In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit trilogy, a series of magical rings were forged from gold, each holding incredible power for the one who wore it. To keep the powers balanced, there was one ring that ruled them all, more powerful than the others because it unified them. M-Theory is the unifying theory of superstrings that explained multiple superstring theories to actually be different ways of looking at the same theory. In that sense, M-Theory is “the one theory that binds them all,” and did so by revealing an 11th dimension to the beautifully elegant theory of superstrings.
Superstring theory holds that particles, previously thought of as tiny balls of energy, are actually minute wiggling strings. Although strings are smaller than any subatomic particle we are able to detect or measure, they make up all matter in the universe. The unique vibration of strings determines what kind of particle is created, each having a different vibratory signature.
String theory is particularly important because it unites the quantum world of the infinitesimally small with the world we know through our senses. Superstrings also unites all four forces in the universe: the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. Einstein spent his entire life seeking a unifying field theory, or “The Theory of Everything.” M-theory is the first mathematically sound theory to do this.
Before M-Theory, superstring theory held that there were ten dimensions. The three we know about, and six more dimensions forming extremely small “curled up” points existing everywhere within space/time. The strings of superstring theory exist within these six-dimensional shapes. Time made a total of ten dimensions. But soon several conflicting theories arose that all seemed to prove string theory. This was a conundrum, because if the theory was correct there should not be conflicting theories, but one definitive theory. M-Theory turned out to be that single theory that united all the others.
M-Theory proposed an 11th dimension that mathematically rid the theory of any further anomalies. In this 11th dimension a string could acquire enough energy to expand infinitely into what scientists call a floating membrane. According to the theory, our universe exists on a floating membrane, along with infinite parallel universes on their own membranes. From this foundation, it was further found that (mathematically) gravity might “leak” into our membrane from another nearby membrane, accounting for its relatively weak force in comparison to the other forces. M-Theory and superstrings succeeded where The Standard Model did not, unifying all forces in the universe with one, elegant theory.
By introducing the 11th dimension, M-Theory successfully united the “competing” theories of string theory. Scientists saw the different theories were actually multiple ways of approaching the same theory, akin to the old proverb about the blind men each touching a different part of an elephant offering seemingly conflicting observations. M-Theory also provided another crucial aspect of the puzzle in that it explained how the Big Bang might have occurred, with two membranes colliding. The energy produced from such a collision is mathematical consistent with what we know from existing science.
Because string theory predicts phenomena we cannot presently measure such as tiny strings, extra dimensions and multiple universes, some scientists reject it outright. Others find the mathematical elegance of the theory proof in itself that it must be correct and expect M-Theory and superstrings to eventually be validated.