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string theory

The universe could be made up of unimaginably small strings.

If you are not a scientist and you have been having difficulty sleeping at night, a surefire remedy awaits. Go to the Pyle Center on the UW-Madison campus and ask for directions to the 10th Annual String Phenomenology Conference. Take a seat in the back of the meeting room and have a listen to ...

See? A sound sleep in seconds. Without medication!

Of course, the physicists and other scientists in attendance at the event, which started Monday and runs through Friday, would take exception. But then, they can understand what’s being said, even in a talk titled “Bundle Transitions and Stabilizing Moduli in Heterotic Vacua.”

Cut through the complexities of the science and you’ve got a gathering of the world’s most distinguished experts in a realm of physics — string theory — that may offer answers to some of the most puzzling questions about how the natural world works. It is a credit to UW-Madison and the city that the scientists chose to gather here, said Gordon Kane, director of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics at the University of Michigan.

“This says that the university is working at the forefront of some of the most exciting theories in the world,” Kane said.

Gary Shiu, a UW-Madison physicist who is co-chairing the meeting, said the conference brings together about 100 scientists from diverse fields who have been working to understand and test string theory. So this week at the Pyle Center, you are likely to run into physicists, mathematicians and cosmologists (scientists who study the structure and evolution of the universe).

What brings them together is, fittingly, called the “theory of everything” — a theory that seeks to reconcile two seemingly contradictory schools of thought about how the natural world works: Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which deciphers big concepts such as space and gravity, and quantum mechanics, which answers fundamental questions about the behavior of the very smallest of objects, the particles that make up all matter.

Einstein’s theories conflict with the science of quantum mechanics, largely because relativity relies on cause and effect, while quantum theory injects randomness into the behavior of particles. Scientists are left, as a result, with several unanswered questions. Neither theory, for example, can tell us why 95 percent of the universe is made up of dark matter that can’t be explained or described.

The inability to bring the two theories together was a conundrum that plagued Einstein until his death. When the great physicist died in 1955, there were 12 pages of calculations at his bedside, all having to do with his efforts to create a unified theory.

Physicists such as Shiu and Kane believe string theory fits the bill. It posits that unimaginably small strings make up all matter and that the varying vibrations of those strings create different kinds of particles, such as quarks and neutrinos. The concept can even be applied to gravity, Shiu said, because vibrations at a certain frequency are thought to bring into existence a graviton, a particle that makes gravity work. String theory, he added, may eventually give us the particle that makes up dark matter.

The Madison conference is something of a milestone in the study of string theory, Shiu said, because it represents 10 years of thought and advances. “It means the field is moving forward, that interesting things are going on,” he said.

Kane agreed and said much of the conference focuses on the predictive powers of string theory. If the theory can predict the existence of certain particles or behaviors, Kane said, and those are then borne out by successful experiments at projects such as the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, string theory would become an accepted explanation for the workings of the universe.

And that, Kane said, is no small thing. It would fundamentally change our understanding of how the natural world works. Such an advance, he said, would not only satisfy an intense curiosity humans have about the universe, it would be an achievement that would rival some of history’s most momentous scientific accomplishments.

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