By Matt Crenson s Illustration by Nicolle Rager Fuller
Physics is really two sciences. There’s quantummechanics, the weird tumultuous world where
particles pop into and out of nothingness
and cats can be simultaneously living
and dead. And there’s general relativity, Einstein’s majestic vision of massive
objects bending space and time.
Ever since these two very different
views of the universe emerged early in
the 20th century, generations of physicists have tried to unite them in a single
theory that would ideally describe all
four of nature’s basic forces to boot. Even
Einstein tried, and failed. Now, after
an especially frustrating few decades
with little new evidence to guide them,
today’s physicists may be about to get
some tantalizing hints about how the
forces fit together.
The clues are expected to come from
the Large Hadron Collider, a ring of
superconducting magnets in the Alps
designed to smash protons together at
energies never before seen on Earth.
The collider began operating in March
2010 and is expected to reach full power
in 2014, when it will attempt to smash
its protons together with double the violence it does today.
Even then, the LHC will be far from
powerful enough to re-create the single, unified force that physicists believe
existed for a fraction of a second after the
Big Bang — you’d need a collider as big as
the universe itself for that. But the LHC
might be able to test some of the predictions made by the leading theory that
joins gravity and the other forces.
Superstring theory — string theory
for short —ties all of physics into one
neat package by reducing the bewilder-
ing taxonomy of particles in the current
bestiary of physics, the Standard Model,
to identical snippets of string, each less
than a billionth of a billionth of a bil-
lionth of a centimeter long. According
to string theory, the particles that carry
the three forces included in the Standard
Model — the photon (electromagnetism),
the gluon (strong force) and the W and
Z bosons (weak force) — are all just the
same tiny dancers each following their
own distinct rhythms.