The starting point for string theory is the idea that the point-like particles of elementary particle physics can also be modeled as one-dimensional objects called strings. According to string theory, strings can oscillate in many ways. On distance scales larger than the string radius, each oscillation mode gives rise to a different species of particle, with its mass, charge, and other properties determined by the string’s dynamics. Splitting and recombination of strings correspond to particle emission and absorption, giving rise to the interactions between particles. An analogy for strings’ modes of vibration is a guitar string’s production of multiple distinct musical notes.[clarification needed] In this analogy, different notes correspond to different particles.
In string theory, one of the modes of oscillation of the string corresponds to a massless, spin-2 particle. Such a particle is called a graviton since it mediates a force which has the properties of gravity. Since string theory is believed to be a mathematically consistent quantum mechanical theory, the existence of this graviton state implies that string theory is a theory of quantum gravity.
String theory includes both open strings, which have two distinct endpoints, and closed strings, which form a complete loop. The two types of string behave in slightly different ways, yielding different particle types. For example, all string theories have closed string graviton modes, but only open strings can correspond to the particles known as photons. Because the two ends of an open string can always meet and connect, forming a closed string, all string theories contain closed strings.
The earliest string model, the bosonic string, incorporated only the class of particles known as bosons. This model describes, at low enough energies, a quantum gravitytheory, which also includes (if open strings are incorporated as well) gauge bosons such as the photon. However, this model has problems. What is most significant is that the theory has a fundamental instability, believed to result in the decay (at least partially) of spacetime itself. In addition, as the name implies, the spectrum of particles contains only bosons, particles which, like the photon, obey particular rules of behavior. Roughly speaking, bosons are the constituents of radiation, but not of matter, which is made of fermions. Investigating how a string theory may include fermions led to the invention of supersymmetry, a mathematical relation between bosons and fermions. String theories that include fermionic vibrations are now known as superstring theories; several kinds have been described, but all are now thought to be different limits of a theory called M-theory.
Since string theory incorporates all of the fundamental interactions, including gravity, many physicists hope that it fully describes our universe, making it a theory of everything. One of the goals of current research in string theory is to find a solution of the theory that is quantitatively identical with the standard model, with a small cosmological constant, containing dark matter and a plausible mechanism for cosmic inflation. It is not yet known whether string theory has such a solution, nor is it known how much freedom the theory allows to choose the details.
One of the challenges of string theory is that the full theory does not yet have a satisfactory definition in all circumstances. The scattering of strings is most straightforwardly defined using the techniques of perturbation theory, but it is not known in general how to define string theory nonperturbatively. It is also not clear as to whether there is any principle by which string theory selects its vacuum state, the spacetime configuration that determines the properties of our universe (see string theory landscape).