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As they explore M-theory, will Bay Area physicists earn the eternal glory sure to reward the inventors of the Theory of Everything?

Wednesday, Feb 10 1999
Chicken Tracks and Immortality
Every day, about 500 of the world's deepest thinkers log on to a Web site, hosted by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, that is a clearinghouse for scientific papers. Ever since a major breakthrough was posted to the site in 1995, the world's most abstract vision of the order of the universe -- string theory -- has developed rapidly there, and with unprecedented reach.

To the nonscientist, technical papers on string theory look as if a flock of muddy chickens had run a race on them. Written in a strange form of English, the papers' sentences often are broken up by weird number riffs that try to focus ideas when the precision of ordinary language collapses.

Certain types of physicists, however, find these scientific papers to be the epitome of elegance, because these papers unite, in a potentially historic way, previously discordant explanations of how the universe works.

The papers say we live not just in the four dimensions that ordinary mortals sense -- height, width, length, and time -- but in seven more. They say that everything in this 11-dimension universe is made up of very tiny objects that vibrate like violin strings, and throw off (poetically speaking) "notes" that we, trapped in our four-dimensional consciousness, perceive as energy or matter.

The quest to find The Answer -- to draw the heavenly blueprint of the whole universe, from inframicro to ultramacro -- has entranced and consistently frustrated physicists of the post-Einstein era. If string theory's claims are ever validated in the eyes of a Nobel Prize committee, the discoverers of the Theory of Everything will become living gods on Earth. They will very likely become as eternally famous as Einstein, Galileo, Newton, and the very few other scientists whose discoveries changed how the world viewed itself, instantly and forevermore.

Many physicists believe that a variant on string theory -- known, somewhat cryptically, as M -- does in fact unite previously irreconcilable views of the universe into one elegant set of mathematical calculations. In a collective yet highly competitive enterprise, scientists in Russia, India, Europe, Japan, and America -- where Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley play leading roles -- are furiously trying to expand string theory's reach, and its acceptance as an explanation for the physical universe.

Unfortunately, there is no machine in existence that can prove the string theorists' speculative picture of reality to be true. Such proof may stand out of scientific reach for decades, or forever, but if it ever comes, scientific immortality and Nobel Prizes are almost sure to follow.

Thought Experiments on the Couch
Most days you can find Stanford University physics professor Eva Silverstein, age 28, sitting on a couch in the common room at the department of physics. Down the hall is a battered wood case that looks like it should hold football trophies. It contains, instead, 10 Nobel Prizes for physics; Stanford professors have won five just since 1990. Sunk deep into comfortable leather, the diminutive Silverstein holds forth -- and holds her own -- with the male heavies of string theory.

Whole paragraphs of intense thought tumble off the youthful Silverstein's tongue as her hazel eyes glitter with the sheer fun of doing high-energy theoretical physics. She has a sense of delight, but, make no mistake: She is a contender in the race to find The Answer.

Silverstein is new to Northern California. One of the world's dozen female string theorists, she learned about Einstein's theory of special relativity when she was attending high school in Spokane, Wash. "The fact that time could slow down blew my mind," she recalls.

So it was on to undergraduate work in physics at Harvard University, and then doctoral work at Princeton. Last year, Silverstein landed a $75,000 assistant professorship and a tiny office at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Palo Alto.

She and other polo-shirted theorists sprawl out in their conversation pit, taking turns chalking intricate formulas on a long blackboard and vocalizing what they call "conjectures." Each and every idea could be the key to achieving Nobel status.

One of the regular couch potatoes is another Bay Area newcomer, Stanford physics professor Stephen H. Shenker. Shenker, age 45, is a fairly typical string theorist. Born to a physicist father and a psychologist mother, Shenker also got turned on to relativity in his teens. He self-deprecatingly admits to not having been very good at high school physics -- "Inclined planes bored me silly," he says -- but was knighted as a "genius" by the MacArthur Foundation 13 years ago.

I met Steve in the fourth grade, before he read Einstein's work. Not only was he an invaluable source for arithmetic answers, but he was also good at dodge ball. We've been friends for nearly 40 years, and during that time, he has periodically informed me that this time the physicists have cracked the answer. When the now gray-haired Shenker talks animatedly about the serious adventure of modern physics, I still see a starry-eyed kid plotting how to blow up model airplanes with homemade firecrackers.

The incendiary tendencies of Shenker's adolescence eventually gave way to exploring the cause of much bigger bangs in the universe. But the compulsion to create a commotion lingers -- tempered by the anxieties of adulthood.

As one of the shakers of string theory, Shenker helped create a theory group at New Jersey's Rutgers University in the early 1990s. The group was a bit revolutionary in its approach to collaboration, says Silverstein, who did postdoctoral work with Shenker. "It was kind of like a Quaker meeting," she remembers.

Instead of sitting through "snobby" lectures, Shenker and his colleagues gathered and spoke whatever was on their minds, even when it came out as stream-of-consciousness rambling. Silverstein says that the Rutgers collective approach to thinking is being copied at string theory centers around the world, including Stanford.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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