Part I – Separate Worlds?
In the Harry Potter novels J.K. Rowling has created a fantastic and magical world. This world, however, is not a parallel universe or completely imaginary world which mimics our own, but part of the same universe we live in, integrated and intertwined with it. Magical people (wizards and witches) interact on a regular basis with Muggles (non-magical folk) in the mundane (non-magical) world. They live in the same towns and villages and move through the same streets. Magical establishments such as Diagon Alley, St. Mungo’s Hospital and even the Ministry of Magic itself may all be entered directly from the Muggle world. The magical world is a distinct piece of the whole hiding just below the surface but essentially the same in form and function. The only real difference is the absence of applied science for which magic has been substituted.
What is Magic?
How can two worlds which occupy the same physical plane and are so similar in so many respects differ in such a fundamental way? In the Muggle world science is the foundation on which our entire civilization is built, yet it is completely absent from magical life, having been entirely replaced by magic. Magic performs the same functions (and many more) for witches and wizards as science does for Muggles. Invisibility spells have replaced camouflage, hover charms replaced aerodynamics, alchemy and potions replaced chemistry, etc. But what is magic?
Magic is the influencing of events, objects, people and physical phenomena by means which are outside of, or override, the principles of science.1 In J.K. Rowling’s descriptions magic is a fundamental part of the natural universe inborn and intertwined with many of the plants, animals, people and places in our world. Through its use humans and other creatures can directly apply their mental intent to the physical world and, in essence, make their thoughts real.
Magic is not all-powerful, however, and does have limits. Just as a person cannot crush coal into diamond in the palm of their hand, there are things which even magic cannot accomplish. From this it can be inferred that even though magic does not seem to obey the Muggle laws of science there are laws which govern it and perhaps they can be defined.
The ‘Fun’ in Fundamental Science
How, then, does one begin to define the laws which might govern magic? Since the magical world and the mundane are part of the same universe a good starting point may be the known laws which govern that universe.
Physics is the most fundamental of physical sciences. It is concerned with the underlying principles of the natural world and, at its most basic, with the interaction between matter and forces.2 In using the language of physics to define magic, magic must then be one of these two factors.
Matter is the substance or substances of which any physical object consists or is composed.3 A force is that which influences a body or system, producing a change in movement, shape or other effect.4 Therefore, under these criteria, magic must be defined as a force as it most decidedly produces the requisite changes.
There are many forces in nature, but in physics these all reduce to four fundamental forces or interactions: gravitation, electromagnetism, the weak interaction, and the strong interaction.5 Using these four interactions physicists can describe everything from the motions of planets and galaxies to the interaction of atoms to the detonation of a nuclear bomb. They do not, however, describe magic. Does this mean that no Magical Force exists? Not necessarily.
Physics is a constantly evolving field of study. For centuries, one of its chief goals has been the unification of the four principle forces. There have been successes and setbacks along the way and new, often provocative, theories have emerged as a result: from Einstein’s theories of Relativity to Quantum Mechanics and String Theory (see Appendix).
The most recent theory to rock the Physics community is M-theory, put forth by Edward Witten in 1995,6 which attempts to unify the five current string theories. M-theory is not yet a complete theory; however, it can be applied in many situations and has possibly far reaching consequences.
The underlying principle of string theory is that all matter in the universe is made up of unimaginably small strings which interact with, or vibrate in, ten dimensions. In order to unify the disparate versions of string theory, M-theory added yet another dimension bringing the total to eleven. This means that strings must vibrate in ten spatial dimensions and one dimension of time. Now, to everyday people it may not matter if the universe exists in ten or eleven dimensions, the four in which we currently operate are plenty. But physicists wonder: If there are eleven dimensions, why can we only perceive four? There are two ways to approach this conundrum: by thinking of the extra dimensions as very, very, very small, or through the use of branes.7
Extra Dimensions get Hosed
The first way of thinking about extra dimensions is to picture a garden hose. At a great distance the hose appears to be nothing more than a one-dimensional object. This is how people typically see a hose; it brings water from point A to point B along its length.
But if we were much smaller, say the size of an ant, suddenly the hose has another dimension. An ant crawling within the hose experiences both the length of the hose and the circumference.8 And what if the ant were to become a fly? Now, since it is not confined to the interior surface of the hose the fly can move in three dimensions within the hose.9
This expanding of dimensions at smaller scales is one theory of how there may exist more dimensions within our own world. Just as we can’t appreciate the extra dimensions within the garden hose because we are too large, perhaps we can’t experience the extra dimensions within our universe because they are rolled up and imperceptibly small.
