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Physicists War Over a Unified Theory

michael posted more than 12 years ago | from the stop-throwing-erasers dept.

Science 451

beggs writes: "I was looking through the New York Times and came across an article which talks about a new front in the war to find a unified theory, but this one does not come from the particle physicists, it comes from the solid state physicists. Here is a little quote for wet your appetite: 'some solid-state physicists are trying to show that the laws of relativity, long considered part of the very bedrock of the physical world, are not platonic truths that have existed since time began.'"

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451 comments

whuhuh (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654403)

first post

Mirror for the article please? (-1, Offtopic)

PigeonGB (515576) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654413)

I don't exactly have the login to get in.
In fact, I just don't have it at all.

Re:Mirror for the article please? (2, Informative)

corinath (30865) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654427)

Try replacing the 'www' in the URL with 'archives' that usually gets past the registration thing.

Re:Mirror for the article please? (2, Funny)

Camel Pilot (78781) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654585)

Hockey - Canada's gift to the world

Dentistry the worlds gift to Hockey

Re:Mirror for the article please? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654633)

I'm sorry, but you're wrong. They probably changed it because too many people like us were doing it.

All good things come to an end sometime.

Re:Mirror for the article please? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654437)

And registering is just too complicated, right?

Re:Mirror for the article please? (0, Troll)

ahaning (108463) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654450)

If you don't feel like using the "archives" link, use the goatse:goatse account.

Re:Mirror for the article please? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654462)

If you don't have a login or don't feel like signing up, use subsriber_id/password. I'm sure there are plenty of variations that will also work.

Re:Mirror for the article please? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654572)

Why don't you register you fuckin' moron?
It's free of charge!

Relativity is not a platonic truth? (-1, Offtopic)

Hairy_Potter (219096) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654415)

Hot damn, I am so sick of platonic truths, and the way they want you there at 3 am to jump start their car, but you'll only be friends with them.

Infant rapes in South Africa (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654421)

Another infant has been raped in South Africa, a 5 month old girl... Jon Katz, get some self control!

It's hard to pick a side (2, Funny)

fritter (27792) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654423)

I know nothing about physics. So basically whatever Stephen Hawking says about this, that's my opinion too.

Someone Post The Article!! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654424)

Can someone mirror, or post the article?

Thanks!

Creationists (0, Offtopic)

well_jung (462688) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654430)

I haven't read the article yet, by knee jerks in that direction. I'll go read now.

Re:Creationists (2, Interesting)

well_jung (462688) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654488)

I've read it now, and my knee jerked in the wrong direction. This is pretty cool. Should make for quite the pissing match over the next year or so.

This is a debate that I'll be watching closely. Nothing beats Really Smart people arguing over their fundamental beliefs. And there's enough Laureates in this one to to hold a Rodeo.

Re:Creationists (2)

geekoid (135745) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654556)

enough Laureates in this one to to hold a Rodeo.
wouldn't that be just the funniet rodeo, ever?

you know... (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654434)

...if there's a God (being who sees everything present can change anything present) who's even a LITTLE smarter than everyone else combined, she or he could just be leading us on a wild-goose chase, making sure all the results of our experiments fit in with some elegant theory of the universe, but keeping things that arent being examined (and God would know what every one's every thought is about what to examine) more or less random...
In other words, why is physics so goshdarned important, when Newton's and Maxwell's shit gives us all that we could ever need? (It's not like we needed an atom bomb either, you know...)
Just a thought.

Re:you know... (-1)

October_30th (531777) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654453)

why is physics so goshdarned important

Because it's important to know more and more. Besides Maxwell's shit won't work soon in the nanoscale electronic circuits. Better dig out quantum physics book, engineer-boy, or face unemployment.

natural laws hold true, but values do not (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654436)

I find it very amazing that some people think the speed of light and other 'constants' could not have changed in the distant past from a value much different than what we observe today. Trying to measure the age of the universe based on relativity is good, but using a 'constant' like the speed of light to aid in doing so is folly. No one has been around to observe every last possible variation in the 'constant' speed of light.

So I think it's very good that these scientists are challenging theories like this.

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (2, Informative)

-brazil- (111867) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654482)

Actually, in the theory of realitvity, as far as I understand it, the speed of light is the central constant around which everything is built. It can't change because it determines everything, including the passing of time. If the speed of light became slower, then so would the passing of time of time, with the result that light would still travel the same distance in the same time.

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654570)

This isn't quite correct. You are right that in changing the speed of light you are only redefining the time unit. (One second is how long a photon takes to travel a certain distance.) In everyday work, (yes- I am a physicist) I choose units where c is one. It makes things so much easier.

What the physicists are measuring isn't the speed of light - it is the dimensionless constant alpha. Since alpha is dimensionless, you cannot renormalise changes in it by changing the size of your units. (Alpha is a measure of the strength of the electromagnetic (and electroweak) force.)

