Scientists Say They Can Now Test String Theory

by Nancy Atkinson on September 1, 2010

The idea of the “Theory of Everything” is enticing – that we could somehow explain all that is. String theory has been proposed since the 1960’s as a way to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity into such an explanation. However, the biggest criticism of String Theory is that it isn’t testable. But now, a research team led by scientists from the Imperial College London unexpectedly discovered that that string theory also seems to predict the behavior of entangled quantum particles. As this prediction can be tested in the laboratory, the researchers say they can now test string theory.

“If experiments prove that our predictions about quantum entanglement are correct, this will demonstrate that string theory ‘works’ to predict the behavior of entangled quantum systems,” said Professor Mike Duff, lead author of the study.

String theory was originally developed to describe the fundamental particles and forces that make up our universe, and has a been a favorite contender among physicists to allow us to reconcile what we know about the incredibly small from particle physics with our understanding of the very large from our studies of cosmology. Using the theory to predict how entangled quantum particles behave provides the first opportunity to test string theory by experiment.

But – at least for now – the scientists won’t be able to confirm that String Theory is actually the way to explain all that is, just if it actually works.

“This will not be proof that string theory is the right ‘theory of everything’ that is being sought by cosmologists and particle physicists,” said Duff. “However, it will be very important to theoreticians because it will demonstrate whether or not string theory works, even if its application is in an unexpected and unrelated area of physics.”

String theory is a theory of gravity, an extension of General Relativity, and the classical interpretation of strings and branes is that they are quantum mechanical vibrating, extended charged black holes.The theory hypothesizes that the electrons and quarks within an atom are not 0-dimensional objects, but 1-dimensional strings. These strings can move and vibrate, giving the observed particles their flavor, charge, mass and spin. The strings make closed loops unless they encounter surfaces, called D-branes, where they can open up into 1-dimensional lines. The endpoints of the string cannot break off the D-brane, but they can slide around on it.

Duff said he was sitting in a conference in Tasmania where a colleague was presenting the mathematical formulae that describe quantum entanglement when he realized something. “I suddenly recognized his formulae as similar to some I had developed a few years earlier while using string theory to describe black holes. When I returned to the UK I checked my notebooks and confirmed that the maths from these very different areas was indeed identical.”

Duff and his colleagues realized that the mathematical description of the pattern of entanglement between three qubits resembles the mathematical description, in string theory, of a particular class of black holes. Thus, by combining their knowledge of two of the strangest phenomena in the universe, black holes and quantum entanglement, they realized they could use string theory to produce a prediction that could be tested. Using the string theory mathematics that describes black holes, they predicted the pattern of entanglement that will occur when four qubits are entangled with one another. (The answer to this problem has not been calculated before.) Although it is technically difficult to do, the pattern of entanglement between four entangled qubits could be measured in the laboratory and the accuracy of this prediction tested.

The discovery that string theory seems to make predictions about quantum entanglement is completely unexpected, but because quantum entanglement can be measured in the lab, it does mean that there is way – finally – researchers can test predictions based on string theory.

But, Duff said, there is no obvious connection to explain why a theory that is being developed to describe the fundamental workings of our universe is useful for predicting the behavior of entangled quantum systems. “This may be telling us something very deep about the world we live in, or it may be no more than a quirky coincidence”, said Duff. “Either way, it’s useful.”

Source: Imperial College London


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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