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In physics, a unified field theory (UFT), occasionally referred to as a uniform field theory, is a type of field theory that allows all that is usually thought of as fundamental forces and elementary particles to be written in terms of a single field. There is no accepted unified field theory, and thus it remains an open line of research. The term was coined by Einstein, who attempted to unify the general theory of relativity with electromagnetism. The "theory of everything" and Grand Unified Theory are closely related to unified field theory, but differ by not requiring the basis of nature to be fields, and often by attempting to explain physical constants of nature.
This article describes unified field theory as it is currently understood in connection with quantum theory. Earlier attempts based on classical physics are described in the article on classical unified field theories.
There may be no a priori reason why the correct description of nature has to be a unified field theory. However, this goal has led to a great deal of progress in modern theoretical physics and continues to motivate research.
According to the current understanding of physics, forces are not transmitted directly between objects, but instead are described by intermediary entities called fields. All four of the known fundamental forces are mediated by fields, which in the Standard Model of particle physics result from exchange of gauge bosons. Specifically the four interactions to be unified are:
Modern unified field theory attempts to bring these four interactions together into a single framework.
The first successful classical unified field theory was developed by James Clerk Maxwell. In 1820 Hans Christian Ørsted discovered that electric currents exerted forces on magnets, while in 1831, Michael Faraday made the observation that time-varying magnetic fields could induce electric currents. Until then, electricity and magnetism had been thought of as unrelated phenomena. In 1864, Maxwell published his famous paper on a dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field. This was the first example of a theory that was able to encompass previous separate field theories (namely electricity and magnetism) to provide a unifying theory of electromagnetism. By 1905, Albert Einstein had used the constancy of the speed of light in Maxwell's theory to unify our notions of space and time into an entity we now call spacetime and in 1915 he expanded this theory of special relativity to a description of gravity, General Relativity, using a field to describe the curving geometry of four-dimensional spacetime.
In the years following the creation of the general theory, a large number of physicists and mathematicians enthusiastically participated in the attempt to unify the then-known fundamental interactions. In view of later developments in this domain, of particular interest are the theories of Hermann Weyl of 1919, who introduced the concept of an (electromagnetic) gauge field in a classical field theory and, two years later, that of Theodor Kaluza, who extended General Relativity to five dimensions. Continuing in this latter direction, Oscar Klein proposed in 1926 that the fourth spatial dimension be curled up into a small, unobserved circle. In Kaluza-Klein theory, the gravitational curvature of the extra spatial direction behaves as an additional force similar to electromagnetism. These and other models of electromagnetism and gravity were pursued by Albert Einstein in his attempts at a classical unified field theory. By 1930 Einstein had already considered the Einstein-Maxwell-Dirac System [Dongen]. This system is (heuristically) the super-classical [Varadarajan] limit of (the not mathematically well-defined) Quantum Electrodynamics. One can easily extend this system to include the weak and strong nuclear forces to get the Einstein-Yang-Mills-Dirac System.
In 1963 American physicist Sheldon Glashow proposed that the weak nuclear force and electricity and magnetism could arise from a partially unified electroweak theory. In 1967, Pakistani Abdus Salam and American Steven Weinberg independently revised Glashow's theory by having the masses for the W particle and Z particle arise through spontaneous symmetry breaking with the Higgs mechanism. This unified theory was governed by the exchange of four particles: the photon for electromagnetic interactions, a neutral Z particle and two charged W particles for weak interaction. As a result of the spontaneous symmetry breaking, the weak force becomes short range and the Z and W bosons acquire masses of 80.4 and 91.2 GeV/c^2, respectively. Their theory was first given experimental support by the discovery of weak neutral currents in 1973. In 1983, the Z and W bosons were first produced at CERN by Carlo Rubbia's team. For their insights, Salam, Glashow and Weinberg were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer received the Prize in 1984.
After Gerardus 't Hooft showed the Glashow-Weinberg-Salam electroweak interactions was mathematically consistent, the electroweak theory became a template for further attempts at unifying forces. In 1974, Sheldon Glashow and Howard Georgi proposed unifying the strong and electroweak interactions into Georgi-Glashow model, the first Grand Unified Theory, which would have observable effects for energies much above 100 GeV.
Since then there have been several proposals for Grand Unified Theories, e.g. the Pati-Salam model, although none is currently universally accepted. A major problem for experimental tests of such theories is the energy scale involved, which is well beyond the reach of current accelerators. Grand Unified Theories make predictions for the relative strengths of the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces, and in 1991 LEP determined that supersymmetric theories have the correct ratio of couplings for a Georgi-Glashow Grand Unified Theory. Many Grand Unified Theories (but not Pati-Salam) predict that the proton can decay, and if this were to be seen, details of the decay products could give hints at more aspects of the Grand Unified Theory. It is at present unknown if the proton can decay, although experiments have determined a lower bound of 1035 years for its lifetime.
Gravity has yet to be successfully included in a theory of everything. Simply trying to combine the graviton with the strong and electroweak interactions runs into fundamental difficulties since the resulting theory is not renormalizable. Theoretical physicists have not yet formulated a widely accepted, consistent theory that combines general relativity and quantum mechanics. The incompatibility of the two theories remains an outstanding problem in the field of physics. Some theoretical physicists currently believe that a quantum theory of general relativity may require frameworks other than field theory itself, such as string theory or loop quantum gravity. Some models in string theory that are promising by way of realizing our familiar standard model are the perturbative heterotic string models, 11-dimensional M-theory, Singular geometries (e.g. orbifold and orientifold), D-branes and other branes, flux compactification and warped geometry, non-perturbative type IIB superstring solutions (F-theory).