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Superstring Theory

A CERN course project

Sami Laitinen, Mikko Marttila


Oulun Lyseon lukio
28.5.2009
Table of contents

Introduction ................................................................................................................................................ 3
Brief history of string theory ....................................................................................................................... 3
Theoretical physics behind string theory........................................................................................... 3

Superstring theory ...................................................................................................................................... 4


Theory of everything ........................................................................................................................ 4

A world of strings ............................................................................................................................. 4

Beyond string theory: M-theory ....................................................................................................... 5

Supersymmetry ........................................................................................................................................... 6
Particles come in pairs ...................................................................................................................... 6

Superstrings and other things ........................................................................................................... 6

Extra dimensions ......................................................................................................................................... 7


Wide or curled up ............................................................................................................................. 7

String theory and quantum gravity ............................................................................................................. 8


It's all about distances ...................................................................................................................... 8

Search for strings ........................................................................................................................................ 9


Research on superstring theory ........................................................................................................ 9

Where are they?............................................................................................................................. 10

The Large Hadron Collider .............................................................................................................. 11

List of sources ............................................................................................................................................12

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Introduction

For decades or even centuries, physicists have struggled to discover a theory that could explain
everything. The most generally accepted candidate for this role is the superstring theory. Super-
string theory attempts to explain all particles and interactions, something modern physics has
failed to do. Superstring theory describes the universe as being composed of tiny one-dimensional
strings, whose different vibration frequencies make up the point-like elementary particles we
know and observe today. It combines string theory with supersymmetry, another revolutionary
idea, which, like string theory, has been failed to prove experimentally.

Brief history of string theory

Theoretical physics behind string theory

In 1921, Theodor Kaluza and Oskar Klein independently made the first discoveries that electro-
magnetism could be derived from gravity in a unified theory that includes four space dimensions
of which the fourth is wrapped into a tiny circle and is unobservable. This so called Kaluza-Klein
theory was later used to develop string theories. String theory itself is considered to be born in the
late 1960s, as Yoichiro Nambu, Holger Bech Nielsen and Leonard Susskind independently ruled out
that the dual theories of 1968 describing the particle spectrum also described quantum mechanics
of oscillating strings.

Supersymmetry was discovered at first in 1971. The first supergravity theory was suggested in
1976. Supergravity combines supersymmetry and general relativity and is nowadays related to
superstring theories. Superstring theory combines string theories and supersymmetry. The first
superstring theory was developed in 1980. By mid-1980s string theory was finally accepted by
mainstream physicists as a possible theory unifying quantum mechanics, particle physics and grav-
ity. In ten years, understanding of strings greatly improved, as study of stringy black holes in higher
dimensions led to assumptions how different string theories are related through duality transfor-
mations. Black holes have been a fruitful field of study for string theorists.

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Superstring theory

Theory of everything

Superstring theory is an attempt to unify Einstein’s theory of general relativity and quantum me-
chanics into one theory, while at the same time including the quantum field theories of the weak
and strong nuclear forces and the electromagnetic force that form the standard model of physics
into the same unified theory. Simply put, superstring theory is an attempt to create a single theory
of everything that could be used to predict any given event in the entire universe. The existing
theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, can already predict almost everything we can
think of, but both theories have their special areas of application: general relativity works for
large-scale and massive objects, while quantum mechanics is a theory for tiny and light particles.

General relativity accurately describes our everyday universe, but when observing small enough
scales its rules break down and the theory of quantum mechanics has to be used in order to make
accurate predictions. While this inconsistency can most of the time be ignored simply by utilising
the theory designed for the given scale, there are certain cases in which both theories ought to be
applied at the same time. An example of these cases would be the tiny-but-massive black hole, or
the conditions in the first picoseconds of the history of the universe, right after the Big Bang. Both
these cases feature extremely high mass concentrations in tiny volumes, which cannot be de-
scribed without a unified theory of quantum gravity.

A world of strings

The idea behind superstring theory is that the smallest structure of the universe is not a dimen-
sionless particle, as the standard model predicts, but an oscillating one-dimensional string (see fig.
2.1). The oscillation energy of the string determines its physical properties i.e. mass (Einstein’s
famous equation E=mc2), flavour, charge and spin. The length of these strings is measured in
Planck lengths (one Planck length ≈ 1.616 × 10−35 𝑚), which makes them way out of reach for
modern measuring equipment to observe. This is why, from a distance, the oscillating strings ap-
pear as the dimensionless particles that we observe on a daily basis.

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Figure 2.1: Strings
oscillating at dif-
ferent energies.

It is important to understand that these elementary strings have only one dimension, their length.
They’re like extremely small versions of guitar strings, which are so thin that they are not thin –
they do not have a second dimension that would be their thickness. Also, it is not reasonable to
ask what these strings are made of; they aren’t made of anything, they’re the Greek atomos, undi-
vidable. The strings form all matter and energy, but they aren’t made of anything themselves.

One of the problems in the standard model of particle physics is thought to be the seemingly ran-
dom number (19) and value of the parameters required, which are only defined by measurements
made by experimental physicists. By presenting the smallest structure as a one-dimensional string
as opposed to a dimensionless particle, the number of parameters required for the theory is re-
duced from the 19 parameters of the standard model to just one parameter in superstring theory,
the tension of the given string.