The Brane Game
The second way of resolving extra dimensions is through the use of branes. Prior to M-theory, strings were thought to be the single fundamental constituent of the universe.10 When an extra dimension was added through the development of M-theory new objects called membranes were discovered in the math.
Membranes, or branes, are large multidimensional objects11 which are separate entities residing within the larger eleven-dimensional universe, or bulk. The bulk can be thought of as a loaf of bread which represents the entire universe in all of its dimensions.12 A brane is like one of the slices within the loaf and the dimensions which exist on that brane are like jelly spread on the slice of bread.13 Similarly, just as not all sandwiches contain the same number or type of toppings, not all the branes in the bulk contain the same number or type of dimensions.
Looking at the universe this way the universe we live in, our “local universe,” may be one of an infinite number of universes which contain any number of dimensions and make up the entirety of the bulk. If this model of the universe is correct, our local universe exists on a brane which contains four dimensions. In order for this model to work open-ended strings (think cooked spaghetti) have their ends anchored to our brane and can only vibrate in the dimensions contained on that brane.
Why then do we need extra dimensions to explain the workings of our local universe? Because gravity, or more specifically the graviton, is special. It is not an open-ended string anchored to a brane. The graviton is a closed loop (think rubber band) which can flow freely from one brane to the next because it has no ends to tether.
The ‘M’ in M-theory
Eleven dimensions, parallel universes, branes and strings all appear pretty outlandish, but if M-theory proves to be correct then who knows what truths physics may uncover in the future. M-theory is still young and is still being studied, probed and refined. When complete it may lend credence to many ideas which were previously thought to be absurd.
When Edward Witten unified the five string theories he knew the new theory he’d created was incomplete. Because of this he called it only ‘M’ theory. But what might the ‘M’ stand for? According to Witten: “ ‘M’ stands for magic, mystery or matrix, according to taste.” 14 Magic?! Magic indeed.
Part II – Magical Physics
When compared to the bizarre universe implied by M-theory, the magic in J.K. Rowling’s world seems practically benign. Extra dimensions, branes, the bulk, and parallel universes which bear no resemblance to our own are all properties of the universe described by M-theory. How, then, can the magic of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter be explained in the context of these radical new ideas.
The Gift of Magic
Wizards and other magical beings are born with the ability to do magic or, more appropriately, born with magic in their genes. It is a trait passed on from generation to generation similar to eye or hair color (the actual genetics of magical heredity are, potentially, much more complex and not the focus of this essay). It is similar with magical flora (plants) and other types of magical fauna (animals) where entire species appear to either be magical or not. Where does this gift of magic come from?
Under the context of string theory physics a plant or animal’s magical abilities may be due to the fact that the strings they are comprised of vibrate in a slightly different way than that of mundane, or non-magical, flora and fauna. If all or a part of the extra seven dimensions help to make up our local universe then the strings of a magical being probably vibrate in one or more different dimensions than the strings of mundane beings. If our universe is comprised of a lower dimension brane (say four as we normally observe) then the strings may simply vibrate at different frequencies in the same dimensions as everyone else. A combination of the two possibilities is the most likely explanation.
The Force of Magic
As stated earlier, magic can be thought of as a force. It has the ability to interact with and even change the state of matter. According to the Standard Model, which M-theory was derived from, all the fundamental forces are carried by particles called bosons. The photons, gravitons, gluons and W and Z bosons mediate electromagnetism, gravitation, the strong force and the weak force respectively.
With many spells, light is emitted when they are cast. This light varies in color and intensity depending on the spell, but the presence of light, any light, means the presence of photons and the generation of bosons. Photons carry the electromagnetic force and this is the reason why many Muggle inventions which operate using electromagnetism, such as radio waves, will not operate properly in highly magical environment.
The electromagnetic force, together with gravity, is responsible for all the interactions we see from day to day. The reason something falls when you drop it is because gravity pulls it down. The reason it stops when it hits the ground is because the similar charges on the exterior of all atoms causes these objects to repel each other. In Harry Potter we’ve seen the force associated with a spell rustle hair, crack gravestones, and cave in ceilings when spells miss their target. However, this destructive power is not readily seen when spells attain their objective.
