The search for a Theory of Everything, which is kind of the unofficial M.O. of the scientific establishment, has always been closely guarded. The elements of profound uncertainty involved with such a quest have always primly clipped, safe from the grubby hands of untrained speculation. Relatively sane, brilliant physicists who err too far in the direction of the fabulous are practically shunned, or at least relegated to different class; those who posit that any variant of string theory might bridge the gap are nominally demoted from “physicists” to “string theorists,” a nomenclature that smacks of thinly-veiled condescension.
In recent years, however, the tides have changed, at least to the untrained eye of this untoward layperson.
In November, a non-affiliated renegade physicist with a penchant for year-round surfing and Burning Man baffled the scientific community with a surprisingly cogent theory of everything: a testable hypothesis, which, refreshingly, does not require either highly complex mathematics, or any more than one dimension of time and three of space. It’s based on the E8, a complex, eight-dimensional mathematical pattern with 248 points, generally considered to be the most elegant and intricate shape known to mathematics. Quoth the surfer in question, Garrett Lisi, “I think our universe is this beautiful shape.” A radically simple Theory Of Everything that could shelve once and for all the quivering postulations of String theorists? Strike one.
Furthermore, this month, one of the most prestigious astronomical publications in the world, The Astrophysical Journal, will publish the research of Gerrit Verschuur, who claims that the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite images — which, since 1992, have served as unfuckwithable empirical evidence of the Big Bang — depict nearby hydrogen gas clouds in our own galaxy, rather than the structures of the early Universe they are thought to be. A massive paradigm shift that brings us back to square one as far as the origin of the Universe is concerned? Strike two.
There’s plenty of contenders vying for strike three. A recent, and much-misunderstood, paper by Laurence Krauss (author, incidentally, of The Physics of Star Trek) of Case Western Reserve University argued that since the Universe originated from a quantum state — and hence is part of a highly illogical quantum system — then it’s possible that a “probability wave” of reality could be conked out by something as innocuous as an observation. Remember Schroedinger’s unfortunate cat? In any case, Krauss’ paper ever-so-lightly suggested that a 1998 observation of a supernova, through which scientists deduced the existence of dark matter, could have collapsed a web of probabilities stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, potentially shortening the lifespan of our very universe.
But wait, isn’t the Big Bang potentially bunk? Or maybe there’s no quantum universe at all; maybe the universe is this glamorous, eight-dimensional mathematical pattern resounding with beautiful and complex symmetries. It’s a mess: the quest for a unified front has only led to more and more chaos, illogical syllogisms, and mutually-exclusive theory sets. Meanwhile, astronomers are knee-deep in dark matter, dark energy, new planets, holes in the universe, and ancient textures in the sky.
It seems as though string Theory era has opened the vibrating, 11-dimensional doors to a period of open speculation. We seem to be in the midst of a theoretical free-for-all, a mêlée of ideas, both hackneyed and abstract. Is the scientific establishment really evolving into a multifaceted, fractured, and wildly theoretical community? Are open-source electronic journals and the democratization of information in this self-navigating digital era rending the staid entitlement of science into shreds? Or is it simply the fault of the mainstream press, being more clued in to the hype potential of science than it once was, perhaps enticed by the exoticism of String Theory, the media-savvy of Brian Greene, or the throbbing pulse of the upcoming Mayan apocalypse?
In his 2006 book, “Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Particle Physics,” mathematical physicist Peter Woit explains that “particle theory has a long history of being successfully pursued in a somewhat faddish manner…new ideas get a lot of attention, leading in a short period either to significant progress, or, more commonly, to abandonment as the community moves on to the next thing.”
Are these recent jabs at the gilded throne of particle physics, as Woit puts it, simply “faddish?” Perhaps string theory’s wildly untestable nature has broken this pattern dramatically, thrusting us headlong into an age of uncertainty, an era of radically open scientific discourse, careening along the mandala-like vortices of cosmic shapes or emanating from an uncertain, perhaps quantum, past. Here’s hoping, right?