As they explore M-theory, will Bay Area physicists earn the eternal glory sure to reward the inventors of the Theory of Everything?

Meanwhile, string theorists tell a joke on themselves: Three stringies have hold of a slimy tube. One is convinced that the tube is a hose connected to a firetruck; another professes it an elephant's trunk; the third swears it is a giant strand of linguine.

A String by Any Other Name ...
Hiroshi Oguri, Ph.D., professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, draws a tube on his blackboard. The tube is like a garden hose, he says. And inside the tube, an ant roams. Oguri says that the ant sees two dimensions as it walks around the circular surface inside the tube. But a human being staring at the hose from a block away sees only a one-dimensional line.

Here is the point about discovering our multidimensional universe, says Oguri. It's all about point of view. You can only see so much of the universe inside four dimensions. In order to see the other seven, the observer must take the point of view of the smallest of the small. The 11th dimension is the realm of the mathematical ant -- so small that it can sense the existence of the dimension that everything in the universe is wrapped around.

In the small reaches of the universe -- a million billion billion billionths of a centimeter -- the eternally humming strings join and divide ceaselessly. Tiny black holes eat gaps in loops of string, breaking them, or, sometimes, a pointlike black hole sucks each end of a string into its infinite darkness, thereby cementing the string into a loop.

And it is the nature of that infinite darkness that inspired Oguri, age 36, to turn a "liking" for math into a vocation.

"I learned of death when my grandfather died. I was young. The loneliness and pain of that experience made me desire something of enduring value. I feared transitoriness.

"Nature is unfair. There are disasters. The everyday world is unstable. People cope by finding the laws that govern nature. I do M-theory in the hope of living in a rational universe."

Eva Silverstein is not quite so confident that M-theory is the key to understanding everything. "New approaches open things up, and new barriers arise," she observes. For instance, the discovery of 11 dimensions is already being called into question by a theory of 12 dimensions, 10 of space and two of time.

The theorists are painfully aware that a blast of nature could pull the rug out from under their beautiful theory at any moment. "If one part of the theory is shown to be wrong, it all falls down," says Susskind.

And even if physical reality does not betray them, Shenker, Susskind, Silverstein, and Oguri may never produce a shred of proof that the universe is rational, stable, or fundamentally understandable by the human brain.

Rules of the Game
The universe may well be an infinite series of puzzles within puzzles, forever defying definition. Whether the reality game has overarching rules, or is simply a never-ending stack of imperfections, there is no law ordaining that all must become known to us. It's how you play the game that counts. At Stanford and UC Berkeley, they are playing the game very hard and well. Whether they are playing the right game is another question, the answer to which may have many, many ... dimensions.

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