When a spell hits its target it performs its intended function (most of the time). The object being charmed floats, the object being transfigured morphs, the person being jinxed trips. Since the interaction of the force does not destroy these objects, as it does when the target is missed, then the magical force must be imbued with the will of the caster. Destruction occurs when the spell attempts to carry out its instructions on an incompatible subject. This means a different, undiscovered, boson must be used to charm, transfigure, jinx and otherwise perform magic. This new boson shall further be dubbed: the Rowliton.
The Goal of Magic
If the Rowliton is the mediator of the magical force it must be determined how this force acts. Magic manifests itself in a myriad of ways. This is appropriate because human thought and emotion manifest themselves in an equally diverse number of ways.
Time and time again we are reminded that witches and wizards must concentrate in order for the magic they are trying to perform to work. Magic is thereby achieved by force of will and it is the caster’s intent which the Rowlitons carry. The force of magic is simply the physical manifestation of that intent.
This is the goal of all magic. It is a means to an end. It is a way for the caster to manipulate the physical world and achieve their aims by will alone. In order for the Rowliton to be instilled with the intent of the caster that intent must exist in one of the same dimensions as the Rowliton. This common dimension is thought, and it is the primary dimension of magic.
The M-theory Conjecture
With these ideas as a foundation it can be speculated how magic works in what is here-in dubbed the “M-theory Conjecture”:
Magic is the manifestation of the un-realized workings of the universe which will eventually be explained, understood, and quantified through M-theory. It is a force generated when beings whose strings vibrate in a dimension or dimensions different from the three typically observed special dimensions attempt to apply their will to people, places, or things in the normal physical world. Thought is the primary dimension through which magic moves and is created. The Rowliton is the boson for the magical force and is imbued with the intent of the caster or other “magical” properties based on the species (plant or animal) generating it. It is a particle similar to the majority of the other force mediating particles currently known. It is described through the vibrations of an open looped string bound to the brane of our local universe. The reason this particle has not yet been observed during high-energy experiments is because it resonates and travels through one or more very small compacted dimension we cannot readily observe.
This view of magic can be extrapolated to explain the numerous and diverse instances of magic in the Harry Potter series.
Spells and Wands
At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry students are taught many subjects including Charms, Transfigurations, and Defense Against the Dark Arts, just to name a few. The primary means of achieving results in these subjects is through the use of a wand. While it is possible for magical people to perform magic without the use of a wand, it is not the most effective way.
When using a wand the caster’s internally generated Rowlitons are focused and amplified through the wand and its magical core. A wand’s combined components, the wood and core, would each have its own magical frequency and would each generate Rowlitons of its own. When these characteristics are highly compatible with the caster’s magical frequency and Rowlitons, the wand will operate much more effectively. It then makes sense that “it’s really the wand chooses the wizard” 15 and why “you will never get such good results with another wizard’s wand.” 16
It should also be noted that not all magical beings require the use of a wand to perform proper magic. This is because magic is not a part of the normal human condition, no matter how much it is a part of our world. These other beings strings either vibrate more fully within the extra dimensions or within more of them, allowing them to generate and apply their Rowlitons more efficiently.
The mixing of potions is similar to the preparation of a recipe or the carrying out of a chemistry experiment. Different ingredients are combined is specific quantities and, sometimes, in a specific order. The means by which these ingredients are combined is also sometimes specified: x number of stirs to the right, this ingredient must be picked at the full moon, allow to simmer for a specific amount of time, etc.
Through the combination of these ingredients and methods the preparer of the potions achieves their magical intent. Different magical ingredients contain or generate Rowlitons in varying degrees and with different natural purposes. By mixing the right ingredients and using proper method, a witch or wizard can use those natural purposes to create powerful magical effects. But change just one ingredient and the potion will fail.
This is not the only way potions gain their desired effect, however. If it were, then any Muggle who obtained a potions book could prepare a magical formulation and have it work properly. We know that is not true. Rowling has confirmed that “... there is a magical component to the potion, not just the ingredients.” 17 This fits perfectly with the idea that the potion must also be combined with the Rowlitons of the witch or wizard creating it.