Quantum mechanics is the thing we know least about. We have tested general relativity to fourteen decimal places, but QED (quantum electrodynamics) has only been tested to ten decimal places. Quantum is a theory filled with ad-hoc rules. GR is increadibly simple. It wouldn't surprise me at all if quantum field theory was shown to be a suitable limit of what happens to gravational waves once non-linear effects become important, and once you start running into the effects of compactified dimensions.

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (4, Funny)

gowen (141411) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654658)

In everyday work, (yes - I am a physicist) I choose units where c is one. It makes things so much easier.

At my old university, we simply referred to these as "God's Units". Of course, I'm in a maths department now, so we just write c and leave all the fiddling about with actual numbers to the physicists.

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (2, Insightful)

Exedore (223159) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654665)

(One second is how long a photon takes to travel a certain distance.)

Question: Seconds, as a unit of time, have been around far longer than the ability to observe photons, have they not? Has the concept of a second been redefined by physicists to mean the amount of time it takes a photon to travel a certain distance?

Not trying to be argumentative here, just curious. My knowledge of physics could fit in a thimble, with room to spare

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (2)

wurp (51446) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654574)

That's an interesting thought, but I know of no evidence that it might be true. The passage of time is not a function of the speed of light. Observed passage of time is a function of the relative speed of the observer to the observee, but that's an entirely different thing.

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (1)

mcramer (7010) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654612)

That's an interesting thought, but I know of no evidence that it might be true. The passage of time is not a function of the speed of light.

It's not only an interesting thought, it's an axiom. Time doesn't mean anything without a clock. That clock is the movement of light. So the speed of light may change, but it's always the "same", because how we measure it has also changed.

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (2)

coyote-san (38515) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654617)

This argument assumes that the passage of time is real. It may not be. At the human scale, this is a moot point since our consciousness is predicated on the perception of the passage of time, but at the fundamental level where there's CPT conservation it may be nothing but an illusion that distracts you from the truth.

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (1)

joib (70841) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654624)


That's an interesting thought, but I know of no evidence that it might be true. The passage of time is not a function of the speed of light. Observed passage of time is a function of the relative speed of the observer to the observee, but that's an entirely different thing.

I think you're confusing fundamental stuff with how we choose to measure things. According to general relativity, the speed of light in vacuum is constant. End of discussion. Everything else follows from that. Now, if the general theory of relativity is wrong, it's entirely another matter. But so far general relativity has proven to be correct.

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (1)

Estimator (524578) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654631)

I think you raise a very complicated issue without even realising it. What I would ask you is how are you measuring the passage of time without using the speed of light as a fundamental input? Most physical methods of measuring time are ultimately defined using the speed of light as a measuring stick. That's at the heart of relativity.

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (1)

gunnk (463227) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654639)

Actually, the speed of light is very much used as the constant around which time is measured. It's too much discussion to handle in a slashdot comment, so check out this page on the subject: The Light Clock [btinternet.com]

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (2, Interesting)

RetsamYthgimla (458392) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654654)

As I understand it, the passage of time as we humans would care to measure it, or as our clocks would measure it, is based upon chemical and physical laws of nature, which depend on, among other things, the speed of light. The speed of light affects such mundane things as the strength of electromagnetic forces and the ratio of the the electric and magnetic constants to one another. Change the speed of light, and you change the rate at which all physical processes occur which we would use to measure time. If light moves slower, these processes move slower, and our sense of time has hence slowed, and light still travels at roughly the same speed.

But as the previous comment pointed out, the unitless constant alpha is not renormalized by the slowing of physical processes, so this can be measured, and may have possibly changed over time.

Also worth pointing out, is that phyiscal processes that happened billions of years ago with a "slower" or "faster" speed of light, could have happened at different rates because of altered electromagnetic strength and electric/mangnetic constant ratio, etc. This has been suggested as one explanation of redshifted light from distant objects. However, measurements of the constant alpha show only a very small change over time (if any), so the speed of light doesn't appear to have changed much at all over the last few billion years.

Re:natural laws hold true, but values do not (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654607)

Since I believe chaos existed before the universe I think the unificationists are going on a wild goose chase. Since we cannot travel back in time to observe the speed of light, there is no real evidence that it is a constant

Universal Laws (-1, Troll)

Jucius Maximus (229128) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654442)

"...some solid-state physicists are trying to show that the laws of relativity, long considered part of the very bedrock of the physical world, are not platonic truths that have existed since time began.'"

The only law that holds true for all time is that there have been and always will be trolls. And whenever a troll is struck down, three more will spring up to replace it.

help! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654443)

someone please dry my appetite, that quote made it too wet. and seriously, who looks in the ny times for their info in theoretical physics?

Here (-1, Troll)

big_groo (237634) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654444)

For the login-impaired.
Here [nytimes.com]

Re:Here (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654467)

I don't know why this keeps getting posted. That archives trick hasn't worked in nearly 2 months.

Re:Here (0, Flamebait)

atheos (192468) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654487)

Even more importantly, how someone could mod up the post. How fucking stupid is that?

We never really know anything (4, Interesting)

KarmaBlackballed (222917) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654445)

It is narrow thinking to propose that we ever have the "final" answer because there is no way to prove that something is right. We can only prove that things are wrong.

