Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Musical Notes and the Universe of String Theory

“You are the music while the music lasts.” 
– T.S.Eliot
When you pluck a guitar string a sound wave is produced that vibrates the air molecules producing a musical note that you hear. Imagine that the universe around you is the product of a similar vibration. That’s what string theory is all about.

Picture the smallest known building block in the universe, smaller than an atom, smaller than electron, smaller than a quark, and peer inside any of these and you’ll see a dancing filament of energy called a string. Just how small are we talking here? Well, if you scaled up a hydrogen atom to the size of the universe, the string inside it would only be the width of a human hair.

Why the need for string theory at at all? After all don’t we have Einstein and his theory of gravity that accurately deals with very large objects such as planets and stars. We have quantum mechanics which explains what happens with the very small. However, the problem for physicists is that these theories can conflict with each other. There are also shortfalls in these theories that tell us that we don’t fully understand how the cosmos works. For example Einstein’s gravity theory simply can’t cope with what happens inside the extremes of a black hole. Therefore the search has been on for a theory that ties everything together has been on – sometimes referred to as the grand unification theory. Step centre stage and meet the candidate that attempts to unify the very large, the very small, gravity, and even time itself – string theory.

All particles around us go through four basic interactions: gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear interactions, and weak nuclear ones. Einstein covered gravity, and quantum mechanics dealt with the rest, but string theory attempts to tie everything together. 

String theory suggests that when a string vibrates, unlike a guitar string producing musical notes, particles are actually created. Also, by changing the frequency of the string, any sort of particle can be made. It’s an elegant theory, but for the maths behind it to work, it requires more dimensions than the four we can currently observe. In addition, at the heart of string theory, is the idea that gravity is a particle that we have so far failed to detect, the graviton. This particle is also predicted by quantum theory, as was the Higgs Boson, whose existence now looks confirmed by the Large Haldron Collider (LHC) in Geneva. The graviton is another juicy boson and there is a chance that the LHC may be able to confirm its existence as well.

If string theory is proven to be correct, it may answer questions that have baffled science for some time such as black holes, the existence of extra dimensions, dark matter and dark energy; and even the origin and fate of our universe itself. And it may be that the LHC provides the stepping stone towards confirming string theory’s credentials.

Related Articles

Higgs Boson – The Treacle of the Universe 

Splitting Reality – The Many Worlds Theory 

Part of Our Universe is Missing – A Big Part 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Splitting Reality – The Many-Worlds Theory

Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes. 
– Walt Whitman 
Through books, TV and film, the idea of parallel worlds is a widely recognised phenomena in our culture today. From a quantum physics perspective, it’s instructive to understand the origin of this idea.

As explained in a previous article, Schrodinger came up with his famous cat in a box experiment to illustrate what he believed was the absurdity of the Copenhagen interpretation. The Copenhagen interpretation is the theory of physicist Niels Bohr, that states a quantum matter exists in all states at once (a wave) until forced to chose one state when observed (a particle). Ironically it’s Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment, intended by him to deride Bohr’s theory, which has become the preferred way to explain the Copenhagen interpretation.

An alternative idea that grew from this was Hugh Everett’s 'Many-Worlds' theory. He agreed with the wave ideas of Bohr, however he argued that rather than an object being forced to become a particle when it was observed, it actually created a split in the universe to allow for each possible outcome. A disturbing example that illustrates how this could work, is when someone is nearly killed crossing a road. In the Many-Worlds theory the universe splits at that moment – in one reality the person dies and in the other reality the person lives. Using this model in any given moment, the universe is constantly splitting like the branches of a tree for each new potential outcome and creates an infinite number of parallel realities.  

Whilst the Many-Worlds theory isn’t the only one to promote the idea of parallel worlds to explain the behaviour of objects at the quantum level, it has attracted serious interest and research in recent years. Keep this in mind when you next cross that road – you could be about to split the universe in two.

The below video is a useful visual explanation of the Many-Worlds theory.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Writing – Where Creativity Dances with Logic.

