Today, my college classmate, Pat, sent me a text from Hawaii. Visiting Hawaii had always been on her bucket list. Consistent with the person I’ve known for over half a century, Pat is fearless and unrelentingly positive as she persists in the face of stage-four colon cancer. This trip, or her “last hurrah” as she phrased it, made me wonder what I would do if I knew, like her, that I only had a few more months to live.
As odd as it might sound, I think I would rather spend my final weeks trying to wrap up one of my favorite intellectual pursuits: developing a theory of everything. I’ve long wondered how the universe came about, whether it has to be this way, and how we got here.
My curiosity is not unique. The desire to understand reality is part of our nature. Over the past 200 years, physicists have led the scientific quest to find fundamental answers to these very questions. One scientist recently compared our efforts to a person observing a chess match without any knowledge of how to play chess. So are we, as we observe our universe and try to deduce its rules.
In developing a theory of everything, there is so much to consider: space, time, matter, energy, forces, consciousness, and even abstract ideas. How can we even begin to figure this out? One way is to follow the lead of scientists who have uniformly sought a unification of ideas. Sir Isaac Newton unified the idea of a falling apple with passage of the Moon around the Earth. 19thcentury scientists unified the concept of electricity and magnetism into a single force: electromagnetism. In the 20th Century, a strong nuclear force was discovered which holds together the nuclei and the weak force producing radioactivity.
By the middle of the 20th century, physicists had concluded that they had at least identified the fundamentals of our universe, namely particles and quantum fields. The particles are the matter and energy around us, while the quantum fields are responsible for the forces, which govern how they interact. Scientists agree that the rules by which they interact are dictated by what is called the quantum theory.
This is called “the standard theory” which, with the recent discovery of “the Higgs boson” was considered a complete theory. Thus, it appears that we have answered the questions of what exists and what does it do. And, assuming we’ve actually answered these two questions, one philosopher scientist, Tim Maudlin of New York University, also asserts that we’ve solved the problem of reality. But, not so fast! The standard theory is silent when it comes to explaining dark matter and dark energy. And what about the age-old problem of gravity? Einstein’s general theory of relativity does not fit the standard theory at all. While we understand gravity, it plays by different rules than those described by the standard theory. As a prominent scientist recently suggested: if the standard theory gives us chess, then Einstein’s theory gives us backgammon.
I find it fascinating that the two major theories give us precisely opposite views for what reality looks like. Quantum theory sees reality as tiny invisible chunks while relativity envisions it to be smooth and continuous. As a result, situations where both theories are in play, such as black holes, the big bang, or tiny particles in gravitational fields, yield contradictory interpretations. So, for us to get anywhere, our primary task is to figure out how to unify these two interpretations of reality.
Scientist Carlo Rovelli at Aix Marseille University in France agrees, “So what’s needed is sticking the pieces together. We are searching for a coherent way of thinking in light of what we know.” Rovelli’s directive is easier said than done. In fact, some scientists have suggested that we stop trying to figure out the ‘true’ nature of reality and focus on building a set of models that describe the physical phenomenon that we observe. Scientist Anna Ijjas at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics has proposed that we consider the Hour Glass model when contemplating the beginning of our universe. This model is also called the big bounce model since its primary theory is that our universe’s beginning coincided with a previous universe’s end. Her calculations dictate that the prior universe must have been similar to our own and so will the one that follows ours. In her model, Einstein’s space-time never vanishes. In other words, reality always existed and there was no beginning. Scientist Daniele Oriti of the Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam Germany puts his own twist on the big bang debate. For him, the big bang was a “transition phase” wherein the universe assumed its current form, much like the moment steam condenses to liquid water. Before this phase, both space and time concepts are meaningless and reality itself is indescribable. That thought makes my head spin!
My efforts to develop a theory of everything have revealed that the more we search for answers, the more we realize how far we have to go. Yes, we have made progress from the centuries when religious edicts prohibited any scientific explorations which might contradict scripture. But it is indisputable that we still have remarkable holes in our understanding. Rovelli is even more disheartened than I am, stating “if you want a theory of everything where it all fits, I see no hint that we’re close, zero…It isn’t even clear that our brains are actually capable of comprehending reality.”
Looking forward, there is a strong possibility that there are phenomena that we have not yet encountered which will result in more topics and an even clearer explanation of our universe. There also is hope that the next Einstein will have an idea that unifies all the disparate theories now prominent in scientific circles. Whatever the case, no matter how frustrating, I keep searching for answers to the most fundamental questions. Maybe I should be booking a trip to Hawaii, but I would not find that nearly as enjoyable as delving into these unanswered questions. Though, I suppose, nothing stops me from pondering these profound philosophical issues while sipping an exotic drink on the Big Island!