Beyond string theory: M-theory

Recent findings seem to indicate that string theory is not the ultimate theory of everything: it is
only a part of a larger theory called the M-theory. In M-theory, strings are not the whole picture
when it comes to elementary particles. Instead, strings are just a part of a group called the p-
branes, where p indicates the number of dimensions in the object. This would mean that a 1-brane
is a string, a 2-brane is a surface of some sort, and so on, up to the 10-brane, which is an object
spreading in all the 10 space dimensions of the M-theory.

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Supersymmetry

Particles come in pairs

One of the natural symmetries, supersymmetry states that all elementary particles must come in
pairs of two: the “normal” particle that we can observe and its superpartner, the spin value of
which differs by ½ from the first particle’s spin. This basically means that for each fermion – mat-
ter particle, whose spin is a fraction – there is a boson – force carrier particle, with an integer spin
– partner. Since so far no superpartners have been observed, it is assumed they are much more
massive than their counterparts – this assumption is also backed up by calculations. It is hoped
that the existence of superpartners can be observed in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva,
which is scheduled to start operating in late 2009 (as of May 2009).

Superstrings and other things

The first string theory ever developed was the bosonic string theory. The bosonic string theory did
not include supersymmetry, and had some severe issues – there appeared to be a bosonic particle
called the tachyon, whose mass squared was negative. In addition to the tachyon problem, the
bosonic string theory did not include any fermion particles, and was thus unable to describe any
kind of matter. After the introduction of supersymmetry into the bosonic string theory, a new kind
of string theory was formed, free of the tachyon problem and including fermions, called the super-
symmetric string theory, or, the superstring theory.

After the original superstring theory, four other super-


string theories have been formulated. The five theories
are now called type I theory, type IIA theory, type IIB
theory, heterotic type O(32) theory and heterotic type
E8×E8 theory. The principle behind all the theories is the
same; the differences lay in the details. Unexpected
dualities have been found between these five theories
and a sixth theory, 11-dimensional supergravity. It is
believed that these six theories are all part of a more
complex theory called the M-theory (Fig. 3.1). Figure 3.1: M-theory?

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Extra dimensions

In our daily life we move through all three of the dimensions we’re accustomed to – forward-
backward, left-right and up-down. In addition to these three spatial dimensions, there’s also a
fourth dimension, time (past-future). For example the speed of an object moving in space-time is
divided among all dimensions, including time – this was proven by Albert Einstein in his theory of
special relativity. It is believed that if an object’s location in all four of the dimensions is deter-
mined, its absolute location is known accurately. However, this may not be completely true.

Wide or curled up

Some theories, including superstring theory, predict that in addition to the three spatial dimen-
sions we observe there are more dimensions. In the case of most superstring theories, the number
of spatial dimensions is nine. Thus with the time dimension taken into account, most superstring
theories are in fact ten-dimensional theories. The idea of ten dimensions might seem ridiculous at
first, but after some thought it turns out that it wouldn’t be that absurd after all. For example,
consider the case of a rope. Viewed from a distance, it would appear that a mouse running on the
rope can only move in one dimension, back or forth. If you were to look closer, however, you
would notice that the mouse can also move in another dimension, around the rope; the surface of
the rope is in fact a two-dimensional space that only appears to be one-dimensional when viewed
from a distance.

Similar to the rope, our universe might just appear to be three-dimensional, but closer observation
might prove that there are more dimensions in the world. These extra dimensions would simply
have to be curled up like the circumference of the rope – and if the diameter of these other di-
mensions is small enough, for example something in the scale of the Planck length, there’s no way
we could prove or disprove their existence with modern measuring equipment. Small curled-up
dimensions could be the explanation for the seemingly weak gravitational force as opposed to the
other natural forces, as the gravitational force would have to spread among all the dimensions.
Regardless, the idea of the world consisting of more than three spatial dimensions is one of the
main reasons for the stance of the scientists that don’t believe in string theory.

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String theory and quantum gravity

It’s all about distances

The underlying problem between general relativity only becomes apparent in sizes below the
Planck length, where violent quantum fluctuations tear apart the smooth surface of space-time
that general relativity, based on Riemannian geometry, relies on. From the viewpoint of the small-
est structure of the universe being a dimensionless point-like particle, it’s not possible to avoid
settings where the distances between two particles become less than Planck length, and thus
where quantum fluctuations become a problem when trying to present the situation in a quantum
theory. This is why in many modern theories of quantum gravity there is a set minimum length in
the universe. This minimum length is often the Planck length, which is also the case in string the-
ory, where the minimum length and diameter of a string is the very same Planck length.

One could ask why a string couldn’t just be shortened


until its diameter would become shorter than the
Planck length. At first, giving a string more energy does
shorten its length. However, when the energy reaches
the scale needed for less-than-Planck-length strings,
the string in fact stops diminishing and starts growing
in size. This means that it is in no way possible for us
to detect anything below the Planck length, since we
have nothing that we could “see” those sizes with –
nothing is smaller than strings, and strings are too big
to form a picture of sub-Planck-size space-time.

