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Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality

Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality

Professor S. James Gates Jr., Ph.D.
University of Maryland, College Park

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Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality

Course No. 1284
Professor S. James Gates Jr., Ph.D.
University of Maryland, College Park
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Course No. 1284
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Course Overview

One of the most exciting scientific adventures of all time is the search for the ultimate nature of physical reality, a hunt that in the past century has yielded such breakthroughs as Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, two theories that radically altered our picture of space, time, gravity, and the fundamental building blocks of matter.

The latest advance in this epic quest is string theory—known as superstring or M-theory in its most recent versions. The "M" of M-theory is an arbitrary label, but some physicists believe it stands for mysterious or magical. Marvelous also qualifies, because there is something quite wonderful about this beautiful and startling idea.

Based on the concept that all matter is composed of inconceivably tiny filaments of vibrating energy, string theory has potentially staggering implications for our understanding of the universe.

Wouldn't you love to understand string theory at a deeper level than is available from popular articles or even book-length treatments? Aren't you eager to look over the shoulder of a prominent string theorist at work—one who has a gift for explaining the subject to nonscientists and who has created computer-generated images to help make the concepts clear?

A Challenging Course in a Fascinating Field

The Teaching Company offers just such a guide in Professor S. James Gates Jr., director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland. Professor Gates is an old hand in this very young field. In 1977 he wrote the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's first-ever doctoral dissertation on supersymmetry, the precursor to string theory.

In the midst of teaching, pursuing research, and writing scores of scientific papers over the past two decades, Dr. Gates has also presented nearly 100 public talks on string theory, honing a set of visual aids designed to convey the difficult mathematical ideas that underlie this subject to a lay audience.

The 24 lectures in Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality incorporate Dr. Gates's field testing of this matchless set of graphics, which are the most technically lavish that The Teaching Company has ever presented. Prepare to be intrigued, enlightened, and amazed.

Because the goal of string theory is to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a comprehensive "theory of everything," this course nicely complements two other Teaching Company courses: Professor Richard Wolfson's Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists, 2nd Edition, and Professor Steven Pollack's Particle Physics for Non-Physicists: A Tour of the Microcosmos.

Combined with Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality, this trio of Teaching Company courses traces the development of physics in the 20th century—from well-tested theories such as relativity and quantum mechanics, to the more abstract research of late 20th-century particle physics, to the strange world of string theory, which is still in an intense state of flux.

Spaghetti Strands

The essence of string theory is that the smallest, most fundamental objects in the universe are not little balls knocking around like billiards, as had been thought for about 2,000 years. Instead, these small objects are supermicroscopic filaments—like tiny strands of spaghetti—whose different vibrational modes produce the multitude of particles that are observed in the laboratory.

So when a string vibrates in one way, it might appear to be an electron. If it vibrates in a different manner, it would look like a quark. It could vibrate in a third way and display the properties of a photon. Or perhaps it vibrates in a fourth mode and physicists say, "That's a graviton!" This gives strings an inherent ability to unify phenomena that had always been assumed to be different. If string theory ultimately proves correct, then strings are truly the DNA of reality.

One of the most celebrated features of the string approach is that it predicts more dimensions than the three of our familiar spatial world plus one of time. Currently, the most comprehensive version of string theory—M-theory—calls for a total of 11 dimensions. These extra dimensions could be hidden away, compacted into exotic shapes like the "Calabi-Yau manifold," or they could be forever out of reach in high-dimensional membranelike objects called branes.

But some physicists—Dr. Gates among them—see strings as entirely consistent with the four-dimensional world as we experience it. He explains this intriguing interpretation in Lecture 16.

Explore Ideas through Images

Each lecture draws on the illustrative power of computer-generated imagery (CGI). For years Dr. Gates has been asked to write a nontechnical book on string theory, but he has always declined, convinced that words alone cannot convey to the public the mathematical ideas that provide the foundation of this field. But these video lectures can. "The format of courses followed by The Teaching Company provides an exquisite platform for the utilization of CGI technology to augment conventional static lectures and books," he says.

