The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory - Brian Greene (2010)
Part IV. String Theory and the Fabric of Spacetime
Chapter 10. Quantum Geometry
In the course of about a decade, Einstein singlehandedly overthrew the centuries-old Newtonian framework and gave the world a radically new and demonstrably deeper understanding of gravity. It does not take much to get experts and nonexperts alike to gush over the sheer brilliance and monumental originality of Einstein's accomplishment in fashioning general relativity. Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the favorable historical circumstances that strongly contributed to Einstein's success. Foremost among these are the nineteenth-century mathematical insights of Georg Bernhard Riemann that firmly established the geometrical apparatus for describing curved spaces of arbitrary dimension. In his famous 1854 inaugural lecture at the University of Göttingen, Riemann broke the chains of flat-space Euclidean thought and paved the way for a democratic mathematical treatment of geometry on all varieties of curved surfaces. It is Riemann's insights that provide the mathematics for quantitatively analyzing warped spaces such as those illustrated in Figures 3.4 and 3.6. Einstein's genius lay in recognizing that this body of mathematics was tailor-made for implementing his new view of the gravitational force. He boldly declared that the mathematics of Riemann's geometry aligns perfectly with the physics of gravity.
But now, almost a century after Einstein's tour-de-force, string theory gives us a quantum-mechanical description of gravity that, by necessity, modifies general relativity when the distances involved become as short as the Planck length. Since Riemannian geometry is the mathematical core of general relativity, this means that it too must be modified in order to reflect faithfully the new short-distance physics of string theory. Whereas general relativity asserts that the curved properties of the universe are described by Riemannian geometry, string theory asserts that this is true only if we examine the fabric of the universe on large enough scales. On scales as small as the Planck length a new kind of geometry must emerge, one that aligns with the new physics of string theory. This new geometrical framework is called quantum geometry.
Unlike the case of Riemannian geometry, there is no ready-made geometrical opus sitting on some mathematician's shelf that string theorists can adopt and put in the service of quantum geometry. Instead, physicists and mathematicians are now vigorously studying string theory and, little by little, piecing together a new branch of physics and mathematics. Although the full story has yet to be written, these investigations have already uncovered many new geometrical properties of spacetime entailed by string theory—properties that would almost certainly have thrilled even Einstein.
The Heart of Riemannian Geometry
If you jump on a trampoline, the weight of your body causes it to warp by stretching its elastic fibers. This stretching is most severe right under your body and becomes less noticeable toward the trampoline's edge. You can see this clearly if a familiar image such as the Mona Lisa is painted on the trampoline. When the trampoline is not supporting any weight, the Mona Lisa looks normal. But when you stand on the trampoline, the image of the Mona Lisa becomes distorted, especially the part directly under your body, as illustrated in Figure 10.1.
This example cuts to the heart of Riemann's mathematical framework for describing warped shapes. Riemann, building on earlier insights of the mathematicians Carl Friedrich Gauss, Nikolai Lobachevsky, Janos Bolyai, and others, showed that a careful analysis of the distances between all locations on or in an object provides a means of quantifying the extent of its curvature. Roughly speaking, the greater the (nonuniform) stretching—the greater the deviation from the distance relations on a flat shape—the greater the curvature of the object. For example, the trampoline is most significantly stretched right under your body and therefore the distance relations between points in this area are most severely distorted. This region of the trampoline, therefore, has the largest amount of curvature, in line with what you expect, since this is where the Mona Lisa suffers the greatest distortion, yielding the hint of a grimace at the corner of her customary enigmatic smile.
Figure 10.1 When standing on the Mona Lisa trampoline, the image becomes most distorted under your weight.
Einstein adopted Riemann's mathematical discoveries by giving them a precise physical interpretation. He showed, as we discussed in Chapter 3, that the curvature of spacetime embodies the gravitational force. But let's now think about this interpretation a little more closely. Mathematically, the curvature of spacetime—like the curvature of the trampoline—reflects the distorted distance relations between its points. Physically, the gravitational force felt by an object is a direct reflection of this distortion. In fact, by making the object smaller and smaller, the physics and the mathematics align ever more precisely as we get closer and closer to physically realizing the abstract mathematical concept of a point. But string theory limits how precisely Riemann's geometrical formalism can be realized by the physics of gravity, because there is a limit to how small we can make any object. Once you get down to strings, you can't go any further. The traditional notion of a point particle does not exist in string theory—an essential element in its ability to give us a quantum theory of gravity. This concretely shows us that Riemann's geometrical framework, which relies fundamentally upon distances between points, is modified on ultramicroscopic scales by string theory.
This observation has a very small effect on ordinary macroscopic applications of general relativity. In cosmological studies, for example, physicists routinely model whole galaxies as if they are points, since their size, in relation to the whole of the universe, is extremely tiny. For this reason, implementing Riemann's geometrical framework in this crude manner proves to be a very accurate approximation, as evidenced by the success of general relativity in a cosmological context. But in the ultramicroscopic realm, the extended nature of the string ensures that Riemann's geometry simply will not be the right mathematical formalism. Instead, as we will now see, it must be replaced by the quantum geometry of string theory, leading to dramatically new and unexpected properties.
A Cosmological Playground
According to the big bang model of cosmology, the whole of the universe violently emerged from a singular cosmic explosion, some 15 or so billion years ago. Today, as originally discovered by Hubble, we can see that the "debris" from this explosion, in the form of many billions of galaxies, is still streaming outward. The universe is expanding. We do not know whether this cosmic growth will continue forever or if there will come a time when the expansion slows to a halt and then reverses itself, leading to a cosmic implosion. Astronomers and astrophysicists are trying to settle this question experimentally, since the answer turns on something that in principle can be measured: the average density of matter in the universe.
If the average matter density exceeds a so-called critical density of about a hundredth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth (10^{-29}) of a gram per cubic centimeter—about five hydrogen atoms for every cubic meter of the universe—then a large enough gravitational force will permeate the cosmos to halt and reverse the expansion. If the average matter density is less than the critical value, the gravitational attraction will be too weak to stop the expansion, which will continue forever. (Based upon your own observations of the world, you might think that the average mass density of the universe greatly exceeds the critical value. But bear in mind that matter—like money—tends to clump. Using the average mass density of the earth, or the solar system, or even the Milky Way galaxy as an indicator for that of the whole universe would be like using Bill Gates's net worth as an indicator of the average earthling's finances. Just as there are many people whose net worth pales in comparison to that of Bill Gates, thereby diminishing the average enormously, there is a lot of nearly empty space between the galaxies that drastically lowers the overall average matter density.)
By carefully studying the distribution of galaxies throughout space, astronomers can get a pretty good handle on the average amount of visible matter in the universe. This turns out to be significantly less than the critical value. But there is strong evidence, of both theoretical and experimental origin, that the universe is permeated with dark matter. This is matter that does not participate in the processes of nuclear fusion that powers stars and hence does not give off light; it is therefore invisible to the astronomer's telescope. No one has figured out the identity of the dark matter, let alone the precise amount that exists. The fate of our presently expanding universe, therefore, is as yet unclear.
