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String theory is perhaps the wooliest notion yet in physics. That's probably unavoidable, since the aim is to unify the ultrasmall world of quantum physics with the expansive properties of gravity. Anyhow, according to string theory, the universe has 10 or maybe 11 dimensions: the three dimensions of space and the fourth of time that we experience, with the others rolled up, tubelike, into long, ethereal strings. The subatomic particles regarded as the fundamental building blocks of matter aren't fundamental after all — they're just local oscillations in strings stretching throughout the universe.

Neal's research relates to some aspects of the group of subatomic particles called bosons, which is why string theorists and theoretical physicists find his project interesting. But for ordinary people, the supermanifolds in Neal's study are probably just as incomprehensible as string theory. Ask him to describe them, and he'll say something like this: A supermanifold is a multidimensional surface with smooth edges and no sharp points.

These abstractions come in various permutations, including so-called Calabi-Yau supermanifolds. Neal examines the relationship between their geometry and topology (topology has a special meaning in math) and reports a subtle and complex interplay that can be appreciated only with equations.

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