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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Balls of Wavy String


Albert Einstein Posted by Picasa

The recent Solvay Conference in Brussels is reported by the New Scientist as having some sombre news for those expecting great things from a Theory of Everything that will reconcile Relativity’s theory of gravity (courtesy of Einstein) with that of quantum mechanics. This elusive goal, the “holy grail” of contemporary physics and cosmology has eluded science for decades. It was hoped that string theory would do the job but the estimation of that cluster of theories is now much more modest. The problem is that conceiving of matter and energy as vibrating strings with frequencies matching observed (and un-observed but hypothesised) subatomic particles simply generates an embarrassingly large number of models with little way of sorting out which applies to our universe and why. Moreover, we have no real way as yet of testing these theories to destruction. The reason scientists are at an impasse is that few can yet see what might compete with such a theory that is long on promise but short on delivery. Many are calling for a real “out-of-the-box” idea that will move things along. Such intuitions some when least expected and in surprising places. The last time it happened, arguably, was to an amateur scientist, a self-taught Austrian patents clerk called Albert Einstein.

Now all of this, for all my interest, is way, way beyond me but one thing may be not. It concerns how scientists model reality. There have been many different ways of modelling matter … point-like particles, waves, strings (open and closed). What one notices about these are that they are concepts extrapolated from the macro world of snooker balls, ripples on a pond and vibrating rubber bands. Sometimes the models only work in combination. The quantised approach to electromagnetic radiation for example depends on a combination of the snooker ball and the pond ripple. At this level of complexity it is very difficult to visualise what is being represented; hence the title of this article. Herein though might lay a clue to future developments in the search for a true Theory of Everything, (assuming such a theory can be devised, which is itself disputed). I want to suggest that science can learn from theology. Some may now want to take a deep breath and sit down!

In theological modelling no single concept or analogy will suffice; the more the better. However, there is order in this accretion of models; certain integrating and governing principles – in Christianity for example the primary key of “God is love.” In and around that key, however, all sorts of analogous statements may be made, every bit as metaphorical as a model of matter constituency. God is Light, God is Good, God is a Rock etc. This is called cataphatic theology ... it says:- “God is like this.” However, this is not the whole story. Theology is also apophatic, by which I mean it proceeds by denying that such models bear any exact correlation to God-in-himself. So God is not a light bulb, male, an inaminate object etc. What if scientific modelling were to work in a similar way? Matter is constituted by vibrating strings but not as we see in a twanged rubber band. We would then move on to a host of other models, each qualified by the apophatic approach and each assembling into a holistic key … utterly unimaginable but which works to unlock observable and repeatable experimental results. In other words, the modelling has to get a lot more complicated before it gets a lot simpler and easier to handle. It may be that we shall have to wait for quantum computers to be developed, enormously increasing our present number crunching powers, before such really sophisticated modelling can be designed and tested against new experimental data coming out of CERN’s forthcoming new accelerator and orbital gravity wave detectors. In short, we need more imagination (not less) and more raw computing power. We certainly need a healing of the historic divorce between science and philosophy / theology without either discipline(s) being confused or applied inappropriately. Maybe it will then be possible to speak of “balls of wavy string” and more besides. It might even usher in a new and more creative dialogue between a more humble theology and a less dismissive science. I hope so anyway.

1 comment:

markus said...

check out the latest post on my site. although i'm not a scientist in the professional sense i think my idea is way simpler than strings.

there definitely must be a connection between the unity in the universe and the unity we aspire to in our hearts. that our thoughts come from our brains which are if taken a step futher are part of nature then isnt it reasonable to assume that a thought is indeed the essence of reality?

but its so difficult to observe those thoughts of ours now isnt it? how quantum . . . ;-)

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