Here are some of the mathematical ideas that you will explore through images in this course:

  • Dark matter: Two animations of galaxies in the process of forming show that something is wrong with the scene that is based on the observable mass of an average galaxy: There is not enough matter for it to hold its shape. On the other hand, the galaxy with added "dark" matter does just fine. String theory accounts for the existence of this dark matter.
  • What would happen if the sun disappeared? If the sun suddenly vanished, Earth would have 8 minutes before going dark, since it takes that long for the sun's light to reach us. But what about the sun's gravity? Would there be a similar delay, or would Earth go flying out of its orbit immediately? The answer to this question inspired one of the major theoretical goals of string theory.
  • Designer atoms: The configuration of subatomic particles in an atom is specified by a set of equations. These can be visualized, showing that if you alter the equations to change one type of particle into another, the atom collapses, rendering all life impossible.
  • Sizzling black holes: Physicist Stephen Hawking proposed that black holes do more than just bend light around them; they also give off a "sizzle" of static. Even though a black hole is itself invisible, these effects can be detected and visualized with computer graphics. Hawking's brilliant insight eventually led others to develop the first string theory.
  • Einstein's hypotenuse: Many of the ideas developed by Einstein, including E = mc², can be understood by analyzing a geometric figure called Einstein's hypotenuse. Use of this concept in early versions of string theory led to a bizarre particle called the tachyon.

This course is an immensely rich experience, filled with unexpected delights and mysterious encounters. You will often feel like a tourist in an exotic country, where the sights, sounds, aromas, and incidents are at times baffling but always invigorating and educational, leaving you with a desire to understand this complex world better.

