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 Elegant Universe, The: Einstein's Dream Classroom Activities

Many aspects of string theory are abstract and difficult for even theoretical physicists to fully comprehend. The activities in this guide are designed to help you and your students better understand some of the basic concepts underlying particle physics and string theory. A list of additional resources and a glossary are included to help you gain further understanding of these fascinating, but complex, topics.

Each activity includes a teacher activity setup page with background information, an activity objective, a materials list, a procedure, and concluding remarks. Reproducible student pages are also provided. Most activities align with the National Science Education Standards' Physical Science standard, Structure of Atoms and Structure and Properties of Matter sections.

Particle Puzzle Pieces
So far, the smallest constituents of matter confirmed by experiments are quarks and leptons. This activity acquaints students with the elementary particles of the Standard Model of particle physics by having them construct a proton and neutron from quarks. It is best suited for those students who have some understanding about elementary particles.

Forces of Nature
Forces drive the interactions between elementary particles. Without the four fundamental forces the universe could not exist. In this activity, students learn about the four forces and the interactions they govern. Students who are acquainted with the four forces of nature will do best with this activity.

A New Building Block?
Some theoretical physicists think that quarks and leptons are not the building blocks of the universe. Rather, they propose a new unit—a string. In this activity, students learn about this novel theoretical element and explore how a string's vibrational pattern determines which particle it is. Doing this activity requires a working knowledge of the relationship between energy and mass.

Deducting Dimensions
In order for string theory to be valid, the universe must have an additional six or seven spatial dimensions. This activity helps students first visualize a universe with fewer than three spatial dimensions and then consider how more than three spatial dimensions may exist. This activity calls for visualization and creative thinking.

Detective Work
No part of string theory has yet been supported with physical evidence. String theory proponents are hoping that current or next-generation particle accelerators and detectors will find evidence to support string theory's claims. In this activity, students learn how to interpret particle interactions captured by one type of detector, a bubble chamber. This activity will be most meaningful for students who have an understanding of the particle nature of matter.

Some physicists believe that the most fundamental units currently known to make up matter—the electrons and the quarks that form protons and neutrons in atoms—may actually be made of tiny vibrating strings. Strings are almost unimaginably small—if an atom were enlarged to the size of the known universe, a string would only be about the height of a tree.

 Elegant Universe, The: Einstein's Dream Original broadcast:October 28, 2003
 Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, Sprint, and Microsoft. Additional funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers.

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