Research Fellows Directory
Dr Tom Coates
Imperial College London
My research lies at the boundary between mathematics and physics. I use ideas from string theory to solve problems in geometry, and I use methods from geometry and topology (the "science of shape") to test mathematical predictions from string theory.
One of the most fundamental questions in science today is "can we find laws of physics that work for both very large and very small objects at the same time?" At the moment we have a fantastically-accurate theory to describe objects of the size of planets and larger --- this is Einstein's General Theory of Relativity --- and we also have a very good description of objects the size of atoms and smaller --- this is Quantum Field Theory. But these two theories are incompatible, and a central problem in physics is to find a theory that will encompass both tiny and huge objects at the same time. The leading candidate for such a theory is String Theory, which is based on the notion that subatomic particles are made up of tiny vibrating loops called strings. Different vibrations of the loops give rise to different types of particles (electrons, quarks, etc), in much the same way as different vibrations of a violin string give rise to different musical notes.
At the moment we cannot build particle accelerators that are powerful enough to test string theory. But we can do "mathematical experiments" to test mathematical consequences of string theory. This is part of my research; the other part uses insights from string theory to tackle long-standing questions in pure mathematics.
This is fundamental research, and it is not yet clear what technological advances will come from a deeper understanding of string theory. But since, for example, the computer revolution relies in an essential way on Quantum Field Theory (which is an earlier attempt to understand the fundamental laws of physics) it is likely that a new understanding of fundamental physical law will have profound technological consequences.