Answer Man: What is 'Big Bang' string theory?

News-DemocratMay 6, 2014 

I'm a fan of "The Big Bang Theory." On the show, they occasionally talk about "string theory." Does this really exist or is it something the writers have made up? -- Fred Shrader, of Aviston

Come now, you don't really think Dr. Sheldon Cooper -- IQ 187 -- would string you along with a comic-book idea, do you?

While its name sounds like something from Fantasyland, superstrings is the term many physicists talk about in their quest to develop a Theory of Everything that actually works. The details are far beyond the realm of this column (and, admittedly, my own understanding) but let me try to provide some of the basics in simple terms:

I would hazard to guess that you still think of the fundamental objects of the universe as pointlike elementary particles -- such things as atoms, electrons and protons down in size to all sorts of strange beasts known as quarks, leptons and that elusive Higgs boson, the so-called God particle.

But guess what? Even with all of these exotic particles, scientists still have been unable to explain the properties of these particles and the forces between them, including gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. In other words, they cannot combine Einstein's relativity theory (the world of the large) and quantum physics (the world of the very small).

So in 1976, according to famed science and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, scientists began developing a new theory. They suggested that in the first moments after the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago, creases developed in the structure of space.

These flaws, they said, would have formed long, one-dimensional "strings," containing huge masses, energies and gravitational fields. So instead of teeny-tiny ball-like atoms and quarks, they say the universe now is made up fundamentally of tiny strings.

And, if you can't get your brain around that, try this: Some speculate these strings (which, of course, are way too small to yet be observed) exist in a universe of 10 dimensions. However, for reasons yet unknown, only the three dimensions of space and the dimension of time are as yet discernible by us.

As I said, it's a theory only Sheldon could love.

I'm trying to convince friends that there was a store in downtown Belleville known as Taylor Gifts. I remember it as a sort of magic store, but even longtime residents don't seem to believe me. Do you? --Allen Suemnicht

Tell your disbelieving friends that, unlike Houdini, you're not pulling some wild rabbit out of your hat.

For nearly 40 years, Taylor Sales Co. was a downtown landmark at 120 W. Main St. I recall it as a sort of Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe as I walked by on my way home from Central Junior High School in the early '60s. I can't remember ever going in, but the windows certainly made it alluring with all kinds of fascinating doodads, gizmos and "garimbles" (as my dad called unclassifiable stuff) that I'm sure would have relieved me of my allowance had I let them.

According to city directories, Herschel Taylor first popped up there about 1943, when he opened a cigar store. But he must have had more luck or fun when he began offering other merchandise, because by 1950 it was listed as Taylor Sales and was classified as selling "novelties."

It continued to draw customers until Herschel died at age 80 on Sept. 8, 1981. I was hoping to find one of his children or grandchildren, but no luck, so if anyone can provide sharper memories of the store and its merchandise, I'd be interested in hearing from you.

Our granddaughter celebrated her 13th birthday on Easter Sunday, April 20. How old will she be when her birthday falls on Easter again? -- Tom Schweickert, of Collinsville.

If she has a long and happy life, she could see Peter Cottontail hopping down the bunny trail with some extra special treats twice more on her birthday.

First, though, I'm curious about something. I'm very hesitant to question the facts from a doting granddad, but according to my Easter date table, the last time the holiday fell on April 20 was 2003, which would make one of the lights in your life only 11 this year.

Assuming that's the case, she'll be only 22 when she puts candles on her colored eggs on April 20, 2025 -- and 95 when she whoops it up with the rabbit on April 20, 2098.

Today's trivia

Who was hired to play the corpse in "The Big Chill" before his face was left on the cutting-room floor?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: If you were going to visit the largest urban area south of the equator, you'd make a beeline for the New York of South America -- Sao Paulo, Brazil, home to 17.9 million people. It's followed by Buenos Aires, Argentina (12.5 million), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (12 million), Jakarta, Indonesia (10.2 million) and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (9 million). Rounding out the top 10 are Lima, Peru, Santiago, Chile, Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, and Johannesburg, South Africa.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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