Eventually, they came up with potential descriptions of the six dimensions. Before getting to them, though, it’s worth thinking for a second about what it means for a space to have a geometry.
Consider a beehive and a skyscraper. Both are three-dimensional structures, but each has a very different geometry: Their layouts are different, the curvature of their exteriors is different, their interior angles are different. Similarly, string theorists came up with very different ways to imagine the missing six dimensions.
One method arose in the mathematical field of algebraic geometry. Here, mathematicians study polynomial equations — for example, x2 + y2 = 1 — by graphing their solutions (a circle, in this case). More-complicated equations can form elaborate geometric spaces. Mathematicians explore the properties of those spaces in order to better understand the original equations. Because mathematicians often use complex numbers, these spaces are commonly referred to as “complex” manifolds (or shapes).
The other type of geometric space was first constructed by thinking about physical systems such as orbiting planets. The coordinate values of each point in this kind of geometric space might specify, for example, a planet’s location and momentum. If you take all possible positions of a planet together with all possible momenta, you get the “phase space” of the planet — a geometric space whose points provide a complete description of the planet’s motion. This space has a “symplectic” structure that encodes the physical laws governing the planet’s motion.
Symplectic and complex geometries are as different from one another as beeswax and steel. They make very different kinds of spaces. Complex shapes have a very rigid structure. Think again of the circle. If you wiggle it even a little, it’s no longer a circle. It’s an entirely distinct shape that can’t be described by a polynomial equation. Symplectic geometry is much floppier. There, a circle and a circle with a little wiggle in it are almost the same.
“Algebraic geometry is a more rigid world, whereas symplectic geometry is more flexible,” said Nick Sheridan, a research fellow at Cambridge. “That’s one reason they’re such different worlds, and it’s so surprising they end up being equivalent in a deep sense.”
In the late 1980s, string theorists came up with two ways to describe the missing six dimensions: one derived from symplectic geometry, the other from complex geometry. They demonstrated that either type of space was consistent with the four-dimensional world they were trying to explain. Such a pairing is called a duality: Either one works, and there’s no test you could use to distinguish between them.
Physicists then began to explore just how far the duality extended. As they did so, they uncovered connections between the two kinds of spaces that grabbed the attention of mathematicians.
In 1991, a team of four physicists — Philip Candelas, Xenia de la Ossa, Paul Green and Linda Parkes — performed a calculation on the complex side and generated numbers that they used to make predictions about corresponding numbers on the symplectic side. The prediction had to do with the number of different types of curves that could be drawn in the six-dimensional symplectic space. Mathematicians had long struggled to count these curves. They had never considered that these counts of curves had anything to do with the calculations on complex spaces that physicists were now using in order to make their predictions.
The result was so far-fetched that at first, mathematicians didn’t know what to make of it. But then, in the months following a hastily convened meeting of physicists and mathematicians in Berkeley, California, in May 1991, the connection became irrefutable. “Eventually mathematicians worked on verifying the physicists’ predictions and realized this correspondence between these two worlds was a real thing that had gone unnoticed by mathematicians who had been studying the two sides of this mirror for centuries,” said Sheridan.
The discovery of this mirror duality meant that in short order, mathematicians studying these two kinds of geometric spaces had twice the number of tools at their disposal: Now they could use techniques from algebraic geometry to answer questions in symplectic geometry, and vice versa. They threw themselves into the work of exploiting the connection.
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
At the same time, mathematicians and physicists set out to identify a common cause, or underlying geometric explanation, for the mirroring phenomenon. In the same way that we can now explain similarities between very different organisms through elements of a shared genetic code, mathematicians attempted to explain mirror symmetry by breaking down symplectic and complex manifolds into a shared set of basic elements called “torus fibers.”
A torus is a shape with a hole in the middle. An ordinary circle is a one-dimensional torus, and the surface of a donut is a two-dimensional torus. A torus can be of any number of dimensions. Glue lots of lower dimensional tori together in just the right way, and you can build a higher dimensional shape out of them.
To take a simple example, picture the surface of the earth. It is a two-dimensional sphere. You could also think of it as being made from many one-dimensional circles (like many lines of latitude) glued together. All these circles stuck together are a “torus fibration” of the sphere — the individual fibers woven together into a greater whole.