Newton thought he had it covered, and the world agreed. Then Einstein came along and shook our understanding in strange ways. People got comfortable, then Schroedinger and his damn cats show up and screw things up again. Then we get comfortable. Then scientist discover that we still do not have whole story yet again.

Don't you get it? The wonderfulness of it all is that we will never know it all. The beauty of creation is that we will always have something more to discover.

Re:We never really know anything (2, Interesting)

Strange_Attractor (160407) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654489)

Well, almost - I think a significant part of the "wonderfulness of it all" is how much we do know, and how much more we continue to learn that's true (on top of which, as you said, there always is/will be more to learn).

This is all worthless intellectual masturbation if there's no real learning involved.

Re:We never really know anything (3, Funny)

Syberghost (10557) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654491)

The beauty of creation is that we will always have something more to discover.

How do you know?

Re:We never really know anything (0, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654506)

There is a man called Godel who proved that so.

Re:We never really know anything (4, Informative)

Violet Null (452694) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654567)

There is a man called Godel who proved that so.

1) Godel's proof only works in discrete systems that support (at least) a small number of operations. It is not, despite the occasional comment to the contrary, necessarily applicable to, say, human existance.

2) Godel's proof does not say that it is impossible to know everything. It says that in these discrete systems, it is either a) impossible to make some valid statements (an incomplete system), or b) possible to make some invalid statements (an incorrect system).

3) Godel's proof only works if you are using boolean logic (and, in fact, works only because boolean logic is so bad at handling self-referential statements). This does not mean that the universe works the same way.

Re:We never really know anything (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654579)

Off topic?? I'm not the poster, but maybe the moderator should not automatically moderate something down because of their own ignorance.

Re:We never really know anything (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654495)

It is narrow thinking to propose that we ever have the "final" answer because there is no way to prove that something is right. We can only prove that things are wrong.

what ?? perhaps you have some convoluted idea of proof. all the things you mention are theories, no proof was given. i agree there is something always more to discover, but why do you think we can disprove something then?

also, as a studying mathematician, i do believe that we can proove and disprove things absolutely. to think otherwise is incredibly naive given the relative success of humanity.

Re:We never really know anything (5, Insightful)

dangermouse (2242) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654651)

also, as a studying mathematician, i do believe that we can proove and disprove things absolutely. to think otherwise is incredibly naive given the relative success of humanity.

Mathematics is entirely artificial. It's based on rules and premises that we pretty much made up. You can prove things in math because it's a self-contained problem set, and you're looking at it from the outside with an omniscient view.

When you didn't invent the framework of the problem, it tends to be harder to prove a solution.

That said, you may never be able to prove a Unified Theory, because you can't ever be certain you've described every aspect of the problem set. But you can disprove a physical theory (or at least show it to be lacking) simply by finding a counterexample.

Re:We never really know anything (0, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654505)

Ah! Don't you get it?

As the scale of that which we wish to discover becomes smaller the price tag increases and so the rate of actual discovery decreases.

Engineering and the quest to pave the entire surface of the earth is an investment that bears more immediate fruit and gets more immediate dollars.

Re:We never really know anything (0, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654537)

True. But even a fundamental equation could lead to an infinite number of discoveries as we explore the complexities that arise from this equation. Of course, we will never know what came "before" or why the Universe exists in the first place. The whole random events infinitely theory strikes me as a little simplisticly arrogant.

Re:We never really know anything (5, Insightful)

tijnbraun (226978) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654544)

This reminds me of pascal's image of knowledge...
Where knowledge is symbolized by the sphere's volume and the unknown by the sphere's surface. Therefore as knowledge grows, so does the unkown (although the volume grows faster than the surface, total wisdom will be never achieved.)

(or if the sphere is a balloon, science grows until it explodes :)

Re:We never really know anything (5, Insightful)

dragons_flight (515217) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654634)

You are forgetting something. Before the great paradigm shifts in the history of physics (Newton, Einstein, Bohr, etc.), there was always evidence that something was wrong with prevailing theory. Scientists on the front lines weren't "comfortable", they noticed things like the "ultraviolet catastrophe" and the precise spectra of atoms and knew something was wrong.

Today we know that general relativity and quantum mechanics don't work together, but we aren't sure how to fix it (though string theorists try hard).

Eventually it's conceivable that we'll write down some basic laws and then millenia will pass without any evidence that something is still wrong. While you're right that it's impossible to prove that these laws are correct, scientists are very diligent about trying to find holes and if none are found, then everyone will believe we finally know the truth. And perhaps we actually will.

Re:We never really know anything (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654676)

I believe it's narrow thinking to propose that we can ever have the final answer. Why is it so difficult to accept that we simply may not have the mental capacity to comprehend the nature of the universe?

My dog learns new things every day, but she'll never grasp algebra. Couldn't it be that our theories on nature's fundamentals are still laughably far off even though at this stage there's like five people in the world who can keep up with them?