Just for argument's sake, let's assume that the mass density does exceed the critical value and that someday in the distant future the expansion will stop and the universe will begin to collapse upon itself. All galaxies will start to approach one another slowly, and then as time goes by, their speed of approach will increase until they rush together at blinding speed. You need to picture the whole of the universe squeezing together into an ever shrinking cosmic mass. As in Chapter 3, from a maximum size of many billions of light-years, the universe will shrink to millions of light-years, every moment gaining speed as everything is crushed together to the size of a single galaxy, and then to the size of a single star, a planet, and down to the size of an orange, a pea, a grain of sand, and further, according to general relativity, to the size of a molecule, an atom, and in a final inexorable cosmic crunch to no size at all. According to conventional theory, the universe began with a bang from an initial state of zero size, and if it has enough mass, it will end with a crunch to a similar state of ultimate cosmic compression.
But when the distance scales involved are around the Planck length or less, quantum mechanics invalidates the equations of general relativity, as we are now well aware. We must instead make use of string theory. And so, whereas Einstein's general relativity allows the geometrical form of the universe to get arbitrarily small—in exactly the same way that the mathematics of Riemannian geometry allows an abstract shape to take on as small a size as the intellect can imagine—we are led to ask how string theory modifies the picture. As we shall now see, there is evidence that string theory once again sets a lower limit to physically accessible distance scales and, in a remarkably novel way, proclaims that the universe cannot be squeezed to a size shorter than the Planck length in any of its spatial dimensions.
Based on the familiarity you now have with string theory, you might be tempted to hazard a guess as to how this comes about. After all, you might argue that no matter how many points you pile up on top of each other—point particles that is—their combined volume is still zero. By contrast, if these particles are really strings, collapsed together in completely random orientations, they will fill out a nonzero-sized blob, roughly like a Planck-sized ball of entangled rubber bands. If you made this argument, you would be on the right track, but you would be missing significant, subtle features that string theory elegantly employs to suggest a minimum size to the universe. These features serve to emphasize, in a concrete manner, the new stringy physics that comes into play and its resultant impact on the geometry of spacetime.
To explain these important aspects, let's first call upon an example that pares away extraneous details without sacrificing the new physics. Instead of considering all ten of the spacetime dimensions of string theory—or even the four extended spacetime dimensions we are familiar with—let's go back to the Garden-hose universe. We originally introduced this two-spatial-dimension universe in Chapter 8 in a prestring context to explain aspects of Kaluza's and Klein's insights in the 1920s. Let's now use it as a "cosmological playground" to explore the properties of string theory in a simple setting; we will shortly use the insights we gain to better understand all of the spatial dimensions string theory requires. Toward this end, we imagine that the circular dimension of the Garden-hose universe starts out nice and plump but then shrinks to shorter and shorter size, approaching the form of Lineland—a simplified, partial version of the big crunch.
The question we seek to answer is whether the geometrical and physical properties of this cosmic collapse have features that markedly differ between a universe based on strings and one based on point particles.
The Essential New Feature
We do not have to search far to find the essential new string physics. A point particle moving in this two-dimensional universe can execute the kinds of motion illustrated in Figure 10.2: It can move along the extended dimension of the Garden-hose, it can move along the curled-up part of the Garden-hose, or any combination of the two. A loop of string can undergo similar motion, with one difference being that it oscillates as it moves around on the surface, as shown in Figure 10.3(a). This is a distinction we have already discussed in some detail: The oscillations of the string imbue it with characteristics such as mass and force charges. Although a crucial aspect of string theory, this is not our present focus, since we already understand its physical implications.
Instead, our present interest is in another difference between point-particle and string motion, a difference directly dependent on the shape of the space through which the string is moving. Since the string is an extended object, there is another possible configuration beyond those already mentioned: It can wrap around—lasso, so to speak—the circular part of the Garden-hose universe, as shown in Figure 10.3(b).^{1} The string will continue to slide around and oscillate, but it will do so in this extended configuration. In fact, the string can wrap around the circular part of the space any number of times, as also shown in Figure 10.3(b), and again will execute oscillatory motion as it slides around. When a string is in such a wrapped configuration, we say that it is in a winding mode of motion. Clearly, being in a winding mode is a possibility inherent to strings. There is no point-particle counterpart. We now seek to understand the implications of this qualitatively new kind of string motion on the string itself as well as on the geometrical properties of the dimension it wraps.
Figure 10.2 Point particles moving on a cylinder.
Figure 10.3 Strings can move on a cylinder in two different ways—in "unwrapped" or "wrapped" configurations.
The Physics of Wound Strings
Throughout our previous discussion of string motion, we have focused on unwound strings. Strings that wrap around a circular component of space share almost all of the same properties as the strings we have studied. Their oscillations, just as those of their unwound counterparts, contribute strongly to their observed properties. The essential difference is that a wrapped string has a minimum mass, determined by the sizeof the circular dimension and the number of times it wraps around. The string's oscillatory motion determines a contribution in excess of this minimum.
It is not difficult to understand the origin of this minimum mass. A wound string has a minimum length determined by the circumference of the circular dimension and the number of times the string encircles it. The minimum length of a string determines its minimum mass: The longer this length, the greater the mass, since there is more of it. Since the circumference of a circle is proportional to its radius, the minimum winding-mode masses are proportional to the radius of the circle being wrapped. By using Einstein's E = mc^{2} relating mass to energy, we can also say that the energy bound in a wound string is proportional to the radius of the circular dimension. (Unwrapped strings also have a tiny minimum length since if they didn't, we would be back in the realm of point particles. The same reasoning might lead to the conclusion that even unwrapped strings have a minuscule yet nonzero minimum mass. In a sense this is true, but the quantum-mechanical effects encountered in Chapter 6—remember The Price Is Right,again—are able to exactly cancel this contribution to the mass. This is how, we recall, unwrapped strings can yield the zero-mass photon, graviton, and the other massless or near-massless particles, for example. Wrapped strings are different in this regard.)
How does the existence of wrapped string configurations affect the geometrical properties of the dimension around which the strings wind? The answer, first recognized in 1984 by the Japanese physicists Keiji Kikkawa and Masami Yamasaki, is bizarre and remarkable.
Let's consider the last cataclysmic stages of our variant on the big crunch in the Garden-hose universe. As the radius of the circular dimension shrinks to the Planck length and, in the mold of general relativity, continues to shrink to yet smaller lengths, string theory insists upon a radical reinterpretation of what actually happens. String theory claims that all physical processes in the Garden-hose universe in which the radius of the circular dimension is shorter than the Planck length and is decreasing are absolutely identical to physical processes in which the circular dimension is longer than the Planck length and increasing! This means that as the circular dimension tries to collapse through the Planck length and head toward ever smaller size, its attempts are made futile by string theory, which turns the tables on geometry. String theory shows that this evolution can be rephrased—exactly reinterpreted—as the circular dimension shrinking down to the Planck length and then proceeding to expand. String theory rewrites the laws of short-distance geometry so that what previously appeared to be complete cosmic collapse is now seen to be a cosmic bounce. The circular dimension can shrink to the Planck-length. But because of the winding modes, attempts to shrink further actually result in expansion. Let's see why.