During the mixing of a potion the instrument being used to blend the ingredients acts in a similar fashion to a wand. It conducts the preparer’s Rowlitons into the potion and adds them as the final magical ingredient. This is why some potions must be stirred a specific number of times in a specific direction at a specific point during their preparation. This type of interaction focuses the preparer in the proper manner thus allowing the potion to be made correctly and the desired effect to be achieved.
The ability for magical beings to travel great distances nearly instantaneously is peppered throughout J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Floo powder, the Knight Bus, Portkeys, and Apparition are all similar in this respect and all operate on basically the same principle. Apparition is the most advanced form of this instant transmission and can, therefore, be used as a base of reference for the other types.
When attempting to Apparate, the witch or wizard must focus on the three D’s of Apparition: “Destination, Determination, Deliberation.” 18 When properly executed, the Apparator feels as though they are “pressed very hard from all directions” 19 or “being squeezed through a thick rubber tube” 20 on their way to their destination. These descriptions are very illuminating and appropriate.
Apparition and similar forms of magical transportation are achievable because the will of the Apparator is sufficiently focused to compress them through one of the compacted dimensions responsible for the magical phenomenon. Apparition is possible because magical beings’ strings vibrate within those extra dimensions and have access to them. The unpleasant experience of leaving body parts behind, or Splinching, “occurs when the mind is insufficiently determined” 21 and only part of the Apparator is transported to their destination.
The process of Apparation is similar for other forms of magical travel. Floo powder is a transportation network set up by able-bodied witches and wizards to allow others to utilize the extra dimensions more readily and with less chance of injury. The Knight Bus is a vehicle which Apparates at the insistence of the driver. A Portkey’s ability to transport a number of people to a specific location is achieved through the determination, deliberation and destination parameters being applied to an inanimate object through the Portus spell.
More There in There
In many cases witches and wizards have the ability to do things with three-dimensional space which are impossible in the Muggle world. Most notable is their ability to expand the volume of the interior of a space without making its external boundaries any larger. This phenomenon is most apparent in wizarding tents and Mr. Weasley’s car. The interiors can be all but cavernous yet “…you’d never know [they were] this roomy from the outside.” 22
Just as Einstein proved that the dimension of time is malleable, speeding up or slowing down depending on the speed of the traveler, so too, the spatial dimensions we normally operate in are likewise pliable. These dimensions are expanded by pushing them into the compacted dimensions of our local universe. By utilizing these extra dimensions, wizards essentially create more space within the same external volume.
Death and the Veil
It was stated earlier that magic has rules. This is part of the reason why it should be explainable by science. While many of the rules are somewhat trivial and have to do with the effective duration of any particular spell there is one rule which is most definitely major: magic cannot bring the dead back to life. This fact is emphasized throughout the Harry Potter series, but even though the dead cannot become properly alive again, they do make numerous appearances.
Interactive portraits of deceased headmasters and headmistresses line the walls of Hogwarts head’s office and ghosts roam the corridors. The first example, the portraits, can be more easily explained by an in-depth look at the second.
The state of becoming and being a ghost was well stated by Nearly Headless Nick:
“Wizards can leave an imprint of themselves upon the earth, to walk palely where their living selves once trod […] I was afraid of death. I chose to remain behind. I sometimes wonder whether I oughtn’t to have…Well, that is neither here nor there…. In fact, I am neither here nor there…. I know nothing of the secrets of death, Harry, for I chose my feeble imitation of life instead.” 23
A number of points from this quote are telling: First, only witches and wizards are able to become ghosts. Second, the dead witch or wizard chooses to stay behind. Finally, in order to stay behind, there must be somewhere else that the dead typically go. Under the context of M-theory more light can be shed on these items.
To begin an analysis one must ask: What happens when the deceased witch or wizard is not intent on remaining in this world? When the natural process of death occurs the strings of the individual vibrate fully within the extra dimensions associated with our local universe. This means that the dead never really leave us, but actually inhabit a portion of our world, an extra dimension or dimensions, which one cannot experience any other way. The place where the dead reside could be considered the “death dimension”.
Since only witches and wizards can come back as ghosts, the magical force must be at work to create one. The force is generated when the dead witch or wizard, as a final act, bends their will and causes their Rowlitons to compel their body and mind to remain part of the normal physical plane. This force causes the strings which make up that person’s physical being to keep from vibrating entirely in the dimensions the dead normally inhabit but to remain partially vibrating in the primary dimensions of our universe. The image of a ghost properly alive people perceive is due to the fact that the ghost’s strings still vibrate as normal in a very minor capacity. When portraits of the deceased are created they are imbued with the essence of the subject because the subject’s Rowlitons have imparted some part of their being to the painting on their way to the dimension of the dead.
