Grippy Science

December 1, 2005

Recently, I read Brian Greene's new book, The Fabric of the Cosmos. The book is a fascinating look at string theory for non-physicists. String theory (along with quantum theory) is very difficult to comprehend the same way that Newtonian physics make sense. Our interactions with the physical world are adequately explained by Newton's ideas on the scale that we can see and feel. Only as we look at things that are even larger or smaller do Newton's laws fail to accurately predict what actually happens. Most of us, however, are never going to observe the effects of relativity or quantum physics in our daily lives (excepting those people who work in a particle accelerator.)

String theory is even more difficult to comprehend. While it is possible to conduct experiments that demonstrate theories of quantum physics or general relativity, I find it impossible to comprehend a 12-dimensional universe.

The more complicated our understanding of the universe becomes, the more people may be looking for a simple explanation.

On Monday night, Greene was the guest on the Colbert Report. This exchange provides one explanation for the surprising popularity of intelligent design:

Colbert: What is string theory? Why would something be string shaped?

Greene: If you follow the mathetimatics of the theory, if you were to examine the structure of matter on tiny, tiny scales, it would look different from the matter we see on everyday life

SC: Can we do that? Can we go examine it?

BG: Not as small as we'd like to see the strings itself…

SC: So we can't actually physically prove that this is true or not.

BG: No.

SC: So we can't actually physically look and prove that this is true or not? So you can just say things and not have to prove it. What's that like?

BG: Here's the thing. The mathematics of the theory have to make sense and the theory has to embrace previous discoveries like relativity and quantum mechanics in a sensible way. That is a huge requirement that any theory has to pass and you can't just say anything because of that.

SC: Oh, you can't?

BG: Well, you can try.

SC: I'll say something crazy-- uh, uh, strings exist in 2 dimensions at once.

BG: See, that wouldn't work. That wouldn't be compatible with relativity

SC: No? Don't these strings have crazy properties? Like they're curled up inside themselves?

BG: Well, they're tiny little loops of vibrating energy and the vibrating strings look like the vibrating strings on a violin or cello, but they're really tiny.

SC: You're kidding me! They literally are, look like strings? It's not a metaphor, it's actually a string?

BG: That's right. The idea is…

SC: Attached to what?

BG: Attached to itself-- so it could have ends that are attached to space itself or loops that have no end that would vibrate in space.

SC: Now do you see why people like intelligent design? It just seems easier than that, you know? Occajm's razor tells us that the simplest answer is certainly the right one. Which is easier to understand-- that, or [snap] it just happens?

BG: It definitely is easier to follow your answer, but we have learned that our sense of what's right and wrong needs to be dictated by observations-- by facts. Relativity and quantum mechanics make predictions…

SC: By what's right and wrong? By cold facts?

BG: Let me give you an example…

SC: I'm not a fan of facts.

Facts aren't popular with a surprisingly large percentage of Americans. For example, in the news today, UC Berkeley sued for hosting evolution website: "Plaintiffs claim site shows government endorsement of evolution." Yeah, it's a real shame that the government is supporting science.

More physics for non-physicists from Brian Greene and PBS in The Elegant Universe.

Posted by Andrew Raff at December 1, 2005 12:25 AM
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So lets see...we assume that we are the only intelligence in the universe...and say given a few hundred thousand years wont be able to terraform a planet ourselves....if there is a natural explanation for biogenesis it will have occurred many places in the universe besides this liitle pond we call Earth. Natuaralists wont last too much longer..too bad at the time of the big bang only trace amounts of Lithium were created...sounds like we need more!!

Posted by: Steve on December 1, 2005 05:21 AM

Evolution? Intelligent Design? The irreducible complexity of Space in its totality proves the existence of God? Deo Gratias, as inscribed on the gravestone of a great Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day. Simply imagine space:

Posted by: jgr on December 1, 2005 11:28 AM
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