The Spectrum of String States*
The new possibility of wound-string configurations implies that the energy of a string in the Garden-hose universe comes from two sources: vibrational motion and winding energy. From the legacy of Kaluza and Klein, each depends on the geometry of the hose, that is, on the radius of its curled-up circular component, but with a distinctly stringy twist, since point particles cannot wrap around dimensions. Our first task, then, will be to determine precisely how the winding and vibrational contributions to the energy of a string depend on the size of the circular dimension. For this purpose, it proves convenient to separate the vibrational motion of strings into two categories: uniform and ordinary vibrations. Ordinary vibrations refer to the usual oscillations we have discussed repeatedly, such as those illustrated in Figure 6.2; uniform vibrations refer to even simpler motion: the overall motion of string as it slides from one position to another without changing its shape. All string motion is a combination of sliding and oscillating—of uniform and ordinary vibrations—but for the present discussion it is easier to separate them in this manner. In fact, the ordinary vibrations will not play a central part in our reasoning, and we will therefore include their effects only after we have finished giving the gist of the argument.
Here are the two essential observations. First, uniform vibrational excitations of a string have energies that are inversely proportional to the radius of the circular dimension. This is a direct consequence of the quantum-mechanical uncertainty principle: A smaller radius more strictly confines a string and therefore, through quantum-mechanical claustrophobia, increases the amount of energy in its motion. So, as the radius of the circular dimension decreases, the energy of motion of the string necessarily increases—the hallmark feature of an inverse proportionality. Second, as found in the preceding section, the winding mode energies are directly—not inversely—proportional to the radius. Remember, this is because the minimum length of wound strings, and hence their minimum energy, is proportional to the radius. These two observations establish that large values of the radius imply large winding energies and small vibration energies, whereas small values of the radius imply small winding energies and large vibration energies.
This leads us to the key fact: For any large circular radius of the Garden-hose universe, there is a corresponding small circular radius for which the winding energies of strings in the former universe equal the vibration energies of strings in the latter, and vibration energies of strings in the former equal winding energies of strings in the latter. As physical properties are sensitive to the total energy of a string configuration—and not to how the energy is divided between vibration and winding contributions—there is no physical distinction between these geometrically distinct forms for the Garden-hose universe. And so, strangely enough, string theory claims that there is no difference whatsoever between a "fat" Garden-hose universe and a "thin" one.
It's a cosmic hedging of bets, somewhat akin to what you, as a smart investor, should do if faced with the following puzzle. Imagine you learn that the fate of two stocks trading on Wall Street—say, a company making fitness machines and a company making heart-bypass valves—are inextricably connected. They each closed trading today valued at one dollar per share, and you are told by a reliable source that if one company's stock goes up the other's will go down, and vice versa. Moreover, your source—who is completely trustworthy (but whose guidance might be crossing over legal boundaries)—tells you that the next day's closing prices of these two companies are absolutely certain to be inversely related to one another. That is, if one stock closes at $2 per share, the other will close at $1/2 (50 cents) per share; if one stock closes at $10 per share, the other will close at $1/10 (10 cents) per share, and so on. But the one thing your source can't tell you is which stock will close high and which will close low. What do you do?
Well, you immediately invest all of your money in the stock market, equally divided between the shares of these two companies. As you can easily check by working out a few examples, no matter what happens on the next day, your investment cannot lose value. At worse it can remain the same (if both companies again close at $1), but any movement of share prices—consistent with your insider information—will increase your holdings. For instance, if the fitness company closes at $4 and the heart-valve company closes at $1/4 (25 cents), their combined value is $4.25 (for each pair of shares), compared with $2 the previous day. Furthermore, from the perspective of net worth, it does not matter one bit whether the fitness company closes high and the heart-valve company low, or vice versa. If you care only about the total amount of money, these two distinct circumstances are financially indistinguishable.
The situation in string theory is analogous in that the energy in string configurations comes from two sources—vibrations and windings—whose contributions to the total energy of a string are generally different. But, as we shall see in more detail below, certain pairs of distinct geometrical circumstances—leading to high-winding-energy/low-vibration-energy or low-winding-energy/high-vibration-energy—are physically indistinguishable. And, unlike the financial analogy for which considerations beyond total wealth can distinguish between the two types of stock holdings, there is absolutely no physical distinction between the two string scenarios.
Actually, we shall see that to make the analogy with string theory tighter, we should consider what would happen if you did not divide your money equally between the two companies in your initial investment, but bought, say, 1,000 shares of the fitness company and 3,000 shares of the heart-valve company. Now the total value of your holdings does depend on which company closes high and which closes low. For instance, if the stocks close at $10 (fitness) and 10 cents (heart-valve), your initial investment of $4,000 will now be worth $10,300. If the reverse happens—the stocks close at 10 cents (fitness) and $10 (heart-valve)—your holdings will be worth $30,100—significantly more.
Nevertheless, the inverse relationship between the closing stock prices does ensure the following. If a friend of yours invests exactly "opposite" to you—3,000 shares of the fitness company and 1,000 shares of the heart-valve company—then the value of her holdings will be $10,300 if stocks close valves-high/fitness-low (the same as your holdings in the fitness-high/valves-low closing) and $30,100 if they close with fitness-high/valves-low (again, the same as your holdings in the reciprocal situation). That is, from the point of view of total stock value, interchanging which stock closes high and which closes low is exactly compensated by interchanging the number of shares you own of each company.
Hold this last observation in mind as we now return to string theory and think about the possible string energies in a specific example. Imagine that the radius of the circular Garden-hose dimension is, say, ten times the Planck length. We will write this as R = 10. A string can wrap around this circular dimension one time, two times, three times, and so forth. The number of times a string wraps around the circular dimension is called its winding number. The energy from winding, being determined by the length of wound string, is proportional to the product of the radius and the winding number. Additionally, for any amount of winding, the string can undergo vibrational motion. As the uniform vibrations we are currently focusing on have energies that are inversely dependent on the radius, they are proportional to whole-number multiples of the reciprocal of the radius—1/R—which in this case is one-tenth of the Planck length. We call this whole number multiple the vibration number.^{2}
As you can see, this situation is very similar to what we encountered on Wall Street, with the winding and vibration numbers being direct analogs of the shares held in the two companies, while R and 1/R are the analogs of the closing prices per share in each. Now, just as you can easily calculate the total value of your investment from the number of shares held in each company and the closing prices, we can calculate the total energy carried by a string in terms of its vibration number, its winding number, and the radius. In Table 10.1 we give a partial list of these total energies for various string configurations, which we specify by their winding and vibration numbers, in a Garden-hose universe with radius R = 10.
