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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

Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality

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

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

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.

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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
  • 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

Lecture Titles

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S. James Gates Jr.
Ph.D. S. James Gates Jr.
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 Fellows. That led to an appointment at the California Institute of Technology and a faculty appointment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During his tenure at the University of Maryland, Dr. Gates served a leave of absence as Professor of Physics and Department Chair at Howard University. Professor Gates is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the American Physical Society's Bouchet Award; the MIT Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Award; the Klopsteg Award of the American Association of Physics Teachers; the Washington Academy of Sciences College Science Teacher of the Year Award; and the 2006 Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2009, he was appointed to the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology and became a member of the Maryland State Board of Education. Professor Gates is the author or coauthor of more than 180 published research papers and is the coauthor of Superspace, or 1001 Lessons in Supersymmetry. Professor Gates has been featured on four PBS television series: Breakthrough: The Changing Face of Science in America; A Science Odyssey; The Elegant Universe; and E = mc2: The Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation. Professor Gates has also served as a consultant for the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

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Rated 3.3 out of 5 by 104 reviewers.
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
Rated 4 out of 5 by A Grand Experiment In Itself I was going to give Professor Gates' “Superstring Theory” three stars for the same reasons as many other reviewers did. Just about every criticism I could offer has already been stated by reviewers who bought this course for reasons very similar to my own. Like many other people, I'm a science fan but not a scientist myself. I gained some familiarity with abstract math and physics during my college years (I have an undergrad engineering degree), and try to keep up with developments in physics and cosmology through the popular press. I also “prepped” for this course over the past 2 years by first watching or listening to Sean Carroll's “Dark Matter / Dark Energy”, Steven Pollack's “Particle Physics for Non-Physicists”, and Richard Wolfson's “Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution”. Further, I've done a fair amount of book reading over the years on quantum theory and more recently on quantum gravity. I have also read articles and watched various shows on superstring theory, including Brian Greene's “Elegant Universe” (have also read parts of his book). So, like several other reviewers, I was looking forward to the “Superstring” course as something of a capstone experience. But, as with those reviewers from similar backgrounds, I became more and more frustrated once the course got past the required background materials regarding relativity, quantum mechanics, and the inconsistencies between the two. I watched the course twice and repeated many lessons, but still felt . . . as though I didn't get what I was looking for. I have since read many of the reviews, and was heartened to find that I was not alone in my reaction. In fact, I wondered if I even needed to contribute another review; I counted about 30 viewers who variously captured what I was feeling. Admittedly, however, many of these reviews went even further in their criticisms, sometimes into unfair territory; let's face it, superstring theory is just never going to be easy to explain without years of graduate study!!! I wonder whether it is THE most abstract and difficult concept / hypothesis to grasp in all of science. Nonetheless, here's a sample of comments that in some ways reflect my own initial impressions: “[Professor Gates] does not build from the simple to the complex . . . by the end of a lecture, I wonder where he began”; “Prof Gates sometimes gets a little too simple, then does a little hand-waving”; “Professor Gates really knows this subject but he frequently introduces a concept in great detail but then forgets to explain why he is introducing it and how it relates to the greater topic . . . If you do not get the connection, you get the impression that he is randomly skipping from topic to topic”; “there are leaps of faith in the course - when talking about a certain type of numbers, there are, all of a sudden, negative numbers. It seemed as if they were made up to fit the equation”; “when Dr. Gates does show some math, it is 'right out the blue'”; “Dr. Gates jumped around a bit too much making it difficult to follow how the theory has progressed through the years”; “he spends an astonishing 15 minutes on a graphic showing how the Pythagorean Theorem can be extended to extra dimensions. He goes back to this for a further 5 minutes at the beginning of the next lecture. While my mind was wandering, he managed to go through Einstein's construction of the theorem to include time in less than a minute, glossing over any useful derivation and just leaving it on the table for us to figure out” [and even worse, the Professor's sudden quantum-like jump to 1972, when Einstein's hypotenuse is integrated into a quantum setting, resulting in 22 dimensions and the evil tachyon!! Talk about hand-waving after a spoon-feeding . . .]; “at times he was incomprehensible and at other times he appeared to be talking to children”; “sometimes I feel like I was spoken to in 'baby talk' and at [other] times, the information seemed irrelevant and over my head”; “there are hints of coming explanations