Nova: The Elegant Universe

For anyone who saw Nova last night, maybe you can help. The two hours of eye candy was great, but I found the show surprisingly lacking in science, particularly how exactly string theory unifies gravity and EM, strong, and weak forces. Can anyone explain this to me in non-mathematical terms?

In other news: Einstein was a one-trick pony? Wow.

I think there will be more next week - it’s a two parter, with one more hour next week. I read the book a couple of years ago, and was hoping that Brian Greene would be the next Carl Sagan, but he’ll have to settle for being the next best thing. The eye candy was a little reminiscent of ‘Cosmos’, I thought, and that got Sagan going as a science publicist.

It would be awfully hard to present relativaty, QM, and strings to the general public in three hours without a lot of ground work. I wish I knew a lot more about this subject, so I’m hoping that next week will do a little better in the science department.

The eye candy was stunning, as far as I was concerned. Some of those angles and panning shots blew me away.

And at the time, it had me focussing more on how they accomplished the shots rather then what they were trying to explain in the background.

Actually, I believe they showed both, back to back last night. Neither of which did much, for me anyways, in explaining it any better. It’s still way too confusing.

String theory is incredibly complexand I can’t claim any great understanding of it, so I can only tell you what little I know:

Firstly String theory as good as it is, is only an extremely promising candidate for a theory of everything, it has not yet been experimentally tested (due to the predicted energies of the strings and of course there is the lack of experimental evidence for supersymmetric partners which appear in superstring theories) and is not yet even fully understood.

In superstring theory there exists a mathematical concept known as duality which allows certain transformations, which means that the different forces can be transformed into each other meaning that you have a basic explantion for all the forces. Also, generally explanations of quantum gravity come up with infinites in measurable situations, string theory tends to avoid these.

Einstein was far from a one-trick pony, he made important contributions in sevreal areas outside relativity, for example it was his explnation of the phtotelctric effect that one the Nobel prize and helped to lay dow the foundatiopns of quantum mechanics.

I think the third hour, in next week’s installment, will focus more on string theory, itself. The thing about ST, is that it is purely theoretical, being a concept that describes the very small better than anything else we have, but with no experimental connection with real particles. And maybe no possiblity of an experimental proof - ever. Maybe if the mathematical proof is strong enough, and works well enough in application, it might be accepted anyway. Nobody seems to understand Quantum M, either.

They sort of previewed the concept by showing how the strong force equation was discovered before the strong force itself was found.

the web site has more:

It appears that it is a 3-parter. I’m guessing most places showed eps 1 & 2 last night. episode 3 will be shown most places Nov 4.

Companion web site which delve deeper into the details:


IIRC, some the equations for string theory, which were quantum mechanical to begin with, began to look like they were describing gravitons, the theoretical particle that “transmits” gravity. I think this is why they think string theory might unify gravity and the other forces.

Correction/elaborations to this statement are more than welcome.

I know. I was surprised by their characterization…

I don’t get it until tonight, spoliers please?? Just kidding. They were advertising it last night, I always get Nove at 7 CST Wednesdays. They usually re-air on Saturday at 5 CST.

I’m really looking forward to watching it, sounds interesting.

I thought the eye candy was a tad overdone, not to mention Monty-Pythonish.:slight_smile: I thought their treatment of Quantum Mechanics was extremely confusing. This was the low point in part 1. Part 2 was more interesting because I was unfamiliar with the beginning of ST. Part 3 is next week. As for the science, it’s basically High School Freshman level, IMHO. This would be a good film to show in High School.

The basic answer to the OP’s question is that the strings have many different ways they can vibrate. Each different vibration we see as a different particle. So, one mode of vibration is an electron, another mode is an up quark, yet another mode is a photon.

Still another mode is a spin-2 particle. Since it was already known that the graviton must be a spin-2 particle (using an approximation to General Relativity), this led physicists to think that string theory might be a unification of all the forces.

Another indication of the connection with gravity comes if you try to write a string theory in curved spacetime. The quantum version of the theory is only consistent if the spacetime obeys the equations of General Relativity. In other words, it’s possible to derive GR from string theory.

Or maybe it was his wife? :wink:

“Quantum mechanics, my ASS! You march right up those stairs and CLEAN YOUR ROOM!”-- Anon.

I thought it was very well done myself. Their take on the whole 10-dimensions thing was (for me) the best explanation I’ve heard so far. It actually reminded me of Timothy Ferris’s video “Life Beyond Earth” in its quality.

I’m glad to hear there’s a third part. They left off when their year-counter got up to 198x, and didn’t say anything about a third episode.

I’m really hoping they’ll answer your question next week, as it’s one of mine too. They did mention that string theory (which they say predicts EM, strong and weak forces) had been wrangled into having gravitons, (thus including gravity), but they were kinda sketchy on some of that.

On something of a tangent, where have I seen that Toronto professor from before? Does Jay Ingram talk to her sometimes on Daily Planet?

Anecdote: Einstein’s friend said to him: “You look upset.” and he replied “My wife just doesn’t understand me!”


Anyway, I’m curious: what did they say about Einstein being a one trick pony? I’d always had the impression he did a lot (a Nobel Prize for the photoelectric effect which led to QM and inventing relativity, which comprise the the modern understanding of the universe would do for a start) but I when you said that realised it could be a ‘right man at the right place’ thing.

They never said it, but they portrayed him as having this great breakthrough (relativity) and then completely ignoring QM for the next 30 years as he struggled with a theory of everything. Several of the physicists actually said that, in the end, he was thought of as doddering, feeble, and out of step with his contemporaries in general.

They equated him to a brilliant cavalry tactician refusing to accept progress and trying to lead a mounted attack against barbed wire and machine guns.

The prediction of a graviton was the tyin to relativity, thus hinting at unification. They spent a grand total of about 30 seconds on that.

Actually, yes, that’s the way I heard it. I don’t know how accurate it is, but the impression I had was that Einstein revolutionised physics fairly early on, rejected quantum mechanics, and spent ages trying to unify gravity and electromagnetism.

But I would have said “genius who made one great mistake” not “one trick pony.” :slight_smile:

I only watched the first hour and taped the 2nd hr to view tonight. The first hour was OK, and I’m hoping it gets better. Scientific American has a cover story on String Theory in the Nov edition, so you might want to check that out if you don’t get what you want from this show.

NOVA is usually very good. I hope this one lives up to that record.

I know this is a joke but in actuality his first wife was a very good physicist, probably as good or better than he. In fact, some say that it was this wife that developed most of the ideas in GR. At any rate, they both worked together at it, but his wife had to take a backseat.

Unfortunately, here in Charleston, SC, the local ETV station had some difficulties in the last 15 minutes. The picture kept breaking up, and after about a 10-minute delay with a blank screen, it started showing previews of coming shows. Just when it was getting into some good stuff. :frowning:

Well, that means they explained it correctly!