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Columnists

Balls of string

James Cary

As a professional comedy writer, take it from me that 37 is a funny number. If you look out for it in comedy, it appears far more frequently than most other two-digit numbers. When you're writing a script and you need an arbitrarily large number you'll probably reach for trusty 37, the Milton Keynes of numbers. Or you may chose 17, 23, 31, 53 or 71. Whichever you chose, your made-up number is likely to be odd, not even, and almost certainly prime.

Maybe prime numbers are funny because they are a riddle in themselves. They bother, excite and annoy mathematicians. They are knots in the string of numbers. But what's most vexing about them is the fact that they occur at completely unpredictable intervals. In a discipline where predictability is important, the irregularity of primes is enigmatic, tantalising and extremely irritating.

Similarly, physicists are still scratching their heads about how the universe fits together. There are two main branches of physics. One branch is about planets, gravity, forces and the big stuff; the Newtonian laws of physics with the Einstein upgrade. This branch is from the people that brought you 'Dark Matter', the indefinable stuff that you can't see, detect or measure, or even know about, but it's out there somewhere because if it isn't some of our equations don't work.

The other branch is quantum physics, the mechanics of the tiny. It's all about protons, photons and neutrinos, which until recently I thought was a yoghurt drink with bits of muesli. Quantum mechanics explains how to move faster than the speed of light and that sub-atomic particles can be in two places at once (although I don't know if they can give you eyes in the back of your head). It also teaches us that there are some things that are impossible for most people to understand, no matter how many BBC4-style documentaries you watch.

Put these two branches together and you have 'The Standard Model'. I don't know if there was an Authorised Model or New English Model, but there is an apparent need for a Revised Standard Model. The problem is that the two main branches of physics appear to be from slightly different trees. Clearly, they must all come from the same tree. And so physicists and mathematicians are seeking a 'Theory of Everything', which sounds like something created by Douglas Adams. They came up with string theory, which sounds even dafter.

There seems little point in explaining string theory. A version of it that is comprehensible and explainable in so few words will be so brief, facile and oversimplified that it will be meaningless. It would be like summing up Shakespeare's Hamlet by saying it's a play about 'this Danish bloke who gets a bit narked'.

What one can say is that String Theory is a controversial theoretical multi-dimensional solution that is currently untested and untestable. In short, it's unscientific. Scientists often like to say that they are describing things as they are. They investigate, experiment, wait, measure, wait a bit more, measure again, write down, publish, wait and then realise that hardly anyone else in the world is interested in the six-spotted green tiger beetle, or the amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere of Neptune. But there seems to be no way of measuring, testing or proving string theory.

We're told that science is about observing facts and deriving conclusive theories; and that religion is about conclusive theories without any observable facts. Neither claim is true. Science is not about observing facts but producing theories before looking for facts. Why do the mathematicians seek a prime number theory? Because they are convinced there must be a pattern to prime numbers! They have faith in a theory of numbers despite the lack of evidence so far. Why do the physicists pursue string theory? Because they are sure that there must be one theory to rule them all (and in the darkness bind them). If the universe is random, if cells just happened, if amino acids simply exist for no reason, why do scientists keep looking for ever more basic, simpler, grander explanations for everything?

At Easter, Christians celebrate the fact of the resurrection of Christ. But the fact of Jesus' bodily rising from the dead will always be a problem if you faithfully assume that such a thing cannot happen. You have established a scientific theory - that everyone dies once and stays dead - in spite of the evidence. Perhaps, Professors Richard Dawkins and Geza Vermes, would look again at the facts with this in mind.