Researchers discover how to conduct first test of 'untestable' string theory

September 01, 2010

Researchers describe how to carry out the first experimental test of string theory in a paper published tomorrow in Physical Review Letters.

String theory was originally developed to describe the fundamental particles and forces that make up our universe. The new research, led by a team from Imperial College London, describes the unexpected discovery that string theory also seems to predict the behaviour of entangled quantum particles. As this prediction can be tested in the laboratory, researchers can now test string theory.

Over the last 25 years, string theory has become physicists' favourite contender for the 'theory of everything', reconciling what we know about the incredibly small from particle physics with our understanding of the very large from our studies of cosmology. Using the theory to predict how entangled quantum particles behave provides the first opportunity to test string theory by experiment.

"If experiments prove that our predictions about quantum entanglement are correct, this will demonstrate that string theory 'works' to predict the behaviour of entangled quantum systems," said Professor Mike Duff FRS, lead author of the study from the Department of Theoretical Physics at Imperial College London.

"This will not be proof that string theory is the right 'theory of everything' that is being sought by cosmologists and particle physicists. However, it will be very important to theoreticians because it will demonstrate whether or not string theory works, even if its application is in an unexpected and unrelated area of physics," added Professor Duff.

Professor Duff recalled sitting in a conference in Tasmania where a colleague was presenting the mathematical formulae that describe quantum entanglement: "I suddenly recognised his formulae as similar to some I had developed a few years earlier while using string theory to describe black holes. When I returned to the UK I checked my notebooks and confirmed that the maths from these very different areas was indeed identical."

The discovery that string theory seems to make predictions about quantum entanglement is completely unexpected, but because quantum entanglement can be measured in the lab, it does mean that at last researchers can test predictions based on string theory. There is no obvious connection to explain why a theory that is being developed to describe the fundamental workings of our universe is useful for predicting the behaviour of entangled quantum systems. "This may be telling us something very deep about the world we live in, or it may be no more than a quirky coincidence", concluded Professor Duff. "Either way, it's useful."
-end-
The study was carried out by researchers from Imperial College London and Stanford University. It was partly funded by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Imperial College London

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