The Strong Fields, Integrability and Strings programme, which took place at the Isaac Newton Institute in 2007, explored an area that would have been close to Isaac Newton's heart: how to unify Einstein's theory of gravity, a continuation of Newton's own work on gravitation, with quantum field theory, which describes the atomic and sub-atomic world, but cannot account for the force of gravity.

The holy grail for 21st century physics is to produce a unified theory of everything that can describe the world at every level, from the tiniest particles to the largest galaxies. Currently the strongest contender for such a theory is something called M-theory. So what is this supposed mother of all theories all about?

In the corner of the garden between the Centre of Mathematical Sciences and the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge, sits a reminder of our ongoing quest to understand gravity: an apple tree that was taken as a cutting from the tree at Newton's birthplace, the tree that is said to have inspired his theory of gravity. Newton's theory was extended to the cosmological scales by Einstein's theory of general relativity – but can supergravity explain how gravity works in the quantum world?

This is an excerpt from Stephen Hawking's address to his 70th birthday symposium which took place on 8th January 2011 in Cambridge.

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