The veil in the Death Chamber at the Department of Mysteries is a door to this hidden dimension. When a living witch or wizard moves through the veil their strings are made to vibrate as if they were that of a dead person, in essence killing them, or, more appropriately, transforming them to a state of death. It is unclear how his process would affect Muggles, as their strings do not vibrate within the appropriate alternate dimensions.
Further examples could be cited ad-nauseam; however, conjuring, Legilimency, Occlumency and the myriad of other instances of magic within J.K. Rowling’s world can all be explained by two postulates: Our universe contains more dimensions than the four typically experienced and the force carrier of magic exists, at least partially, within one or more of these dimensions, primarily the dimension of thought.
Is Magic Real?
The idea of magic and its possible explanation is entertaining, but ultimately useless unless M-theory really does turn out to explain our universe. If it does then perhaps there are already phenomenon being observed in the Muggle world which can hint that the magic in Harry Potter’s world is real.
There are already strange scientific questions which M-theory may eventually be able to answer. Evidence of a possible fifth force has arisen in alternative theories of gravity and certain experiments carried out in deep mine shafts, and aboard submarines while deeply submerged.24 This force could account for observations left unexplained by the Standard Model. If a fifth force is already hinted at, then perhaps there is a sixth force or even more.
Muggle science has been investigating apparently strange abilities for decades. In the 1940s, J.B. Rhine found that people concentrating on thrown dice could get the number of their choosing to be rolled a significant number of times more than was expected through normal probability or greater then one in six.25 There were, of course, critics, but this experiment was revised and improved over the years to eliminate methodological defects and still produced positive results. In 1991, Radin and Ferrari performed a study of many such experiments conducted between 1935 and 1987 and concluded that there was evidence that there was a relationship between mental intention and the fall of the dice.26 In 1988, an experiment in which participants attempted to shift the normal bell curve distribution of balls falling through a pegboard to either the right or the left concluded that they were, indeed, able to exert such changes.27
These studies and many more like them show evidence which is eerily similar to magic. The participants in these experiments are producing some sort of force which is manipulating the physical world to the desired outcome through will alone. This lends credence to the existence of the “Rowliton” as a possible force carrier even if it does not operate exactly as proposed herein.
The journey through modern physics’ journey is long and winding. From man’s first attempts to quantify the world he lives in to the strange and wondrous possibilities of M-theory, the voyage has been punctuated by unifications. Newton unified the celestial and the terrestrial. Maxwell unified electricity and magnetism. Einstein unified matter and energy and proposed the ultimate goal of unification. The Standard Model unified newly discovered forces within the atom with electromagnetism.
Now String Theory and its unifier, M-theory, not only have the ability to bring together the very small with the very large but do so much more. Strings vibrating through extra dimensions bound to our own local universe, or brane, have the ability to turn the supernatural to the ordinary. The possibility of a force carrier which makes use of these dimensions, primarily the dimension of thought, and allows magic to manifest itself in the normal physical world is the final ingredient to unify not only the four fundamental forces but the magical with the mundane.
When discussing physics and its fundamental interactions it is helpful to begin at the beginning, that is, with the first attempts to understand and quantify the world around us, and move towards today's understanding of nature. We begin, then, with the first studied interaction: gravitation, or the force of gravity.
What Goes Up
Gravity was the first force to be readily recognized. We interact with it every day. So much, in fact, that it’s taken for granted. Young children learn very quickly that if they trip they fall. When we let go of something we expect it to drop. When we jump we expect to come down.
In the fourth century BC, Aristotle hypothesized that physical bodies fell toward the center of the earth in proportion to their weight.28 In the sixteenth century, Galileo Galilei would challenge this long held belief. Based on his observations and experiments with gravity and motion Galileo stated in his Principle of Inertia that “A body moving on a level surface will continue in the same direction at constant speed unless disturbed.” 29 This idea proved to be so powerful that it would be incorporated into Newton’s Laws of Motion more than one hundred years later.
