We live in a wonderfully complex universe, and we are curious about it by nature. Time and again we have wondered—- why are we here? Where did we and the world come from? What is the world made of? It is our privilege to live in a time when enormous progress has been made towards finding some of the answers. String theory is our most recent attempt to answer the last (and part of the second) question.
So, what is the world made of? Ordinary matter is made of atoms, which are in turn made of just three basic components: electrons whirling around a nucleus composed of neutrons and protons. The electron is a truly fundamental particle (it is one of a family of particles known as leptons), but neutrons and protons are made of smaller particles, known as quarks. Quarks are, as far as we know, truly elementary.
Our current knowledge about the subatomic composition of the universe is summarized in what is known as the Standard Model of particle physics. It describes both the fundamental building blocks out of which the world is made, and the forces through which these blocks interact. There are twelve basic building blocks. Six of these are quarks—- they go by the interesting names of up, down, charm, strange, bottom and top. (A proton, for instance, is made of two up quarks and one down quark.) The other six are leptons—- these include the electron and its two heavier siblings, the muon and the tauon, as well as three neutrinos.
In the last few decades, string theory has emerged as the most promising candidate for a microscopic theory of gravity. And it is infinitely more ambitious than that: it attempts to provide a complete, unified, and consistent description of the fundamental structure of our universe. (For this reason it is sometimes, quite arrogantly, called a ‘Theory of Everything’).