Physicist strums string theory at Philly high school

In physics, string theory is a theoretical framework in which the universe is composed of one-dimensional cosmic strings vibrating at different frequencies. To high school students at Philadelphia Performing Arts: A String Theory Charter School in Center City, “string theory” is an allusion to the valuable effect of creativity, music, and the arts on developing minds.

On Feb. 22, these two definitions converged when Jonathan Heckman, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Penn, came to the school to speak to three 11th grade classes about particle physics and, in particular, his work in string theory, which many scientists believe offers a way of unifying with the other three fundamental forces in the universe: electromagnetic, strong nuclear force, and weak nuclear force. The visit was arranged by the School of Arts and Science’s Science Outreach Initiative.

​​Although the topic may sound difficult for high school students to grasp, Heckman found ways to make it accessible and fun. As part of his talk, he recruited a handful of students to smack him with pool noodles to demonstrate the Higgs field, which gives mass to everything we see around us.

“One of the nice things about physics,” Heckman told the students, “is that it’s full of simple explanations for very complicated things happening around us. It breaks everything down into simple rules, and putting them together leads to a systematic understanding of all the complex phenomena happening in the universe.”

To demonstrate this concept, he showed the students a table of the standard model of particle physics consisting of 17 elementary particles, “the building blocks of the world around us.”  

“Right now, 17 particles are enough to explain everything around us—not just on Earth, but throughout the visible universe, excluding dark matter and dark energy,” he said. “It’s amazing that you can describe so much of the world with just this tiny list of particles and their interacting properties.”

According to Heckman, this kind of outreach is important because it helps to encourage interest in STEM.

“Scientific literacy is the backbone of modern society,” Heckman said. “In high school, you’re still at a point where you’re trying to figure out what you want to do with your life. Even if you don’t end up becoming a scientist, just knowing about how the world works is a big step.”

String Theory