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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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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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Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality is rated 3.4 out of 5 by 126.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Difficult subject. Great teacher. String theory was something I wanted to try and understand. Professor Gates did a wonderful job of teaching the concept with visuals that helped me to "see" what he was lecturing about.
Date published: 2018-11-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Half for 8th grade dropouts, hlaf over the top First, I come away really thinking I'd like to know Gates, the lecturer. But --- The first part, introductory material, is at points very slow, like spending 15 or 20 minutes on the 2D Pythagorian (sorry, spelling) theorem followed by a nearly useless visual representation of its expansion to 3D. Like most of us when talking, he frequently sticks in the wrong word, but too frequently, and has the speed of light wrong by a factor of a 1000 in two places. Continuously uses the analogy of a musical pitch for a string mode - once is good, but jumps back and forth throughout the course. Well, I call the analogy to pitch, but he uses "note," which I think is also bad music as well as bad physics. I used fast-forward too many times and missed some real stuff buried in the boredom. Then he sweeps through the complex history and structure of 50 years of string theory in the second half of the course. I studied quantum mechanics for close to three years, but this is way too fast for me. Example, he mentions spinor fields twice, then the third time he says he's told us what they are. I'd love to know more, for my background is inadequate, but I learned nothing here. That said, I think I learned a bit about string theory, certainly I came out of the first watching with a greater appreciation of some of the large structure.
Date published: 2018-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from SO FAR SO GOOD Received this course a few weeks ago and have not gone beyond the first lecture (which I have re-watched several times). I probably should have waited a while before reviewing this very complicated subject. Am an 82 year old retired engineer and have forgotten most of the advanced math that I learned as an undergraduate mechanical engineering student in the early '60's. The professor, however, indicates that this is not a math course, but strictly an overview of string theory with no mathematical proofs required. He suggests skimming the material lightly without dwelling on any area at least on the first viewing (I've already passed on this). He does indicate that re-runs may be helpful as needed on an individual basis. So far he is following that plan with only occasional references to the math behind the theories of string theory. So far I am most impressed with the course and with the professor and his methods. Time will tell how it goes. It may take months for me to complete the course. I am trying to keep- up with the latest innovations in science but it is taking time for this old brain to absorb the complications of string theory.
Date published: 2018-07-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Quite appropriate title Finished 7/24 segments very interesting well connected to science concepts already known
Date published: 2018-06-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Complex but full of Awe I have seen this video multiple times and each time get very important insights that were missed on earlier viewings. I think such complexity may be the reason for the wide range of ratings. To place superstring theory in a context that makes it more comprehensible with fewer viewings, I would recommend The Quest for a Theory of Everything which came out several years after Professor Gates wonderful course and has the advantages of insights gained from the Large Hadron Collider. I wish it were available by streaming since DVDs are cumbersome and require a monitor when audio is good for many of the initial exposures.
Date published: 2018-02-03
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Say What? I believe Dr. Gates said out of the gate (so to speak) that many theorists believe it is impossible to explain string theory in any meaningful way to the lay public. And that he disagreed and felt it was possible, even if they would not really understand most or maybe any of the actual math involved. Sadly I feel like this course tends to confirm the skeptics rather than his own view. Yes I am basically a layman for the purpose of this subject. I know what calculus does and that's about as far as I got in mathematics. I've listened to a lot of Great Courses in the fields of Physics and Astronomy, I have a basic understanding of the concepts in general and special relativity, the standard model of particle physics, the concepts in quantum mechanics, the "hot inflationary big bang" theory and all that. I thought that should be enough of a background to listen to a lecture series oriented toward the general public with maybe a college-level background. Wrong. Here I have to confess I did not (yet) finish listening to the lectures. I almost never write a review unless I've heard the course all the way through. But this is the point: I found him presenting very basic terminology and concepts for string theory, but presenting them so poorly that I realized I was not grasping even these very basic concepts. This became too frustrating, and I felt that if I'm not even getting the very basic terms properly, I'm surely not going to understand what is to follow. I had hoped to be able to understand more about the subject by watching lectures rather than slogging through a full-length book, but so far perhaps that's the only way to go (admittedly I haven't had a chance to view the video version of Brian Greene's Elegant Universe, which is maybe getting a bit long in the tooth but perhaps it's easier to follow). I may or may not return to this and try to slog through it. But I fear I will have to look elsewhere for better definitions and preparation, to understand what he's saying. By then, I might no longer want to bother trying this again. A good "Great Course" should be sufficient unto itself, in my opinion, for a reasonably intelligent and diligent listener to follow the material being presented. This is not yet such a course.
