You’ve probably heard this story before, likely from Brian Greene.
In string theory, the fundamental particles of nature are actually short lengths of string. These strings can vibrate, and like a string on a violin, that vibration is arranged into harmonics. The more energy in the string, the more complex the vibration. In string theory, each of these vibrations corresponds to a different particle, explaining how the zoo of particles we observe can come out of a single type of fundamental string.
It’s a nice story. It’s even partly true. But it gives a completely wrong idea of where the particles we’re used to come from.
Making a string vibrate takes energy, and that energy is determined by the tension of the string. It’s a lot harder to wiggle a thick rubber band than a thin one, if you’re holding both tightly.
String theory’s strings are under a lot of tension, so it takes a lot of energy to make them vibrate. From our perspective, that energy looks like mass, so the more complicated harmonics on a string correspond to extremely massive particles, close to the Planck mass!
Those aren’t the particles you’re used to. They’re not electrons, they’re not dark matter. They’re particles we haven’t observed, and may never observe. They’re not how string theory explains the fundamental particles of nature.
So how does string theory go from one fundamental type of string to all of the particles in the universe, if not through these vibrations? As it turns out, there are several different ways it can happen, tricks that allow the lightest and simplest vibrations to give us all the particles we’ve observed.* I’ll describe a few.
The first and most important trick here is supersymmetry. Supersymmetry relates different types of particles to each other. In string theory, it means that along with vibrations that go higher and higher, there are also low-energy vibrations that behave like different sorts of particles. In a sense, string theory sticks a quantum field theory inside another quantum field theory, in a way that would make Xzibit proud.
Even with supersymmetry, string theory doesn’t give rise to all of the right sorts of particles. You need something else, like compactifications or branes.
The strings of string theory live in ten dimensions, it’s the only place they’re mathematically consistent. Since our world looks four-dimensional, something has to happen to the other six dimensions. They have to be curled up, in a process called compactification. There are lots and lots (and lots) of ways to do this compactification, and different ways of curling up the extra dimensions give different places for strings to move. These new options make the strings look different in our four-dimensional world: a string curled around a donut hole looks very different from one that moves freely. Each new way the string can move or vibrate can give rise to a new particle.
Another option to introduce diversity in particles is to use branes. Branes (short for membranes) are surfaces that strings can end on. If two strings end on the same brane, those ends can meet up and interact. If they end on different branes though, then they can’t. By cleverly arranging branes, then, you can have different sets of strings that interact with each other in different ways, reproducing the different interactions of the particles we’re familiar with.
In string theory, the particles we’re used to aren’t just higher harmonics, or vibrations with more and more energy. They come from supersymmetry, from compactifications and from branes. The higher harmonics are still important: there are theorems that you can’t fix quantum gravity with a finite number of extra particles, so the infinite tower of vibrations allows string theory to exploit a key loophole. They just don’t happen to be how string theory gets the particles of the Standard Model. The idea that every particle is just a higher vibration is a common misconception, and I hope I’ve given you a better idea of how string theory actually works.
*But aren’t these lightest vibrations still close to the Planck mass? Nope! See the discussion with TE in the comments for details.