Superstrings as Grand Unifier. Thought of the Day 86.0


The first step of deriving General Relativity and particle physics from a common fundamental source may lie within the quantization of the classical string action. At a given momentum, quantized strings exist only at discrete energy levels, each level containing a finite number of string states, or particle types. There are huge energy gaps between each level, which means that the directly observable particles belong to a small subset of string vibrations. In principle, a string has harmonic frequency modes ad infinitum. However, the masses of the corresponding particles get larger, and decay to lighter particles all the quicker.

Most importantly, the ground energy state of the string contains a massless, spin-two particle. There are no higher spin particles, which is fortunate since their presence would ruin the consistency of the theory. The presence of a massless spin-two particle is undesirable if string theory has the limited goal of explaining hadronic interactions. This had been the initial intention. However, attempts at a quantum field theoretic description of gravity had shown that the force-carrier of gravity, known as the graviton, had to be a massless spin-two particle. Thus, in string theory’s comeback as a potential “theory of everything,” a curse turns into a blessing.

Once again, as with the case of supersymmetry and supergravity, we have the astonishing result that quantum considerations require the existence of gravity! From this vantage point, right from the start the quantum divergences of gravity are swept away by the extended string. Rather than being mutually exclusive, as it seems at first sight, quantum physics and gravitation have a symbiotic relationship. This reinforces the idea that quantum gravity may be a mandatory step towards the unification of all forces.

Unfortunately, the ground state energy level also includes negative-mass particles, known as tachyons. Such particles have light speed as their limiting minimum speed, thus violating causality. Tachyonic particles generally suggest an instability, or possibly even an inconsistency, in a theory. Since tachyons have negative mass, an interaction involving finite input energy could result in particles of arbitrarily high energies together with arbitrarily many tachyons. There is no limit to the number of such processes, thus preventing a perturbative understanding of the theory.

An additional problem is that the string states only include bosonic particles. However, it is known that nature certainly contains fermions, such as electrons and quarks. Since supersymmetry is the invariance of a theory under the interchange of bosons and fermions, it may come as no surprise, post priori, that this is the key to resolving the second issue. As it turns out, the bosonic sector of the theory corresponds to the spacetime coordinates of a string, from the point of view of the conformal field theory living on the string worldvolume. This means that the additional fields are fermionic, so that the particle spectrum can potentially include all observable particles. In addition, the lowest energy level of a supersymmetric string is naturally massless, which eliminates the unwanted tachyons from the theory.

The inclusion of supersymmetry has some additional bonuses. Firstly, supersymmetry enforces the cancellation of zero-point energies between the bosonic and fermionic sectors. Since gravity couples to all energy, if these zero-point energies were not canceled, as in the case of non-supersymmetric particle physics, then they would have an enormous contribution to the cosmological constant. This would disagree with the observed cosmological constant being very close to zero, on the positive side, relative to the energy scales of particle physics.

Also, the weak, strong and electromagnetic couplings of the Standard Model differ by several orders of magnitude at low energies. However, at high energies, the couplings take on almost the same value, almost but not quite. It turns out that a supersymmetric extension of the Standard Model appears to render the values of the couplings identical at approximately 1016 GeV. This may be the manifestation of the fundamental unity of forces. It would appear that the “bottom-up” approach to unification is winning. That is, gravitation arises from the quantization of strings. To put it another way, supergravity is the low-energy limit of string theory, and has General Relativity as its own low-energy limit.

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