String theory is not a subject that would enthral most people, it is hard physics, mathematical, untested and impossible to visualise. On Thursday the 28th of October at the Wellcome Institute, I attended a discussion with Brian Greene on the subject of String theory and the controversy and debate surrounding it. Brian Greene is a professor at Columbia University, author of ‘The Elegant Universe’ as well as being one of the most well-respected and high profile string theorists. The talk was facilitated by Professor A.C Grayling, author and professor of philosophy at Birkbeck University.
The talk began with a brief and concise introduction to some of the background physics and the reasons for pursuing string theory. Greene’s easy and relaxed manner is evident from the start, his lilting American accent puts the audience, and indeed Grayling, at ease. He begins with a simple assertion that string theory holds a unique place within science in that it is currently the best model we have that can unify the four fundamental forces of nature. Without going into too much detail, this is the Holy Grail for physicists.
Perhaps I should give a brief overview of what string theory is although most of it lies in a realm completely beyond my understanding. The idea is that all matter is made up of tiny vibrating strings; every particle has a particular frequency associated with it and, just as different vibrations on a guitar string match up to different notes, each string’s frequency corresponds to a different particle. This gives us a single constituent of all matter which is a tantalising prospect.
Grayling was engaging in his role as interviewer and seemed to know quite a lot about the subject himself, which enabled him to talk about some of the criticisms of string theory. Further on in the interview Grayling steered the discussion to the debate surrounding String theory research and the amount of funding being funnelled into it. Greene seemed baffled by the concern, especially as he perceived it as a definite non-issue.
Greene’s explanations of some physics phenomenon were excellent, proving his credentials as a great communicator of science
He pointed out that string theorists want nothing more than the truth, and if string theory was closest to revealing it then of course money should be spent on it. He added that if it was disproved then something else would take over and, whether correct or not, every effort should be made to find out.
Greene’s explanations of some physics phenomenon were excellent, proving his credentials as a great communicator of science although his bestselling book is a far greater testament to that.
The talk was enlightening, Greene and Grayling kept the attention of the room admirably with witty and relaxed conversation. String theory is far from being proven, but after this lecture I found myself anticipating a breakthrough with hope and optimism.