Limiting factors (3, Insightful)

TheSHAD0W (258774) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654446)

Absolutely. Einstein's theories superseded Newtonian physics, though Newton's system works just fine for most things here on Earth. It's only when one approaches the speed of light that you find the discrepancies pointed at by Relativity -- and discover how matter and energy interrelate.

Einstein's work may also not adequately describe the universe in some instances; it cannot satisfactorially explain how the universe came into being. A new theory that can do so can hopefully be found -- and if it is, it will very likely teach us new things, things that may affect our every day life, just like Einstein has.

Re:Limiting factors (1)

Lewis Daggart (539805) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654477)

There are already are theories as to how the universe came into being... the problem is that most people who believe in them are debunked as unscientific

Re:Limiting factors (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654662)

It's the theories that are debunked, not the people. Sometimes the theory is untestable, and therefore ill-posed and unscientific, sometimes the theory is disproved by experimental evidence. At not point is the scientific method an attack on a person. People with insufficiently thick skins sometimes view the discrediting of their pet theory as a personal attack - it's not, their theory is probably jsut wrong.

Re:Limiting factors (2)

the_2nd_coming (444906) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654500)

not to mention that one good ear marking of a theory that has limits is when you have discovered an undefined solution (like blackholes) where classical Physics failed at high speeds etc. GR fails at high gravitational forces....not to mention that the speed of light thing is a bit off (if you can pass through a worm hole and end up in antoher location, you have, reletive to the onlooker, gone faster than the speed of light and infact almost exist in 2 locations at once.) but that will all get hashed out in the final stableised theory that these gents come up with.

Actually... (2, Insightful)

epepke (462220) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654568)

Special Relativity didn't supersede Newton's laws of motion.

They superseded the classical viewpoint that momentum was speed times a constant mass, but to his credit, Newton never made this claim. His students did. In modern form, F=dp/dt still works under SR.

They also superseded the Galilean transformations by the Lorenz transformations, but that was Galileo's problem, not Newton's.

I'm being picky because I think Newton gets a bad rap and doesn't deserve it for the laws of motion. They're still good. On the other hand, GR certainly does supersede Newton's law of gravity, and in that case the criticism is valid.

Re:Limiting factors (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654618)

You don't have to get close to the speed of light before relativity becomes an issue. GPS wouldn't work without using relativistic corrections, and since the GPS satellites remain in orbit they have to be moving at less than 26,000 mph.

--rick

Affecting every day life? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654659)

Excuse me, but how does relativity affect every day life? Newtonian mechanics, sure - that goes into everything from auto design to building stress analysis. Quantum physics gives us transistors and lasers. Classical E&M runs our power lines and radios. But what the hell has relativity done for anyone?

Besides giving jobs to all those number-crunching peons at the supercolliders ("Ooooh, after 10 years of massive computation, we've decided that we were wrong by 2% on the mass of this inconsequential particle that only exists because otherwise my friend's theory would be wrong"), and giving people like Hawking free license to write books about mathematical nonsense like black holes, white holes, and parallel universes, what the hell has SR or GR actually gone and done?

-peter

Arguing with Theory? (3, Informative)

FortKnox (169099) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654448)

Arguing with theory (especially Relativity) is not uncommon. The only way theories become so well supported is trial by fire.

I'm all for arguing with the theory, but more interested in the result.

Since we are talking Unified theory, please allow a shameless plug to my fav String Theory site [superstringtheory.com] .

Okay, Here It Is (5, Informative)

The Gardener (519078) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654452)

December 4, 2001

Challenging Particle Physics as Path to Truth


By GEORGE JOHNSON


n science's great chain of being, the particle physicists place themselves with the angels, looking down from the heavenly spheres on the chemists, biologists, geologists, meteorologists -- those who are applying, not discovering, nature's most fundamental laws. Everything, after all, is made from subatomic particles. Once you have a concise theory explaining how they work, the rest should just be filigree.

Even the kindred discipline of solid-state physics, which is concerned with the mass behavior of particles -- what metals, crystals, semiconductors, whole lumps of matter do -- is often considered a lesser pursuit. "Squalid state physics," Murray Gell-Mann, discoverer of the quark, dubbed it. Others dismiss it as "dirt physics."

Recently there have been rumblings from the muck. In a clash of scientific cultures, some prominent squalid-staters have been challenging the particle purists as arbiters of ultimate truth.

"The stakes here are very high," said Dr. Robert B. Laughlin, a Stanford University theorist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1998 for discoveries in solid-state physics. "At issue is a deep epistemological matter having to do with what physics is."

Last year Dr. Laughlin and Dr. David Pines, a theorist at the University of Illinois and Los Alamos National Laboratory, published a manifesto declaring that the "science of the past," which seeks to distill the richness of reality into a few simple equations governing subatomic particles, was coming to an impasse.

Many complex systems -- the very ones the solid-staters study -- appear to be irreducible. Made of many interlocking parts, they display a kind of synergy, obeying "higher organizing principles" that cannot be further simplified no matter how hard you try.

