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Did the universe begin as a slender thread?

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If he and his colleagues are correct, Stojkovic says, their work could help break a 30-year logjam in efforts to demonstrate that the four fundamental forces in nature – electromagnetism, the weak force (governing radioactive decay), the strong force (binding atomic nuclei), and gravity – are low-energy relics of one unified force that briefly held sway over the cosmos during the first, tiniest fractions of a second after the big bang.

The big bang is a sudden release of an enormous amount of energy that physicists and cosmologists credit with giving birth to the universe some 13.8 billion years ago.

Gravity remains the stubborn hold-out in this grand-unification effort. It's the only one of the four forces that has defied an explanation within the so-called standard model of physics. As the decades have passed, many researchers have developed ever more complicated ideas to fit gravity into the quantum-physics world inhabited by the rest of the forces and their associated subatomic particles. Scientists' calculations suggest that the solution may lie in "new physics" – beyond the standard model.

Stojkovic is part of a subgroup of physicists collectively tapping their "new physics" colleagues on the shoulder and saying: The solution many not require new physics at all, but merely a new way of looking at the standard model.

"The standard lore for years was to make things more complicated, introducing more structures, more particles, extra dimensions," says Stojkovic, a physicist at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His work "is quite the opposite. This is saying no, no, no, we don't need anything else. We don't need more dimensions" in the early universe, as some propose. "We need less dimensions," he says.

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