Concepts familiar from grade-school algebra have broad ramifications in computer science.
MIT physics professors Walter Lewin, Edward H. Farhi and Alan Guth are featured in NOVA's "The Elegant Universe," a three-hour miniseries to be broadcast on WGBH on Tuesday, Oct. 28 from 8-10 p.m. and Tuesday, Nov. 4 from 8-9 p.m.
Lewin will appear several times in the first hour of the series in a "virtual room" created especially for the show.
The series is hosted by Brian Greene, string theorist and author of the bestselling book, "The Elegant Universe." He is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University.
NOVA uses extensive computer animation to explain string theory, which may be the long-sought "theory of everything" that eluded Einstein.
Also known as superstring theory, the idea is that the fundamental ingredients of nature are inconceivably tiny strings of energy, whose different modes of vibration underlie everything that happens in the universe. The theory attempts to unite the laws of the large (general relativity) with the laws of the small (quantum mechanics).
According to NOVA, if string theory proves correct, "the universe we see obscures a reality that is far more rich and subtle than anyone ever imagined--a universe with numerous hidden dimensions, a universe in which the fabric of space can tear, a universe that may be but one of many parallel universes ceaselessly popping in and out of existence throughout eternity."
The first hour of the show, "The Elegant Universe: Einstein's Dream," introduces string theory and shows how modern physics is composed of two incompatible theories: general relativity and quantum mechanics. The conflict between the two has stymied scientists. Einstein, who discovered general relativity, dreamed of finding a single theory that would embrace all of nature's laws.
The show's second hour, "The Elegant Universe: String's the Thing," opens with a whimsical scene in a movie theater in which the history of the universe is run backwards to the Big Bang, the moment at which general relativity and quantum mechanics both come into play.
Greene describes the serendipitous steps that led from a forgotten 200-year-old mathematical formula to the first glimmerings of strings--quivering strands of energy whose different vibrations give rise to quarks, electrons, photons and all other elementary particles.
Program three, "The Elegant Universe: Welcome to the 11th Dimension," shows how in 1995 Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study, aided by others, revolutionized string theory by successfully uniting the five different versions into a single theory that is cryptically named "M-theory," a development that required a total of eight additional dimensions beyond the three familiar ones.
For more information, see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 22, 2003.