I recently finished a fascinating book called Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003). Greene gives a concise description of Einstein’s theories of Special Relativity and of General Relativity and how General Relativity displaced Newton’s theory of gravity.
He then explains the wonders and peculiarities of Quantum Theory and details how successful and productive quantum physics has been. He also show how the submicroscopic world of quantum flux and the astronomical scale of General Relativity are at odds with one another. They just don’t mesh. Trying to harness them to one another to explain both scales in the case of black holes and the Big Bang doesn’t fly.
Greene then gets into the stuff he really loves –string theory. He describes the history of the theory including what is still it’s most advanced form –M-theory, devised largely by Edward Witten. This is a beautiful theory that reconciles both quantum mechanics and Einstein. To do this it hypothesizes the existence of 10 spatial dimensions (not just five -I couldn’t resist the alliteration in my title.)
Despite its elegance, however, M-theory and the five string theories it incorporates has its problems. The math is so hard that physicists have mostly used equations that approximate the real equations, because the real equations are too tough to solve. It’s got equations on its equations!
Despite my interest, I have to admit a lot of this stuff was ‘way over my head!
A string theory pioneer, Daniele Amati described string theory as “part of 21st century physics that fell by chance into the 20th century.” It may take 22nd century physics (if the human race is still around by then) to make it work if it ever does.
So far as I can tell, there is no real experimental evidence that supports string theory. It was hoped that the Large Hadron Collider would reveal particles that would support supersymmetry, an important aspect of M-theory, but so far, no go.
In the meantime, comic books are free to go where science is constrained. I didn’t want to use the Star Trek or Star Wars methods for rationalizing faster-than-light starship travel (Worm holes or Hyperspace). Instead I have the Nebboids punch a hole (a self-healing whole so no permanent damage is done) into the fabric of spacetime, and pop into an alternate universe.
In Einstein’s universe, spacetime can’t be torn. In string theory, Greene says it can, although he says it’s more like moths gnawing on a pair of trousers rather than the trousers sustaining an impressive rip. The Nebboids tear spacetime on a considerably larger scale. So…I exaggerated. What are comic books for if not exaggeration?
This alternate universe, the “Looneyverse,” has a different set of physics than our universe. In the Looneyverse the speed of light is much faster than in ours. The super-duper Nebboid spaceship computers figure out how long to fly in the Looneyverse to get where they want to go before punching an exit hole back into our universe. Nifty, huh?
Of course, there are side effects. Sense data in the Looneyverse is not easily processed by brains which have evolved in our universe, so the Looneyverse is perceived by visitors as a confused and chaotic state and spaceship tourists see strange hallucinations while traversing the Looneyverse. Veteran travelers like Edzl and his pal, Pretzl are used to this effect and mostly ignore the weirdness.
I used some of the shapes that Greene’s illustrators provided to enrich the Looneyverse environment (along with lots of goofy “phantom” cartoons). Among other things, there was a reference to the 6th-dimensional geometry a couple of mathematicians, Eugenio Calabi and Shing-Tung Yau, invented. So Greene’s book has drawings using the usual method of rendering 3-dimensional objects in 2 dimensions, in this case of a 6-dimensional phenomena! How cool is that?
When I googled “Calabi-Yau” for more examples of 6-dimensional forms, I came upon 3 pages of a story a cartoonist, Matteo Farinella did for a publication. The name of his story is “Greetings from Calabi-Yau.”
In this sample we see a lonely man encounter a extradimensional being. This is a wonderful example of how our perception works to label never-before-encountered phenomena based on our own desire, something about which the Buddha was elegantly eloquent.
Next time: more from “The Case of the Renegade Refrigerator,” the feature story in “Multiverse Comics and Stories.”