"The mind is everything. What you think you become." 
– Buddha
(Image Credit: Mercedes-Benz)

The above image is a beautiful depiction of the way the brain processes information. However, one immediate caveat needs to be underlined; although the left hemisphere of the brain can be thought of as linear (logical) and the right, holistic (creative), the actual processing of information involves both sides of the brain (although it’s more localised to one side or the other depending on the task).
The left side is where we sequentially process our lives... we write lists, create plans, etc. The right is where we let our hair down... we think randomly, fantasise and listen to our intuition, etc.
If ever there was a skill that uses both sides, it’s writing. It utilises our left hemisphere’s skills of planning, organising and linguistics; and the creative skills of our of right to imagine stories, have random flashes of inspiration, and if we’re very lucky have characters who speak back to us! Like other creative forms of expression such as music and painting, it’s the interplay between two cognitive areas that makes it so endlessly fascinating and a pleasure to pursue. Writing isn’t just an activity, it’s a highly personal exploration of  the internal landscape of our minds. No wonder it's so addictive as a form of expression.

Friday, 1 June 2012

A Cat, a Box and a Riddle – Schrodinger’s Cat

“In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the
cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat
could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.
– Terry Pratchett 
In 1935, Erwin Schrodinger tried to make a point with a metaphorical cat in a box. He was tackling what he saw to be an absurdity of the Copenhagen theory at that time that suggested the act of the observer influenced the behaviour of subatomic particles. This relates to the concept that something like a photon is a wave until it’s observed, at which point it becomes a particle.
Now Mr Schrodinger really didn’t buy into this theory so he came up with the wonderful thought experiment of Schrondinger’s Cat. For those who aren’t familiar with this, in this example illustrates the duality of particles, it goes like this:
The cat is in a sealed box. There is also capsule which, depending on a random trigger, will release poison into the box. Until the box is opened, the cat is in limbo, both alive and dead (a wave). When we open the box and observe the cat it becomes either very alive, or a very dead cat.
Before anyone writes in to complain about cruelty to the animals, just to point out this was an entirely a thought experiment!
Many have problems with this theory including Einstein himself. You can see why. If you think this through does that mean as you are walking down the street, it dissolves into a fuzzy state of matter behind you until it’s observed again? You can see why a lot of people weren’t very happy about this theory. However, from Schrodinger’s very famous cat, came the interpretation of the many worlds theory... parallel worlds in other words. That will be a subject of another blog, but for now, and before you dismiss this all as madness, the super-positioning of matter (wave) and and also being a particle at the same time, in two places at once, has been demonstrated in the lab. This is real... it happens... think about the profound implications as you watch this TED video.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Part of the Universe is Missing – A Big Part!

"Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be."
– Albert Einstein 
(Image Credit: NASA)
There’s a search going on that started at the beginning of the 70’s, when observations revealed that something wasn’t quite right with the universe – part of it was missing! 
The reason that we know it’s there is because of its effect on what we can actually see. To start with the stars at the edge of galaxies are moving to fast, there seems to be extra stuff exerting an influence. This stuff might be invisible but we know it's there. If it wasn’t there there wouldn’t be enough gravity to hold the stars together and everything would fly apart and chaos on a galactic scale would ensue.
Another piece of smoking gun evidence, is an optical effect observed around some distant galaxies. When the Hubble Space Telescope was pointed towards the massive Abell Cluster 2218, the gravity pull around it was so great it actually bent light around it, turning the whole region into something known as a gravitational lens. Using this technique Hubble was actually able to see through it, regions at the very edge of the universe. It took some amazing images such as the one above, stuffed full of galaxies. However, once various measurements were taken, it was soon realised that the light was being bent too much. In other words the combined mass was greater than anything that we could measure, meaning a lot of the mass was invisible. As far as dark matter is concerned we believe to be around 25 percent of the mass of the universe.
So what could dark matter be? The best guess is that it’s some sort of exotic hidden particles we are yet to discover. 
But this isn’t all that’s missing. There’s another 70 percent lost back down the back of the galactic sofa and we have labelled this dark energy. We have even less idea about what this could be. We are just starting to understand that space isn’t nothing, but is instead a rich area stuffed full of dark energy, whatever it might be.
So if you do the sums, that means there’s 5 percent that we can see and currently understand. That’s the observable universe today. So when you see those Hubble images, etc, we really are just seeing the peek of a very big iceberg, the rest floating beneath the visible waterline.
The below YouTube video provides a very neat overview of all this missing stuff.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Songs of the Universe

