icon-email icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-print icon-rss icon-search icon-stumbleupon icon-twitter icon-arrow-right icon-email icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-print icon-rss icon-search icon-stumbleupon icon-twitter icon-arrow-right icon-user Skip to content
Senior Correspondent

String Theory is the result of physicists daring to ask the audacious question "how does the universe work?" of physicists wanting to craft a Theory of Everything. Newton, Einstein, Bohrs, Hawking; they all were fixated on discovering one set of rules, ideally, one formula that could explain all phenomena. And they made, and are making, wonderful progress. 

However, they all also made a frustrating discovery. Truth is a moving target. To explain "everything", to tell the "truth" about the universe is to accurately define reality. That is a tall order.  New technologies, evolving processes keep expanding our view of reality — literally increasing what we can see. Still, occasionally, we sift a nugget from the shifting stream of reality, a nugget of “truth” about the universe, that seems to hold still for us. The speed of light has held stable despite some very clever efforts to leap ahead of it, or hinder it with varying vacuums, lasers, mirrors and what not. We still haven't found an exception to the assertion that the speed of light is exactly 299,792,458 meters per second.  And that is how we usually come to declare "truth," — backwards if you will. We fail to find the single instance that disproves the asserted "truth."

Such instances are incredibly rare especially when we realize that in science — in any academic discipline — you make your reputation by proving someone else wrong. You demonstrate that your story about whatever you are studying is better than the other stories being told about the universe, or caffeine, or red meat, or video games, or prejudice, or Shakespeare — whatever you are seeking to be known as "expert in."

So when we seek to understand the "truth" of existence, the "reality" of the universe, we enter the very fuzzy world of competitive storytelling among experts. In that world, the academic world, my world, expertise most often comes wrapped in layers of complexity, woven in languages that only other experts in that field can truly grasp. It is an incestuous ritual that leaves the rest of us peering, a best, through a darkling glass stretched uncomfortably between callow acceptance or willful ignorance.  

There is I believe, another option: To find truth, we hunt the white crow. It is actually rather simple. If someone advances the idea that "all crows are black" it takes only a single white crow to disprove the idea. String theory came into being in the waning years of the 20th century when physicists and mathematicians and cosmologists stirred up a whole flock of white crows. To go back, as the 1800s turned into the 1900s, Einstein shepherded general relativity onto center stage describing how the universe was expanding at undreamed of distances and rates. Meanwhile, a few decades into the century Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Bohr peeked out of the other end of the telescope, exploring the tiny world of particle physics, and began to advance the cause of quantum mechanics. Both camps were reporting solid, defensible results when the white crows took to the wing. Greene, in The Elegant Universe, describes the realization in these words.

"As they are currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right. The two theories underlying the tremendous progress of physics during the last hundred years — progress that has explained the expansion of the heavens and the fundamental structure of matter — are mutually incompatible." p. 3. 

In other words, if the math that described the universe through the eyes of one perspective was right, then the math that described the universe from the other perspective had to be wrong. Talk about a white crow! It was at that point that the mathematicians rolled up their sleeves and hammered out the differences between those two very elegant theories; and string theory was the — in my mind — even more beautiful result. Beautiful? Yes, because one of the conclusions of string theory is that everything in existence, including you and me, is made of music. That is a bit of a teaser. If you want to wade a little more deeply in the waters of string theory, click over to the resources page. My book, String Theory in the Landscape of the Heart, is a humanist's take on string theory while Greene's The Elegant Universe is, as I have said before, a physicist's explanation of string theory for the serious lay reader.

Neither, however, meet my objectives for this simplifying distillation. Rather, here are the relevant assertions of string theory that inform Distilled Harmony. I have been following them quite closely in the humanities, and in the scientific and popular literature for the last 10 or 15 years. I have yet to see a single white feather among them. You, of course will have to judge for yourself.

First, the smallest thing in the universe is a tiny vibrating string. We are, in all likelihood, unable to comprehend how small that is, just as the immensity of the universe lies beyond our imagining. That is, actually, not important. What is important is to understand that the string has no component parts. To ask "But what are strings made of" asks us to define an absurdity. The string is the smallest thing in the universe and it vibrates. In our experiential world, a vibrating string, no matter how small, makes music.

Second, strings are attracted to other harmonic strings, and they are repelled by strings that vibrate in discord with their rate of vibration.

Third, all larger entities — which means everything else in the universe, mice, moles, men, mountains, the moon — are at their most fundamental level constructions of harmonic strings.

Fourth, harmony is the natural, preferred state of existence, which, by definition, makes discord transient and undesirable.

The other major concept of string theory that is central to Distilled Harmony is symmetry. Symmetry simply asserts that the universe is consistent; that harmony dominates throughout the universe. Hence, while harmony may be manifested differently in the varying and far-flung reaches of the universe, that manifestation will, at string level, remain harmonic. 

It is at this point that we need to shift focus from what "is" to "what it means." And that transition is what has often led us to the false dichotomy between physics and metaphysics, between philosophy and science, theology and technology, between geeks and jocks — all those distinctions are all illusions. There is no functional division between knowing what "is" and understanding how we should live and behave in accordance with that knowledge. "What it is" and "what it means" are one. 

But as we shift our focus to different aspects of the whole, I feel obligated to spend just a moment on the difference between confidence and certainty. I mentioned early in this presentation that truth is a moving target. It would be arrogant to assume that Distilled Harmony is an exception to that assertion, to presume that I am "certain" about the behavioral tenets of Distilled Harmony. Rather, I would say that I am quite confident that they are trustworthy. The difference is, I believe, significant.

The road to intolerance is paved with "certainty." When one becomes "certain" that they are right about something, it becomes acceptable to beat others "less perceptive than you" into submission and drag them onto the path defined by your certainty. That way lies war and madness.  Confidence, on the other hand, means we move ahead on the path of our lives guided by what we feel are trustworthy insights into the nature of the universe — but we always keep an eye out for a white crow. 

Distilled Harmony provides these guideposts on our path — Foster Harmony, Enable Beauty, Distill Complexity, and Oppose Harm. They are the behavioral mandates that follow from the string theory based assumption that harmony is the natural state of the universe. In my next presentation I'll tackle the first and most fundamental of those guideposts: Foster Harmony.

Stay Up to Date

Sign up for articles by Robert Schrag and other Senior Correspondents.

Latest Stories

Choosing Senior Living
Love Old Journalists

Our Mission

To amplify the voices of older adults for the good of society

Learn More