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Theory Of Everything

From: Terry W. Colvin <fortean1.nul>
Date: Thu, 10 Mar 2011 13:59:14 +0700 (GMT+07:00)
Archived: Thu, 10 Mar 2011 09:38:18 -0500
Subject: Theory Of Everything

Source: Live Science


Mar 10, 2011 1:53 PM

Theory of Everything: Holy Grail or Fruitless Pursuit?
by Clara Moskowitz

Einstein died before completing his dream of creating a unified
theory of everything. Since then, physicists have carried on his
torch, continuing the quest for one theory to rule them all.

But will they ever get there? That was the topic of debate when
seven leading physicists gathered here at the American Museum of
Natural History for the 11th annual Isaac Asimov Memorial

The quest for a theory of everything arises because two of the
most celebrated, successful theories in physics are

The theory that describes very big things "general relativity"
and the theory that describes very small things " quantum
mechanics " each work amazingly well in their own realms, but
when combined, break down. They can't both be right.

And we can't just sweep that fact under the rug and continue to
use them each as they are, because there are some cases in which
both theories apply " such as a black hole.

"Its size is small in terms of length; its size is large in
terms of mass. So you need both," explained Brian Greene,
professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University.

Scientists hope that a unified theory would resolve this
incompatibility, and describe anything and everything in the
universe in one fell swoop.

Vibrating strings

Many physicists say our best hope for a theory of everything is
superstring theory, based on the idea that subatomic particles
are actually teensy tiny loops of vibrating string. When
filtered through the lens of string theory, general relativity
and quantum mechanics can be made to get along.

For that reason, string theory has inspired many physicists to
devote their careers to developing it since the idea was first
proposed in the 1980s.

"There's been an enormous amount of progress in string theory,"
said Greene, a proponent of string theory whose 2000 book "The
Elegant Universe" described the theory in layman's terms. "There
have been issues developed and resolved that I never thought,
frankly, we would be able to resolve. The progress over the last
10 years has only solidified my confidence that this is a
worthwhile direction to pursue."

But other experts are getting weary of string theory, which has
yet to produce concrete, testable predictions. Perhaps string
theory, and the whole idea that a single theory can explain the
universe, is misguided, they say.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum's Hayden
Planetarium, suggested that string theory seems to have stalled,
and contrasted the lack of progress of "legions" of string
theorists with the seemingly short 10 years it took one man "
Einstein " to transition from special relativity to general

"Are you chasing a ghost or is the collection of you just too
stupid to figure this out?" deGrasse Tyson teased, beginning a
friendly banter that would continue throughout the night.

Greene admitted that string theorists have not produced testable
predictions that experiments can confirm, but said it wasn't
time to give up.

"As long as progress is carrying forward, you keep going," he
said. "To say there's no progress, come on man, that's just not

The theory is so complex, he charged, and deals with such
fantastically small scales that are inaccessible to experimental
data, that no wonder it's taking a while to crack.

"Nowhere is it written that we "have to solve problems in one
human lifetime," agreed Janna Levin, a physicist at Barnard
College in New York. I don't see why we should be shocked that
solving incredibly challenging problems may take more than one
human life span."

Hidden dimensions

One aspect of string theory that riles many is that many
versions of it require the universe to contain more than the
three dimensions of space and one of time that we are familiar

The most popular version of string theory, in fact, calls for 11
total dimensions.

"Why don't we see them?" Levin said. "It might be that they're
very, very small. Or it might be that we are somehow confined to
a three-dimensional kind of membrane. Or it might be that
they're not there. But these are very interesting ideas that
have some very compelling consequences."

Yet such a bizarre notion is disquieting to many.

"I'm a higher dimensional refusnik," said physicist Jim Gates of
the University of Maryland-College Park, who argued that
sometimes it seems like physicists invoke higher dimensions when
they can't make their theory work as it is.

"It is not at all that we can't solve a problem so we pull extra
dimensions out of a hat," Greene said.

"I'm just saying it looks that way," deGrasse Tyson said,
carrying on the friendly debate.

Testing string theory

Luckily, the question of higher dimensions isn't entirely
restricted to the theoretical domain. There is some hope that
experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider " the world's most
powerful particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland " will be
able to provide experimental evidence of hidden dimensions in
the universe.

The evidence may be in the absence of certain particles, or
missing energy, that might result when a particle leaves our
normal dimensions and enters one of the hidden ones.

"What we have to do is go to the highest energies at
accelerators and send something off into the extra dimensions,"
said Katherine Freese, a physicist at the University of

Another possible test for string theory will be analyzing the
detailed observations of the light left over from the Big Bang,
called the cosmic microwave background radiation, which
permeates space. This radiation is thought to preserve an
imprint of the tiny fluctuations in density that would have been
present in the early universe, and might reveal evidence for
some of string theory's predictions.

"If we're lucky we can actually use this to test some of the
ideas of string theory by looking at imprints in the cosmic
microwave background," Freese said.

Should we even be searching?

Ultimately, some physicists say the search for a theory of
everything will be a fruitless chase.

"To me the problem of a notion of a theory of everything is that
it implies we will eventually know everything there is to know,"
said Marcelo Gleiser, a physicist at Dartmouth College in New
Hampshire. "For me physics is a work in progress."

As our knowledge of physics grows like an island, he said, so
too will the "shores of ignorance increase." Thus there will
always be more to know, bigger questions, greater areas of

"I have a disquiet with the dream of a search for the final
theory," said Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist at Perimeter
Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, Canada. He said
the quest was incompatible with the modern way of physics, which
has outpaced the scientific methods of Newton, in which
scientists do experiments over and over, varying the initial
conditions, to isolate the generalities, or laws, that apply.

Now, Smolin said, "we no longer can do experiments over and over
again. There's one experiment, which is the universe as a

We can't run other universes in test scenarios to understand
cosmology, he said.

"No longer can we separate out the laws from the initial
conditions. We are left with the question not just what are the
laws, but why these laws? Why these initial conditions rather
than other initial conditions? The method that Newton gave us no
longer tells us how to go ahead. We have to change the
methodology by which we try to understand the universe."

Terry W. Colvin
Ladphrao (Bangkok), Thailand
Pran Buri (Hua Hin), Thailand
[Terry's Fortean & "Work" itty-bitty site]

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