Whether you’re a fan of physics, or you’re merely an amateur hobbyist, the concept of string theory is one that’s growing in popularity in both the academic and the pop culture arenas. While it may sound a little bit like something a cat would invent, string theory is an incredibly important concept that marries something called the ‘four fundamental interactions.’ While this concept can definitely seem a little bit chewy, especially if it’s your first encounter with it, it’s actually surprisingly simple to grasp once you acquaint yourself with it. In fact, the trick to mastering string theory is not to try to understand it by itself. Instead, you should look at the sum of its parts to get a better understanding of it.
Wait, what are the four fundamental interactions?
Before you can really start to understand what string theory is, you first need to know why it’s so important. String theory was devised to help make sense of the four fundamental interactions, then wad them all up into one lump theory. That means that if you’re able to pick apart what these four so-called fundamental interactions are, then you can actually realize what the big deal about string theory is. Now: what, exactly, are those four fundamental interactions and why are they so dang important?
The four fundamental interactions are the four major forces in the universe. They’re called fundamental because they literally can’t be reduced into any simpler terms. They are as basic as they can possibly be. These four concepts are gravitational force, electromagnetic force, strong nuclear force, and weak nuclear force. You already know what gravitational force is, as without it, you’d have already floated off without it holding you down. Electromagnetic force is pretty much what it sounds like. Anything with electricity (including magnets) falls under this concept. Then you’ve got weak and strong nuclear force, which can be summed up as beta decay (which is sort of like radioactive decay, or weak nuclear force) and the force that keeps atoms held together (strong nuclear force).
Got it? Good. Now we’re going to really get into the nitty gritty of string theory!
Okay, that’s cool and all, but what exactly is it?
While string theory may seem like a super lofty concept, it can actually be summarized as a bandage answer. Theorists and physicists frankly are not fans of dangling ends and unanswered questions. Because of this, string theory was born. String theory acts to answer those pressing questions that are begging for a solution. For instance, if you drop a bowling ball onto the floor from a ladder, nobody is going to be surprised when it hits the ground with a resounding thunk!
But what if you thought smaller…like, atomically small. How do those teeny-tiny atoms decide to hang out at their itty-bitty size? Why don’t they just drift apart? It’s not like they have the gravitational pull of the sun working on them. This conundrum puzzled these theorists until the answer smacked them in the face like a rogue spaghetti noodle. Strings!
We’re all super small strings
When you think of atoms, you’re probably picturing those little orbs that your high school science teacher drew on the board in school. In order to actually get what string theory is, you need to banish those little blobs from your mind. Instead of trying to envision dots, picture strings. According to string theory, everything in the entire universe is made of microscopic strings. And these strings are seriously thrumming and vibrating with this continuous energy, and each string belongs to its own particle.
Say what? Yep, it’s true. And it gets better. In order to actually believe in string theory (and yes, you read that right — some people put it up there with Santa Claus and refuse to acknowledge it), you have to believe that the universe has multiple dimensions. We’re not just talking up-down-left-right, but instead a whopping ten dimensions that absolutely require you to stretch your imagination to begin to perceive them. Pretty incredible, huh?
Give me a TL;DR
If that all seems too overwhelming, don’t worry. It can seem daunting at first. The major takeaway here is that string theory was devised to help scientists understand the world better. However, to actually make sense of it, you have to see the world in ten dimensions and imagine it is made up of strings. Wiggling, flopping, nonstop strings. In short, it’s a mighty fancy way of making sense of teensy-weensy particles and coming to an agreement on the four fundamental interactions. There, see? When you look at it like that, it is actually fairly simple after all!