String Theory and Other Timeless Notions
LYNN NEARY, host:
This week, NPR's Richard Harris reported on a seemingly timeless gathering of string theorists in California. Here's a look inside his Reporter's Notebook.
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RICHARD HARRIS: Whenever I stand on the beach, looking out over the ocean, I can't help having lofty thoughts about what a tiny speck I am in both space and time. But I wasn't quite prepared for the mind-bending experience I was about to get just up the bluffs at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. It's part of U.C.-Santa Barbara. I was there to attend a physics meeting that started in August and is still going on even today. So I already knew that these folks don't measure time the way most of us do.
The first scientist I encountered showed me just how different a universe this is. Eva Silverstein is a brilliant young physicist from Stanford. Like everybody at this meeting, she's a string theorist. That means she's working on the idea that all the universe can be explained in terms of vanishingly small strings that are vibrating in 10 or 11 dimensions, which obviously would mean our universe has a bunch of dimensions we simply can't see. You'd think with an idea so out there, she'd want to test it experimentally sometime in the course of the long career that stretches before her. Not so.
Professor EVA SILVERSTEIN (Stanford University): I am betting that it will be. I'm not concerned about the fact that it's not clear when the experimental test that might succeed would happen. It's - there's no guarantee whatsoever that it would happen in my lifetime. But the human lifespan has absolutely nothing to do with the universe at the scales we're interested in.
HARRIS: The very concept of time got stranger and stranger as the week wore on. For one thing, some string theorists say that time may not even be a fundamental property of nature. During one talk, a theorist said there could be many other universes out there that simply don't have time. Huh? What's more, string theorists will tell you that there are apparently more universes out there than there are atoms in our universe. So during a talk, a mathematician in the audience pointed that it would take practically forever just to write down a complete description of string theory. The speaker paused for a moment but the audience didn't.
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HARRIS: I left there thinking that maybe I have been taking time just a little too seriously myself.
NEARY: NPR's Richard Harris, contemplating his place in the universe.
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