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Children’s books have a unique opportunity to present new scientific ideas into the minds of young people. This was the challenge we took on with the assigned topic of String Theory in our Visualizing Physics class in the Spring of 2009. With themes and characters taken from the popular Alice in Wonderlandstory, by Lewis Carroll, Alice in Stringland follows young Alice in a more modern time-period as she journeys through new ideas and concepts taught in her science class. We hope to create a sense of awe in people, young and old, for the world around us is a constantly changing wonderland, filled with new discoveries and adventures.
O nce upon a warm spring day, Alice looked out the window of her eighth grade science class, wanting nothing more than to be playing outside. Her best friend Ryan sat beside her and he too stared out the window longing for the sun and grass. Inside, today’s subject was String Theory, some hot new idea in the science world. Unfortunately, science was not Alice’s favorite class, as she would much rather be out on an adventure. ”Alice! Get your head out of the clouds and back into the classroom!” Ms. Heart said as she interrupted Alice’s daydream, “Can you tell me what a string is and why it’s important?” her teacher added. Alice shrugged and replied, “I don’t know, it’s used to stitch clothing together…” Everyone laughed and Alice couldn’t help but smirk as Ms. Heart tried to regain control of the class. “Well, hopefully your textbook is more interesting than the sound of my voice because you will all be reading chapter 9 tonight to prepare for the quiz. See you all tomorrow afternoon.” said Ms. Heart as she closed the textbook. Alice and her classmates groaned as the bell rang and class was dismissed.
With textbook in hand, Alice walked across the street to the park where she found a shady spot under a tree to relax in. Opening her book to chapter 9 she began to read words like ‘one-dimensional oscillating lines’ and ‘quarks’ when suddenly she saw a flash from out of the corner of her eye. Curious, and grateful for the distraction, Alice got up and ran after what appeared to be a small, quickly moving creature. When she got close enough she saw that the creature was a rabbit in a strange red coat with even stranger markings on it.
Without warning, the rabbit disappeared into a deep dark black hole. Alice tried to stop running, but not soon enough. She was sucked into the black hole in a flash. “This is just like what happens when you get too close to the black holes that Ms. Heart was talking about in class the other day!” Alice thought, “Once you pass the event horizon you can never escape it,” she repeated back to herself exactly as Ms. Heart had taught it. Steadily, she fell faster and faster and the light and images around her seemed to warp and bend into the most peculiar display of colors and patterns that she had ever seen. Finally, she saw a large bright white light emerge from the kaleidoscope of colors. The hole seemed to have no bottom, and in fact, she came right back out on the other side! Alice found herself in a totally different land, unlike any she had read about in textbooks or seen on television.
The landscape before her was that of a beautiful garden and nearby, she saw the most elegant table setting with a plate of elaborately decorated cookies frosted to say “Eat Me” and a mysterious vial of liquid labeled “Drink Me”. Alice picked up a cookie in one hand and the vial in another saying to herself, “Well, I am quite hungry, I’m sure whoever left these out here won’t mind if I just take one cookie.” She took a bite and as she chewed Alice felt herself growing. She grew to such an immense size that she saw the whole entire planet shrink below her own feet. Alice looked around herself to see stars, planets, and a vast amount of empty space. Then from the cloud of a beautiful nebula appeared a cat-like face. Smiling at her, it spoke. “Hello, my dear! My name is Neb. Welcome to the Sea of Relativity! Nothing is as it seems here!” “Looks a bit like outer space to me,” thought Alice. Just then, Alice saw what looked to be a rocket speeding by in front of Neb. However, there was something different about it. It appeared distorted and squished. “That rocket is going so fast!” said Alice. “But it looks so strange--nothing like the rockets I’ve seen before.” Neb smiled at her patiently. “Ah, but you see my dear, to the pilot of the rocket, you are the one moving fast and you, in fact, look just as strange and squished to him!” said the grinning cat. “But how can that be? I’m not moving at all!” Alice exclaimed.
“It is called length contraction my dear girl. In Relativity, length contraction is more noticeable the closer an object gets to the speed of light, and out here it’s the law to go at or as near the speed of light as possible!” the cat began to explain, “That rocket ship is going nearly 670 million miles per hour, which is the speed of light, and so to you it seems that it is shrinking but the length change is only relative to the person observing it. See, to the pilot he is standing still and you are the one moving near the speed of light and so you are the one whose length has contracted! It’s all crazy I know, but the world is a pretty crazy place! You’ve just simply never gone fast enough to see it happen before.” As she pondered what she had just heard, Alice began to get a bit lightheaded. “Oh my,” she thought as she put her hand to her forehead, “a drink of water is what I need.” Then she remembered the vial of liquid she picked up earlier in the garden, took it out of her pocket, and took a sip of the mysterious sweet liquid. “Well that wasn’t water,” she thought to herself as she looked again at the label. She felt herself shrink down, smaller and smaller, all the way down to a microscopic level, and into another foreign world. As she looked around at her surroundings, Alice noticed a curious looking caterpillar floating toward her. But it didn’t seem to float like a leaf, or a wave of light like Ms. Heart had shown in class, or even in the way she began floating into that black hole, which now seemed like forever ago. The caterpillar continued to float towards her in this manner for a bit, but then, just before getting close enough to speak to, it disappeared!