Carrying the idea even further, some solid-state physicists are trying to show that the laws of relativity, long considered part of the very bedrock of the physical world, are not platonic truths that have existed since time began.

They may have emerged from the roiling of the vacuum of space, much as supply-and-demand and other "laws" of economics emerge from the bustle of the marketplace. If so, then solid-state physics, which specializes in how emergent phenomena occur, may be the most fundamental science of them all.

"We're in the midst of a paradigm change," Dr. Pines said. "Ours is not the prevailing view, but I think it will turn out to be the one that lasts."
Working in this vein, one of Dr. Laughlin's Stanford colleagues, Dr. Shoucheng Zhang, recently was co- author of a paper suggesting that elementary particles like photons and gravitons, the carriers of electromagnetism and gravity, might not be so elementary after all -- they might emerge as ripples in the vacuum of space, bubbling up from the quagmire in a way that can best be explained in terms of solid-state physics.

"The idea is of course crazy, thought provoking, and somewhat anti-establishment," Dr. Zhang said. "The main idea is to apply concepts from solid-state physics to answer some big questions of the universe."

The particle physicists insist that there is plenty of mileage left in their own approach. "I strongly believe that the fundamental laws of nature are not emergent phenomena," said Dr. David Gross, director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "Bob Laughlin and I have violent arguments about this."

After hearing Dr. Zhang describe his theory at a seminar last month, Dr. Gross deemed it "an interesting piece of work." He said he found the mathematics "beautiful and intriguing, and perhaps of use somewhere."

That may sound like faint praise, but the particle physicists have reason to be wary. The squalid-staters are challenging them in a debate over how the universe is made and how science should be done.

Following the method of Plato, the particle physicists are inclined to see nature as crystallized mathematics. In the beginning was a single superforce, the embodiment of an elegant set of equations they call, only a bit facetiously, the theory of everything. Then along came the Big Bang to ruin it all.

The universe cooled and expanded, the single force splintering into the four very different forces observed today: electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces, which work inside atoms, are described by quantum mechanics and special relativity. The fourth force, gravity, is described by an entirely different theory, general relativity.

The particle physicists' ultimate goal is "grand unification" -- recovering the primordial symmetry in the form of a single law -- a few concise equations, it is often said, that could be silk-screened onto a T- shirt.

This approach, in which the most complex phenomena are boiled down to a unique underlying theory, is called reductionism.

The problem, the solid-staters say, is that many forms of matter -- ranging from the exotic like superconductors and superfluids to the mundane like crystals and metals -- cannot be described in terms of fundamental particle interactions. When systems become very complex, completely new and independent laws emerge. "More is different," as the Nobel laureate Philip W. Anderson put it in a landmark paper in 1972. To the solid-staters, it would take something the size of a circus tent to hold all the equations capturing the unruliness of the physical world.

Like Aristotle, they lean toward the notion that it is the equations that flow from nature instead of the other way around. Mathematics is just a tool for making sense of it all.

"For at least some fundamental things in nature, the theory of everything is irrelevant," declared Dr. Laughlin and Dr. Pines in the Jan. 4, 2000 issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "The central task of theoretical physics in our time is no longer to write down the ultimate equations but rather to catalog and understand emergent behavior in its many guises, including potentially life itself."

There may not be a theory of everything, they say, just a lot of theories of things. This is exactly the kind of squalor the particle physicists abhor.

Dr. Grigori E. Volovik, a solid- state physicist at the Helsinki University of Technology in Finland, champions an idea he calls "anti- grand unification." In a review article last year (xxx.lanl.gov/abs /gr-qc/0104046), he ventured that the universe may have begun not in a state of pristine symmetry but in one of lawlessness. The laws of relativity and perhaps quantum mechanics itself would have emerged only later on.

The notion of emergent laws is not radical in itself. A flask of gas consists of trillions of molecules randomly colliding with one another. From this disorder, qualities like temperature and pressure emerge, along with laws relating one to the other.

So take that idea a level deeper. Physicists now believe that the vacuum of space is, paradoxically, not vacuous at all. It seethes with energy, in the form of "virtual particles" constantly flitting in and out of existence. So perhaps, Dr. Volovik suggests, even laws now considered fundamental emerged from this constant subatomic buzz.

Solid-state physics offers clues to how something like this might occur. The atomic vibrations that ripple through matter are, like all quantum phenomena, carried by particles -- called, in this case, phonons.

Just as photons carry light and gravitons carry gravity, phonons carry the subatomic equivalent of sound. Like bubbles in a carbonated beverage, phonons -- physicists call them "quasi particles" -- appear only when the medium is disturbed.

In the world of solid-state physics, quasi particles abound. In some substances, like the semiconductors used to make computer chips, the displacement of an electron leaves behind a "hole" that behaves like a positively charged particle. An electron and a hole can sometimes stick together to form a chargeless quasi particle called an exciton. Other such ephemera include magnons and polarons.

Evanescent though they are, quasi particles act every bit like elementary particles, obeying the laws of quantum mechanics. This has led some mavericks to wonder whether there is really any difference at all. Maybe elementary particles are just quasi particles -- an effervescence in the vacuum.

