Scientific American sciam.com
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- Part I: Don't expect CERN's Large Hadron Collider to reveal new dimensions of space and time
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May 1, 2009 — Editor’s note: This story was originally posted in September 2008, but after seeing The Daily Show With Jon Stewart on April 29, 2009, and John Oliver's fantastic report on the issue, we couldn't help but re-post.
Read Part I of this essay by clicking here.
Despite String Theory’s mathematical complexity – or perhaps because of it – its basic tenants of the have attracted brilliant minds and long persisted in mainstream physics. Mathematicians have performed impressive acrobatics in the effort to describe a String Theory Universe, but the Theory has yet to find stable ground or match observations.
In the meantime newer, more intuitive theories are on the rise.
Take, for example, the work of Jerzy Jurkiewicz, Renate Loll and Jan Ambjorn, discussed in the July issue of Scientific American. Using math and methods which almost any college physics major could understand, the trio developed an outline description of a Universe which is much simpler, much more intuitive, than the partially-described, topsy-turvy world which results from String Theory.
On a large scale, say, the size of the Solar System, the General Theory works very well, yet quantum theory does not. On a small scale the reverse is true – so scientists have long tried to discover a Quantum Theory of Gravity: a description of the Universe which allows quantum physics and gravity to work according to the same laws of nature on all levels.
Time, or more specifically, causality, is the driving force behind the trio’s fairly simple yet groundbreaking work. It seems that modern physicists from Stephen Hawking to Lisa Randall have done something counter-intuitive to the rest of us: they’ve decided that there’s no reason time must necessarily flow forward. In fact, the theories of many physicists have no arrow of time, therefore no causality, and there’s nothing to stop real or theoretical particles in the Universe (such as tachyons) from traveling backward in time.
In Randall’s book, "Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions," she describes a world beyond our sensory perception, perhaps even beyond our conception, full of as many as 10 or 11 dimensions. She compares our own existence to those of the resident’s of Flatland, from the classic Edwin Abbott Abbott book, "Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions." It is the opinion of Randall, and other supporters of String Theory, that mathematical creations called branes inhabit the Universe, beyond our observation and beyond our normal abilities to conceive.
While hers is a strange and wonderful Universe, it exists only in the imaginations of physicist and mathematicians and is quite far from being proven.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have theories like the one presented by Jukiewicz, Loll, and Ambjorn. By performing the very simple (and to most of us, intuitive) act of restoring the arrow of time, among other things, Jukiewicz, Loll, and Ambjorn managed to create a version of space time which seems to match up much more closely to the Universe we observe.
And this alone gives them the upper hand. As entertaining as String Theory is, theoretical physics must always eventually match up with experimental physics, and with the Large Hadron Collider we are entering an era where many of the past decades’ wild theories will come to their reckoning.
String Theory will be among them. While it is fascinating to believe that time has no arrow, that causality is simply a human illusion, or that multiple heretofore undetectable dimensions exist, a far simpler and wiser explanation of the Universe is bound to win.
After all, the search for the ultimate theory is primarily the search for the simplest mathematical way to describe the Universe. The purpose of scientific progress is to unify many complex theories into fewer, simpler ones. The winning ideas which arise from the Hadron Collider are likely follow the old paraphrase of Occam’s Razor, “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is best.”
There is little doubt that those, like Randall, who have put nearly a lifetime into theorizing about String Theory, will have a difficult time letting go of it – but they can be comforted by the advancements made in mathematics as a by-product of their efforts.
Still, as the years go by and the Hadron Collider fails to detect the existence of other dimensions, it’s likely that the hyper-complex String Theory will force all but the most stalwart to find new routes to reconcile Relativity with Quantum Theory.
In its place we will have new theories, as well as new particles and new phenomena, all born of the new Hadron Collider. Along with that information will likely come a simpler, cleaner way to find our Quantum Gravity – one which does not require an untold number of imaginary branes, strings, and dimensions; and one which can elicit the response which Edmund Husserl rightly believed to come with every fundamentally true discovery: “Aha!”
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