Trip Epipha­nies: visu­al­is­ing String The­o­ry whilst off your nut

The notoriously complex concept that replaces particles with vibrating strings working across a ten-dimensional universe – as envisaged by an acid tripper with a B+ Physics GCSE.

As Ein­stein once said, If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t under­stand it your­self.” A bold claim from the man who thought up gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty (sad­ly, he didn’t live long enough to stand by against the mind-fuck­ing­ly dif­fi­cult string theory). 

Hailed as the best hope for a uni­fied the­o­ry of every­thing” (ie a physics frame­work that explains, well, every­thing from atoms and all the weird thingy-me-bobs in them, through to explod­ing stars and galax­ies), string the­o­ry is a body of ideas that Shel­don Coop­er grap­pled with for 12 (long) sea­sons of Big Bang The­o­ry, and one which so many sci­en­tists have called out for its com­plex­i­ties that it’s almost deemed use­less.

Sam* got a B+ in GCSE sci­ence. She remem­bers learn­ing about cir­cuits, and is pret­ty sure that speed, dis­tance and time are con­nect­ed in some way. Sam has tak­en acid more times that she can count, but doesn’t do it that reg­u­lar­ly – only on spe­cial occa­sions and at the odd fes­ti­val. On a trip, Sam* once saw some­thing that sound­ed kin­da like string the­o­ry, so we got a The­o­ret­i­cal Physi­cist from a top red brick Uni­ver­si­ty to tell The Face just how far off she was. 


Drug: LSD

Amount tak­en: 2/​3rds of a tab

We [Sam and her part­ner] start­ed by see­ing pat­terns and oth­er nor­mal visu­als that you’d see whilst on acid. Then all of a sud­den it was like we had unlocked a new lev­el of visu­als. It’s hard to explain. It was like a very thin lay­er that’s almost trans­par­ent, but you could see it over everything. 

When I looked into the lay­er, I saw pipe-like lines mak­ing up a pat­tern. It was so thin, like tiny, vibrat­ing strings. You could only see it when it was against some­thing. They made up these inter­lock­ing pat­terns – a bit like a hexa­gon but it changed as you looked at it. You could see it mov­ing, it was like ener­gy was pass­ing through it.”

Theoretical Professor, speciality string theory:

When you nor­mal­ly think of physics, you think of elec­trons and quarks and par­ti­cles. They don’t have any struc­ture to them, just a point. In quan­tum physics it’s a fuzzy point, but it’s a point nonetheless. 

In string the­o­ry, the idea is that you replace the point by lines – lit­tle strings. They can either be closed strings like lit­tle loops, or open strings like shoe laces. You have to study this as a quan­tum the­o­ry, and in a quan­tum the­o­ry they have to vibrate – they can’t sit still.

Imag­ine a vio­lin string – when it vibrates it pro­duces notes, and in string the­o­ry, the notes are the par­ti­cles. These objects vibrate in a ten dimen­sion­al space­time. Nine spaces and one time dimension. 

Your friend’s trans­par­ent lay­er’ sounds more like a cel­lu­lar struc­ture. Like walls of a cell, or something.

With dimen­sions the whole idea is that because they’re all the same – like, when you move your arm you’re mov­ing it around in three dimen­sions. This the­o­ry pre­dicts there would be an extra six dimen­sions. If you moved your arm around in them they’d be the same. This the­o­ry says there are anoth­er six dimen­sions that we don’t per­ceive you could move your arm through.” 


Sam* got string the­o­ry right in the way that she saw vibrat­ing strings. As for the thin, translu­cent lay­er hov­er­ing around dif­fer­ent objects – it prob­a­bly wasn’t one of the ten extra dimensions.

*Names have been changed.

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