Particularly intriguing is a phenomenon, occurring at extremely low temperatures, called the fractional quantum Hall effect. In certain substances, quasi particles appear that act curiously like electrons but with one-third the normal charge. (Dr. Laughlin won his Nobel Prize for a theory explaining this.)

Quarks, the basic building blocks of matter, also carry a one-third charge, a coincidence that has fueled speculation that emergence may be somehow fundamental to the very existence of the physical world.

A stumbling block to carrying this idea further has been that the quantum Hall effect seems to work only in two-dimensions -- on the surface of a substance. But in a paper published in the Oct. 26 issue of Science, Dr. Zhang and his student Jiangping Hu showed how to extend the phenomenon. In their scheme, the physical world would be a three-dimensional "surface" of a four-dimensional "quantum liquid" -- an underlying sea of particles that can be thought of as the vacuum.

Analyzing the ripples that would appear in such a medium, the two scientists were surprised to find that they mathematically resembled electromagnetic and gravitational waves. But there are problems with the model. At this point, the hypothetical photons and gravitons that emerge from the equations do not interact with other particles, as they do in the real world.

"The coupling is zero, so apples are weightless, as is everything else," said Dr. Joseph Polchinski, a string theorist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who recently discussed the model with Dr. Zhang.

And there is what the theory's inventors concede is an "embarrassment of riches" -- the equations predict hordes of exotic particles that do not exist.

"The hope is that some modification of the theory, not yet specified in detail, will remove the extra fields and turn on the coupling," Dr. Polchinski said. "Whether this can be done is at this point a guess. Overall my attitude now is interest with a high degree of skepticism."

If the theory can be made to work, it may point to a new way of unifying quantum mechanics and relativity. But Dr. Zhang is careful not to oversell what he considers a work in progress.

"Our work only made a tiny step toward this direction," Dr. Zhang said, "but it seems to indicate that the goal may not be impossible to reach." At the very least, he said, his work may inspire more collaboration between particle physicists and solid-staters.

Ultimately, though, the two sides know that they are talking across a divide. Taken to its extreme, emergence suggests that all the fundamental laws, even quantum mechanics, may be secondary -- that at the base of reality is random noise.

Dr. Polchinski said he found that idea discouraging.

"To me, the history of science seems to be a steady progression toward simpler and more unified laws, and I expect to see this continue and to contribute to it. Things may take many surprising twists and turns," he said, "but we reductionists are still quite happily and busily reducing."

What arrogance! (0)

October_30th (531777) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654486)

"Squalid state physics," Murray Gell-Mann, discoverer of the quark, dubbed it. Others dismiss it as "dirt physics."

Jesus Christ what arrogance!

Solid State Physics has contributed to our everyday life more than the esoteric and pretty much useless elementary particle physics which, by the way, steals absurd amounts of money from the practical fields of physics.

If they are right... (2)

BillyGoatThree (324006) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654548)

"They may have emerged from the roiling of the vacuum of space, much as supply-and-demand and other "laws" of economics emerge from the bustle of the marketplace. If so, then solid-state
physics, which specializes in how emergent phenomena occur, may be the most fundamental science of them all.


If they are right and (some) higher-level laws are irreducible to particle physics, then solid-state physics probably won't be "the most fundamental" either. Any discipline that contains irreducible laws (economics? cognitive science? evolution?) will be in some sense "fundamental".

Not Really (5, Informative)

nahtanoj (96808) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654558)

Speaking as part of the community, the physics world is not at all portrayed accurately in this article. Nearly every physicist sees value in every subset of physics. Think nuclear physics is dead? I happen to know a few nuclear physicists who are still active in research. No-one I know refers to solid-staters as "squalid-staters". There is worthwhile research still in every discipline of physics, even solid state and particle physics.

I think what we have here is a case of journalistic hype used to make the a mountain out of a molehill. I do not think that anyone can deny that there has not been advances in the understanding of any field.

Ciao

nahtanoj

Re:Okay, Here It Is (5, Interesting)

Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654637)

This is really a philosophical argument, not a scientific one. But it may be a productive one. And I bet computers have caused the argument.

For a long time humans lived in a world with cats and cookware. Human-made items like cookware were trivial to understand, and nobody hopes to understand a cat :-)

Then we got a little more sophisticated and had cats and clocks. We studied clocks because we could understand them. We learned about energy conservation, simple harmonic motion, and all sorts of classical physics. Reductionists can learn to understand a clock.

Then we had computers and cats. A computer looks like an elaborate clockwork but practical people don't try to manage them through first principles. They use heuristics like "it gets unstable when low on memory". Now we've got human-made artifacts, which we feel entitled to understand, which reductionism has increasing trouble explaining.

The promise here is that if we apply the same brainpower and effort to defining the laws of complex systems, maybe we'll gain some useful insights into economics, sociology, psychology and other fields of study which directly affect our lives.

I will not hold my breath waiting for a definitive theory of cats.

