string theory.
Some Longer Shots
There are yet other ways in which evidence for string theory might be found. For example, Witten has pointed out the long-shot possibility that astronomers might one day see a direct signature of string theory in the data they collect from observing the heavens. As encountered in Chapter 6, the size of a string is typically the Planck length, but strings that are more energetic can grow substantially larger. The energy of the big bang, in fact, would have been high enough to produce a few macroscopically large strings that, through cosmic expansion, might have grown to astronomical scales. We can imagine that now or sometime in the future, a string of this sort might sweep across the night sky, leaving an unmistakable and measurable imprint on data collected by astronomers (such as a small shift in the cosmic microwave background temperature; see Chapter 14). As Witten says, "Although somewhat fanciful, this is my favorite scenario for confirming string theory as nothing would settle the issue quite as dramatically as seeing a string in a telescope."19
Closer to earth, there are other possible experimental signatures of string theory that have been put forward. Here are five examples. First, in Table 1.1 we noted that we do not know if neutrinos are just very light, or if in fact they are exactly massless. According to the standard model, they are massless, but not for any particularly deep reason. A challenge to string theory is to provide a compelling explanation of present and future neutrino data, especially if experiments ultimately show that neutrinos do have a tiny but nonzero mass. Second, there are certain hypothetical processes that are forbidden by the standard model, but that may be allowed by string theory. Among these are the possible disintegration of the proton (don't worry, such disintegration, if true, would happen very slowly) and the possible transmutations and decays of various combinations of quarks, in violation of certain long-established properties of point-particle quantum field theory.20 These kinds of processes are especially interesting because their absence from conventional theory makes them sensitive signals of physics that cannot be accounted for without invoking new theoretical principles. If observed, any one of these processes would provide fertile ground for string theory to offer an explanation. Third, for certain choices of the Calabi-Yau shape there are particular patterns of string vibration that can effectively contribute new, tiny, long-range force fields. Should the effects of any such new forces be discovered, they might well reflect some of the new physics of string theory. Fourth, as we note in the next chapter, astronomers have collected evidence that our galaxy and possibly the whole of the universe is immersed in a bath of dark matter, the identity of which has yet to be determined. Through its many possible patterns of resonant vibration, string theory suggests a number of candidates for the dark matter; the verdict on these candidates must await future experimental results establishing the detailed properties of the dark matter.
And finally, a fifth possible means of connecting string theory to observations involves the cosmological constant—remember, as discussed in Chapter 3, this is the modification Einstein temporarily imposed on his original equations of general relativity to ensure a static universe. Although the subsequent discovery that the universe is expanding led Einstein to retract the modification, physicists have since realized that there is no explanation for why the cosmological constant should be zero. In fact, the cosmological constant can be interpreted as a kind of overall energy stored in the vacuum of space, and hence its value should be theoretically calculable and experimentally measurable. But, to date, such calculations and measurements lead to a colossal mismatch: Observations show that the cosmological constant is either zero (as Einstein ultimately suggested) or quite small; calculations indicate that quantum-mechanical fluctuations in the vacuum of empty space tend to generate a nonzero cosmological constant whose value is some 120 orders of magnitude (a 1 followed by 120 zeros) larger than experiment allows! This presents a wonderful challenge and opportunity for string theorists: Can calculations in string theory improve on this mismatch and explain why the cosmological constant is zero, or if experiments do ultimately establish that its value is small but nonzero, can string theory provide an explanation? Should string theorists be able to rise to this challenge—as yet they have not—it would provide a compelling piece of evidence in support of the theory.
The history of physics is filled with ideas that when first presented seemed completely untestable but, through various unforeseen developments, were ultimately brought within the realm of experimental verifiability. The notion that matter is made of atoms, Pauli's hypothesis that there are ghostly neutrino particles, and the possibility that the heavens are dotted with neutron stars and black holes are three prominent ideas of precisely this sort—ideas that we now embrace fully but that, at their inception, seemed more like musings of science fiction than aspects of science fact.
The motivation for introducing string theory is at least as compelling as any of these three ideas—in fact, string theory has been hailed as the most important and exciting development in theoretical physics since the discovery of quantum mechanics. This comparison is particularly apt because the history of quantum mechanics teaches us that revolutions in physics can easily take many decades to reach maturity. And compared to today's string theorists, the physicists working out quantum mechanics had a great advantage: Quantum mechanics, even when only partially formulated, could make direct contact with experimental results. Even so, it took close to 30 years for the logical structure of quantum mechanics to be worked out, and about another 20 years to incorporate special relativity fully into the theory. We are now incorporating general relativity, a far more challenging task, and, moreover, one that makes contact with experiment much more difficult. Unlike those who worked out quantum theory, today's string theorists do not have the shining light of nature—through detailed experimental results—to guide them from one step to the next.
This means that it's conceivable that one or more generations of physicists will devote their lives to the investigation and development of string theory without getting a shred of experimental feedback. The substantial number of physicists the world over who are vigorously pursuing string theory know that they are taking a risk: that a lifetime of effort might result in an inconclusive outcome. Undoubtedly, significant theoretical progress will continue, but will it be sufficient to overcome present hurdles and yield definitive, experimentally testable predictions? Will the indirect tests we have discussed above result in a true smoking gun for string theory? These questions are of central concern to all string theorists, but they are also questions about which nothing can really be said. Only the passage of time will reveal the answers. The beautiful simplicity of string theory, the way in which it tames the conflict between gravity and quantum mechanics, its ability to unify all of nature's ingredients, and its potential of limitless predictive power all serve to provide rich inspiration that makes the risk worth taking.
These lofty considerations have been continually reinforced by the ability of string theory to uncover remarkably new physical characteristics of a string-based universe—characteristics that reveal a subtle and deep coherence in the workings of nature. In the language introduced above, many of these are generic features that, regardless of currently unknown details, will be basic properties of a universe built of strings. Of these, the most astonishing have had a profound effect on our ever evolving understanding of space and time.