Newly Spun Science Of String Theory Now Starting To Entangle the Imaginations of Writers, Moviemakers

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For the past twenty years, theoretical physicists have been reimagining the fundamental building blocks of the universe. The latest, greatest theory of everything, string theory, suggests that the smallest subatomic particles are actually composed of tiny vibrating strings. String theory has already captured the imagination of a significant part of the physics community. Now it is starting to surface in works of fiction as well, including Xiao En’s "The Empire Menaced," the "unauthorized autobiography" of Darth Vader.

Strings, branes, and cosmic bounce. For the past twenty years, theoretical physicists in academic think tanks have been reimagining the fundamental building blocks of the universe. The latest, greatest theory of everything, string theory, suggests that the smallest particles in the universe, what physicists call 'quanta'--such as quarks, photons, and neutrinos--are actually composed of tiny vibrating strings. The vibrational pattern of the strings determines what kind of particles manifest in space and time. String theory attempts to reconcile Einstein's theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics. General relativity deals with the interaction of very large bodies in the universe, such as planets and stars, while quantum mechanics describes the subatomic realm. But the mathematics underlying the two explanations of the universe conflict significantly.

String theory promises to offer us a grand unified theory that both reconciles those mathematical inconsistencies and also provides a deeply satisfying vision of the universe. But string theory has yet to be proven: since the vast majority of strings are so small--less than 1 Planck length or 10(–33) centimeters--no one has been able to actually observe a string in nature, even with the massive particle accelerators that are the stock and trade of high energy physicists.

Still, string theory has captured the imagination of a significant contingent of the theoretical physics community. And now thanks in large part to the efforts of Brian Greene, Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University, string theory is now seeping into public consciousness. In his two bestselling books, The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, Greene presents string theory to a non-technical audience using thoughtful, easy-to-understand analogies and avoiding the complex mathematics that underlies the theory. Following the success of The Elegant Universe, NOVA produced a documentary of the same name that highlights its key ideas. The DVD is hosted by Greene himself and its success has afforded string theory an even wider audience.

In addition to being the DVD rental of choice for those college kids eager to marvel at the vastness of the universe during midnight bong sessions, string theory is now popping up in works of fiction. The main character of the play Humble Boy, a 2002 sleeper hit by Charlotte Jones, is a theoretical physicist who lectures at Cambridge University. String theory ideas--actually, concise paraphrasing of passages from The Elegant Universe--are sprinkled throughout Felix Humble’s monologues. String theory also gets a mention in the recent surprise hit indie movie, What the bleep do we know!?, which tells the story of protagonist Amanda as "her daily, uninspired life literally begins to unravel, revealing the uncertain world of the quantum field hidden behind what we consider to be our normal, waking reality." Interspersed throughout the narrative, "fourteen top scientists and mystics interviewed in documentary style serve as a modern day Greek Chorus".

But string theory is so relatively new and so little is understood about its mind-boggling complexities even among the mainstream scientific community, that its use by artists can only be seen as superficial at best. Its literary debut is perhaps just "fashionable nonsense", a term coined by Alan Sokal, Professor of Physics at NYU, to ridicule intellectuals who make use of complex and context-specific scientific theories as stylistic adornments to their often obscurantist prose. But just as quantum theory captured the imagination of postmodern intellectuals in the 70’s and 80’s, string theory is certain to become ever more prominent on the literary scene as the new century unfolds.

The most thorough attempt to integrate string theory ideas into a work of literature must be credited to Xiao En’s The Empire Menaced, a high concept parody of the Star Wars saga, including Episode III that claims to be the "unauthorized autobiography" of Darth Vader. The narrator, Dearth Nadir, employs the string theory concept of a 'Calabi-Yau manifold' as a structural device in the plot itself. According to Greene, most strings exist in only one dimension, hence the name 'string:' an infinitesimally thin filament vibrating at an incredibly high tension. But strings can also exist in more than one dimension. Physicists call these multi-dimensional strings, 'branes.' Some branes exist not just in the three dimensions of space and one dimension of time that we are familiar with, but in seven additional space-time dimensions. Within these extra dimensions, branes form intricately enfolded shapes that resemble a complex geometrical model conceived by the mathematicians Eugenio Calabi and Shing-Tung Yau. These spaces are often called Calabi-Yau spaces or manifolds. The Empire Menaced narrative, in a mimetic gesture, also takes on an intricately tangled, non-linear shape.

"The Empire Menaced doesn’t merely parrot cutting-edge scientific theories," said Xiao En, "it pokes fun at sci-fi pseudo-science, the distortions of science by pop culture, especially Star Wars. It’s also, of course, a social satire." Read more about The Empire Menaced, including excerpts, a bio of Xiao En, and an article entitled, "To menace an empire: the cultural politics of adapting the Star Wars franchise" at

For more information on the works mentioned above, consult the following links:

The Fabric of the Cosmos: space, time, and the texture of reality, by Brian Greene:

The Elegant Universe: superstrings, hidden dimensions, and the quest for the ultimate theory, by Brian Greene:

Brian Greene's homepage at Columbia University:

The Empire Menaced: the unauthorized autobiography of Dearth Nadir, by Xiao En:

Humble Boy, a play by Charlotte Jones:

What the Bleep Do We Know!?, by directors Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente:

Fashionable Nonsense: postmodern intellectuals' abuse of science, by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont:


Xiao En

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