Sad news ... Stephen King is dead (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654457)


I just heard some sad news on the radio - author Stephen King was found dead in his Maine home this morning. They didn't offer any more details - it was just a short news blurb. Even if you don't like his movies or books, there's no denying his contribution to American pop culture. Truly and icon to be remembered.

oh, please (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654476)

Truly and icon to be remembered.

As if you're giving us a chance to forget it.

Re:Sad news ... Stephen King is dead (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654583)

How old was he?

knowledge (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654471)

cannot exist.

Well... (0)

gus goose (306978) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654485)

I have always known that the future is not what it used to be, but it appears, according to this quote "The laws of relativity and perhaps quantum mechanics itself would have emerged only later on.", that the past is not what it used to be either...

gus

transporters (0, Offtopic)

Lewis Daggart (539805) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654490)

Well, darn, so much for transporters.

By the way, am I the only one that thinks Dr. Robert B. Laughlin looks like Clinton? Probably. oh well.

Re:transporters (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654569)

I thought so too.

Einstein lied anyway (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654492)

Being the genius he was, he knew better than to present our evil society with the true theorem of relativity. But being the instigator that I am, I give you the true equation:

E=mc

In nearly every field (3, Funny)

localman (111171) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654496)

It sounds a bit like the argument between Java and Perl to me :) There are those who believe that things that are clean and orderly are "right" and there are those that believe things that are loose and flexible are "right". (There are those that believe that life here began... out there...)

In any case it's an interesting path to explore. I lean towards the loose and flexible side myself. If you saw my code you'd be able to tell ;)

Ones appetite is whet (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654503)

Not being a troll or grammar nzi. It is a mistake that is often made. I merely thought I would educate.

Re:Ones appetite is whet (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654524)

Of course the generally accepted way to spell nazi is whith an "a". Noticed that just after I pressed submit.

This Makes Me Nervous... (5, Funny)

Embedded Geek (532893) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654504)

I am I the only one, but is anyone else worried that when they finally find the unified theory, "The Theory that Explains Everything," that it'll wind up being Murphy's Law?

Re:This Makes Me Nervous... (1)

Strange_Attractor (160407) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654564)

It'll turn out that the late lamented Doug Adams had it right:

"There is a theory which states that if anyone discovers just exactly what the universe is for and why we are here, that it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. Then there is a theory which states that this has already happened."

So, if we get it right, we'll have to start over again ...

Re:This Makes Me Nervous... (2)

ErfC (127418) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654614)

As an Experimental Particle Physicist, I can attest to this. We've already determined Murphy's Law is fundamental to nature; just ask any experimentalist. It's just not something we like to admit. :)

Re:This Makes Me Nervous... (3, Funny)

RESPAWN (153636) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654619)

Just look on the bright side: if Murphy's law can go wrong, it will. :)

We are in a state of flux... (2)

anzha (138288) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654543)

What ought to be noted is that theoretical physics is in a state of flux. The current methods and theories are showing cracks. For that reason, several competing theories are coming about.

One of the primary things to think on, though, is not whether or not current theory ought to be completely discarded, but rather the theory just needs some small adjustments. *grinz* Even those 'minor' adjustments are often hotly debated.

Even then, the one phycist friend of mine at FERMI said that theory only advances as the older generation dies off...;)

My Very Own Theory (3, Funny)

pagsz (450343) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654554)

IANAP (Physicist, naturally), but I'd have to say that the solid-staters argument makes sense. It seems arrogant to think that the universe must obey these silly little laws we come up with. Mathematical laws are a tool, they simpify the workings of the universe so a human mind can grasp them. But they are not the universe. I would tend to agree with thier arguement that as systems get more complex, new rules come into play. How then can the universe's intricate workings be summed up in a few silly little equations?

I've found the answer! The universe isn't dominated by some elaborate unified theory, or general relativity, or quantum mechanics, or anything like that. I've found a principle that applies everywhere. Everywhere I look, there it is. The central principle of the universe is: STUPIDITY! It all makes sense now . . .

Well, at least its the central principle in my life,

super string theory..... (2)

the_2nd_coming (444906) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654555)

also explains certain thinks like matter as ripples in space time.....it is kind of interesting how this aspect of the theories match up.

Ugly Standard Model (3, Interesting)

Genady (27988) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654582)

All I can say is well DUH! I'm not expert, but I have read a few things about super string theory and have to say that it really is more elegant than the standard model, the theory that particle physists use. Just fom a cursory glance at this article it sounds like the solid-state folks are proposing something similar to the super stringers. That particles are at their root a function of space and how it vibrates.

What I'd really like to see is some comparison between this new theory and string theory (it could be in there I didn't read past what was posted here)

Unified Theory? (1)

jmu1 (183541) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654588)

Renton: "So, that's your Unified Theory?"
SickBoy: "Ya, and beautifully fucking illustrated"

Help (1)

Jupiter9 (366355) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654595)

Some one define "platonic truths" for me please. I don't think I grasp the point of the quoted statement in the article.
And please don't just give me a Dictionary definition!

