Physics Question #1258

Kelvin C, a 12 year old male from Toronto asks on February 13, 2003,

What exactly is Superstring and how does it work?

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The answer

Barry Shell answered on March 6, 2003

This is pretty hard to understand. Before you get this, you have to understand the idea of quantum mechanics which itself is practically impossible to understand. This is the idea that at some level of smallness, things change suddenly, instead of continuously. In other words, say you are going to school. You go continuosly on one road after the other over a period of time, until you get to your school. This is the normal state of affairs in our world. In the world of quantum mechanics, you would be going along, and then suddenly, boom, you would be at school. You would either be at home, or at school--nothing in between. (Note: this only works in ultra small things like atoms--not in our everyday world.) Put simply, the math for quantum mechanics uses "points" as the smallest elements for calculations, and this math explains a lot about how things work at a very small scale. However, it does not explain everything. Quantum mechanics cannot for instance, explain any connection between electromagnetism and gravity--one of the big mysteries that even Einstein could not figure out. So in the 1980s physicists thought of this idea of using a sort of imaginary bit of superstring instead of a point. This gives a lot more flexibility because the string can hold more information than a point and you can do more interesting stuff mathematically. In this way physicists hope to combine theories of electromagnetism with theories of gravity (and other things). NOTE: none of this has been proven with any experiments. Nobody has yet come up with a way to test if superstring theory works.

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