In another life, I must have been a scientist. Ever since I was about 12 years old, I would lock myself in the library and read every book I could find on theoretical physics. Black holes, time travel, The Big Bang–it all fascinated me. I couldn’t understand most of the mathematics or pronounce the scientists’ names, but the search for the fundamental nature of the universe kept me up at night. I just wanted to know, what is everything made of? If you break it down to the smallest particle, what would you find?
Contemplating these huge ideas was (and still is) my favorite activity, second only to making music. During one of my trips to the library, I saw the spine of a book with the title “The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory” by Brian Greene. Ooooooh, I thought, Superstrings! I imagined huge strings stretching across vast distances of space-time connecting the galaxies. I thought it might be another cool name for wormholes, so I picked up the book. What I found was the most beautiful answer to the “what are things are made of” question I’ve ever encountered. String theory is weird. It defies everything we learned in school about matter. It is also quite simple. It proposes that all of the matter in the universe is made of tiny vibrating strings. [Insert the sound of my 12-year-old brain exploding] Scientists discovered that when they smashed atoms together (using huge atom smashing machines the size of small countries) you get gluons, neutrinos, and other fun-sounding subatomic particles.
What was shocking and a bit problematic was how many different kinds of subatomic particles they found. How could matter at the most fundamental level be so complicated? Then String theory came into the picture to help explain this. What if these quarks and neutrinos are not particles at all but vibrations of little strings? One string can vibrate at different frequencies, and depending on how it is plucked it produces a different particle. If we think of it in terms of music, an electron is perhaps an G#, a neutrino an E and so on. You could say that all the matter we see in the universe is a symphony of cosmic music!
I’ve always wondered why music seems to be a universal language that everyone speaks intuitively. For me personally, it’s the one thing in the world that just makes so much sense. The universe may not be made of strings, and it will take us many years to develop the technology to even test these theories, but for me it’s more about the idea of the thing. When I’m playing my guitar, I imagine that I’m adding to the cosmic symphony that’s playing all around us. As players of a stringed instrument, we may be speaking the language of the universe in its original tongue. Pretty cool!
By Amy Molewski