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A Tear at the Edge of Creation

  1. Apr 8, 2010 #1

    Overturning more than twenty-five centuries of scientific thought, award-winning physicist Marcelo Gleiser argues that this quest for a Theory of Everything is fundamentally misguided, and he explains the volcanic implications this ideological shift has for humankind. All the evidence points to a scenario in which everything emerges from fundamental imperfections, primordial asymmetries in matter and time, cataclysmic accidents in Earth’s early life, and duplication errors in the genetic code. Imbalance spurs creation. Without asymmetries and imperfections, the universe would be filled with nothing but smooth radiation. ​


    Marcelo like many of us began his career as a true believer. He beautifully recounts his own journey, his own heart felt desire to read the "mind of God" through physics (though like many of us he is an atheist). But after years of working at the frontier of these ideas Marcelo found his faith shaken. As he writes,

    During the past 50 years discoveries in experimental physics have shown time and time again that our expectations of higher symmetry are more expectations than reality

    Abandoned the search for symmetries as the ultimate meaning in physics Marcelo turns in the other direction. Using examples from the study of time, space, matter and life he argues that asymmetry and imperfection are just as often the real guiding principle behind what we see. In this way there is lots of good science in Marcelo's book to sink your teeth into. ​


    Gleiser started out his professional life as a string theorist, enchanted by the prospect of finding a unified theory, and for many years that motivated his research:

    The fact that the [lightest, stable superpartner] particle has so far eluded detection doesn’t bode well. To make things worse, results from the giant Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan and the Soudan 2 detector in the United States have ruled out supersymmetric GUT models, at least the simpler ones, based again on the proton lifetime. If SUSY is a symmetry of Nature, it is very well hidden.

    Over the years he began to become disillusioned with this quest, not only with string theory, but also with other closely associated ideas (e.g. GUTs and supersymmetry) about how unification is suppose to happen. Hopes that GUTs would give predictive theories of inflation or proton decay have fallen by the way-side, and about supersymmetry he is “very skeptical”:

    In his book, he argues repeatedly against the fundamental nature of symmetries in our understanding of physics, seeing the failures of GUTs and supersymmetry as a failure of the idea of getting unification out of larger, more powerful symmetry laws. For him, symmetries are always just approximations, never exactly true principles. The problem with both GUTs and supersymmetry is that one posits a new symmetry only to be faced immediately with the question of how to break it, with no good answer. To be successful, any new symmetry principle needs to come with a compelling explanation of how it is to be realized in fundamental physics.

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  3. Apr 8, 2010 #2

    Physics Monkey

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    The phrase "Overturning more than twenty-five centuries of scientific thought" made me laugh out loud. I don't think I've ever seen such a claim in a book description.

    Haha, Gleiser should have talked more with his condensed matter friends. We've known the universe is a messy place for a long time!
  4. Apr 8, 2010 #3
    Symmetry principles in fundamental physics is by far the most fruitful path we have. The description of this book seems to be merely a criticism rather than a concrete proposal. It will take much more than this to convince people otherwise.

    This is perhaps the most important lesson we learnt from the standard model of particle physics as a gauge theory, that all physics can be derived from symmetry principles, including dynamics. The running couplings of the standard model do seem to converge at a unification scale, and miss each other by very little. It is well known that supersymmetry modifies the running in such way as to realize that unification, and this result robust. If if we did not have any other argument in favor of supersymmetry, it would still be a very strong motivation to search for it. But this unification also carries over with the gravitational coupling constant, and has a taste of uniqueness in the extension of the Poincare symmetry.

    Yet I am not especially a fan of supersymmetry, and despite this personal inclination, still the argumentation presented above seems very weak to me. Finally, the publication of this book is very untimely with the ongoing start of the LHC. If supersymmetry is not found at the LHC, the next thing to investigate is hidden sectors which will take a very long time to rule out. To me, there is nothing but political trends in the book above.
  5. Apr 8, 2010 #4
    What about popular books on string theory from Kaku, Hawking, Green, and GUT like Weinberg and others stemming from the 1980s and continues unabated to this day?
  6. Apr 8, 2010 #5
    I never liked Kaku's style, because he ventures into science-fiction speculation without enough warning for the reader. By Green, I think you are referring to Brian Greene, I did read his Elegant Universe and I did not appreciate it at all : I think he spends too much time explaining simple concepts, too little time explaining more important concepts, and I do not think he presents a fair view of the speculative status of string theory.

