I was fishing through the darkest depths of my laptop just now when I came across this article from 2007. I forgot nearly everything I learned from a physics degree, if you exclude the small matter of how to think. And now I discover I forgot it all again! So here’s a replay on 10 things we can learn from string theory…..

If Einstein can’t fix it…..

Half term holidays are a great time for catching up on your reading. As a long lapsed physicist I decided it was time to catch up on what happened of consequence by reading “Beyond Einstein” by physicist Michio Kaku and author Jennifer Thompson. Nothing too heavy, just the quest for the single unified theory of the universe……  They’ve decided it’s all held together by string apparently, superstrings. Think guitar strings: the same string can play many different notes. A string can be many different things. Bear in mind Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life working on this and getting nowhere, so you are forgiven if you don’t make it to the stunning conclusion at the end of this blog!

I won’t bore you why the universe was ten dimensional before Big Bang turned it 4 dimensional (time and 3D space); you’ll have to read the surprisingly accessible book for all that. I must admit I came away, long ago, from a year in a lab and 3 years study, thinking physics was pretty boring. When people asked at student parties “what do you study?” I either said psychology as it led to a more entertaining conversation, or better still answered “what do you think?”  Then you really find out what they think! Try it next time someone asks you what you do for a living. So I start this blog with some trepidation as it involves the physics of the workplace!!

Two mildly interesting things to do in your spare time

I was, after 4 years hard partying (and the odd tutorial), left with just two (mildly) interesting things from physics, the study and explanation of the physical world:

a) You really can drive a 4m car into a 3m long garage if you drive it near the speed of light. I can’t wait til they try that on Top Gear!

b) Obscure mathematicians scribbling on bits of paper find physical objects we didn’t know existed. It’s kinda like… if there’s a box of 6 chicken nuggets and 5 people eat one, there will be a nugget going spare in there if you look for it. In this way people started looking for all sorts of left overs and discovered neutrinos, quarks and leptons….ok, beam me up, Scotty!

A quick PhD in history, philosophy, psychology, physics and mystery

So where does the string come in, I hear you asking. Why do people want to have a single theory of the universe? Wake up at the back there! What? Why does it matter? As they said in “Shakespeare in Love”, “I don’t know, it’s a mystery”.  So why am I blogging on about it then? Well, because the story of the search for a unifying theory of the universe is riddled with history lessons about human beings that can be applied everyday. Many are about how hard we find it to accept new ideas. It concludes with something you can do with physics in the workplace.

Here’s just ten of the lessons I learned this week:

  1. You are not wrong. Einstein showed in his mathematical scribblings in 1917 that the universe was expanding at a rate of knots, i.e. he discovered Big Bang at the start of the universe. He fudged the maths for 14 years, because it was a well known “fact” that the universe was static. Even he didn’t believe in his discovery, because he had self-limiting thoughts that he didn’t challenge. Now how often do we stand back from acting on what we know in life, because the world of work doesn’t accept it yet?
  2. The best thinking is fresh thinking. One of the early proponents of the string theory (the currently held “truth” about how the universe is built) was Yoichiro Nambu. Ok, so he’s not as famous as Einstein, but that’s  because it takes a long time to be recognised as changing the way the world’s understood when the current experts are challenged. This is a constant theme: that current best thinking prevents better thinking.
  3. The experts are not right. For example, a French teenager named Galois invented group theory back in the 1820s, something now taught as “modern maths”. He spent ten years trying to convince the “experts” and was only published 14 years after his death (in a duel !). “Experts” were still struggling with his thoughts years later.
  4. I think, therefore I think differently. Nambu had studied the ways of thinking that led to great breakthroughs. The first he called the Yukawa mode and the second the Dirac mode. The first relied heavily on experimental data, and of course is most respected in science. A bit like the way we run call centres and marketing on data, data and more data. The second mode comes from inspiration, guesswork and crazy ideas. Examples of the latter include how relativity or anti-matter (don’t ask ! ) were discovered. Gut feel and mad ideas often work as well as analyzing data when you want a breakthrough. Using the 2 great ways of thinking is even better and became known as the Nambu mode of thinking. We see it everyday in how teams are formed. Different skills combine for a much greater result than any one person could have got.
  5. Cheat when you can. A great example of a Dirac mode breakthrough was when the physicist Feynman, a practical joker and amateur safe cracker, got fed up with doing acres of maths and just started drawing diagrams and pictures to represent all the mathematical possibilities. He solved some of the major maths problems of his time, despite being taken for a cheat by not doing the maths the hard way, or being able to prove his theories mathematically. He shows that no one way of thinking should have a monopoly on the way of arriving at things that work (and the old one of a picture tells a thousand stories…).
  6. Unify, I say unify. Why is having one unifying theory for the universe important at all? Because all things are related whether we appreciate it or not. They are unified. It’s just that we have split things into subjects in order to make them easy to think about. When we separate them we do not always see how to make the most of things around us. Nuclear energy could not have been discovered without the unifying theories that broke down artificial barriers in the way we think about forces at the sub atomic and macro level. Splitting quality from team leaders’ responsibilities, splitting shift patterns from people’s lifestyle….think about it, others have already fixed these things.
  7. Get clear+simple first. All breakthroughs in complex problems appear to be related to simple diagrams. “Clear visual pictures” ahead of his maths was recognised as Einstein’s key strength. The pictures then use a lot of maths to explain so how further discoveries are made. For example Newton linked gravity and three dimensional space for the first time by the simple thought of how apples fall to earth.  His one thought linked “heaven and earth”, since at the time, that is how challenging and radical it was. His thought, once worked through, was accurate enough to predict how we’d fly spaceships 400 years later. Your vision for your business has to be this simple and clear. It needs to be obvious and meaningful to those who work in it. If it’s not then no amount of tinkering in the detail will make it as great a business as it could be.
  8. And then unify some more. In the same way that Newton unified gravity and space, Maxwell in the1860s broke down the barriers between electrical and magnetic forces previously seen as separate. Enter industry with power and light. Einstein broke down the barriers between time and space. Enter nuclear power and the odd bomb or two. It seems there are great strides in thinking, in discovery of new ideas, of better ways of doing things, if you change the barriers between subjects. Break the barriers and unify the topics if you want a step up in practical results. Sales and service; recruitment and training; management and attrition; measurement and delivery of results.
  9. Unified businesses do well. 21st century management no longer accepts that breaking businesses up into accountable functions is the right way to work. That was 20th century management and it produces many “dumb things” as far as customers are concerned. 21st century management unifies people and profit, service and sales. It manages one system. It optimises the unitary system, not the parts of it which it understands best. Experimentally we see this in two ways. First, that entrepreneurial management teams build better businesses because they manage the whole system together. For example, Amazon’s Skyline and WOCAS processes keep the whole team working as one for the customer. Second, 21st century businesses start with the whole in mind. eBay optimizes the whole system of buyer, seller and commerce. Google aims to do the impossible with all the world’s knowledge. Each has a unified theory of everything expressed in simple terms ( for more on these companies see www.budd.uk.com)
  10. Symmetry – yrtemmyS. So what is the meaning of life according to string theory then? The clue to handling all the complexity in one unified theory of the universe is symmetry. This is why the string theory is the current thinking. Symmetries have been discovered which allow the maths to work for string theories to explain everything from time, gravity, electromagnetic and subatomic forces (never mind the fact you have to go into the 10th dimension to get all the symmetries you need!). Apparently, before Big Bang there was “super symmetry” which then collapsed as we went into only 4 dimensions (amaze your friends at dinner parties with that one ! ). Using symmetry has become the key to simplifying the universe and unifying the forces of nature.

Yeah great, so what?

So where do we see symmetries at work?

Staff and customers have symmetry. Management and workforce. Home and work life. My common unifying concept being human beings.

Happy staff =happy customers. Unhappy staff=unhappy customers. Good management=good workforce and poor management=poor workforce. Happy at home=happy at work and unhappy at home=unhappy at work. You get the symmetries, I hope.

But according to the maths, we should go one step further. Happy customers=happy staff must also be true. So is it true that customers have a responsibility to motivate staff if they want good service? Unhappy customers=unhappy staff so is the management’s responsibility to make sure we sell the right things to the right customers? Or more challenging since unhappy at work=unhappy at home, is it the management’s responsibility to make staff happy at work so they can have a happy life, or to make sure they are happy at home so they can be happy at work?

Immediately you see the one unified system of forces interacting, but by looking for the symmetrical pairs (of human factors in this case) and looking at all the symmetries one by one in both directions, you can invent your own unified theory of your workplace.

This is my theory….it is a theory of mine…… ah hemmm…

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