Date published: 2018-01-26
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Lousy course, doesn't try to explain string theory Wow. I have completed this course through lecture 9 and was so distraught by its inadequacies that I decided to do what I should have done before buying it--read the reviews. I was hoping to discover that I wasn't alone in my distress, and I wasn't disappointed. The one and two-star comments are all spot on, and most of the 3, 4 and some of the 5 star comments justify more than 2 stars only by excusing Gates as facing a difficult to impossible task in explaining string theory without math. IMHO, if the course can't do better than this course in explaining a topic without higher math, then it should be a course at all. I had intended to complete the course, but the reviews have made clear that none of the fatal defects so far are remedied later on, so continuing will surely be a waste of time. My basic complaint is one that applies against every positive review--Gates makes virtually no attempt to explain the "why" of anything. Stating the "what" of string theory is simple--but it is the weirdness and seeming impossibility of the "what" that generates anyone's desire to understand it. As one reviewer put it, putting in my words, if all one wants is a statement describing string theory (in place of an explanation of "why" string theory is believed likely accurate), here it is in a single sentence: "String theory posits that every particle in the universe, from electron, proton and neutron, to quark, gluon, photon, meson, etc., actually resolves into a tiny vibrating string that is roughly one million billion times smaller than any particle, and the nature of the vibration determines what kind of particle it is." That is all I have gleaned so far about what a string is, and from the reviews, doubt that I will learn much if anything more about strings from the rest of the course. What's missing is the "why" of anything. If a quark is 10 to the minus 18 meters, and a string 10 to the minus 33 meters, (15 orders of magnitude different, 1 divided by 10 with 14 zeros after it, why are strings so much smaller. Given this, is there just one string per particle? If more than 1, how many more. He shows an example of strings residing in cylinders, some with closed ends, some with open. He gives no hint of what either means, is he even describing quantum strings, or just ordinary strings? "He don't say." As many have commented, his tiresome and multiply redundantly presented Pythagorean theorem example with the ladder is beyond bothersome. It is incoherent. The PT applies to a plane, in 2 dimensions. He presents a way to move the base of the hypotenuse in a circular arc back toward the vertical side, creating a third "side" that can be squared. He claims that the sum of the three squares thus created still equals the square of the hypotenuse. Perhaps so, and if so, it is because the horizontal side shortens, creating room for the area of the new side. OK, his purpose appears to be to establish how the PT can be extended to an additional dimension, from 2 to 3. He appears to want this to establish how dimensions beyond the 3 that define physical space can be added to the equation, so that a fourth dimension would just add one more area. But this makes no sense. Any additional dimension would have to subtract length and area from one or more of the other sides. But this makes no sense for any dimension other than the 3 we know of. He then jumps to what he calls Einstein's PT, apparently a name he invented. Suddenly, and here's where I got positively angry, he says that Einstein "solved" the problem that a time dimension is incommensurate with spatial dimensions (the hypotenuse can't be a sum of square areas plus seconds, minutes, etc.), by multiplying the time by the square of the speed of light. Really, and why did he do this, why does this make any sense, what does it have to do with the PT. And oh, by the way, he also reversed the signs, from positive to negative, for the 3 spatial dimensions. Now, I don't doubt that Einstein DID come up with such a mathematical expression. But Gates failed to explain, failed to attempt to explain, failed to show any awareness that an explanation was called for, as to why factoring in the square of the speed of light makes any sense, or how Einstein can just arbitrarily change the signs of 3 terms of the expression. Mind boggling omissions. When he then tries to illustrate it with someone traveling 4/5 the speed of light passing someone who turns on a light for 9 seconds, it only gets more incoherent, demonstrating nothing beyond Gates' cluelessness about how to teach his subject. These examples are not isolated, if the PT fail may be the most egregious of all. If you want to learn anything about WHY most physicists believe that strings underlie all particles, this course won't help you at all. If you want a description of simply what string theory says it is (without comprehending any of the whys), I'm sure lots of websites will present that in a few pages, and save yourselves the money and time of this course. And yes, Gates speaking style is engaging, which left me hoping for lecture after lecture that he would finally get to some substances that explained anything about string theory. Please, Great Courses, withdraw this course and find a prof who can deliver a much better one, and if that proves impossible, just retire this course anyway.
Date published: 2017-12-04
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Ill defined abstractions The professor constantly uses abstract nouns or adjectives without defining them or explaining them. Example: Spin. Never explains what is the spin axis. States the rate as a function of Plank's Constant (A term of 10 to the minus 34) without explaining what that rate really means. calls quarks up and down . Up and down what? These are just a few examples. I recognize that this is an abstract, unfamiliar subject. That means that the professor should be more, rather than less, careful about explaining clearly what his terms mean. I was tempted to return the course but decided to do so was not worth the effort.
Date published: 2017-12-02
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