Given the fact that string theory avoids the conflicts of


quantum mechanics and general relativity and in-
cludes a string oscillation form equal to a graviton, it is
reasonable to assume that we are at least on the right
track on finding a theory of quantum gravity.
Figure 5.1: Quantum fluctuations in
space-time in distances less than
Planck length.

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Search for strings

Research on superstring theory

Mathematics behind superstring theories is complicated, and has required new ideas to produce
an effective physical theory. Complicacy adds especially the high number of dimensions of space-
time that are used in most string theories. Branes are an interesting concept in string theory, and
have been studied extensively.

Currently theoretical research on string theory is underway in


many universities across the world. One of the most popular
topics in its study is the anti-de-Sitter space/conformal field
theory correspondence, or the AdS/CFT correspondence (Fig.
6.1). This suggests that there is an equivalence between string
theory as defined in one space, and quantum field theory on
the boundary of this space in lower dimension. This idea origi-
nates from 1997. The idea of gauge-gravity duality is essential
to this as gauge-gravity duality simply means that all pheno-
mena and quantities in quantum theory of gravity have an ana-
logue in gauge theory in a lower dimension. Figure 6.1: AdS/CFT correspondence.

Other areas of interest for string theorists include holography, which could explain the black hole
information paradox. The holographic principle suggests that for a black hole, a description of
every objects that fall in it is contained in the event horizon, thus creating a some kind of holo-
gram. It is also worth considering that the principle works for the universe as a whole: the three
space dimensions may be thought as a 2D hologram on the cosmological horizon. This even more
adds complicacy to the dimension thinking of string theory. Furthermore, scientists focus on non-
perturbative formulations of string theory, tachyon condensation and string field theory.

String theory has also faced criticism. The most is against the idea of adding several dimensions
besides the traditional four. Also the impossibility of experimentally proving it as of now does not
convince many skeptics. Some do not trust the theory, because it suggests that there might be an
almost infinite number of parallel universes, which would be unobservable to us.

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Where are they?

The central problem in accepting string theory as a theory of everything and as a proper physical
theory at all is that it has not been possible to prove it by experiments. The reason for this is often
cited as being the huge amounts of energy needed to observe the structures described by string
theory. This is also the case with supersymmetry, the concept closely related to string theory by
the superstring theory. If one of these could be proved false, logical conclusions could be made
about the existence of the other (Fig. 6.2).

Supersymmetry Superstring theory


true  strong evidence
true  true
false  false

Figure 6.2: The relationship between supersymmetry and superstring theory.

So, the existence of superparticles and thus supersymmetry would provide a strong evidence for
superstring theory, and if superstrings were discovered, supersymmetry would as well be certainly
true. Supersymmetry is a fundamental element in superstring theory, so if supersymmetry was
proven false, superstring theory could not function either.

Figure 6.3: The con-


trol room of the AT-
LAS experiment. If
some evidence sup-
porting string theory
is found by the LHC,
it will be done here.

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The Large Hadron Collider

Huge energies would be needed to detect the strings predicted by superstring theory. We are not
anywhere near achieving this, but even in the next few years some kind of evidence supporting
may be obtained from the particle collision experiments in the LHC, currently the largest particle
accelerator of the world in CERN. Its ATLAS project aims to, for instance, find out whether extra
dimensions predicted by various string theories exist and can be observed, and discover other
signs of new physics. The LHC might also produce detectable superpartner particles, which would
prove supersymmetry. The LHC will possibly be restarted in September 2009.

Figure 6.4: Also Schrödinger’s cat consists of elementary strings.

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List of sources

Brian Greene: Kätketyt ulottuvuudet. Supersäikeet, ajan halkeamat ja maailmanselityksen haaste, Tammi, 2000
Stephen Hawking: The Universe in a Nutshell, Bantam Press, 2001
Lee Smolin: Kvanttipainovoima, WSOY, 2002
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_theory (17.5.09)
http://hitoshi.berkeley.edu/public_html/susy/susy.html (19.5.09)
http://comet.lehman.cuny.edu/sormani/research/riemgeom.html (22.5.09)
http://www.superstringtheory.com/index.html (26.5.09)
http://ctp.lns.mit.edu/research-strings.html (26.5.09)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2006/oct/08/research.highereducation (27.5.09)
Figure 2.1: http://www-hep2.fzu.cz/ecfadesy/store/Popularizace/TeslaPhotos/Photo%20archive_files/string3.jpg, (17.5.09)
Figure 3.1: http://plus.maths.org/issue18/features/hawking/images/M-theory-Network.jpg (19.5.09)
Figure 5.1: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/physics/paolo.bonifacio/PHOTOS/quantum_spacetime.gif (22.5.09)
Figure 6.1: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:AdS_CFT.png (26.5.09)
Figure 6.2: © Sami Laitinen
Figure 6.3: © Sami Laitinen
Figure 6.4: http://icanhascheezburger.com/2008/10/05/funny-pictures-schrodingers-cat-enters-wormhole/ (28.5.09)

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