String theory

In physics, string theory is a theoretical framework in which the point-like particles of particle physics are replaced by one-dimensional objects called strings. It describes how these strings propagate through space and interact with each other. On distance scales larger than the string scale, a string looks just like an ordinary particle, with its mass, charge, and other properties determined by the vibrational state of the string. In string theory, one of the many vibrational states of the string corresponds to the graviton, a quantum mechanical particle that carries gravitational force. Thus string theory is a theory of quantum gravity.

String theory is a broad and varied subject that attempts to address a number of deep questions of fundamental physics. String theory has been applied to a variety of problems in black hole physics, early universe cosmology, nuclear physics, and condensed matter physics, and it has stimulated a number of major developments in pure mathematics. Because string theory potentially provides a unified description of gravity and particle physics, it is a candidate for a theory of everything, a self-contained mathematical model that describes all fundamental forces and forms of matter. Despite much work on these problems, it is not known to what extent string theory describes the real world or how much freedom the theory allows in the choice of its details.

String theory was first studied in the late 1960s as a theory of the strong nuclear force, before being abandoned in favor of quantum chromodynamics. Subsequently, it was realized that the very properties that made string theory unsuitable as a theory of nuclear physics made it a promising candidate for a quantum theory of gravity. The earliest version of string theory, bosonic string theory, incorporated only the class of particles known as bosons. It later developed into superstring theory, which posits a connection called supersymmetry between bosons and the class of particles called fermions. Five consistent versions of superstring theory were developed before it was conjectured in the mid-1990s that they were all different limiting cases of a single theory in eleven dimensions known as M-theory. In late 1997, theorists discovered an important relationship called the AdS/CFT correspondence, which relates string theory to another type of physical theory called a quantum field theory.

One of the challenges of string theory is that the full theory does not have a satisfactory definition in all circumstances. Another issue is that the theory is thought to describe an enormous landscape of possible universes, and this has complicated efforts to develop theories of particle physics based on string theory. These issues have led some in the community to criticize these approaches to physics and question the value of continued research on string theory unification.


A wavy open segment and closed loop of string.
The fundamental objects of string theory are open and closed string models.

In the twentieth century, two theoretical frameworks emerged for formulating the laws of physics. The first is Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, a theory that explains the force of gravity and the structure of space and time. The other is quantum mechanics which is a completely different formulation to describe physical phenomena using the known probability principles. By the late 1970s, these two frameworks had proven to be sufficient to explain most of the observed features of the universe, from elementary particles to atoms to the evolution of stars and the universe as a whole.[1]

In spite of these successes, there are still many problems that remain to be solved. One of the deepest problems in modern physics is the problem of quantum gravity.[1] The general theory of relativity is formulated within the framework of classical physics, whereas the other fundamental forces are described within the framework of quantum mechanics. A quantum theory of gravity is needed in order to reconcile general relativity with the principles of quantum mechanics, but difficulties arise when one attempts to apply the usual prescriptions of quantum theory to the force of gravity.[2] In addition to the problem of developing a consistent theory of quantum gravity, there are many other fundamental problems in the physics of atomic nuclei, black holes, and the early universe.[a]

String theory is a theoretical framework that attempts to address these questions and many others. The starting point for string theory is the idea that the point-like particles of particle physics can also be modeled as one-dimensional objects called strings. String theory describes how strings propagate through space and interact with each other. In a given version of string theory, there is only one kind of string, which may look like a small loop or segment of ordinary string, and it can vibrate in different ways. On distance scales larger than the string scale, a string will look just like an ordinary particle, with its mass, charge, and other properties determined by the vibrational state of the string. In this way, all of the different elementary particles may be viewed as vibrating strings. In string theory, one of the vibrational states of the string gives rise to the graviton, a quantum mechanical particle that carries gravitational force. Thus string theory is a theory of quantum gravity.[3]

One of the main developments of the past several decades in string theory was the discovery of certain "dualities", mathematical transformations that identify one physical theory with another. Physicists studying string theory have discovered a number of these dualities between different versions of string theory, and this has led to the conjecture that all consistent versions of string theory are subsumed in a single framework known as M-theory.[4]

Studies of string theory have also yielded a number of results on the nature of black holes and the gravitational interaction. There are certain paradoxes that arise when one attempts to understand the quantum aspects of black holes, and work on string theory has attempted to clarify these issues. In late 1997 this line of work culminated in the discovery of the anti-de Sitter/conformal field theory correspondence or AdS/CFT.[5] This is a theoretical result which relates string theory to other physical theories which are better understood theoretically. The AdS/CFT correspondence has implications for the study of black holes and quantum gravity, and it has been applied to other subjects, including nuclear[6] and condensed matter physics.[7][8]

