by Matthew Fairchild
The Standard Model and M-Theory
No matter how big the object, everything can be broken down into the same elements, the ones on the periodic table we had to memorize in chemistry class. Those elements are in turn created by protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons are made up of quarks (up, down, strange, charm, top, bottom), leptons (electron, electron neutrino, muon, muon neutrino, tau, tau neutrino), and bosons (photon, w, z, gluon, higgs, graviton). Quarks, leptons, and bosons are made up of vibrating strings attached to membranes. We know these as the most basic elements that create all matter and life in the universe.
I loved learning everything I could about the universe as a child. Instead of toys, I asked for books about space for my birthdays and read them until I knew all the facts they contained. At night, I would go outside and stare at the sky. I used my newfound knowledge to spot constellations and imagine what it would be like to walk on Mars. With everything I learned, my imagined self travelled farther out into the expanse, to nebulas and galaxies and the endless space in between. It kept going, unhindered by any edge to stop it.
Our universe is infinite. It has no beginning, end, top, or bottom. Beyond the stars and galaxies, beyond the microwave radiation at the edge of known space, originally emanating from the creation of the cosmos, our universe extends for unfathomable lengths. It can be hard to find meaning in the empty space, no matter how much we try. And every time we decipher more about why we are the way we are, we learn more about how insignificant and powerless we are. Despite that, the goal of science is not to give us more sobering thoughts, but instead, eventually, hopefully, give us significance, make us matter. This can be hard to see, though, given how everything is leading us to believe that we are merely the products of chance, living by the whim of a resonance.
The lights in the orchestra hall dim until only the stage remains illuminated. The conductor nonchalantly walks on stage, dressed in a dapper tuxedo matching the performers awaiting his command. As he steps onto his podium, he turns around to look at the audience and then back to the musicians. For a moment, his hands remain suspended in air as the whole auditorium gazes in silence. After a second, his hand moves up and down and a violin begins to play.
At the conductor’s command, the violinist uses her bow to cause the strings on her violin to vibrate. That vibration produces a resonance, which we interpret as music. The notes created by this and all the other instruments determine what the symphony will sound like, what impact it will have, whether I will gravitate towards it or be repelled by it. The vibrations determine the nature of the symphony and the nature of the particles—their mass, charge, and gravity. A string’s resonance determines everything.
Strings exist as one-dimensional objects. They hover, float, and vibrate in spatial simplicity, moving along the line that their dimension binds them to. Membranes live more complex lives. In order to find the perfect tension to create the perfect resonance for their string companions, membranes contort, spin, flip, and maneuver into not only the two other spatial dimensions we know, but seven others beyond that.
No one knows anything about the seven other dimensions, has tested for them, or can test for them. This is a recurring theme in string theory, and robs us of our agency. We are what we are because something we cannot see works in a way we cannot know doing things we cannot understand. Since the resonance of a string is the fundamental element of what makes me a person or a beam of light, and since we cannot test for it, it puts our reason for existence into the realm of chance. The strings happen to have vibrated the right way because they did, that is all. That does not stop scientists from pushing forward with theories, though. One hypothesis is that these dimensions are wrapped up around the quarks and strings where we cannot see them.
We may never see them. Our minds could be too bound to our four dimensions to ever conceive eleven. Or maybe they are just shy and need a little tender calling and some food to coax them out. Either way, as of now they remain a mystery.
At the beginning of every football game, the referee flips a coin. In our universe, one team wins the toss and another loses, but this isn’t the only universe. At every point where a decision is made or something random occurs, like a coin toss, a separate universe and timeline are formed, one for each outcome. Every iteration of every possibility exists somewhere in some universe. There are an infinite number of universes existing next to each other, not all of which even obey our laws of physics and logic. Infinite spheres encompassing all of their time and space lay against one another, touching but not interacting. They can see one another, but we cannot see them. In the big and the small, chance rules.
In this universe the flip landed heads; in another it was tails.
In this universe I went to college; in another I did not.
In one Steve Jobs never made a computer; in another he went to work for Microsoft.
In another beluga whales speak Chinese, and all dogs are green.
In another the universe remains a formless void because gravity does not exist.
When I was a child, my parents gave me a telescope for Christmas in a big, black leather trunk. When I opened it, sitting in front of the fireplace next to the tree, my eyes went wide with excitement. There, carefully placed in its foam housing, was a large, orange telescope. It was exactly what I wanted.
That night, and many others after it, I took the too-big telescope outside to survey the southern sky. Right before taking it out, I would look at the star charts to see what was visible. I made notes of the planets, stars, nebulas, and galaxies, before beginning my observation. They would be written down in an order, typically planets first, then nebulas, galaxies, globular clusters, and finally, lone stars of some significance, like Betelgeuse. Every night I had an order. I had an innate need to put the most interesting objects first, and least interesting last, even though I knew that I would see all of them before the night was over. I still do this, though in different ways, like when I do the easiest assignments first or save my steak for last.
This need to bring an order and hierarchy to the chaos and randomness of our world is not new. It is what drove our ancestors to make constellations, creating patterns and stories from the random smatterings of bright stars.
This drive continues into modern science. One of the great dreams of physics is to find the Theory of Everything. The idea is that in one equation, all the systems and forces in our universe would be explained, from gravity to electromagnetism to quantum physics. Everything would be wrapped up in a neat equation that would explain what we can and cannot see.
We seek the order because it brings significance. I scan the sky for planets and constellations because those meaningful points of light make the mass of random dots much more navigable. If we can find the underlying reason why our universe formed the way it did, then we are no longer the process of random chance. I am me and you are you because given the equation and inputs, we were what was meant to be produced. We may be the solution to one long math problem, but instead of one that says we happen to have been created, it is one that says we had to have been created. Our existence is given a concrete reason. And with a reason for existence comes purpose and meaning. But the only way to find this is to go through partial understandings and half-truths that lead us to see ourselves as the powerless products of chance.
The significance we desire lies at the end of an equation.
The Theory of Everything
…is perfect elegance and simplicity.
Matthew Fairchild lives in Southern California and is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chapman University. He has previously been published in Cardinal Sins, Rivet, South 85 Journal, and Split Rock Review, among others. He is also one of the Founding Editors of Anastamos Interdisciplinary Journal.