Friday, May 14, 2010

No T-shirt big enough for final theory shock

An unsettling suggestion in New Scientist 8th May (no 2759) by one Marcelo Gleiser. 
A theory of everything - a final theory that unifies all the secrets of the material world - may not exist, and it may be a mistake even to go looking for one.  Perhaps, he says, belief in a final theory is just the scientific equivalent of the religious belief in oneness.  Going in search of “the Mind of God”, though conceived by most as just a metaphor, may be all too revealing of the real nature of the enterprise.
He also says that life is probably quite rare, a product of asymmetries, imperfections and accidents.  He itemises some of these, though here he gets a bit too technical for me.
So what's unsettling about this?  We've all been led to believe that a theory of everything (TOE) is the holy grail of physics. (Ho! religious metaphor again!) Unification is the big thing. Showing that things previously thought of as separate are actually linked.  Paul Davies is fond of expressing the hope that how all the laws and forces of nature interact can one day be expressed in a neat formula, just as Einstein gave us e = mc^2 to express the unification of matter and energy. 
A t-shirt is the ideal place to put the final formula, Paul Davies reckons.
Then comes this Gleiser chap and says the universe is a mess, you’ll never get a t-shirt big enough for the formula, in fact there isn't one.
I have Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics, which I haven't finished. But chapter 2 is menacingly called “The beauty myth” and the opening sentence goes “The most cherished goal in physics, as in bad romance novels, is unification.”  Does this mean I wonder that if I managed to read to the end, I should find that he too dismisses the theory of everything as a chimera? 
I borrowed The Trouble with Physics from Fermoy library.  I read chapter 2 and decided: I must buy this book.  Here he says that bringing together things previously thought of as different and recognising them as a single entity is the biggest thrill in science.  Once the Sun was understood as being there to warm the Earth and the stars were pinholes in the dome of heaven. Then the new astronomy came along and hey presto the sun is just another star. We have no special place. And the stars are just suns that are very far away.  Heaven isn't just overhead, the universe is vast.  And if the stars are suns, they must have planets and people on them.  We are not alone. Nothing is the same again. 

Sunday, May 9, 2010


My favourite photo this week.