    The books by Hawking and Weinberg are much more worth reading IMHO.
  7. Apr 8, 2010 #6
    we're on same page -- what about woit & smolin?
  8. Apr 8, 2010 #7
    Haven't such quantum irregulairites been a cornerstone of big bang theory for quite a while...leading to planets,galaxies,etc....as evidecned by expected variations in the cosmic microwave background radiation....

    maybe,maybe not.....but one thing for sure: such principles sure have led to incredible advances and theoretical understanding so far....
  9. Apr 8, 2010 #8
    "Not even wrong" and "The trouble with physics" were interesting to read. It should not be mistaken however, that those are personal political opinions about science rather than pure physics books. I personally disagree with many strong claims made by those authors. I do not think those books deserve much over-reaction, once we recognize they are political rather than scientific arguments. In fact, if string theory survives such acid critics, their authors eventually strengthen our confidence that string theory has been sufficiently challenged !

    I am not sure about social balance/fairness in the US, but I am certain that the problems described in Woit and Smolin's books do not apply to Europe scientific community. Different social organizations for research in different parts of the world have respective strengths and drawbacks. Eventually, we all contribute somehow to the same universal scientific story.
  10. Apr 8, 2010 #9
    What if LHC, DM searches, proton half life, magnetic monopoles, cosmic strings, domain walls, experiments continue to produce null results? Heck, what if the LHC does not find Higgs or no new physics? Would you regard these null results as supportive of Gleiser thesis?

    What are the ramification to string theory and GUT if there is no higher symmetry in nature like SUSY SU(5)-SO(10) that gets broken down to U1-SU2-SU3?
  11. Apr 9, 2010 #10
    Good arboreal wisdom, PM.

    But one can have some sympathy with Gleiser's disillusion.

    The lack of progress in much of modern theoretical physics, say since 1975, that Woit and Smolin describe so acidly, has dissipated much of the deep respect for the subject engendered by tne interplay of theory, experiment and observation in the first half of last century, culminating in the impressive role physics played in WW II.

    Successes --- say like microelectronics, lasers, tomographic analysis in medicine and geophysics and nowadays observational cosmology --- are what keeps the flag flying, as it were.

    But there have been long years during which physics has ridden on the back of the public purse without much yield in the way of either practical or intellectual rewards. I'm thinking of long-running industries like plasma physics, string theory and of the present proliferation (see the arXiv) of theoretical speculation and mathematical ratiocination unchecked by prediction, observation or experiment.

    No wonder someone whose career has involved sterile stuff becomes disillusioned.

    Roll on new discoveries made with the LHC, and long live my own squalid-state messy but practical stuff as well.
  12. Apr 9, 2010 #11
    If we did not have theoretical speculations beyond the standard model, there would be quite less motivation to (say for instance) build the LHC. It is not possible to list all the practical benefits society enjoys from such long term endeavor without well-defined practical benefit to start with. I will just take two examples.

    The computing Grids : although not solely motivated by the LHC, the largest Grids were explicitly organized for the LHC physics, and the development is largely driven by them. Those Grids already have users in the medical community, for instance studying cancers.

    As you mentioned, it is well known that all medical imaging technology stem from fundamental physics. The most powerful machines for MRI, around 9 T in Chicago, and in the future 12 T in Saclay, will push the limits of our understanding of the central nervous system. It is not by chance that both those research institutes are located next to two of the largest fundamental physics institutes. It is in those places that the development of ever more powerful magnets takes place. A better understanding of powerful magnets also leads to other applications, outside medical physics. There are businesses manufacturing magnets after all, and it is quite common that fundamental physics, which defined those industries, now buys magnets from them to build some parts of the accelerators.

    I do not think it is fair to claim that :
    • There is no theoretical progress in fundamental physics. Maybe you just do not understand them ? If you consider such a possibility, then the appropriate formulation is the interrogative form, not the affirmative one. It makes quite a difference for those of your readers who you claim make not progress.
    • There is no practical application for society. Maybe you just lack the perspective to be aware of them. Also, maybe you already have or will soon benefit from those applications !

    Besides not being able to take time to write a longer list of practical applications from the LHC, I further remind that fundamental physics is not solely studied at the LHC, or even at high energy. There are medium energy labs which produce a lot of patents, it is easy for you to search for this information.

