Fundamental physics is humanity’s most extraordinary achievement

It sees worlds in grains of sand and infinities in hours

10/18/2021 9:19:00 AM

It sees worlds in grains of sand and infinities in hours

It sees worlds in grains of sand and infinities in hours

.On a cosmic scale, a universe that was once thought to be a few thousand years old, and to consist of a handful of orbs circling Earth against a fixed backdrop of stars, has been shown to have an age of 13.77bn years—a value believed to be known to within a precision of three parts in a thousand. That universe may also be infinite in size. Certainly it stretches at least as far as the distance that light can have travelled in the period since its birth, for what can be seen of it with telescopes has no boundary.

Physics has also revealed what everything is made of, up to a point. It has turned the atom, once a figment of philosophy, into a quotidian object to be trapped, observed, put to work and split—sometimes to produce energy, sometimes to produce knowledge. It has now assembled a plausible catalogue of the components of these atoms and of the components of some of those components, together with a list of the forces that hold everything together. But progress in this area has come to an unexpected halt.

Physicists have got used to the idea that mathematical theories can be turned into reliable representations of reality, thus producing understanding. And one discovery based on maths that physicists were pretty confident of making was of a phenomenon called Supersymmetry, which gives coherence to the current, rather ad hoc explanation of the menagerie of fundamental particles that has been collected since the 1890s. Supersymmetry is a stalking horse for a yet-deeper idea, string theory, which posits that everything is ultimately made of infinitesimally small objects that are most easily conceptualised by those without the maths to understand them properly as taut, vibrating strings.

So sure were most physicists that these ideas would turn out to be true that they were prepared to move hubristically forward with their theorising without experimental backup—because, for the first decades of Supersymmetry’s existence, no machine powerful enough to test its predictions existed. But now, in the form of the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva, one does. And hubris is turning rapidly to nemesis, for of the particles predicted by Supersymmetry there is no sign.

Suddenly, the subject looks wide open again. The Supersymmetricians have their tails between their legs as new theories of everything to fill the vacuum left bystring theory’s implosionare coming in left, right and centre. All of these are mind-bending. One modestly seeks to overturn the principle of causality. Another suggests that everything in the universe really is connected to everything else, and that it is from this simultaneous connection of all with all that the fabric of reality emerges. Time and space are, on this view, not fundamentals of nature, but merely the effects of deeper processes.

Such ideas are in the grand tradition of physics upsetting what seems, to the limited outlook of the human intellect, to be common sense. The theories of relativity promulgated a century ago by Albert Einstein, with their trade-offs between space and time, and their warping of both of these by the presence of massive objects to produce the effect dubbed “gravity” by Sir Isaac Newton, are not common sense. As for quantum theory, coeval with relativity, which claims that impossibly distant happenings can be related to one another and knowing some things precludes you from knowing others, the less said about common sense, the better.

That the human intellect struggles with all this should not be surprising. It evolved so that a social primate could find food and mates and keep safe by interpreting a world halfway between the submicroscopic realm of the quantum and the cosmic vastness of relativity. It has become a commonplace that human brains are lumbered with these limitations—cognitively, socially and politically. How surprising and gratifying, then, that humanity occasionally manages to use mathematics, observation and experiment to transcend its own limits so spectacularly.

Read more: The Economist »

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We are but grains in the sands of time nice

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