books book reviews

Rethinking physics

reviewed by T. Nelson

book review Score+4

Questioning the foundations of physics:
Which of our fundamental assumptions are wrong?
A. Aguirre, B. Foster, and Z. Merali, eds.
Springer, 2015, 274 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

The 21st century was when science got tough. We've done the easy stuff: we cured most of the easy diseases and figured out how light behaves. But cancer is caused by DNA mutations in cells. How do you cure a mutation? Even harder to cure are diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, which only occur in humans, which means we can't use experimentation to study them, so our ideas about what causes them are mainly educated guesses, and they're probably wrong.

But biologists have it easy. Some of the predictions made by the most powerful theory in physics, quantum field theory, are off by amusingly large factors,* and the new theories intended to fix them require equipment so big that they can never, even in principle, be tested. Certainly our equations are incredibly accurate for ordinary phenomena; but like ancient maps whose uncharted latitudes were decorated with dragons, the extremes of our equations are marked ‘here be singularities.’ And worst of all, the Higgs boson turned up at 125 GeV, exactly where it was predicted, earning Prof. Higgs a Nobel prize and giving us proof positive that something is very wrong with our view of the cosmos.

This means the next step will have to be a transition from merely describing phenomena to actually explaining why things happen. It tells us very little, for instance, to say that the reason a radioactive nucleus decays is that it is unstable, or that the reason a particle has a certain mass is that it has a particular amount of energy. When science describes things by slapping a descriptive formula on it, it risks falling into what physicists disparagingly call ‘botany.’

Of course, that would be unfair: the boundary of knowledge has to be descriptive, by definition, since we don't yet have an explanation.**

Theorists are constructing ever more imaginative theories, like M theory, which proposes that the universe, in many ways, is like a gigantic tangled ball of string; or agravity, which proposes that length and mass are illusions; or holographic theories, which propose that the entire universe is an illusion and we should, perhaps, just lie down and go to bed until it goes away. Max Tegmark says the universe is composed of mathematics, while Seth Lloyd swears up and down that the universe is a computer. There are so many theories, each more exciting than the last, that the average person can't keep track of them.

Of course, not all them will turn out to be correct. Hence the need for an examination of the assumptions that may be holding us back. The essays here are the “winners” in a competition among 270 entries. (The editors don't say what the prize was—I suspect the prize was having to proofread your essay in some Springer book—if so, not all of them seem to have claimed their prize.)

The essays are, generally, pretty interesting even if you're not a physicist. They show that physics is drifting back to its roots in philosophy. Philosophy itself seems unable to fill the necessary void: philosophy seems to be in even worse shape than science, having drifted of late toward political conformity and sterility (for whatever reason, epistemology seems hardest hit). These days physicists are the ones asking questions like whether there really such a thing as space and time and how we can know whether the world is real.

The real value of these brainstorming essays is as a jumping-off point. The authors talk about their ideas in mostly non-technical language and give citations to the literature so you can decide whether to follow up. For example, in Chapter 2 Robert W. Spekkens suggests that kinematics and dynamics are meaningful only when fused together. He introduces the idea of causal structure, which is a theory that statisticians have devised to distinguish whether things are causally connected or merely correlated, and says that only the effective causal structure of a theory should be considered physically relevant. He cites articles in places like Phys. Rev. A and Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society—all much more technical than the discussion here.

Another essay asks why small objects create interference patterns in the two slit experiment, but not large ones like tables. According to the authors, the equations say that if we could blast tables (let us assume a spherical table here) through a two slit apparatus, we should see evidence of superposition of states, that is to say an interference pattern. Why this doesn't happen may give us clues about the nature of quantum stuff.

In “The Universe Is Not a Computer” Ken Wharton takes issue with the Newtonian Schema, where people use a mathematical representation of physical reality to map events onto parameters. No one Almost no one takes the idea that the universe is a computer literally, of course, but Comp. Sci. and Newtonian physics use the same mode of thinking, and Wharton suggests that an alternative schema, which he calls the Lagrangian Schema, might work better.


* The prediction of the vacuum energy density differs from the measured value by a factor of 10100 (= 1 googol, finally giving us a use for that term), suggesting that there may be a need to tweak our equations.

** ‘Descriptive’ is sometimes a pejorative word in science, but the most fundamental cutting-edge theories must always be descriptive, since a description is only an explanation of a phenomenon in terms of something more fundamental.

feb 09, 2017

book review Score+3

Effective Spacetime:
Understanding emergence in effective field theory and quantum gravity
K. Crowther
Springer, 2016, 205 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

A new kind of philosophy of physics has the philos­opher taking on the role of a Dian Fossey, seeking out the physicists in the mist. Instead of noting who has the most bananas, the philosopher studies how theories are constructed and the philosophical problems they face.

Quantum gravity is an area where philosophers are badly needed. To create a theory of quantum gravity, physicists will eventually have to figure out what space and time are. And here, our language, our thinking patterns, and even our math may be getting in the way. If we talk about two objects, the very concept of ‘two’ already assumes space and a distance between the two objects; to talk about two particles in a place where there is no distance and no time seems nonsensical. So have we unknowingly baked spacetime into all our theories? Maybe even mathematics itself implicitly assumes what we are trying to prove.

Here's a concrete example: in the pre-geometric (i.e. pre-big bang) phase of ‘quantum graphity’ theory (the name is a pun on quantum gravity), there are a bunch of nodes all connected to each other, which is said to mean there are no distances between any of them. Then in the low-energy graph, most of the nodes are unconnected, so distance, dimensionality, and geometry now exist. But they are the same nodes and they haven't moved! It's not a realistic model of anything, but it's an interesting demonstration of how space could be just an emergent phenomenon created just using time.*

This is the problem of emergence: how to create a theory where spacetime emerges from something that is not already a collection of objects in space. Quantum graphity has to assume that time is fundamental, otherwise nothing could ever happen. Or to put it another way, space occurs on a background of pre-existing time.

In these chapters the author remains very low-key and circumspect, a wise move since these theories are rapidly evolving. I'm not sure who the intended audience was. Certainly not physicists, who would find the discussion of the philosophy of field theories irrelevant. Not students, who would be disappointed to find that a working knowledge of quantum mechanics is needed in order to follow the text. And not anthropologists, since there is no social context for the theories, few bananas, and no poo-throwing at all. The lack of equations doesn't make this a pop science book.

The first few chapters discuss the merits of top-down vs. bottom-up theorizing, how theories can be fundamental, and some background on the physics. Finally on page 147 it gets to the interesting stuff: discrete approaches to quantum gravity, a quick discussion of causal set theory, and loop quantum gravity (LQG). LQG isn't background-independent at all. Like string theory, it merely imposes a structure on spacetime; it doesn't explain why it is a space. There is clearly a long way to go.

Neither of the books reviewed on this page has an index, which makes it just a little harder for people to cite them.


* It is actually a model of dimension reduction rather than creation of space, since the fully connected state is actually an n-dimensional hyperspace.

feb 19, 2017; updated feb 20, 2017