Scientific Controversies: String Theory

Watch the captivating conversation between Nobel laureate and string theory pioneer David Gross, theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson, and Director of Sciences Janna Levin.

Our perception of the material world is famously illusory. Nothing is solid. On closer inspection, all things resolve into a long list of fundamental particles, microscopic billiard balls subject to quantum forces. The list of known particles is disappointingly long–a cocktail with too many ingredients in a universe that promised elegance. String Theory attempts to restore elegance by unifying the multitude of ingredients into one. The essential idea: There are no particles, only vibrating loops of string. If true, then all the different quantum particles are just different harmonics played on fundamental strings. So is the entire universe a complex score played out on elementary strings? Or are we lost, distracted by the pursuit of an ideal beauty that the universe simply doesn’t possess?

Director of Sciences, theoretical physicist Janna Levin, hosts David Gross, Nobel Laureate in physics, and Clifford Johnson, theoretical physicist and author of the new graphic science novel The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe. Watch the full length video above.

Clifford Johnson, shot by Michael Avedon.
Clifford JohnsonPhoto credit: Michael Avedon

Clifford Johnson is an award winning physicist, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Southern California, and author of the graphic science novel The Dialogues, which he also illustrated. Johnson’s research focuses on the development of theoretical tools for the description of the basic fabric of Nature. Along with an international community of research scientists he is trying to understand and describe the origin, past, present and future of the Universe. He works primarily on superstring theory, gravity, gauge theory and M-theory.

David Gross, shot by Michael Avedon.
David GrossPhoto credit: Michael Avedon.

David Gross is a central figure in particle physics and string theory, winning the Nobel Prize in physics in 2004 and numerous other honors and awards for his discoveries in the field. He has contributed to an understanding of particle physics and the nuclear force, and to the theory of superstrings, a burgeoning enterprise that brings gravity into the quantum framework.

Janna Levin is Chair and Director of Sciences at Pioneer Works and the Claire Tow Professor of astronomy and physics at Barnard College of Columbia University. A Guggenheim Fellow, Janna has contributed to an understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions, and gravitational waves in the shape of spacetime. Janna also won a PEN prize for a first work of fiction.

Artist Andrea Lauer designed special-edition patches inspired by the conversation. Andrea has designed patches for the entire Scientific Controversies series. We will release more in the coming weeks. Your purchase supports our free programming and our collaborations with artists.

Scientific Controversies Patch: String Theory by Andrea Lauer

This event was supported by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science. The Broadcast is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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