If you've ever wanted to know what string theory is all about; or what theoretical physicists discuss over dinner; or how mathematical ideas guide our exploration of inconceivably tiny realms; or if you've ever wanted a glimpse of cutting-edge ideas about the fundamental structure of reality—then, by all means, we invite you to let Professor Gates be your guide into the amazing world of strings.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2006
  • 1
    The Macro/Micro/Mathematical Connection
    Professor Gates opens with a survey of the goals of the series and introduces the concept of strings, which are incredibly tiny objects that may be the most fundamental objects in the universe. String theory is not yet experimental physics; it is theoretical physics, based on sophisticated mathematical ideas. x
  • 2
    Who Is Afraid of Music?
    Mathematics will play an important role in this course because string theory is purely mathematical. But instead of studying equations, you will explore the mathematics of strings through computer images and animations. These are comparable to the music generated by notes on a musical score. x
  • 3
    Apropos Einstein's Perfect Brainstorm Year
    This lecture explores Einstein's general theory of relativity, which led to a new understanding of gravity and sparked Einstein's quest for a "theory of everything." Building a mathematical theory of everything is like confronting a complicated toy on Christmas Eve, whose box states, "some assembly required." x
  • 4
    Honey, I Shrunk to the Quantum World—Part I
    In the first of two lectures on the quantum world, you start at the level of the atom and dig deeper, discovering the following: leptons (electronlike objects); nuclear matter (protons, neutrons); quarks (subnuclear matter); and force carriers (photons, gluons, W and Z bosons, and gravitons). x
  • 5
    Honey, I Shrunk to the Quantum World—Part II
    You investigate more properties of the quantum world, including spin, the Pauli exclusion principle, quantization, vacuum polarization, and quantum tunneling. You are also introduced to the Higgs boson, sometimes called the "God particle" for its apparent role in imparting mass to other particles. x
  • 6
    Dr. Hawking's Dilemma
    Any object that possesses a temperature above absolute zero must give off thermal radiation. But how is this possible with a black hole, which is so massive that not even light can escape from it? In 1975, Stephen Hawking forced a crisis in theoretical physics with a stunning theory addressing this problem. x
  • 7
    I'd Like to See a Cosmos Sing in Perfect Harmony
    In trying to explain black holes in a way consistent with Hawking's 1975 theory, scientists had to combine two pillars of physics—quantum theory and the general theory relativity. The resulting mathematics predicted a surprising form of matter: strings. x
  • 8
    Einstein's Hypotenuse and Strings—Part I
    String theory may involve extra dimensions beyond the familiar three of space plus one of time. But how are physicists able to think about extra dimensions? The Pythagorean theorem provides a model, showing that it's possible to calculate the properties of objects in higher dimensions without having to visualize them. x
  • 9
    Einstein's Hypotenuse and Strings—Part II
    Einstein incorporated the fourth dimension of time into the Pythagorean theorem and came up with an idea known as the Einstein hypotenuse. This led to the famous equation E = mc2, which can be interpreted as a statement about areas in a four-dimensional world. You see how Einstein's hypotenuse led to an object that could have destroyed the world of physics: the tachyon. x
  • 10
    Tying Up the Tachyon Monster with Spinning Strings
    This lecture explores the phenomenon of spin, which is ubiquitous in the quantum world. Spin was well known to particle physicists in the 1970s, but it presented problems for the first generation of string theory. A new generation of spinning strings solved the problem and also dealt with the tachyon threat. x
  • 11
    The Invasion of the Anti-Commuting Numbers
    Starting with the frustum (a truncated pyramid) on the back of a dollar bill, you explore some intriguing properties of numbers, including anti-commuting Grassman numbers. Anticommutivity is useful in quantum mechanics and manages to banish the tachyon from certain versions of string theory. x
  • 12
    It's a Bird—A Plane—No, It's Superstring!
    In 1977 three physicists—Gliozzi, Sherk, and Olive—observed that it is supersymmetry (the equality of bosons and fermions) that kills the tachyon monster. Supersymmetry is the child of string theory and the parent of superstrings. But why are there five versions of superstrings. x
  • 13
    Gauge Theory—A Brief Return to the Real World
    While working on supersymmetry around 1982, physicists Schwarz and Green found a solution that required 496 charges, implying a world in which there are 32 possible ways to rotate. The resulting string was called the SO(32) superstring, and was the world's first unified field theory, achieving a dream of Einstein. x
  • 14
    Princeton String Quartet Concerti—Part I
    Circular polarization of light possesses a mathematical property useful in superstring theory. Standing waves, left-moving waves, and right-moving waves are introduced in this lecture. Recognition that all three exist in superstring theory led to a new "heterotic" string constructed by a group of four physicists at Princeton in 1984. x
  • 15
    Princeton String Quartet Concerti—Part II
    The initial work of the "Princeton String Quartet" led to two strings from different dimensions: a left-moving superstring and the old bosonic right-moving string. But this work did not incorporate the requisite 496 charges. This lecture explores a new description of the heterotic string that produces that magic number. x
  • 16
    Extra Dimensions—Ether-like or Quark-like?
    It is often said that string theory requires extra dimensions, but that's not quite true. The mathematics of the heterotic string can be interpreted with extra dimensions or without. What appear to be extra dimensions can be understood as angular variables associated with the change of force-carrying particles. x
  • 17
    The Fundamental Forces Strung Out
    This lecture shows how superstring theory provides mathematical support for Hawking's theory of black-hole radiation, which was discussed earlier in the course. Observational proof of string theory may come not by looking at nature's smallest structures but by looking at its largest: the universe itself. x
  • 18
    Do-See-Do and Swing Your Superpartner—Part I
    Why does the universe observe a dichotomy, in which beams of matter obey the Pauli exclusion principle but beams of energy do not? The universe may be more symmetrical than this model suggests. Here, you look at evidence for supersymmetry that points to the existence of superpartners for ordinary matter. x
  • 19
    Do-See-Do and Swing Your Superpartner—Part II
    Supersymmetry implies that every known matter particle has a superpartner that has yet to be observed in the laboratory. In fact, it is much more likely that superpartners will be discovered indirectly than in the lab. This lecture covers a technique for detecting them. x
  • 20
    A Superpartner for Dr. Einstein's Graviton
    Can physicists find a consistent way to introduce mass to the superpartners so that they become very heavy while ordinary matter remains very light? The Higgs mechanism is one such method and may offer an explanation for the mysterious dark matter that is key to the formation of galaxies. x
  • 21
    Can 4D Forces (without Gravity) Love Strings?
    This lecture follows current attempts to use concepts from string theory to understand the forces and structures of matter inside the proton and neutron. You also visit the strange world of branes, and explore the type IIB string, which is one of five types of superstrings. x
  • 22
    If You Knew SUSY
    If you were to pick up a physics journal from the last 20 years, you would likely come across the word SUSY, which means supersymmetric. In this lecture, you study an unusual aspect of SUSY, superspace, and learn how it accounts for the five types of superstrings. x
  • 23
    Can I Have that Extra Dimension in the Window?
    Strings supposedly describe everything. But if that's true, how can there be five different "everythings"? This lecture investigates a possible solution in 11-dimensional supergravity, which may be part of a larger and even more mysterious construct, M-theory. x
  • 24
    Is String Theory the Theory of Our Universe?
    String theory weaves together an amazing story with contributions by several generations of mathematicians and physicists. Professor Gates closes with a review of the current state of the field, and he looks at some denizens of the world of supersymmetry that he and his colleagues have recently identified. x