that never do come, gratuitous references to technical details never defined, repetitious use of trivial illustrations”; “while Gates will spend a great deal of time and use graphics on certain concepts, he blithely introduces others without a second thought for explanation”; “the course seems to wander a bit from lecture to lecture. I found myself referring back to the notes often to try to understand what the salient points of the lecture were. I found his computer animations a bit repetitive and simple and hoped for a bit more detail in the explanations”. Admittedly, some of these comments are a bit harsh and unfair. But they do confirm that I'm not alone in having an interest in the subject and having some general background in science and math, but not able after two viewings to walk away feeling as though I've gained an “integrated sense” of what superstring theory is about (as I did with Carroll's presentation of inflationary cosmology, and Pollack's overview of the Standard Model). But wait. I'm not giving up, and I hope that Professor Gates won't give up on this approach to making superstring theory more accessible to the public either. As was said by another commentator who similarly had problems with the presentation, Dr. Gates “is a warm and an accessible speaker”. I honestly believe that he is on a mission here, that he really does want the interested public (especially those with quantitative interests and backgrounds, and high school and college students interested in climbing the mountain of scientific knowledge a bit further than their teachers would require) to gain access to the arcane world of superstring research and discussion. So, please, Dr. Gates, don't give up!! I'm worried that these reviews might tempt you to dumb down any future versions of this course, to do like Brian Greene and just try to get the fundamentals across along with a historical overview of where string theory has been and where it is now going. What you set out to do with the Teaching Company is not easy, and it may well take a few tries and iterations to optimize. But I think it is worthwhile and needed. Greene seems to be doing a better P.R. job overall than Dr. Gates. But let's make one thing absolutely clear – James Gates is trying to take his audience a lot further into the details and nitty-gritty of superstring theory than Brian Greene is. There is a huge void between what a theoretical scientist or upper-level grad student knows about superstrings and what is available to the public. Brian Greene takes you further than most, allowing you to know a bit about supersymmetry and heterotic strings; he tells you why extra dimensions might actually exist, and perhaps hints that there is something called “SO32” that is used to help understand it all. But Dr. Gates tries to take you a lot farther than this. He wants to teach you about spinors, about how coupling constants run, and how the Higgs boson and the Goldstone field are related (ah, the Mexican hat). He even tells you a bit about one of the competitors to superstring theory, i.e. loop quantum gravity. This level of detail is just not available anywhere else to the layperson in any sort of comprehensive fashion. So I'm keeping this course. I got out the Course Guidebook and am trying to read it carefully and interactively, going thru it like I was back in college and had to pass a test on the subject. With such effort on my own part, I believe that I will be able to go beyond the level of understanding that Brian Greene can bring you to regarding the exciting world of superstring theory. But we are paying the Teaching Company to help minimize the amount of time and effort to do something like that. With more thought and development, this course CAN be improved in that regard. Given the extreme complexity of the topic, and the fact that this course is doing something that really hasn't been tried before (Dr. Greene notwithstanding), I have decided to give it four stars instead of the three that I first intended. The potential is there; it can be built upon. Unless you have some grad school experience in physics or theoretical math, buying this course as it presently stands will in and of itself be entering into a grand experiment in science teaching. I am actually glad to be part of that experiment, and if the Teaching Company and Dr. Gates take my advice and continue to work on better versions of it, I would volunteer to be involved in such an effort, on a guinea-pig basis. Oh, one final thought: a better version of this course would also require an improved, expanded Coursebook, containing many illustrations and even some equations. That might cost more, but I think it would be worth it. For anyone who really wants to “get it” regarding superstrings, the viewing experience would need to be closely integrated with the viewer's reading and thinking experience – that needs to be pointed out from the get-go. It will take discipline on the part of the viewer to get what they want from this course, more than for most any other TC course. Just as in a real college or grad school classroom! January 27, 2015
Rated 4 out of 5 by Nice try. Dr. Gates does about as good a job as could be done, I suspect, presenting a highly mathematical subject with little math. It makes one wonder how much better a job could have been done, if college algebra or calculus-level math had been allowed. December 10, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by You need to watch it at least twice This is a subject most of us have heard about, but very few know anything about it. I was curious and figured it was time. It is not easy to understand, and you are told to watch it over if needed. I did need it, and it really started to come through. What is really great is how it helped me better understand things like Quantum Theory and the General Theory of Relativity. Those have become really clear to me now, even though I still have a lot of questions regarding String Theory. I think it's good to leave you wanting more. Like all the courses here, very well done and, at least to me, I never get bored or wish for a course to end. December 3, 2014
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