Just as suddenly as it had disappeared, it reappeared in another spot, floated, and then disappeared again. “Well this is very unusual,” thought Alice. And then, in front of her very eyes, it appeared in two spots at the same time! Unsure of what to make of this she closed and rubbed her eyes with her hands, hoping that when she reopened them things would appear normal again. Alas, now it was not just the caterpillar acting in this strange manner, but everything was now popping in and out of sight! “How can this be?” wondered Alice, “How can so many weird things happen at once that I have never before witnessed?” “Excuse me sir, but where am I?” she asked the caterpillars. They bowed their heads with certain sympathy, disappeared, and then reappeared as one again in front of her. “This place is quite strange!” she continued. “Nothing stays in one place very long and even I feel like I’m about to jump from here to the other side of you at any moment.” “Madam” began the caterpillar, “My name is Moe and this is where the smallest things imaginable reside. Here you are 10 billion times smaller than you normally are. This is the bay of Quantum Mechanics. Nothing is as it seems here! Here, matter, which is what everything is made of, can act as both a wave and as a particle but it all depends on whether or not you’re watching it. While you are looking, the matter will appear as a particle, but when you are not looking, it behaves as a wave.” Moe explained. And, as he did, Alice began to notice that this caterpillar looked somewhat similar to the strange molecule-like symbol on the rabbit’s vest. “This day just gets more curious by the minute,” Alice pondered.Moe laughed, “Ah, that’s just it, madam! You can’t! The particles of things here jump wherever they want and with no reason! If you look at your own feet, for example, you will see that you are not stationary on the ground either!” Alice looked down to see that the caterpillar was right. She was floating in the same strange blinking manner herself!
“This just doesn’t make any sense! How can these strange places I’ve been to today be made up of such things that follow none of the physical laws I have ever seen and instead have rules all their own? How can a rocket ship shrink in front of my eyes? How can a particle act like a wave when you don’t look but be a particle when you look at it? I wish to return to my world; maybe someone up there can help me understand!” With that, the caterpillar floated half of the orb that he had been eating over to Alice, “Eat that and you will return to your normal size. It was grown for you in my very own garden. It should do what you are expecting it to do, but you never know!” Alice took a bite out of the mysterious orb of matter, hoping the day didn’t get any weirder and immediately found her back to normal size and in the beautiful garden. This time, however, she left the cookies and vials alone, deciding instead to try to make her way home.While walking through the garden she came across a festive party in progress. It seemed, from the oddities in front of her, that she was still far from home. As she walked closer to the party she saw a short, funny-looking man in a tan suit with a large black hat on his head that was almost as big as he was. And there at the end of the table was the rabbit having tea with them, the same one that had led her into this whole mess in the first place. She recognized the strange symbol on his vest. They were seated at a long table, with mismatched tea sets scattered across it and various types of elaborately decorated cookies and cakes. “Excuse me, sirs. May I join you?” asked Alice. “I’ve had such a strange adventure today and I’m not quite sure I can make much sense of any of it…” she said politely, hoping this new acquaintance would help her sort out the events of the day and explain who the strange rabbit creature was too. “No room! No room!” The oddly dressed man exclaimed as he sang and toasted his tea with the others. “Oh but there are plenty of empty chairs here, no need to be so rude.” Alice retorted as she took a spot at the end of the table nearest the man with the
large hat, determined to find out more about the rabbit. “Hmm, quite right. Quite right after all my dear,” the man mumbled as he stopped his singing and looked around at the chairs. Coming to rest his gaze on Alice sitting at the head of the table he said finally, “My name is Theory, Mr. M. Theory. And what is your name, young lady?” he asked as he sat back and sipped his tea most properly now. Alice replied, “My name is Alice sir. May I call you by your first name as well Mr. Theory? What does the “M” stand for?” In response, M. Theory’s eyes lit up. He jumped from his chair onto the table in one fantastic leap, smiling and shouting “Master, Mathematical, Mother, Mystery, Membrane, Magic, Matrix, or even Murky!!! Any of these. Or none of these. Who knows? That’s not important. What is important is the story behind the name!” He pulled a photo out from his wallet, he showed it to Alice. The photo was the strangest of all places that she had seen today! The landscape was like a vast ocean with tiny little molecules floating in it, and not just that but popping in and out of sight on the photo, like the cat nebula had done before her very eyes earlier! “I was born,” he continued, “in a little place called String Theory, an overlap of the Sea of Relativity and the Bay of Quantum Theory. Our floating town was quite prosperous too, due to the great and vast ocean that surrounded it and all its wealth of resources that we shared! Bringing the small and the large together, we united Relativity with Quantum Theory to make one great metropolis, the Unified Theory of Everything, or String Theory, as we called it!” “I’ve heard of both of these places today. They had such different rules though, how can the two exist at the same time in the same place when they are so different, it doesn’t make any sense to me?” said Alice. “Oh but it does make sense my dear, you just need to visualize it in the right fashion.” M. Theory began, “For example, the great and vast ocean surrounding String Theory ripples with waves being caused by time moving across the
