Religion

To Unify Or Not To Unify: That Is (Not) The Question

Some readers of 13.7 know about my latest book, A Tear at the Edge of Creation, which came out in the U.S. early April. They also know that, in this book, I present a critique of some deeply ingrained ideas in physics. In particular, I examine the question of unification and the search for a theory of everything, arriving at conclusions that—judging from some of the reactions I’ve been getting in lectures and in various blogs around the world—are shocking to many people.

Of course, I welcome criticism and skepticism. We are used to this in scientific debates. What’s surprising to me, and perhaps alarming, is the speed with which superficial commentary in the blogosphere quickly escalates into complete misunderstanding of what it is that I am saying and why. So, I think the time is ripe for sketching a reply, even though the space here won’t do justice to the details of the argument. I do hope, however, that this will at least inspire critics and skeptics to actually read the book and judge for themselves and not through a few lines on a blog post.

Among other things, in the book I suggest that the notion of a final theory, that is, a theory that encompasses complete knowledge of how matter particles interact with one another, is impossible. First, note that “final theory” here deals only with fundamental particle physics. Any claim that physical theories could be complete in the sense of describing (and predicting) all natural phenomena, including why you’re reading this, shouldn’t be taken seriously.

First, we must consider if a complete theory of matter does exist. Second, assuming it does, if we can ever get to it. The first question is quite nebulous. We have no way of knowing if such a complete theory exists. We don’t even know what a “complete” theory is. You may believe it does and spend your life searching for it. That’s a personal choice. Or, like most physicists, you may believe this is nonsense, more metaphysics than physics. The second question, though, is tangible. Can humans achieve complete knowledge of the subatomic world?

To answer this question, we must look at how science actually works. In a post at her blog Back Reaction, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder expressed her surprise at my statement that it took me 15 years to figure out that the notion of a final theory is faulty. Sorry Sabine, I guess old habits are hard to break. At least, I did see the light in the end. Happily, she agreed with my basic argument, that since what we know of the world depends on our measurements of the world, we can never be sure that we arrived at a final explanation: as tools advance, there is always room for new discoveries. Knowledge is limited by discovery.

I go on to describe how the unifications that we have achieved so far, beautiful and enlightening as they are, are approximations and not “perfect” in any sense. The electroweak theory, a unification of the electromagnetic and the weak nuclear forces, is not a true unification but a mixing of the two interactions. Even electromagnetism, the paradigm of unification, only works flawlessly in the absence of sources. To be a truly perfect unification, objects called magnetic monopoles would have to exist. And even though they could still be found, their properties are clearly very different from the ubiquitous electric monopoles, e.g. point-like particles like electrons. We have partial unifications and we should keep on looking for more of them. This is the job of theoretical physicists. The mistake is made when symmetry, a very useful tool in physics, is taken as dogma.

I don’t agree with Sabine when she says that it doesn’t matter what you believe in as long as the search “helps you in your research.” I think beliefs are very important, and to a large extent drive what it is that we are searching and the cultural context in which research is undertaken. Wrong beliefs can have very negative consequences. And can keep us blind for a long time.

So, one of the points I make is that science is a construction that evolves in time to expand our body of knowledge through a combination of intuition and experimental consensus. There is no end point to it, no final truth to arrive at.

Now, here are some of the things that have been said about my arguments:

“Marcelo is disillusioned with unification; he has closed up his mind to string theory; he couldn’t find a Theory of Everything and now thinks no one can find one as well; he’s just frustrated; he doesn’t understand the role of symmetry in physics (!); he’s timing is bad because the LHC will be revealing new physics.” George Musser, at a Scientific American blog post wrote “My own reaction was that although it’s useful to caution against clinging to preconceived ideas about a final theory, Gleiser was too insistent on seeing the glass of physics as half-empty.”

Musser goes on to say how much we do know about Nature and how much of that is due to the fact that simple laws govern natural phenomena.

It’s true that Musser (and Sabine) were basing their comments on a lecture I gave recently at the Perimeter Institute on the laws of Nature and not on my book. (You can watch the video here.) Even so, as I tried to make clear in my text, I would never put down the remarkable achievements of science and much less be foolish to say that there are no patterns and symmetries in Nature! After all, that is how science works, by searching for simplifying explanation of natural phenomena. Having the LHC turned on and able to probe physics at energies higher than ever before is a very exciting prospect.

The same general defensive zeitgeist was echoed by Neil Turok, the current director of the Perimeter Institute. We recently participated in a televised debate hosted by TV Ontario on Stephen Hawking’s ideas. We were a group of six physicists, hosted by Steve Paikin and had a great time. But at the end, when I made my arguments about final unification and the limits of knowledge, Turok accused me of pessimism!

If anything, my book is a celebration of the human mind and all that we have achieved in such a short time. The fact that I point out that science has limitations doesn’t detract from all of its achievements. Or from all that lies ahead.

I’m not disillusioned for not having found a TOE or for believing it doesn’t exist. I’m actually relieved!

The reactions that I have encountered only reinforce my point, that there is great confusion these days about the cultural role of science and scientists. Science is not a new form of religion, scientists are not holy men and women, and we don’t have or can have all the answers.

As I wrote in Tear at the Edge of Creation, “Human understanding of the world is forever a work in progress. That we have learned so much, speaks well of our creativity. That we want to know more, speaks well of our drive. That we think we can know all, speaks only of our folly.”

Hopefully, this acceptance of our perennial ignorance won’t be interpreted as an opening to religion and supernatural explanations. Let me make my position clear: behind our ignorance there is only the science we still don’t know.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.