Music to Tangle By.

Author:DULUDE, JULIE
 
FREE EXCERPT

Argentine physicist moves to untie universal mysteries.

IT'S NOT EVERY PHYSICIST THAT HAS A song written about him--even if it is just a takeoff on that overplayed nightclub favorite, the Macarena. In tribute to their distinguished colleague, some 200 physicists at a string theory convention grabbed their rears and shimmied toward the ground while bellowing "Ehhhh, Maldacena."

It wasn't the kind of tribute that casts a reverent hush over a crowd, but it couldn't have been more fitting for 32-year-old Argentine Juan Maldacena, who--despite the reputation he's carved for himself at a very early age--speaks with the slightly self-conscious air of a just-off-the-plane college freshman.

"He's unusually modest for someone so brilliant," says physics professor Andrew Strominger, a colleague at Harvard University. "Theoretical physicists are not known for their modesty. When Maldacena started teaching here, he was sometimes mistaken for a grad student."

Maldacena is internationally renowned for contributing to a framework to show that gravity and quantum mechanics--two of the four theories physicists use to explain the universe--are compatible. In some scenarios, the theories aren't consistent. Proponents of so-called string theory have long believed that the theory is the bridge between the two. Maldacena's work analyzing black holes has done much to advance the theory.

Scientists have historically contended that there should be just one law of the universe. Many physicists--including some who've been skeptical of string theory--say Maldacena's discovery could lead to the confirmation of what's known as the Unified Theory. It all depends, of course, on how string theory holds up over time.

The basis of the theory is that all matter is composed of strings. The strings themselves are the smallest possible particles--too small to see with current technology. The strings have a length but no width or height; some theorists believe the strings are closed, like loops, while others believe they have open ends.

"String theory is a theory in construction. It has not been experimentally verified," says Maldacena, who is spending the year as a visiting professor at his alma mater, Princeton University. He came to the United...

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