surface.”The ocean is a continuous field and the ripples are distinct. Both exist, am I right??” M asked. “Well yes, of course they do.” Alice replied, trying to follow and visualize the story as best she could. M.Theory went on, “Relativity is that ocean and Quantum Theory is represented by those ripples. They both exist independently and can be described separately but co-exist within the same world in the same place at the same time. In fact, everything in our entire universe operates this very same manner as well, even where you live, even where everyone lives in fact, it’s just that some people refuse to see it. You have to choose to see it to recognize it.” Just then, the rabbit, who had been nervously picking at his cake and sipping his tea, gently set both down on the table, turned and leaped off his chair and began running down a path behind her. Alice turned to follow him and thanked her host for the tea and story, and as she did so apologized for having to leave in such a rush. Turning a corner she ran straight into a very regal looking woman wearing an elaborate red and black dress and an elegant crown atop her head. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” said Alice, “I was following the….” The woman looked at her with a suspiciously raised brow. “Indeed! And just where do you think you are going? Following the...what, young lady? You can’t just go running through my land without earning your passage.” “Oh my, I meant no disrespect, your Highness,” said Alice as she bowed her finest courtesy. “But how shall I do that?” she continued. “Ah ha! You, my dear” said the Queen, pointing her finger, “You will have to answer three questions, and if you fail you will be thrown into the abyss of space and time to spend eternity there, along with your little friend here.” Immediately, she pointed to a small barred door that Alice had not noticed before. And behind the barred door was her friend from class, Ryan! He was being held captive by the red Queen.
“This is what happens to little girls and boys who have not earned their passage through my land!” She said, laughing garishly. Poor Alice thought that she was done for. For what of the many great things in this world would the Queen ask her? And after all the strange events of the day, she figured there were just as many questions the Queen could ask about those worlds as well. Laughing to herself, Alice thought those worlds certainly did not seem to operate under the logic she was familiar with. “But first!” shouted the Queen, I will answer your question. You want to know who my little rabbit friend is, don’t you?” The rabbit in the vest poked his head out from behind the Queen, nervously twitching his little nose. “Well yes I do indeed your majesty!” Alice said with great relief. “For I have been chasing him all day to see what those strange markings are on his vest and he has led me through the most unusual places.” “Oh has he now…” said the Queen, looking down at the rabbit, who then sheepishly looked back up and smiled at the Queen. “Well, I suppose you must know, so I will tell you”. “He is a Graviton. He keeps the peace between all the lands. I suppose you have been to Relativity today and to the bay of Quantum Mechanics as well?” asked the Queen. “Well yes I have your majesty! You know of them? I am so happy to fi-nally be able to talk to someone about…” “Stop, girl!” halted the Queen, “You will listen to me and only speak to answer my questions.” Alice pressed her lips and clasped her hands behind her back. “And I suppose you have met M. Theory also, and did he tell you about String Theory?” asked the Queen. “Yes he did ma’am,” answered Alice. “You have answered the first two questions correctly. And now the final question…” “I didn’t even know we started,” whispered Alice. “What did you learn from M. Theory, my dear?” continued the Queen.
“Well, your majesty, I began by asking his name and, before I knew it, he was ranting on about M words and showed me a picture of this strange place, called the United Theory of Everything. String Theory, he mentioned. Yet I’m not even sure it was a place at all…” she continued, “He said String Theory was the overlap of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. I had been to both places earlier and learned about the rules that govern them. They were very different and strange, indeed, yet the rules seemed to work in that String Theory place. He also emphasized that Relativity was the great and vast ocean and Quantum Theory was the ripples in that ocean. Each was governed by its own and separate rules, but together, they worked to create a great whole: the Theory of Everything. In fact, he then told me that everything in the whole universe works with the same combination of rules from Relativity and Quantum Mechanics--even where I come from!” “Wow”, thought Alice, “I do see now how they work together to explain everything. Maybe Mr. Theory wasn’t so crazy after all? I can see how the large can be described by the small and how they don’t really have to operate by the same rules to function together.” She must have been thinking deeply for some time because she finally realized the Queen was just staring at her silently, with a smile on her face. “Yes, dear Alice, that is correct. You have correctly answered all three questions. Congratulations. Your friend here could not answer them all correctly but maybe you can help him understand. I will let him go back with you if you promise to do that for me.”“Oh yes, of course I will!” exclaimed Alice. Smiling, the Queen responded, “Very well then, take him back with you, but you must hurry. You have to go home now!” And with that, the door to the cell opened and Ryan ran over to her and gave her a big hug. “Oh thank you, thank you your majesty! I would like to go home now,” said Alice. “But which way do I go? I am so lost, your Highness.”
