Skip to comments.'Theory of everything' tying researchers up in knots
Posted on 03/15/2005 10:58:30 PM PST by snarks_when_bored
'Theory of everything' tying researchers up in knots The most celebrated theory in modern physics faces increasing attacks from skeptics who fear it has lured a generation of researchers down an intellectual dead end. In its original, simplified form, circa the mid-1980s, string theory held that reality consists of infinitesimally small, wiggling objects called strings, which vibrate in ways that yield the different subatomic particles that comprise the cosmos. An analogy is the vibrations on a violin string, which yield different musical notes. Advocates claimed that string theory would smooth out the conflicts between Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics. The result, they said, would be a grand unifying "theory of everything," which could explain everything from the nature of matter to the Big Bang to the fate of the cosmos. Over the years, string theory has simultaneously become more frustrating and fabulous... [snip]
- Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005
The most celebrated theory in modern physics faces increasing attacks from skeptics who fear it has lured a generation of researchers down an intellectual dead end.
In its original, simplified form, circa the mid-1980s, string theory held that reality consists of infinitesimally small, wiggling objects called strings, which vibrate in ways that yield the different subatomic particles that comprise the cosmos. An analogy is the vibrations on a violin string, which yield different musical notes.
Advocates claimed that string theory would smooth out the conflicts between Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics. The result, they said, would be a grand unifying "theory of everything," which could explain everything from the nature of matter to the Big Bang to the fate of the cosmos.
Over the years, string theory has simultaneously become more frustrating and fabulous...
(Excerpt) Read more at sfgate.com ...
Yes, yes, yes, they know it all better ... so there is a theory for that and a theory for this. Reality is they know squat.
It does seem that high energy physics has indeed been spinning it's wheels for many years now. It wouldn't surprise me if, in the coming years, some little fellow from Pakistan comes along with a completely new perspective that tosses the last two decades of work out the window.
That's my opinion too, but I'm hardly an expert in this area. In the past, the great scientific work seemed to simplify the world, and describe it in ways that were relatively easy to understand. If I'm to understand anything more, there needs to be a new simplification, not this 11-dimensional beast that seems to be the most promising bridge between the Einsteinian and the quantum-mechanical world.
It's a bias -- and a hope -- built on my own limitations, but my suspicion is that deep down, and I mean way deep down, the universe is based on a few very simple rules.
It's happened once already.
It has certainly been spinning its wheels, and many little fellows have come along with many new perspectives. We don't lack ideas; those we have in spades. The problem is that we don't have any new experimental data that we could use to separate the relevant ideas from the irrelevant, the good from the bad, the useful from the useless. The highest-energy accelerator in the world is the Tevatron at Fermilab, which was built in the 1980's. We now have a pretty good handle on the physics at that energy scale; to get any deeper understanding requires more energetic collisions.
In the next five years a higher-energy accelerator will finally come online, the LHC at CERN. Then we will be able to resume progress.
This was an interesting article revealing a bit of infighting among physicists wrt string theory.
IMHO, it points to an ideological difference which would stem from the priority given to pure mathematics in physics. Indeed we've seen similar disputes here on the forum between those of us who center on the mathematics (information theory, complexity, etc.) related to evolution and those who center on the sciences (biology, chemistry, genetics, paleontology) .
It is a philosophical difference which I believe we would all benefit from exploring.
Personally, I fall on the math first side of the debate I put mathematics above all sciences - and physics at the top of the science heap because of its integration with the mathematics.
My reasoning is that mathematical structures are universals per se and thus their discovery sheds light on all the sciences. As an example I assert Einsteins ability to pull Riemannian geometry off-the-shelf to describe relativity. Other examples include dualities and mirror images - the "unreasonable effectiveness of math".
An example related the subject of this article - some string theorists like Vafa (my personal favorite) treat the physical ramifications of their work as secondary, e.g. he was not troubled by the consequence of an additional time dimension in f-Theory though it caused quite a stir in the physics community at large. IOW, good mathematics may not be widely accepted or have an application at the moment, but will remain "on the shelf" - because they are universals, which may be relevant at some other opportunity.
Additionally, even if physicists were not pursing a "theory of everything" - the mathematicians would. As an example, here's a link to Jurgen Schmidhuber's Algorithmic Theory of Everything.
Id love to hear any arguments for why mathematics should not be given a higher seat in our body of knowledge than science!
One last point - I do agree with everyone here who instinctively believe that mathematical truths ought to be conceptually simple. The Kaluza-Klein based compactified string theories are not without competition, e.g. the easy to comprehend non-compactified 5D higher dimensional dynamics.
Mathematics asks different questions from those in the sciences. In turn, the various sciences ask different questions among themselves.
Don't want to harp too much on this.
However, I lament the demise of the SSC. Sigh. What is done is done though. We will press on with the new tools that are upcoming. :-)
Mathematical structures are universal and some of them can be used as a box of tools for some sciences.
The problem with String Theory is that it is a machinery that takes a very long time to handle for the average PhD physics student. When you have been struggling with the mathematics for several years it still does not give you a nice answer as the equations are very difficult to calculate. We need a Witten II that can provide some insight and exclude some of the possibilities that so far are possible in String Theory.
Until that person will materialize my advice to a young PhD candidate is to stay away and go into some other fields of Physics. Note, I am not saying that String Theory is wrong, I just do not know.
The String Theory is perhaps the The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse?
As for me, string theory is only an alternative geometric for space/time and therefore corporeals, cosmology, etc. - the great meaning is in the universals, an interpretation that everything is a mathematical structure which exists apart from space/time dimensionality (the Max Tegmark Level IV universe, radical mathematical Platonism).
From that perspective, everything physical (and perhaps non-physical as well) - including the geometry and string vibration, fields, waves, particles, properties, organisms, etc. - actually exists in elegant simplicity which (at this time) is beyond our grasp from within a 4D (visual, mental limitation).