A complete table would be infinitely long, since the winding and vibration numbers can take on arbitrary whole-number values, but this representative piece of the table is adequate for our discussion. We see from the table and our remarks that we are in a high-winding-energy/low-vibration-energy situation: Winding energies come in multiples of 10, while vibrational energies come in multiples of the smaller number 1/10.
Now imagine that the radius of the circular dimension shrinks, say, from 10 to 9.2 to 7.1 and on down to 3.4, 2.2, 1.1, .7, all the way to .1 (1/10), where, for our present discussion, it stops. In this geometrically distinct form of the Garden-hose universe we can compile an analogous table of string energies: Winding energies are now multiples of 1/10 while vibration energies are multiples of its reciprocal, 10. The results are shown in Table 10.2.
At first glance, the two tables might appear to be different. But closer inspection reveals that although arranged in a different order, the "total energy" columns of both tables have identical entries. To find the corresponding entry in Table 10.2 for a chosen entry in Table 10.1, one must simply interchange the vibration and winding numbers. That is, vibration and winding contributions play complementary roles when the radius of the circular dimension changes from 10 to 1/10. And so, as far as total string energies go, there is no distinction between these different sizes for the circular dimension. Just as the interchange of fitness-high/valves-low with valves-high/fitness-low is exactly compensated by an interchange of the number of shares held in each company, interchange of radius 10 and radius 1/10 is exactly compensated by the interchange of vibration and winding numbers. Moreover, while for simplicity we have focused on an initial radius of R = 10 and its reciprocal 1/10, the conclusions drawn are the same for any choice of the radius and its reciprocal.^{3}
Vibration number |
Winding number |
Total energy |
1 |
1 |
1/10 + 10 = 10.1 |
1 |
2 |
1/10 + 20 = 20.1 |
1 |
3 |
1/10 + 30 = 30.1 |
1 |
4 |
1/10 + 40 = 40.1 |
2 |
1 |
2/10 + 10 = 10.2 |
2 |
2 |
2/10 + 20 = 20.2 |
2 |
3 |
2/10 + 30 = 30.2 |
2 |
4 |
2/10 + 40 = 40.2 |
3 |
1 |
3/10 + 10 = 10.3 |
3 |
2 |
3/10 + 20 = 20.3 |
3 |
3 |
3/10 + 30 = 30.3 |
3 |
4 |
3/10 + 40 = 40.3 |
4 |
1 |
4/10 + 10 = 10.4 |
4 |
2 |
4/10 + 20 = 20.4 |
4 |
3 |
4/10 + 30 = 30.4 |
4 |
4 |
4/10 + 40 = 40.4 |
Table 10.1 Sample vibration and winding configurations of a string moving in a universe shown in Figure 10.3, with radius R = 10. The vibration energies contribute in multiples of 1/10 and the winding energies contribute in multiples of 10, yielding the total energies listed. The energy unit is the Planck energy, so for example, 10.1 in the last column means 10.1 times the Planck energy.
Vibration number |
Winding number |
Total energy |
1 |
1 |
10 + 1/10 = 10.1 |
1 |
2 |
10 + 2/10 = 10.2 |
1 |
3 |
10 + 3/10 = 10.3 |
1 |
4 |
10 + 4/10 = 10.4 |
2 |
1 |
20 + 1/10 = 20.1 |
2 |
2 |
20 + 2/10 = 20.2 |
2 |
3 |
20 + 3/10 = 20.3 |
2 |
4 |
20 + 4/10 = 20.4 |
3 |
1 |
30 + 1/10 = 30.1 |
3 |
2 |
30 + 2/10 = 30.2 |
3 |
3 |
30 + 3/10 = 30.3 |
3 |
4 |
30 + 4/10 = 30.4 |
4 |
1 |
40 + 1/10 = 40.1 |
4 |
2 |
40 + 2/10 = 40.2 |
4 |
3 |
40 + 3/10 = 40.3 |
4 |
4 |
40 + 4/10 = 40.4 |
Table 10.2 As in Table 10.1, except that the radius is now taken to be 1/10.
Tables 10.1 and 10.2 are incomplete for two reasons. First, as mentioned, we have listed only a few of the infinite possibilities for winding/vibration numbers that a string can assume. This, of course, poses no problem—we could make the tables as long as our patience allows and would find that the relation between them will continue to hold. Second, beyond winding energy, we have so far considered only energy contributions arising from the uniform-vibrational motion of a string. We should now include the ordinary vibrations as well, since these give additional contributions to the string's total energy and also determine the force charges it carries. The important point, however, is that investigations have revealed that these contributions do not depend on the size of the radius. Thus, even if we were to include these more detailed features of string attributes in Tables 10.1 and 10.2, the tables would still correspond exactly, since the ordinary vibrational contributions affect each table identically. We therefore conclude that the masses and the charges of particles in a Garden-hose universe with radius R are completely identical to those in a Garden-hose universe with radius 1/R. And since these masses and force charges govern fundamental physics, there is no way to distinguish physically these two geometrically distinct universes. Any experiment done in one such universe has a corresponding experiment that can be done in the other, leading to exactly the same results.
A Debate
George and Gracie, after being flattened out into two-dimensional beings, take up residence as physics professors in the Garden-hose universe. After setting up their competing laboratories, each claims to have determined the size of the circular dimension. Surprisingly, although each has a reputation for carrying out research with great precision, their conclusions do not agree. George claims that the circular radius is R = 10 times the Planck length, while Gracie claims that the circular radius is R = 1/10 times the Planck length.
"Gracie," says George, "based on my string theory calculations, I know that if the circular dimension has radius 10, then I should expect to see strings whose energies are listed in Table 10.1. I have done extensive experiments using the new Planck energy accelerator and they have revealed that this prediction is precisely confirmed. Therefore, with confidence, I claim that the circular dimension has radius R= 10." Gracie, in defense of her claims, makes exactly the same remarks except for her conclusion that the list of energies in Table 10.2 is found, confirming that the radius is R = 1/10.
In a flash of insight, Gracie shows George that the two tables, although arranged differently, are actually identical. Now George, who, as is well known, reasons a bit more slowly than Gracie, replies, "How can this be? I know that different values for the radius give rise, through basic quantum mechanics and the properties of wound strings, to different possible values for string energies and string charges. If we agree on the latter, then we must agree on the radius."
Gracie, using her newfound insight into string physics replies, "What you say is almost, but not quite, correct. It is usually true that two different values for the radius give rise to different allowed energies. However, in the special circumstance when the two values for the radius are inversely related to one another—like 10 and 1/10—then the allowed energies and charges are actually identical. You see, what you would call a winding mode I would call a vibration mode, and what you would call a vibration mode I would call a winding mode. But nature does not care about the language we use. Instead, physics is governed by the properties of the fundamental ingredients—the particle masses (energies) and the force charges they carry. And whether the radius is R or 1/R, the complete list of these properties for the fundamental ingredients in string theory is identical."
