The Elegant Universe

During the last thirty years of his life, Albert Einstein sought relentlessly for a so-called unified field theory - a theory capable of describing nature's forces within a single, all-encompassing, coherent framework. Einstein was not motivated by the things we often associate with scientific undertakings, such as trying to explain this or that piece of experimental data. Instead, he was driven by a passionate belief that the deepest understanding of the universe would reveal its truest wonder: the simplicity and power of the principles on which it is based. Einstein wanted to illuminate the workings of the universe with a clarity never before achieved, allowing us all to stand in awe of its sheer beauty and elegance.

Einstein never realized this dream, in large part because the deck was stacked against him: In his day, a number of essential features of matter and the forces of nature were either unknown or, at best, poorly understood. But during the past half-century, physicists of each new generation - through fits and starts, and diversions down blind alleys - have been building steadily on the discoveries of their predecessors to piece together an ever fuller understanding of how the universe works. And now, long after Einstein articulated his quest for a unified theory but came up empty-handed, physicists believe they have finally found a framework for stitching these insights together into a seamless whole - a single theory that, in principle, is capable of describing all physical phenomena. The theory, superstring theory, is the subject of this book. I wrote The Elegant Universe in an attempt to make the remarkable insights emerging from the forefront of physics research accessible to a broad spectrum of readers, especially those with no training in mathematics or physics. Through public lectures on superstring theory I have given over the past few years, I have witnessed a widespread yearning to understand what current research says about the fundamental laws of the universe, how these laws require a monumental restructuring of our conception of the cosmos, and what challenges lie ahead in the ongoing quest for the ultimate theory. I hope that, by explaining the major achievements of physics going back to Einstein and Heisenberg, and describing how their discoveries have grandly flowered through the breakthroughs of our age, this book will both enrich and satisfy this curiosity.

I also hope that The Elegant Universe will be of interest to readers who do have some scientific background. For science students and teachers, I hope this book will crystallize some of the foundational material of modern physics, such as special relativity, general relativity, and quantum mechanics, while conveying the contagious excitement of researchers closing in on the long-sought unified theory. For the avid reader of popular science, I have tried to explain many of the exhilarating advances in our understanding of the cosmos that have come to light during the last decade. And for my colleagues in other scientific disciplines, I hope this book will give an honest and balanced sense of why string theorists are so enthusiastic about the progress being made in the search for the ultimate theory of nature.

Superstring theory casts a wide net. It is a broad and deep subject that draws on many of the central discoveries in physics. Since the theory unifies the laws of the large and of the small, laws that govern physics out to the farthest reaches of the cosmos and down to the smallest speck of matter, there are many avenues by which one can approach the subject. I have chosen to focus on our evolving understanding of space and