    Gleiser's book, from my point of view, is not a thesis as it does not offer any solution. It is just ranting motivated by personal failure, it is a political position to sell a book in order to compensate for this failure, not a scientific argument.
    Last edited: Apr 9, 2010
  13. Apr 10, 2010 #12
    You are probably right in your rather harsh judgement of Gleiser's book. I can only wish that he, Woit and Smolin had had no justification for writing so critically about the present state of theoretical physics.

    And I do hope for lots of practical spin-off from building the LHC, etc. But patent-production is not the only return one has come to expect from physics, as welcome as this activity is. There is also great satisfaction for curious humanity in describing as best we can the physical circumstances we find ourselves in --- at as fundamental a level as Homo Sapiens can manage.

    It is here that theoretical physics seems to have been stymied for the last 25 years or so, perhaps because (through no fault of its own) it has become disconnected from the essential cycle on observation, experiment and prediction that distinguishes it from stamp collecting. Perhaps the LHC will provide reconnection.

    Are you satisfied with the progress that physics is making? Do you think that more speculation and ratiocination in the presently fashionable way will help? Or could simple stuff, like re-examining the connection between thermodynamics and gravity, be the way for theory to go if reconnection fails?
  14. Apr 10, 2010 #13
    Magnetic monopoles started with Dirac in the 1930s. After 80 years without experimental support, physicists still can't get over it! The other examples of speculative physics are just not on the same level.
  15. Apr 10, 2010 #14
    of course he did...he explains his reasons. You may disagree with his conclusions but should not claim there is "no justification"....

    fromTHE TROUBLE WITH PHYSICS, Chapter 1, page 3.

    In contrast, a few pages later page 12,

    Does NOT sound like a rabid dog critic to me. Overall, I found the book very worthwhile.
  16. Apr 10, 2010 #15
    Can your proivde a quote or two to illustrate your claim? I don't remember reading anything "political" in THE TROUBLE WITH PHYSICS....or are you referring to Smolins views of relative progress in different branches of physics??
  17. Apr 10, 2010 #16
    Naty1 --- I said exactly the opposite . Let me rephrase what I said more explicitly:

    I wish that Smolin and Woit's criticisms of theoretical physics were unjustified (it would be better for physics in this case). But their criticisms are justified.

    I was just trying to be polite about the mess that theoretical physics now finds itself in, as Woit and Smolin have so correctly (but acidly) pointed out.
  18. Apr 10, 2010 #17


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    As I read it, part of Smolins points in that book, is that actual science developments, does have politicial dimensions, simply because the scientific progress contains sociological and political mechanisms. This as such contains no particular bias, it's just a conclusion. To me it's an accurate description, and I think it's not much to do about it either except that the next point is that, set aside the scientific society, fundings, job opportunities and other "real life" constraints on science, the individual scientist may want to be intellectually concerned and aware of this.

    I think this is Smolins point - to increase awareness of how science actually works. To not see the sociological dimensions in this process is not seeing what it really is. This has nothing do to with wether are into string theory or something else.

    To me the main point is just to encourage intellectual awareness of the individual. The sociological and political dimensions of the game are unavoidable.

    I think it does, although maybe it's worse is US, I cant tell. I've witnessed statemets from "superiors" (string theorists) as a student that confirm things Smolin mentions and I live in Europe.

  19. Apr 11, 2010 #18
    Correction: my last post was directed to Humanino, not Naty1. My apologies to both of you.
  20. Apr 11, 2010 #19


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    I fully agree that it takes more than philosophical arguments to motivate new frameworks, and at the moment that seems unavailable.

    But I for one also thinks that the admittedly success of symmetry reasoning in physics should be reconsidered. The view of fundamental symmetries of nature as elements of a structural realism is IMO not good at all. There are several ways to see how and why this is problematic. It is closely related to the "timelessness" of physical law, and the problem of time as well.

    As for working physicists, it's obvious that until we have something better, this is the best we have, but for myself I am very convinced that the physical basis of symmetry, is far from properly understood, and it's a relevant problem for theoretical physicisct to try to improve the framework here. To just see them as mathematical timeless truths of nature that we eventually unravel is to me an attitude that is not consistent with a sound scientific inference ideal that to me should be at the heart of any measurement theory - in this sense QM, is still not completed. The physics of the process by which a subsystem infers symmetries about it's environment is missing.

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