In the seventeenth century, Sir Isaac Newton would expand considerably upon Galileo’s work in his determination to define the underlying principles which governed the motion of the planets. In 1687, in addition to his Laws of Motion, Newton mathematically defined his Law of Gravitation which states “every particle in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.” 30 With these laws Newton unified the heavens and the earth by realizing that the same force which makes an apple fall to the ground kept the earth and other planets in orbit around the sun.31
The Expanding of Forces
Around the time Newton published his laws Europe was flush with achievements of the Renaissance. Great thinkers and scientists were continuing to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. Physicists now became interested in a few other oddities which they had been observing for quite some time.
A Shocking Event
The electrical phenomenon had been known since ancient times. Though scientific exploration into the force began during the Renaissance, electricity was little more than a curiosity or party trick until after the turn of the eighteenth century.32 Around that time Benjamin Franklin’s theory that lightning and static electricity may be related was the catalyst for a flurry of work which would provide the basis for modern electrical knowledge and technology.33
Electrical charge is a property of certain sub-atomic particles (protons and electrons) which interact with each other through the electrical field.34 Within this field protons and electrons cause attractive and repulsive forces between them which were quantified by Coulomb’s Law.35
Another Attractive (and Repulsive) Force
The origins of another force and the science surrounding it are, fittingly, very similar to electricity.
Magnetism is the phenomenon by which materials exert an attractive or repulsive force on other materials.36 Magnetism was being studied in parallel with electricity and by many of the same people as the two forces were so alike. In 1600 it was proposed by William Gilbert that while both forces were capable of causing attraction and repulsion of objects, they were separate and distinct effects.37
In 1752 Benjamin Franklin first proposed experiments which would begin to forever intertwine electricity and magnetism. This link was first published by Romagnosi, who in 1802 noticed that connecting a wire across a Voltaic pile (battery) could deflect the needle of a nearby compass.38 It was not until 1820, however, when Hans Christian Ørsted attempted a similar experiment (which almost failed) that the phenomenon became widely known.39
Ørsted’s work started physics down the path that would eventually lead them to conclude that electricity and magnetism were, in fact, two halves of the same force: Electromagnetism. Over the next century, various physicists would continue to work on electromagnetism, culminating in the work of James Clerk Maxwell.40 Maxwell’s equations would address the duality of electromagnetism by showing that a changing electrical current created a magnetic field and moving magnet could induce an electrical current.
However, in order to resolve his equations describing electromagnetism, Maxwell was also forced to conclude that light moves at a constant velocity. This was in violation of the Galilean invariance, which was a long standing cornerstone of classical physics.41 The violation would need to be resolved.
Albert Einstein was a Swiss patent clerk with an odd fixation. In his spare (and not so spare) time he would ruminate on the nature of light and gravity. This fixation would lead him to redefine how we understand the universe through two of the most profound works in all of physics.
Einstein’s first revelation came about by the convergence of two ideas. The first was proposed by Galileo in the late 16th century in his principle of relativity. Galileo stated that all motion was relative, and there was no absolute state of rest.42 The second idea was Maxwell’s conclusion that the speed of light is constant. Combining this with Galileo’s principle of relativity Einstein postulated that the speed of light was constant to all observers and that the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames.43
This presents a paradox when we think about it in the standard Newtonian laws which work so well at everyday velocities. Einstein solved this conundrum in 1905 with his Special Theory of Relativity (STR). Simply stated, the STR said that no matter how fast an object travels the speed of light is always constant and that nothing could exceed the speed of light. This results in the conclusion that, if the speed of light is constant, then time (or its rate of passing) must be variable.
Special relativity also gave us the most famous equation in all of physics: “E=mc²” which shows the equivalency of matter and energy.44 Where ‘E’ is energy, ‘m’ is matter and ‘c²’ is the speed of light squared, or times itself. Here we can directly see how much energy is needed to create matter and, conversely, how much energy is released when matter is destroyed.
In one additionally relevant note, another of Einstein’s articles from 1905 described light by postulating that it could be thought of as a type of particle, not a self-propagating wave of electricity and magnetism. This particle, dubbed the photon, contained a distinct amount of energy. This was in contrast to conventional thinking, which stated that light energy was a continuous wave.