In a moment of bold comprehension, George responds, "I think I understand. Although the detailed description you and I might give for strings may differ—whether they are wound around the circular dimension, or the particulars of their vibrational behavior—the complete list of physical characteristics they can attain is the same. Therefore, since the physical properties of the universe depend upon these properties of the basic constituents, there is no distinction, no way to differentiate, between radii that are inversely related to one another." Exactly.
Three Questions
At this point you might say, "Look, if I was a little being in the Garden-hose universe I would simply measure the circumference of the hose with a tape measure and thereby unambiguously determine the radius—no ifs, ands, or buts. So what is this nonsense about two indistinguishable possibilities with different radii? Furthermore, doesn't string theory do away with sub-Planck distances, so why are we even talking about circular dimensions with radii that are a fraction of the Planck length? And finally, while we are at it, who really cares about the two-dimensional Garden-hose universe—what does all this add up to when we include all dimensions?"
Let's begin with the last question, as the answer will force us to come face to face with the first two.
Although our discussion has taken place in the Garden-hose universe, we restricted ourselves to one extended and one curled-up spatial dimension merely for simplicity. If we have three extended spatial dimensions and six circular dimensions—the latter being the simplest of all Calabi-Yau spaces—the conclusion is exactly the same. Each of the circles has a radius that, if interchanged with its reciprocal, yields a physically identical universe.
We can even take this conclusion one giant step further. In our universe, we observe three spatial dimensions, each of which, according to astronomical observations, appears to extend for about 15 billion light-years (a light-year is about 6 trillion miles, so this distance is about 90 billion trillion miles). As mentioned in Chapter 8, nothing tells us what happens after that. We do not know whether they continue on indefinitely or perhaps curve back on themselves in the shape of an enormous circle, beyond the visual sensitivity of state-of-the-art telescopes. If the latter is the case, an astronaut travelling out into space, continuously going in a fixed direction, would ultimately circle around the universe—like Magellan travelling around the earth—and wind up back at the initial starting point.
The familiar extended dimensions, therefore, may very well also be in the shape of circles and hence subject to the R and 1/R physical identification of string theory. To put some rough numbers in, if the familiar dimensions are circular then their radii must be about as large as the 15 billion light-years mentioned above, which is about ten trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion (R=10^{61}) times the Planck length, and growing as the universe expands. If string theory is right, this is physically identical to the familiar dimensions being circular with incredibly tiny radii of about 1/R=1/10^{61} = 10^{-61} times the Planck length! These are our well-known familiar dimensions in an alternate description provided by string theory. In fact, in this reciprocal language, these tiny circles are getting ever smaller as time goes by, since as R grows, 1/R shrinks. Now we seem to have really gone off the deep end. How can this possibly be true? How can a six-foot tall human being "fit" inside such an unbelievably microscopic universe? How can such a speck of a universe be physically identical to the great expanse we view in the heavens? Furthermore, we are now led forcefully to the second of our initial three questions: String theory was supposed to eliminate the ability to probe sub-Planck distances. But if a circular dimension has radius R whose length is larger than the Planck length, its reciprocal 1/R is necessarily a fraction of the Planck length. So what is going on? The answer, which will also address the first of our three questions, highlights an important and subtle aspect of space and distance.
Two Interrelated Notions of Distance in String Theory
Distance is such a basic concept in our understanding of the world that it is easy to underestimate the depth of its subtlety. With the surprising effects that special and general relativity have had on our notions of space and time, and the new features arising from string theory, we are led to be a bit more careful even in our definition of distance. The most meaningful definitions in physics are those that are operational—that is, definitions that provide a means, at least in principle, for measuring whatever is being defined. After all, no matter how abstract a concept is, having an operational definition allows us to boil down its meaning to an experimental procedure for measuring its value.
How can we give an operational definition of the concept of distance? The answer to this question in the context of string theory is rather surprising. In 1988, the physicists Robert Brandenberger of Brown University and Cumrun Vafa of Harvard University pointed out that if the spatial shape of a dimension is circular, there are two different yet related operational definitions of distance in string theory. Each lays out a distinct experimental procedure for measuring distance and is based, roughly speaking, on the simple principle that if a probe travels at a fixed and known speed then we can measure a given distance by determining how long the probe takes to traverse it. The difference between the two procedures is the choice of probe used. The first definition uses strings that are not wound around a circular dimension, whereas the second definition uses strings that are wound. We see that the extended nature of the fundamental probe is responsible for there being two natural operational definitions of distance in string theory. In a point-particle theory, for which there is no notion of winding, there would be only one such definition.
How do the results of each procedure differ? The answer found by Brandenberger and Vafa is as surprising as it is subtle. The rough idea underlying the result can be understood by appealing to the uncertainty principle. Unwound strings can move around freely and probe the full circumference of the circle, a length proportional to R. By the uncertainty principle, their energies are proportional to 1/R (recall from Chapter 6 the inverse relation between the energy of a probe and the distances to which it is sensitive). On the other hand, we have seen that wound strings have minimum energy proportional to R; as probes of distances the uncertainty principle tells us that they are therefore sensitive to the reciprocal of this value, 1/R. The mathematical embodiment of this idea shows that if each is used to measure the radius of a circular dimension of space, unwound string probes will measure R while wound strings will measure 1/R, where, as before, we are measuring distances in multiples of the Planck length. The result of each experiment has an equal claim to being the radius of the circle—what we learn from string theory is that using different probes to measure distance can result in different answers. In fact, this property extends to all measurements of lengths and distances, not just to determining the size of a circular dimension. The results obtained by wound and unwound string probes will be inversely related to one another.^{4}
If string theory describes our universe, why have we not encountered these two possible notions of distance in any of our day-to-day or scientific endeavors? Any time we talk about distance, we do so in a manner that conforms to our experience of there being one concept of distance without any hint of there being a second notion. Why have we missed the alternative possibility? The answer is that although there is a high degree of symmetry in our discussion, whenever R (and hence 1/R as well) differ significantly from the value 1 (meaning, again, 1 times the Planck length), then one of our operational definitions proves extremely difficult to carry out while the other proves extremely easy to carry out. In essence, we have always carried out the easy approach, completely unaware of there being another possibility.
The discrepancy in difficulty between the two approaches is due to the very different masses of the probes used—high-winding-energy/low-vibration-energy, and vice versa—if the radius R (and hence 1/R as well) differs significantly from the Planck length (that is, R = 1). "High" energy here, for radii that are vastly different from the Planck length, corresponds to incredibly massive probes—billions and billions of times heavier than the proton, for instance—while "low" energy corresponds to probe masses at most a speck above zero. In such circumstances, there is a monumental difference in difficulty between the two approaches, since even producing the heavy-string configurations is an undertaking that, at present, is beyond our technological prowess. In practice, then, only one of the two approaches is technologically feasible—the one involving the lighter of the two types of string configurations. This is the one used implicitly in all of our discussions involving distance encountered to this point. This is the one that informs and hence meshes with our intuition.