Since string theory incorporates all of the fundamental interactions, including gravity, many physicists hope that it will eventually[note 1] fully describe our universe, making it a theory of everything. One of the goals of current research in string theory is to find a solution of the theory that reproduces the observed spectrum of elementary particles, with a small cosmological constant, containing dark matter and a plausible mechanism for cosmic inflation. While there has been progress toward these goals, it is not known to what extent string theory describes the real world or how much freedom the theory allows in the choice of details.[9]

One of the challenges of string theory is that the full theory does not have a satisfactory definition in all circumstances. The scattering of strings is most straightforwardly defined using the techniques of perturbation theory, but it is not known in general how to define string theory nonperturbatively.[10] It is also not clear whether there is any principle by which string theory selects its vacuum state, the physical state that determines the properties of our universe.[11] These problems have led some in the community to criticize these approaches to the unification of physics and question the value of continued research on these problems.[12]


Interaction in the quantum world: worldlines of point-like particles or a worldsheet swept up by closed strings in string theory.

The application of quantum mechanics to physical objects such as the electromagnetic field, which are extended in space and time, is known as quantum field theory. In particle physics, quantum field theories form the basis for our understanding of elementary particles, which are modeled as excitations in the fundamental fields.[13]

In quantum field theory, one typically computes the probabilities of various physical events using the techniques of perturbation theory. Developed by Richard Feynman and others in the first half of the twentieth century, perturbative quantum field theory uses special diagrams called Feynman diagrams to organize computations. One imagines that these diagrams depict the paths of point-like particles and their interactions.[13]

The starting point for string theory is the idea that the point-like particles of quantum field theory can also be modeled as one-dimensional objects called strings.[14] The interaction of strings is most straightforwardly defined by generalizing the perturbation theory used in ordinary quantum field theory. At the level of Feynman diagrams, this means replacing the one-dimensional diagram representing the path of a point particle by a two-dimensional surface representing the motion of a string.[15] Unlike in quantum field theory, string theory does not have a full non-perturbative definition, so many of the theoretical questions that physicists would like to answer remain out of reach.[16]

In theories of particle physics based on string theory, the characteristic length scale of strings is assumed to be on the order of the Planck length, or 10−35 meters, the scale at which the effects of quantum gravity are believed to become significant.[15] On much larger length scales, such as the scales visible in physics laboratories, such objects would be indistinguishable from zero-dimensional point particles, and the vibrational state of the string would determine the type of particle. One of the vibrational states of a string corresponds to the graviton, a quantum mechanical particle that carries the gravitational force.[3]

The original version of string theory was bosonic string theory, but this version described only bosons, a class of particles which transmit forces between the matter particles, or fermions. Bosonic string theory was eventually superseded by theories called superstring theories. These theories describe both bosons and fermions, and they incorporate a theoretical idea called supersymmetry. This is a mathematical relation that exists in certain physical theories between the bosons and fermions. In theories with supersymmetry, each boson has a counterpart which is a fermion, and vice versa.[17]

There are several versions of superstring theory: type I, type IIA, type IIB, and two flavors of heterotic string theory (SO(32) and E8×E8). The different theories allow different types of strings, and the particles that arise at low energies exhibit different symmetries. For example, the type I theory includes both open strings (which are segments with endpoints) and closed strings (which form closed loops), while types IIA, IIB and heterotic include only closed strings.[18]

Extra dimensions

A tubular surface and corresponding one-dimensional curve.
An example of compactification: At large distances, a two dimensional surface with one circular dimension looks one-dimensional.

In everyday life, there are three familiar dimensions of space: height, width and length. Einstein's general theory of relativity treats time as a dimension on par with the three spatial dimensions; in general relativity, space and time are not modeled as separate entities but are instead unified to a four-dimensional spacetime. In this framework, the phenomenon of gravity is viewed as a consequence of the geometry of spacetime.[19]

In spite of the fact that the universe is well described by four-dimensional spacetime, there are several reasons why physicists consider theories in other dimensions. In some cases, by modeling spacetime in a different number of dimensions, a theory becomes more mathematically tractable, and one can perform calculations and gain general insights more easily.[b] There are also situations where theories in two or three spacetime dimensions are useful for describing phenomena in condensed matter physics.[20] Finally, there exist scenarios in which there could actually be more than four dimensions of spacetime which have nonetheless managed to escape detection.[21]

One notable feature of string theories is that these theories require extra dimensions of spacetime for their mathematical consistency. In bosonic string theory, spacetime is 26-dimensional, while in superstring theory it is 10-dimensional, and in M-theory it is 11-dimensional. In order to describe real physical phenomena using string theory, one must therefore imagine scenarios in which these extra dimensions would not be observed in experiments.[22]

Visualization of a complex mathematical surface with many convolutions and self intersections.
A cross section of a quintic Calabi–Yau manifold

