Lately, I've been inspired by the work of Edward Witten. A professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., Witten is one of the top theoretical physicists of our time. Almost single-handedly, he has developed a new branch of mathematical physics, based on "string theory," that appears to be closing the gap between quantum mechanics and Einstein's general theory of relativity.
To put things in perspective, you have to go back about a hundred years to when scientists were beginning to find holes in the Newtonian model of the universe. Until the turn of the century, classical (Newtonian) physics could explain everything we knew and were learning about the physical world. But in a few short years, it all unraveled in light of new empirical data that didn't fit the mold.
Making matters worse, it took two theories to fill the void. Einstein's theory of relativity emerged to explain extremely large-scale phenomena such as planetary motion and gravitational forces, while quantum mechanics sprang up to explain what scientists were observing at the atomic and subatomic scale.
Even this wouldn't have been so bad, but for the fact that neither theory works in the presence of the other. Indeed, not even Einstein could explain what happens when gravity and quantum effects are considered together. To think that Witten may have the answer after all these years is something to get excited about.
String theory is based on the assumption that nature's primary building blocks are not point-like, but rather like vibrating strings. These strings are as small in relation to a proton as a proton is to the entire solar system. And depending on their vibration mode, they can represent any form of energy or matter.
The theory also suggests that the space-time continuum we live in consists of at least ten dimensions. The math requires it. For the equations to balance, the stings must be free to vibrate in multidimensional space. According to Witten, the dimensions beyond the familiar are just too "tightly curled" to detect – but they're there.
In addition to resolving the dilemma between quantum mechanics and relativity, Witten may also have the inside track to the much sought after unified field theory that physicists, including Einstein, have pondered for decades.
Among other things, a unified theory could help explain what happened in the earliest stages of the formation of the universe. This would be monumental because the "big bang" theory is still pretty flimsy. Not only does it lack an explanation for galaxies and the conspicuous absence of naturally occurring antimatter, it doesn't account for the uniform background radiation as measured by NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite. Scientists get around this by tweaking the initial conditions of the model, but they'll be the first to tell you it's not a very satisfying solution.
Recently, however, there's been talk of a new model of the big bang that provides a clearer picture without all the fudging. The new model posits that for a brief instant after the big bang – starting at about 10-43 seconds and ending at 10-32 seconds – the universe underwent an extremely rapid expansion and cooling phase, known as "inflation."
During this transition, the original, unified force of the universe would have separated into the four elementary forces we know today as electromagnetism (composed of photons), gravity (composed of gravitons), strong force (composed of gluons), and weak force (composed of intermediate bosons). Scientists believe that the unified theory could validate these assumptions as well as the inflation model itself, shedding light on some of the deepest mysteries of the universe.
And therein lies my hope. Because if this Princeton scholar named Ed can single-handedly solve one of the riddles of the universe, then surely our Rhodes scholar in the White House can figure out the meaning of the word "is" and such simple concepts as truth, honor, dignity, maturity, and accountability. And once he masters that, maybe he can tell us who, or what's, pulling his strings.