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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