But the Queen just repeated, “You have to go home now. You have to go home now, Alice.” The ground began to horribly shake below her and things began crumbling around her. Confused, Alice tried her best to get directions out of the Queen. She was in tears by now.“But, ma’am, please! Please help me find my way home!” Yet the Queen persisted, “You have to go home now Alice. You have to go home”. Just then, Alice opened her eyes to find herself sitting under the tree by the school. She had fallen asleep. Ms. Heart was gently nudging her shoulder. “Alice” she said, “Alice you have to go home now. You’ve been asleep here for quite some time.” “Oh, Ms. Heart!” exclaimed Alice. “I am so happy to see you! I’ve had the strangest adventure! A Graviton ran by, but I didn’t know it was a Graviton at the time, and I followed it through a black hole to a strange place called Relativity and an even stranger place called Quantum Mechanics. Then there was this crazy tea party hosted by a weird little man named M. Theory who told me about String Theory, and how, in fact, its rules govern everything in the world around us--everything in the Universe! There was a Queen who held Ryan captive and wouldn’t let me pass until I answered her questions. “Well, Alice, it sounds like you have had quite a dream my dear!” said Ms. Heart, “And it sounds like you have been doing your reading as well. I think you will do well on your quiz tomorrow,” she added with a smile. “Oh yeah, the quiz!” remembered Alice. “Yes, yes! I think I do get it now,” said Alice enthusiastically. “Alright. You should go home now, it’s getting late! See you in class tomorrow.” “Ok. Good night, Ms. Heart!” said Alice, with joyous disposition. She stood up, stretched the sleep out, and with the textbook in hand, made her way home.
Glossary of terms Graviton (White Rabbit): A graviton is a boson, or a force carrier particle; the particle contains no mass and no charge that mediates the gravitational force; gravitons may interact with leptons and quarks; String Theory predicts the existence of gravitons as closed strings with the minimum possible energy; (the proposed messenger particle of the gravitational force) Cat’s Eye Nebula (Cheshire Cat): It was discovered by William Herschel in 1786; this planetary nebula is part of the constellation of Draco; it is known as a mysterious, complex nebula that comprises of magnificent jets, knots, and arc-like features; its architecture points to have been caused by material ejected from a binary central star, but the evidence is still uncertain Acetylcholine (Caterpillar): It is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in the skeletal muscle movement, as well as in the regulation of smooth and cardiac muscle; a white crystalline derivative of choline, that is released at the ends of nerve fibers in the somatic and parasympathetic nervous systems: thus, it is involved in the transmission of nerve impulses in the body (diffuses to another nearby neuron where it will bind and activate a receptor protein); becomes packaged into membrane-bound vesicles
Length Contraction: It refers to the “shortening” of length; predicted by the theory of Special Relativity, it is the contraction of a measured length of an object or a distance in a frame of reference moving at nearly the speed of light; the shortening of an object along its direction of motion as its speed nears the speed of light (measured by an observer at rest with respect to the body) Synchronicity: It is merely a pattern that repeats over time; simultaneous; it is the coincidence of events that appear to be related in a deep, meaningful way Quantum Theory: It refers to the nature of matter; energy is made of single units (quanta); matter + energy have the properties of both waves + particles; correlates to the theory of Relativity M-Theory: It brings all of the string theories together; 11 dimensions of spacetime are identified and “11-dimensional theory” unifies and supersedes all string assumptions; according to string guru, Edward Witten, “M stands for Magic, Mystery, or Membrane, according to taste” Superstrings: It is thought that the fundamental constituents of reality are strings of the Planck length which vibrate at resonant frequencies Black Holes: Black holes are places in space (evolutionary endpoints of stars) where ordinary gravity has become so extreme that it overwhelms all other forces in the Universe; once inside, nothing can escape a black hole’s gravity (not even light); has a one-way surface, called the event horizon, into which objects can fall; it’s “black” due to its absorption of light that hits it; due to this effect of gravitational time dilation, the distant observer will see an object falling into a black hole slow down as it approaches the event horizon, taking an infinite time to reach it