Monday, April 03, 2006

The Inelegant Universe (Duct Tape Cosmology)

For the last century (or so) the goal of physics has been to find an elegant solution which describes all of physics and unifies the four fundamental forces. Ideally, the result should fit on a T-shirt (like E = mc2). In other words, they work under the belief that their universe is not held together with duct tape.

Quantum theory makes predictions that have been confirmed by experiment to astonishing degrees of precision. Yet, there are still surprises - as Isador Rabi famously said about the discovery of the muon, "Who ordered that?". And some parameters of quantum theory still must be determined by experiment. For example, there is no theoretical basis for determining the mass of a particle - we know the mass of a proton because we measured it. Neutrinos were long believed to have no mass, but now there is evidence that that belief may be wrong.

Granted, progress has been made, with the electromagnetic and weak forces combined into the electroweak force in the Standard model. However, further attempts at unification have failed. And there is now some evidence that the unification points of the strong force with the weak force and the electromagnetic force might occur at different points. The implication of this is a) there is a significant problem with the standard model or b) the forces were never one force.

The theory of relativity, which is the current standard theory of the fourth force, gravity, also makes predictions which are confirmed by experiment to an astonishing degree of precision. However, this realm also has had its surprises. These surprises have brought forward theories of a fifth force, sometimes simply called dark energy, and a new kind of matter, usually just called dark matter. I don't know about you, but those just sound like fancy names for duct tape to me.

Attempting to unify gravity with the other three (or is it four now?) forces has turned out to be a non-starter. The equations used in the two different theories, when combined, turn into nonsense, giving results like P = infinity (any probability > 1 is meaningless).

So, what are we left with? Well, we have theories that work extremely well, but they don't work together. Yet, when we look at the universe, they obviously do work together. There is a very real possibility that we live in a universe held together by (metaphorical) duct tape - a universe that did not begin as a unified whole.

This thought has wide-reaching implications, and not just for the careers of those who are trying to find a Grand Unified Theory.

Does the idea of an inelegant universe strengthen or weaken the idea of a universal creator?

What are the implications for cosmology? Does this make it possible or even more impossible to find the ultimate origins of our universe? I think it's fairly obvious that multiple universes are implied by it - after all, those disparate elements had to come from somewhere.

Would the ultimate discovery of an inelegant universe affect the philosophy of science itself?

* I'm ignoring string theory for the moment, as it really hasn't reached the point of being useful to anybody.

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