Relativity Gets Less Special
After having mathematically proved that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, Einstein ran into a problem with gravity. According to the Newton’s laws gravity acts instantly over any distance, however this meant that since the speed of light is finite and measurable (even if it’s very large) that gravity travels faster than light, which, to Einstein, was impossible. Einstein solved the problem with his Theory of General Relativity (TGR) published in 1916.45 Here Einstein unifies his STR with Newton’s laws of gravitation by concluding that gravitation is not due to a force but is rather a manifestation of curved space and time46 or space-time. Space-time is like a fabric woven of both 3-dimensional space and the single dimension of time. All matter rests on this fabric and it sags or curves in proportion to the mass on an object. This curvature results in gravity. Using this concept allowed Einstein to prove that gravity travels not instantaneously as Newton predicted, but at the same speed as light.
Flush with his success of Special and General Relativity Einstein embarked on his attempt to generalize his theory of gravity further in order to unify and simplify the two known fundamental interactions of gravitation and electromagnetism.47 He referred to this project as the Unified Field Theory (UFT). At first glance the endeavor seemed straightforward enough; gravity and light travel at the same speed and light is a form of electromagnetic radiation governed by the laws of electromagnetism. However, the unification of these two forces proved too difficult and Einstein’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.
Physics Gets Small
While Einstein was attempting to develop his Unified Field Theory, the majority of the physics community was building on his idea of photons, or more specifically, on the idea that energy was released in small packets called “quanta”.
Physicists had long thought that the atom was the smallest unit of matter. In the 1920s came the revelation that the atom was made of the smaller (sub-atomic) units: protons, neutrons and electrons. Each atom is formed by a dense nucleus of protons and neutrons. This nucleus is surrounded by a whirling cloud of electrons. However, with this model of the atom there appeared a problem: How could the nucleus of most atoms remain so tightly packed together when the protons contained therein would try to repel each other, thereby destroying the atom? In trying to answer this and other questions the field of Quantum Mechanics was born.
Quantum mechanics, however, operates quite differently from General Relativity. Instead of an orderly and predictable universe, as Einstein’s theories demand, quantum mechanics operates on probability.48 This means that, according to quantum mechanics, any number of unobserved occurrences are possible if not probable.
Using Quantum Mechanics, physicists found new forces responsible for the atom’s properties and structure: the Strong Force, which binds the nuclei of atoms together49 overpowering the repulsive effects of electromagnetism, and the Weak Force, which is responsible for radioactive decay.50 With these two new interactions the discovery of the fundamental forces was complete.
A New Standard
As before, physics moved towards unity. New theories use two distinct types of particles to model the behavior of objects and forces: fermions, or particles which make up matter, and bosons, which “carry” force.51 In the 1940s Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) was developed to describe all phenomena involving electrically charged particles interacting by means of exchange of photons.52 Physicists then showed how the weak force and QED could be merged. For the first time two of the four fundamental forces, electromagnetism and the weak interaction, were merged into a single force known as the electroweak interaction.53
QED served as a role model to subsequently develop Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD)54 which models the strong force and described the interaction which binds the nucleus of atoms together. Then, between 1970 and 1973, physicists unified the early work in QCD with QED into what is known as the Standard Model.55 This single theory of particle physics now described the strong, weak, and electromagnet forces as well as all the fundamental particles which make up matter.56
The Return of Einstein
The quest for unification now turned toward Quantum Gravity or Theory of Everything (ToE). Quantum Gravity was a field of theoretical physics which attempted to unify the Standard Model with General Relativity bringing together the four fundamental forces under a single theory.57 This is in essence what Einstein was attempting to do when he was working on his Unified Field Theory.
As before, however, unification was too difficult to come by. The problem was that the Standard Model and General Relativity both look at the world in two distinctly different ways.58 In order to fill one of the gaps in the Standard Model a hypothetical particle which mediates the force of gravity, called the graviton, was postulated.59 Gravitons must have very specific properties in order to fit into the Standard Model, but when a particle with these properties was folded into the equations of the Standard Model the results were completely nonsensical. A possible solution has arisen, however, and the implications are wilder than anyone had ever thought possible.
A String Thing
In the late 1960s and early 1970s a theory was developed that explained the behavior of particles which experience the strong nuclear force.60 This new theory was based on a quantum mechanical model of strings,61 but was eventually abandoned as the theory of QCD gained experimental support.62
During the mid-1970s it was discovered that the same mathematical formulation which described the abandoned theory for the strong force, that of strings, could be used to describe the particle which met the Standard Model with so much resistance, the graviton.63 Soon the formulation was extended to describe all the elementary particles and their interactions.64 This led physicists to flock to this new “String Theory” in the hope of unifying all of physics.