Putting issues of practicality aside, in a universe governed by string theory one is free to measure distances using either of the two approaches. When astronomers measure the "size of the universe" they do so by examining photons that have traveled across the cosmos and have happened to enter their telescopes. No pun intended, photons are the light string modes in this situation. The result obtained is the 10^{61}times the Planck length quoted earlier. If the three familiar spatial dimensions are in fact circular and string theory is right, astronomers using vastly different (and currently nonexistent) equipment, in principle, should be able to measure the extent of the heavens with heavy wound-string modes and find a result that is the reciprocal of this huge distance. It is in this sense that we can think of the universe as being either huge, as we normally do, or terribly minute. According to the light string modes, the universe is large and expanding; according to the heavy modes it is tiny and contracting. There is no contradiction here; instead, we have two distinct but equally sensible definitions of distance. We are far more familiar with the first definition due to technological limitations, but, nevertheless, each is an equally valid concept.
Now we can answer our earlier question about big humans in a little universe. When we measure the height of a human and find six feet, for instance, we necessarily use the light string modes. To compare their size to that of the universe, we must use the same measuring procedure and, as above, this yields 15 billion light-years for the size of the universe, a result that is much larger than six feet. Asking how such a person can fit into the "tiny" universe as measured by the heavy string modes is asking a meaningless question—it's comparing apples and oranges. Since we now have two concepts of distance—using light or heavy string probes—we must compare measurements made in the same manner.
A Minimum Size
It's been a bit of a trek, but we are now set for the key point. If one does stick to measuring distances "the easy way"—that is, using the lightest of the string modes instead of the heavy ones—the results obtained will always be larger than the Planck length. To see this, let's think through the hypothetical big crunch for the three extended dimensions, assuming them to be circular. For argument's sake, let's say that at the beginning of our thought experiment, unwound string modes are the light ones and by using them it is determined that the universe has an enormously large radius and that it is shrinking in time. As it shrinks, these unwound modes get heavier and the winding modes get lighter. When the radius shrinks all the way to the Planck length—that is, when R takes on the value 1—the winding and vibration modes have comparable mass. The two approaches to measuring distance become equally difficult to carry out and, moreover, each would yield the same result since 1 is its own reciprocal.
As the radius continues to shrink, the winding modes become lighter than the unwound modes and hence, since we are always opting for the "easier approach," they should now be used to measure distances. According to this method of measurement, which yields the reciprocal of that measured by the unwound modes, the radius is larger than one times the Planck length and increasing. This simply reflects that as R—the quantity measured by unwound strings—shrinks to 1 and continues to get smaller, 1/R—the quantity measured by wound strings—grows to 1 and gets larger. Therefore, if one takes care to always use the light string modes—the "easy" approach to measuring distance—the minimal value encountered is the Planck length.
In particular, a big crunch to zero size is avoided, as the radius of the universe as measured using light string-mode probes is always larger than the Planck length. Rather than heading through the Planck length on to ever smaller size, the radius, as measured by the lightest string modes, decreases to the Planck length and then immediately starts to increase. The crunch is replaced by a bounce.
Using light string modes to measure distances aligns with our conventional notion of length—the one that was around long before the discovery of string theory. It is according to this notion of distance, as seen in Chapter 5, that we encountered insurmountable problems with violent quantum undulations if sub-Planck-scale distances play a physical role. We once again see, from this complementary perspective, that the ultra-short distances are avoided by string theory. In the physical framework of general relativity and in the corresponding mathematical framework of Riemannian geometry there is a single concept of distance, and it can acquire arbitrarily small values. In the physical framework of string theory, and, correspondingly, in the realm of the emerging discipline of quantum geometry, there are two notions of distance. By judiciously making use of both we find a concept of distance that meshes with both our intuition and with general relativity when distance scales are large, but that differs from them dramatically when distance scales get small. Specifically, sub-Planck-scale distances are inaccessible.
As this discussion is quite subtle, let's re-emphasize one central point. If we were to spurn the distinction between "easy" and "hard" approaches to measuring length and, say, continue to use the unwound modes as R shrinks through the Planck length, it might seem that we would indeed be able to encounter a sub-Planck-length distance. But the paragraphs above inform us that the word "distance" in the last sentence must be carefully interpreted, since it can have two different meanings, only one of which conforms to our traditional notion. And in this case, when R shrinks to sub-Planck length but we continue to use the unwound strings (even though they have now become heavier than the wound strings), we are employing the "hard" approach to measuring distance, and hence the meaning of "distance" does not conform to our standard usage. However, the discussion is far more than one of semantics or even of convenience or practicality of measurement. Even if we choose to use the nonstandard notion of distance and thereby describe the radius as being shorter than the Planck length, the physics we encounter—as discussed in previous sections—will be identical to that of a universe in which the radius, in the conventional sense of distance, is larger than the Planck length (as attested to, for example, by the exact correspondence between Tables 10.1 and 10.2). And it is physics, not language, that really matters.
Brandenberger, Vafa, and other physicists have made use of these ideas to suggest a rewriting of the laws of cosmology in which both the big bang and the possible big crunch do not involve a zero-size universe, but rather one that is Planck-length in all dimensions. This is certainly a very appealing proposal for avoiding the mathematical, physical, and logical conundrums of a universe that emanates from or collapses to an infinitely dense point. Although it is conceptually difficult to imagine the whole of the universe compressed together into a tiny Planck-sized nugget, it is truly beyond the pale to imagine it crushed to a point of no size at all. String cosmology, as we shall discuss in Chapter 14, is a field very much in its infancy but one that holds great promise, and may very well provide us with this easier-to-swallow alternative to the standard big bang model.
How General Is This Conclusion?
What if the spatial dimensions are not circular in shape? Do these remarkable conclusions about minimum spatial extent in string theory still hold? No one knows for sure. The essential aspect of circular dimensions is that they permit the possibility of wound strings. As long as the spatial dimensions—regardless of the details of their shape—allow strings to wind around them, most of the conclusions we have drawn should still apply. But what if, say, two of the dimensions are in the shape of a sphere? In this case, strings cannot get "trapped" in a wound configuration, because they can always "slip off" much as a stretched rubber band can pop off a basketball. Does string theory nevertheless limit the size to which these dimensions can shrink?
Numerous investigations seem to show that the answer depends on whether a full spatial dimension is being shrunk (as in the examples in this chapter) or (as we shall encounter and explain in Chapters 11 and 13) an isolated "chunk" of space is collapsing. The general belief among string theorists is that, regardless of shape, there is a minimum limiting size, much as in the case of circular dimensions, so long as we are shrinking a full spatial dimension. Establishing this expectation is an important goal for further research because it has a direct impact on a number of aspects of string theory, including its implications for cosmology.