Re:Help (2, Informative)

Frequanaut (135988) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654644)

irrc, Platos beliefs included the concept of an 'ideal' thing or truth.

It's easiest explained with an example. When I write 'chair' you may think of one particular chair and I may think of another, except that we both know what a chair is without needing to know exactly what chair the other is thinking of.
That thing we both know of as a chair, but is not necessarily what each of us thinks of is the platonic ideal of a chair.

But the Liquid-State Physicists Say... (0, Offtopic)

cburley (105664) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654616)

...that getting sloshed is the only platonic truth in the universe!

not to be picky or anything... (1)

war2k1 (15869) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654635)

Here is a little quote for wet your appetite

technically, you don't wet your appetite, you whet [dictionary.com] it.

just fyi, no big deal.

Thanks a lot.... (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#2654636)

you bastards never said anything about Free Registration Required....now I'm going to have to explain my self, and that's not an easy task.

try doing your jobs a little better!

Sensationalist article, but neat idea (4, Interesting)

ErfC (127418) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654646)

I found the article kind of sensationalist. I mean, I'm sure there are physicsists who act like that, and I'm not surprised these are the ones that make it into newspaper articles. But I don't think most physicists are so violently opposed to each other's ideas.

I mean, okay, most of us are at least a little arrogant. We're revealing the secrets of the Universe -- how could our heads not swell, at least a little? But for most of us it's a little tongue-in-cheek, too.

Now the ideas in the article intrigue me. I'm in Particle Physics, and I was indeed under the impression that fundamental particles are, well, fundamental. The idea that this could all be quasi-particles ("effervescence in the vacuum" as the article puts it) like phonons (the sound equivalent of photons) in matter, is really cool.

I will agree with this much: there isn't enough discussion between the various disciplines. Scientists in general need to talk to each other more.

Omega Number (2, Informative)

faichai (166763) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654668)

See This Story [slashdot.org] for details. The New Scientist link is now dead look here [dc.uba.ar] instead.

If I am reading things correctly it would seem, that both the "Squalid Staters" and Chaitin are coming from the same angle. Both reckon that any maths we can derive to describe the physical world are almost fluke, and that underlying everything is sheer randomness. Fascinating Stuff. Can anyone offer a more qualified comparison of these two areas?

a breath of fresh air (2, Troll)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 12 years ago | (#2654678)

i'm glad to see the theory of everything crowd take a hit. their absolutism can be compared to religious fundamentalism.

the solid staters talking about the universe being nothing but noise from which various descriptive rules emerge, but dependent on no other larger organizing principle, is satisfying to me.

allow me to be a crank about something that always bothered me: i never liked the big bang theory. it stinks of creationism. it seems out of line with the trend of what humanity has been learning from science over the last thousand years: that the universe is random, trivial, makes little sense, and we are not anywhere near the center of it.

it doesn't all boil down to an equation on a t-shirt? woop-de-friggin'-doo. just because us humans are reductionist thinkers and anal-retentive "everything in my world has to make sense" psychological types doesn't mean the universe has to fit that template. there does not have to be a theory of everything for the universe to work. it doesn't need a beginning, it doesn't need an end. the universe can be timeless, static, and random. what's wrong with that?

expansion of the universe? why can't the expansion we see be local, temporary. like being on the trough of a wave in the ocean, only able to look around in the trough we're in and see the trough expanding, unaware of the tips of the waves to our right and left. or unaware of the overall picture of us being in an endlessness ocean, infinite through space and time, backwards and forwards.

background microwave radiation? merely the effects of only being able to see a certain distance. the night sky may not be glowing white even though there might be infinite stars in every direction, but after a certain distance, light can be lost through means beyond our understanding, or through merely mundane reasons we already understand: absorption? dark matter? gravity lensing?

entropic death of the universe? or a big crunch in our future? why the absolutism? perhaps this might happen locally, and an as-of-yet unforeseen restoking of the entropy balance happening through processes we are not even aware of yet. black holes? they are singularities of some sort. i wonder what kind of bedrock rules we take for granted are broken in them. maxwell's demon indeed.

do i sound quasi-rational, like i'm grasping at straws? maybe so, i'm no cosmologist. but the big bang stinks of creationism to me, and if anything we have learned historically trend-wise, through galileo, kepler, hubble, etc., is that our place in the universe is vanishingly small, pointless,and trivial. to speak of a creationistic big bang seems vaguely anthropomorphic and self-centered, like how we used to think the sun revolved around the earth.

same with a theory of everything. why does gravity have to be united with any other forces? to satisfy a psychological urge? "it just is" sounds ok with me.

just because us little humans have a beginning and an end does not imply the universe does. and just because we have to make little reductionist rules up to govern how we live our lives and make sense of it all does not mean the universe has to conform to our psychology.

bravo to the solid staters. the dudes who gave us the silicon chip are telling us that the universe begins and ends with local rules dependent on nothing else. now that's a theory of everything i can live with: everything begins and ends with my computer. ;-P
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