"The world is never quiet, even its silence eternally resounds with the same notes, in vibrations which escape our ears. As for those that we perceive, they carry sounds to us, occasionally a chord, never a melody."
– Albert Camus 
(Earth Image Credit: NASA)
Out there in the space as they say, no one can hear you scream... and that will be because of the vacuum. However, radio waves can happily pass through that medium and radiate out across the galaxy. 
If you’ve ever seen static on a TV screen did you know that you’re actually tuning into the white noise of the universe, the static that fills the radio waves between our broadcasts. Listen to the pops and whistles from the audio output of a radio telescope and you may hear Jupiter and its moons, our sun's wail, the distant clicking of pulsars, and even the echo of the big bang itself.
Inspired by this, I’ve assembled a little YouTube celestial orchestra for you to listen to. The gas planets are majestic and Earth sounds truly unique buzzing with the sound of life. And further, much further away, you can listen to the clicking of the spinning pulsar at the heart of Vega. These are just a selection of the haunting sounds that fill the universe around us.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Beyond The Edges of Our Perception

"Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?"  
– Leonardo da Vinci
I’ve talked before about how reality is a subjective matter at the best of times. Well here’s another thought for you to consider.
We see the world around us in the visible spectrum of light. All those shapes and colours around us, when combined with our other senses, sum up the real world. But what about a creature like a bat with its poor eyesight and that's almost totally reliant on its ability to map out the world with ultrasound echoes? To a bat a soundscape is their reality. Just consider the implication of that for a moment. 
At first the bat's view may seem like a very narrow view of what's really there to us, but the irony is that in many ways humans are as limited as bats are with their senses. The visible wavelength we see is just a tiny fraction of the total electromagnetic spectrum. 
To get this into perspective it’s important to realise just how a narrow a window we’re peaking out at reality through. Visible wavelengths are just 0.00018% of the total spectrum available. Talk about a blinkered view of reality. Maybe out there in the universe there are lifeforms equipped to see the world across a wider frequencies such radio waves, gamma rays, or X-rays. Imagine how limited our vision would seem to them.
Without the insight that science has given us into these other wavelengths, in our own ways humans are just as blind as bats. 

Saturday, 4 February 2012

When Music Meets Imagination

“Music is what feelings sound like.” 
– Anon
For me Inspiration comes from many places, but this video of Awolnation's Sail music video took my breath away – it feels like wandering around my own imagination. Highly recommended viewing. Many thanks to @joekawano on Twitter for sending me the link. I'm indebted to you.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Agent Announcement – Signed with Eve White

“Happiness is mostly a by-product of doing what makes us feel fulfilled.” 
– Dr Benjamin Spock
It’s with real pleasure that I can announce I’ve just signed with the agent Eve White, who’ll now be representing me. After just the tiniest bit of encouragement from my friends, it’s been very much a champagne sort of day!
I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the very talented Cornerstones team that I’ve been working with. Special heartfelt thanks must go to Kathryn Price, the senior editor there who’s been inspirational to work with. I am so going to miss you guys! If you're a budding new author I can't recommend this team highly enough.

Here’s to the future and I'm really looking forward to working with Eve and her team. I have a feeling that 2012 is going to be a great year! 

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Higgs Boson – The Treacle of the Universe

“The capacity to be puzzled is the premise of all creation, be it in art or in science.”
– Eric Fromm
One second after the big bang a particle was created and has been playing a game of hide and seek ever since. The reason we know it should exist is that there’s a piece missing from our jigsaw for the Standard Model of physics – the Higgs boson particle. Now a lot of people are very fond of our Standard Model and a jigsaw just doesn’t look complete if there’s a big glaring hole in it. So ever since the idea was first suggested, the search has been on for the elusive God Particle
The theory, which has been around for fifty years, states that moments after the big bang the Higgs boson field and its associated particle were created, but until now we’ve found no direct evidence. That’s all changed in 2011 when news from the Large Hadrian Collider (LHC), where we can recreate those early conditions of our universe, hinted at its detection.
Without Higgs boson in the Standard Model there would be no life... symmetry would rule, a desire for order you see reflected in the perfect structures of snowflakes. But without something to give particles mass and slow them down, the Higgs boson field, our celestial treacle if you will, things would be very, very different. All particles would have flown apart at the speed of light from the big bang and without the clumping of interstellar gasses and the consequent formation of stars, then there would be no planets and certainly no life. This is the paradox at the heart of modern physics and is why so many scientists have been spent so much time and energy looking for it.

This year could be the most exciting moment in physics since Einstein revealed his theory of relativity. Certainly I’m sure for many of those involved in theoretical physics, they’ll remember exactly when they were if they hear the news confirming the existence of the Higgs boson particle later this year.