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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 192-page printed course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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Your professor

S. James Gates Jr.

About Your Professor

S. James Gates Jr., Ph.D.
University of Maryland, College Park
Dr. S. James Gates Jr. is the John S. Toll Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland at College Park. He earned two B.S. degrees in mathematics and physics and earned his Ph.D. in the studies of elementary particle physics and quantum field theory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Gates's first post was a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of...
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Reviews

Rated 3.3 out of 5 by 107 reviewers.
Rated 2 out of 5 by This was a miss for me This course really needs a refresh. New Great Courses titles have evolved to the point that the older titles look, well…old. That can’t be helped, and it certainly isn’t a fault by itself. If the content is solid, an old production can be forgiven. The bad news is: The content is hard to follow. Not just because string theory is challenging (it definitely is), but because the professor spends 20 minutes setting up what you think will be a relevant point, then leaves you hanging as to why you just spent the last 20 minutes lecturing about that topic. The lectures are disjoint. The good news is: I like the way the professor explained a lot of topics related to particle physics. For me, he presented a different way to look at other physics topics and I did gain some insight there. Unfortunately, I don’t have much more knowledge about String Theory than when I began the course. I think the professor could have done a much better job. He is obviously qualified to teach the material and the lectures were pleasant enough to watch. I just think he could have done a better job tying everything together. It’s like the feeling of having to sneeze, but you just can’t. So, if you have a good understanding of particle physics, you might enjoy this professor’s explanations of that field. If you are new to physics in general, this course is not the place to start your journey. May 3, 2016
Rated 2 out of 5 by A mess. ~~The professor, by definition, is an authority in his field but the course has no cohesion and I am currently having the greatest difficulty in making sense of where the lecturer is going. For what it's worth, my IQ is at the top 2% level but I have no concept of what the lecturer is trying to say. A mess. March 18, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Helps with LIGO Discovery of Gravitational Waves The couse became much more interesting and relevant after reading about the announcement of the detection of gravitational waves by LIGO this past February 2016. Professor Gates discusses LIGO and its attempt to detect and hear gravitational waves, and why String Theory is relevant to the whole topic of gravitational waves. When this course was recorded, gravitational waves had not yet been detected. However, String Theory helps us in understanding what they are and how one might detect them.. I believe that the reason why there have been a number of negative reviews for this course is because the subject matter is inherently very difficult. I myself had difficulty understanding the material after a first run-through of the course. However, I stuck with it and went through it carefully a second and third time. With patience and study, I came to understand more and more of the material. I just think that the material requires a lot of dedication and focus and persistence. With time and attention, one's effort will be rewarded. I am glad I stuck with it, and from this vantage point, I think Professor Gates did a great job, given the difficulty of the material. That is why I gave the course high marks. February 20, 2016
Rated 1 out of 5 by Not Much to See Here I have a BA in physics and have greatly enjoyed other science courses but this one really misses the mark. While it seems clear that Gates understands what he's talking about, he doesn't seem able to convey that understanding. Using the same example over and over doesn't increase understanding but does increase frustration. (Yes, I'm talking about the ladder on the side of the house.) I went into this course with many questions about string theory. Very few were answered. I understand that string theory is highly mathematical, but so too are relativity and quantum theory and courses on those topics were very well done. I could comment on other aspects of the presentation and the professor, but I don't see the point. The bottom line for any course is whether you learned the material. In this particular case, the answer is definitely not despite carefully watching all 24 lectures. Yes, I now have mastery of some buzzwords but there's no way I could explain the content of this course at even a superficial level. January 27, 2015
  • 2016-09-23 T12:25:26.354-05:00
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