Stephen Hawking had pinned his hopes on ‘M-theory’ to fully explain the universe – here’s what it is

During the second string revolution, in 1995, physicists proposed that the five consistent string theories are actually only different faces of a unique theory.

Rumour has it that Albert Einstein spent his last few hours on Earth scribbling something on a piece of paper in a last attempt to formulate a theory of everything. Some 60 years later, another legendary figure in theoretical physics, Stephen Hawking, may have passed away with similar thoughts. We know Hawking thought something called “M-theory” is our best bet for a complete theory of the universe. But what is it?


Since the formulation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity in 1915, every theoretical physicist has been dreaming of reconciling our understanding of the infinitely small world of atoms and particles with that of the infinitely large scale of the cosmos. While the latter is effectively described by Einstein’s equations, the former is predicted with extraordinary accuracy by the so-called Standard Model of fundamental interactions.

Our current understanding is that the interaction between physical objects is described by four fundamental forces. Two of them – gravity and electromagnetism – are relevant for us on a macroscopic level, we deal with them in our everyday life. The other two, dubbed strong and weak interactions, act on a very small scale and become relevant only when dealing with subatomic processes.

The standard model of fundamental interactions provides a unified framework for three of these forces, but gravity cannot be consistently included in this picture. Despite its accurate description of large scale phenomena such as a planet’s orbit or galaxy dynamics, general relativity breaks down at very short distances. According to the standard model, all forces are mediated by specific particles. For gravity, a particle called the graviton does the job. But when trying to calculate how these gravitons interact, nonsensical infinities appear.

A consistent theory of gravity should be valid at any scale and should take into account the quantum nature of fundamental particles. This would accommodate gravity in a unified framework with the other three fundamental interactions, thus providing the celebrated theory of everything. Of course, since Einstein’s death in 1955, a lot of progress has been made and nowadays our best candidate goes under the name of M-theory.

String revolution

To understand the basic idea of M-theory, one has to go back to the 1970s when scientists realised that, rather than describing the universe based on point like particles, you could describe it in terms of tiny oscillating strings (tubes of energy). This new way of thinking about the fundamental constituents of nature turned out to solve many theoretical problems. Above all, a particular oscillation of the string could be interpreted as a graviton. And unlike the standard theory of gravity, string theory can describe its interactions mathematically without getting strange infinities. Thus, gravity was finally included in a unified framework.

After this exciting discovery, theoretical physicists devoted a lot of effort to understanding the consequences of this seminal idea. However, as often happens with scientific research, the history of string theory is characterised by ups and downs. At first, people were puzzled because it predicted the existence of a particle which travels faster than the speed of light, dubbed a “tachyon”. This prediction was in contrast with all the experimental observations and cast serious doubt on string theory.

Nevertheless, this issue was solved in the early 1980s by the introduction of something called “supersymmetry” in string theory. This predicts that every particle has a superpartner and, by an extraordinary coincidence, the same condition actually eliminates the tachyon. This first success is commonly known as “the first string revolution”.

Another striking feature is that string theory requires the existence of ten spacetime dimensions. Currently, we only know of four: depth, height, width and time. Although this might seem a major obstacle, several solutions have been proposed and nowadays it is considered as a notable feature, rather than a problem.

For example, we could somehow be forced to live in a four dimensional world without any access to the extra dimensions. Or the extra dimensions could be “compactified” on such a small scale we wouldn’t notice them. However, different compactifications would lead to different values of the physical constants and, therefore, different physics laws. A possible solution is that our universe is just one of many in an infinite “multiverse”, governed by different physics laws.

Are there other universes? Pixabay.CC BY

This may seem odd, but a lot of theoretical physicists are coming around to this idea. If you are not convinced you may try to read the novel Flatland: a romance of many dimensions by Edwin Abbott, in which the characters are forced to live in two space dimensions and are unable to realise there is a third one.

M-theory

But there was one remaining pressing issue that was bothering string theorists at the time. A thorough classification showed the existence of five different consistent string theories, and it was unclear why nature would pick one out of five.

This is when M-theory entered the game. During the second string revolution, in 1995, physicists proposed that the five consistent string theories are actually only different faces of a unique theory which lives in eleven spacetime dimensions and is known as M-theory. It includes each of the string theories in different physical contexts, but is still valid for all of them. This extremely fascinating picture has led most theoretical physicists to believe in M-theory as the theory of everything – it is also more mathematically consistent than other candidate theories.

Nevertheless, so far M-theory has struggled in producing predictions that can be tested by experiments. Supersymmetry is currently being testedat the Large Hadron Collider. If scientists do find evidence of superpartners, that would ultimately strengthen M-theory. But it still remains a challenge for current theoretical physicists to produce testable predictions and for experimental physicists to set up experiments to test them.

Most great physicists and cosmologists are driven by a passion to find that beautiful, simple description of the world that can explain everything. And although we are not quite there yet, we wouldn’t have a chance without the sharp, creative minds of people like Hawking.

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Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.