Compactification is one way of modifying the number of dimensions in a physical theory. In compactification, some of the extra dimensions are assumed to "close up" on themselves to form circles.[23] In the limit where these curled up dimensions become very small, one obtains a theory in which spacetime has effectively a lower number of dimensions. A standard analogy for this is to consider a multidimensional object such as a garden hose. If the hose is viewed from a sufficient distance, it appears to have only one dimension, its length. However, as one approaches the hose, one discovers that it contains a second dimension, its circumference. Thus, an ant crawling on the surface of the hose would move in two dimensions.[24]

Compactification can be used to construct models in which spacetime is effectively four-dimensional. However, not every way of compactifying the extra dimensions produces a model with the right properties to describe nature. In a viable model of particle physics, the compact extra dimensions must be shaped like a Calabi–Yau manifold.[23] A Calabi–Yau manifold is a special space which is typically taken to be six-dimensional in applications to string theory. It is named after mathematicians Eugenio Calabi and Shing-Tung Yau.[25]

Another approach to reducing the number of dimensions is the so-called brane-world scenario. In this approach, physicists assume that the observable universe is a four-dimensional subspace of a higher dimensional space. In such models, the force-carrying bosons of particle physics arise from open strings with endpoints attached to the four-dimensional subspace, while gravity arises from closed strings propagating through the larger ambient space. This idea plays an important role in attempts to develop models of real world physics based on string theory, and it provides a natural explanation for the weakness of gravity compared to the other fundamental forces.[26]


A diagram indicating the relationships between M-theory and the five superstring theories.
A diagram of string theory dualities. Yellow arrows indicate S-duality. Blue arrows indicate T-duality.

One notable fact about string theory is that the different versions of the theory all turn out to be related in highly nontrivial ways. One of the relationships that can exist between different string theories is called S-duality. This is a relationship which says that a collection of strongly interacting particles in one theory can, in some cases, be viewed as a collection of weakly interacting particles in a completely different theory. Roughly speaking, a collection of particles is said to be strongly interacting if they combine and decay often and weakly interacting if they do so infrequently. Type I string theory turns out to be equivalent by S-duality to the SO(32) heterotic string theory. Similarly, type IIB string theory is related to itself in a nontrivial way by S-duality.[27]

Another relationship between different string theories is T-duality. Here one considers strings propagating around a circular extra dimension. T-duality states that a string propagating around a circle of radius R is equivalent to a string propagating around a circle of radius 1/R in the sense that all observable quantities in one description are identified with quantities in the dual description. For example, a string has momentum as it propagates around a circle, and it can also wind around the circle one or more times. The number of times the string winds around a circle is called the winding number. If a string has momentum p and winding number n in one description, it will have momentum n and winding number p in the dual description. For example, type IIA string theory is equivalent to type IIB string theory via T-duality, and the two versions of heterotic string theory are also related by T-duality.[27]

In general, the term duality refers to a situation where two seemingly different physical systems turn out to be equivalent in a nontrivial way. Two theories related by a duality need not be string theories. For example, Montonen–Olive duality is example of an S-duality relationship between quantum field theories. The AdS/CFT correspondence is example of a duality which relates string theory to a quantum field theory. If two theories are related by a duality, it means that one theory can be transformed in some way so that it ends up looking just like the other theory. The two theories are then said to be dual to one another under the transformation. Put differently, the two theories are mathematically different descriptions of the same phenomena.[28]


A pair of surfaces joined by wavy line segments.
Open strings attached to a pair of D-branes.

In string theory and other related theories, a brane is a physical object that generalizes the notion of a point particle to higher dimensions. For instance, a point particle can be viewed as a brane of dimension zero, while a string can be viewed as a brane of dimension one. It is also possible to consider higher-dimensional branes. In dimension p, these are called p-branes. The word brane comes from the word "membrane" which refers to a two-dimensional brane.[29]

Branes are dynamical objects which can propagate through spacetime according to the rules of quantum mechanics. They have mass and can have other attributes such as charge. A p-brane sweeps out a (p+1)-dimensional volume in spacetime called its worldvolume. Physicists often study fields analogous to the electromagnetic field which live on the worldvolume of a brane.[29]

In string theory, D-branes are an important class of branes that arise when one considers open strings. As an open string propagates through spacetime, its endpoints are required to lie on a D-brane. The letter "D" in D-brane refers to a certain mathematical condition on the system known as the Dirichlet boundary condition. The study of D-branes in string theory has led to important results such as the AdS/CFT correspondence, which has shed light on many problems in quantum field theory.[30]

Branes are frequently studied from a purely mathematical point of view, and they are described as objects of certain categories, such as the derived category of coherent sheaves on a complex algebraic variety, or the Fukaya category of a symplectic manifold.[31] The connection between the physical notion of a brane and the mathematical notion of a category has led to important mathematical insights in the fields of algebraic and symplectic geometry [32] and representation theory.[33]

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