Mirror Symmetry
Through general relativity, Einstein forged a link between the physics of gravity and the geometry of spacetime. At first blush, string theory strengthens and broadens the link between physics and geometry, since the properties of vibrating strings—their mass and the force charges they carry—are largely determined by the properties of the curled-up component of space. We have just seen, though, that quantum geometry—the geometry-physics association in string theory—has some surprising twists. In general relativity, and in "conventional" geometry, a circle of radius R is different from one whose radius is 1/R, pure and simple; yet, in string theory they are physically indistinguishable. This leads us to be bold enough to go further and ask whether there might be geometrical forms of space that differ in more drastic ways—not just in overall size, but possibly also in shape—but that are nevertheless physically indistinguishable in string theory.
In 1988, Lance Dixon of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center made a pivotal observation in this regard that was further amplified by Wolfgang Lerche of CERN, Vafa at Harvard, and Nicholas Warner, then of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Based upon aesthetic arguments rooted in considerations of symmetry, these physicists made the audacious suggestion that it might be possible for two different Calabi-Yau shapes, chosen for the extra curled-up dimensions in string theory, to give rise to identical physics.
To give you an idea of how this rather far-fetched possibility might actually occur, recall that the number of holes in the extra Calabi-Yau dimensions determines the number of families into which string excitations will arrange themselves. These holes are analogous to the holes one finds in a torus or its multihandled cousins, as illustrated in Figure 9.1. One deficiency of the two-dimensional figure that we must show on the printed page is that it cannot show that a six-dimensional Calabi-Yau space can have holes of a variety of dimensions. Although such holes are harder to picture, they can be described with well-understood mathematics. A key fact is that the number of families of particles arising from string vibrations is sensitive only to the total number of holes, not to the number of holes of each particular dimension (that's why, for instance, we did not worry about drawing distinctions between the different types of holes in our discussion in Chapter 9). Imagine, then, two Calabi-Yau spaces in which the number of holes in various dimensions differs, but in which the total number of holes is the same. Since the number of holes in each dimension is not the same, the two Calabi-Yaus have different shapes. But since they have the same total number of holes, each yields a universe with the same number of families. This, of course, is but one physical property. Agreement on all physical properties is a far more restrictive requirement, but this at least gives the flavor of how the Dixon-Lerche-Vafa-Warner conjecture could possibly be true.
In the fall of 1987, I joined the physics department at Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow and my office was just down the hall from Vafa's. As my thesis research had focused on the physical and mathematical properties of curled-up Calabi-Yau dimensions in string theory, Vafa kept me closely apprised of his work in this area. When he stopped by my office in the fall of 1988 and told me of the conjecture that he, Lerche, and Warner had come upon, I was intrigued but also skeptical. The intrigue arose from the realization that if their conjecture was true, it might open a new avenue of research on string theory; the skepticism arose from the realization that guesses are one thing, established properties of a theory are quite another.
During the following months, I thought frequently about their conjecture and, frankly, half convinced myself that it wasn't true. Surprisingly, though, a seemingly unrelated research project I had undertaken in collaboration with Ronen Plesser, then a graduate student at Harvard and now on the faculty of the Weizmann Institute and Duke University, was soon to change my mind completely. Plesser and I had become interested in developing methods for starting with an initial Calabi-Yau shape and mathematically manipulating it to produce hitherto unknown Calabi-Yau shapes. We were particularly drawn to a technique known as orbifolding, which was pioneered by Dixon, Jeffrey Harvey of the University of Chicago, Vafa, and Witten in the mid-1980s. Roughly speaking, this is a procedure in which different points on an initial Calabi-Yau shape are glued together according to mathematical rules that ensure that a new Calabi-Yau shape is produced. This is schematically illustrated in Figure 10.4. The mathematics underlying the manipulations illustrated in Figure 10.4 is formidable, and for this reason string theorists had thoroughly investigated this procedure only as applied to the simplest of shapes—higher-dimensional versions of the doughnut shapes shown in Figure 9.1. Plesser and I realized, though, that some beautiful new insights of Doron Gepner, then of Princeton University, might give a powerful theoretical framework for applying the orbifolding technique to full-fledged Calabi-Yau shapes, such as the one in Figure 8.9.
After a few months of intensive pursuit of this idea we came to a surprising realization. If we glued particular groups of points together in just the right way, the Calabi-Yau shape we produced differed from the one we started with in a startling manner: The number of odd-dimensional holes in the new Calabi-Yau shape equaled the number of even-dimensional holes in the original, and vice versa. In particular, this means that the total number of holes—and therefore the number of particle families—in each is the same even though the even-odd interchange means that their shapes and fundamental geometrical structures are quite different.^{5}
Figure 10.4 Orbifolding is a procedure in which a new Calabi-Yau shape is produced by gluing together various points on an initial Calabi-Yau shape.
Excited by the apparent contact we had made with the Dixon-Lerche-Vafa-Warner guess, Plesser and I pressed on to the linchpin question: Beyond the number of families of particles, do the two different Calabi-Yau spaces agree on the rest of their physical properties? After a couple more months of detailed and arduous mathematical analysis during which we received valuable inspiration and encouragement from Graham Ross, my thesis advisor at Oxford, and also from Vafa, Plesser and I were able to argue that the answer was, most definitely, yes. For mathematical reasons having to do with the even-odd interchange, Plesser and I coined the term mirror manifolds to describe the physically equivalent yet geometrically distinct Calabi-Yau spaces.^{6} The individual spaces in a mirror pair of Calabi-Yau spaces are not literally mirror images of one another, in the sense of everyday usage. But even though they have different geometrical properties, they give rise to one and the same physical universe when used for the extra dimensions in string theory.
The weeks after finding this result were an extremely anxious time. Plesser and I knew that we were sitting on an important new piece of string physics. We had shown that the tight association between geometry and physics originally set down by Einstein was substantially modified by string theory: Drastically different geometrical shapes that would imply different physical properties in general relativity were giving rise to identical physics in string theory. But what if we had made a mistake? What if their physical implications did differ in some subtle way that we had missed? When we showed our results to Yau, for example, he politely but firmly claimed that we must have made an error; he asserted that from a mathematical standpoint our results were far too outlandish to be true. His assessment gave us substantial pause. It's one thing to make a mistake in a small or modest claim that attracts little attention. Our result, though, was suggesting an unexpected step in a new direction that would certainly engender a strong response. If it were wrong, everyone would know.