String Theory is a model of physics whose building blocks are not zero-dimensional points, as in the Standard Model, but one-dimensional strings.65 These strings can move and vibrate just as the strings on a violin. And just as on a violin different frequencies result in different notes in string theory the different vibrations are the different elementary particles of physics.66 As the physics community delved deeper into the math of string theory it evolved into “Superstring Theory”, but there was a problem… or ten.
In order for the strings in Superstring Theory to move properly they had to exist in ten (yes, 10!) dimensions. Nearly all accepted theories in physics up to this point only took into account the four dimensions we encounter every day: three dimensions of space and one of time. However, string theory’s promise of uniting the four fundamental forces was so alluring that many physicists were able to look past this peculiarity. Then, just as string theorists were coming to grips with the ten dimensions, there was another problem: there appeared to be not one, not even two, but five separate superstring theories!
Witten to the Rescue
Despite these apparent flaws string theory limped forward. It was thought that of the five “candidate” theories one would eventually turnout to be the actual Theory of Everything.67 However, peculiar similarities between some of the five theories, called dualities, were noticed. These dualities linked quantities that were thought to be separate. That was the state of string theory until 1995 when Edward Witten exploited the dualities in the string theories and combined the five theories into one colossal new theory: M-theory.
M-theory is not yet a complete theory; however it can be applied in many situations. This is similar to the state electromagnetism was in during the mid-nineteenth century; there were separate theories of electricity and magnetism and, although they were known to be related, the relationship was not clear until Maxwell published his equations.68 And just as Maxwell changed the world with his equations M-theory has possibly far reaching consequences.
1. Wikipedia, s.v. “Magic (paranormal).”
2. Ibid., s.v. “Physics.”
3. Dictionary.com, s.v. “matter.”
4. Ibid., s.v. “force.”
5. Wikipedia, s.v. “Fundamental interaction.”
6. Nova: Elegant Universe.
7. Wikipedia, s.v. “String theory.”
10. Ibid., s.v. “M-theory.”
12. Nova: Elegant Universe.
14. Nova: Elegant Universe.
15. Rowling, Sorcerer's Stone, 82.
16. Ibid., 84.
17. “Evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp.”
18. Rowling., Half-Blood Prince, 384.
19. Ibid., 58.
20. Ibid., 554.
21. Ibid., 385.
22. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 66.
23. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 861.
24. Wikipedia, s.v. “Fifth force.”
25. Rhine, Mind over Matter.
26. Radin & Ferrari, “Effect of consciousness,” 61-83.
27. Dunne, Nelson, & Jahn, "Operator-related anomalies,” 155-80.
28. Wikipedia, s.v. “Gravitation.”
31. Nova: Elegant Universe.
36. Wikipedia, s.v. “Magnetism.”
37. Ibid., s.v. “Electromagnetism.”
42. Ibid., s.v. “Special relativity.”
45. Ibid., s.v. “General relativity.”
47. Ibid., s.v. “Albert Einstein.”
48. Nova: Elegant Universe.
49. Wikipedia, s.v. “Strong interaction.”
50. Ibid., s.v. “Weak interaction.”
51. Ibid., s.v. “Standard Model.”
52. Ibid., s.v. “Quantum electrodynamics.”
53. Ibid., s.v. “Electroweak interaction.”
55. Ibid., s.v. “Standard model.”
57. Ibid., s.v. “Quantum gravity.”
58. Ibid., s.v. “Theory of everything.”
59. Ibid., s.v. “Graviton.”
60. Ibid., s.v. “String theory.”
66. Nova: Elegant Universe.
67. Wikipedia, s.v. “String theory.”
68. Ibid., s.v. “M-theory.”
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Radin, D., & Ferrari, D. “Effect of consciousness on the fall of dice: A meta-analysis.” Journal of Scientific Exploration 5, no. 2 (1991): 61-83.
Rhine, L.E. Mind over Matter. New York: Macmillian, 1970.
Rowling, J.K. “An Evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp: Readings and questions #1,” 1 August 2006. Transcript, Quick Quotes Quill. http://www.quick-quote-quill.org/articles/2006/0801-radiocityreading1.html (accessed 25 September 2006).
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———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.
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