Finally, after much checking and rechecking, our confidence grew and we sent our paper off for publication. A few days later, I was sitting in my office at Harvard and the phone rang. It was Philip Candelas from the University of Texas, and he immediately asked me if I was seated. I was. He then told me that he and two of his students, Monika Lynker and Rolf Schimmrigk, had found something that was going to knock me off of my chair. By carefully examining a huge sample set of Calabi-Yau spaces that they had generated by computer, they found that almost all came in pairs differing precisely by the interchange of the number of even and odd holes. I told him that I was still seated—that Plesser and I had found the same result. Candelas's and our work turned out to be complementary; we had gone one step further by showing that all of the resulting physics in a mirror pair was identical, whereas Candelas and his students had shown that a significantly larger sample of Calabi-Yau shapes fell into mirror pairs. Through the two papers, we had discovered the mirror symmetry of string theory.^{7}
The Physics and the Mathematics of Mirror Symmetry
The loosening of Einstein's rigid and unique association between the geometry of space and observed physics is one of the striking paradigm shifts of string theory. But these developments entail far more than a change in philosophical stance. Mirror symmetry, in particular, provides a powerful tool for understanding both the physics of string theory and the mathematics of Calabi-Yau spaces.
Mathematicians working in a field called algebraic geometry had been studying Calabi-Yau spaces for purely mathematical reasons long before string theory was discovered. They had worked out many of the detailed properties of these geometrical spaces without an inkling of a future physical application. Certain aspects of Calabi-Yau spaces, however, had proven difficult—essentially impossible—for mathematicians to unravel fully. But the discovery of mirror symmetry in string theory changed this significantly. In essence, mirror symmetry proclaims that particular pairs of Calabi-Yau spaces, pairs that were previously thought to be completely unrelated, are now intimately connected by string theory. They are linked by the common physical universe each implies if either is the one selected for the extra curled-up dimensions. This previously unsuspected interconnection provides an incisive new physical and mathematical tool.
Imagine, for instance, that you are busily calculating the physical properties—particle masses and force charges—associated with one possible Calabi-Yau choice for the extra dimensions. You are not particularly concerned with matching your detailed results with experiment, since as we have seen a number of theoretical and technological obstacles make doing this quite difficult at present. Instead, you are working through a thought experiment concerned with what the world would look like if a particular Calabi-Yau space were selected. For a while, everything is going along fine, but then, in the midst of your work, you come upon a mathematical calculation of insurmountable difficulty. No one, not even the world's most expert mathematicians, can figure out how to proceed. You are stuck. But then you realize that this Calabi-Yau has a mirror partner. Since the resulting string physics associated with each member of a mirror pair is identical, you recognize that you are free to do your calculations making use of either. And so, you rephrase the difficult calculation on the original Calabi-Yau space in terms of a calculation on its mirror, assured that the result of the calculation—the physics—will be the same. At first sight you might think that the rephrased version of the calculation will be as difficult as the original. But here you come upon a pleasant and powerful surprise: You discover that although the result will be the same, the detailed form of the calculation is very different, and in some cases the horribly difficult calculation you started with turns into an extremely easy calculation on the mirror Calabi-Yau space. There is no simple explanation for why this happens, but—at least for certain calculations—it most definitely does, and the decrease in level of difficulty can be dramatic. The implication, of course, is clear: You are no longer stuck.
It's somewhat as if someone requires you to count exactly the number of oranges that are haphazardly jumbled together in an enormous bin, some 50 feet on each side and 10 feet deep. You start to count them one by one, but soon realize that the task is just too laborious. Luckily, though, a friend comes along who was present when the oranges were delivered. He tells you that they arrived neatly packed in smaller boxes (one of which he just happens to be holding) that when stacked were 20 boxes long, by 20 boxes deep, by 20 boxes high. You quickly calculate that they arrived in 8,000 boxes, and that all you need to do is figure out how many oranges are packed in each. This you easily do by borrowing your friend's box and filling it with oranges, allowing you to finish your huge counting task with almost no effort. In essence, by cleverly reorganizing the calculation, you were able to make it substantially easier to accomplish.
The situation with numerous calculations in string theory is similar. From the perspective of one Calabi-Yau space, a calculation might involve an enormous number of difficult mathematical steps. By translating the calculation to its mirror, though, the calculation is reorganized in a far more efficient manner, allowing it to be completed with relative ease. This point was made by Plesser and me, and was impressively put into practice in subsequent work by Candelas with his collaborators Xenia de la Ossa and Linda Parkes, from the University of Texas, and Paul Green, from the University of Maryland. They showed that calculations of almost unimaginable difficulty could be accomplished by using the mirror perspective, with a few pages of algebra and a desktop computer.
This was an especially exciting development for mathematicians, because some of these calculations were precisely the ones they had been stuck on for many years. String theory—or so the physicists claimed—had beaten them to the solution.
Now you should bear in mind that there is a good deal of healthy and generally good-natured competition between mathematicians and physicists. And as it turns out, two Norwegian mathematicians—Geir Ellingsrud and Stein Arild Strømme—happened to be working on one of numerous calculations that Candelas and his collaborators had successfully conquered with mirror symmetry. Roughly speaking, it amounted to calculating the number of spheres that could be "packed" inside a particular Calabi-Yau space, somewhat like our analogy of counting oranges in a large bin. At a meeting of physicists and mathematicians in Berkeley in 1991, Candelas announced the result reached by his group using string theory and mirror symmetry: 317,206,375. Ellingsrud and Strømme announced the result of their very difficult mathematical calculation: 2,682,549,425. For days, mathematicians and physicists debated: Who was right? The question turned into a real litmus test of the quantitative reliability of string theory. A number of people even commented—somewhat in jest—that this test was the next best thing to being able to compare string theory with experiment. Moreover, Candelas's results went far beyond the single numerical result that Ellingsrud and Strømme claimed to have calculated. He and his collaborators claimed to have also answered many other questions that were tremendously more difficult—so difficult in fact, that no mathematician had ever even attempted to address them. But could the string theory results be trusted? The meeting ended with a great deal of fruitful exchange between mathematicians and physicists, but no resolution of the discrepancy.
About a month later, an e-mail message was widely circulated among participants in the Berkeley meeting with the subject heading Physics Wins! Ellingsrud and Strømme had found an error in their computer code that, when corrected, confirmed Candelas's result. Since then, there have been many mathematical checks on the quantitative reliability of the mirror symmetry of string theory: It has passed all with flying colors. Even more recently, almost a decade after physicists discovered mirror symmetry, mathematicians have made great progress in revealing its inherent mathematical foundations. By utilizing substantial contributions of the mathematicians Maxim Kontsevich, Yuri Manin, Gang Tian, Jun Li, and Alexander Givental, Yau and his collaborators Bong Lian and Kefeng Liu have finally found a rigorous mathematical proof of the formulas used to count spheres inside Calabi-Yau spaces, thereby solving problems that have puzzled mathematicians for hundreds of years.
Beyond the particulars of this success, what these developments really highlight is the role that physics has begun to play in modern mathematics. For quite some time, physicists have "mined" mathematical archives in search of tools for constructing and analyzing models of the physical world. Now, through the discovery of string theory, physics is beginning to repay the debt and to provide mathematicians with powerful new approaches to their unsolved problems. String theory not only provides a unifying framework for physics, but it may well forge an equally deep union with mathematics as well.