By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Not that science shouldn’t be spectacular. It’s just that in the blitz of special effects it was often hard to keep track of the ideas. It was a relief whenever they cut to one of the physicists talking about his work. Especially good was Nobel laureate Stephen Weinberg, whose insights into why physicists care about this stuff helped to remind us that science — even string theory — remains a deeply human pursuit, driven by psychological needs and desires that all too often resist rational reduction.
STRING theorists are excited, Weinberg noted, because their equations suggest a path by which physics might be unified. For most of the past century, physics has portrayed a disturbingly schizophrenic vision. On the large scale, it describes the universe using Einstein’s theory of general relativity, but on the subatomic scale it reverts to the wildly “other” perspective of quantum mechanics. General relativity tells us how space and time behave on the celestial, or cosmological, scale and ultimately gives us a picture of the universe as a whole. It has made predictions tested to more than 40 decimal places of accuracy, yet at the subatomic level it breaks down. Here, quantum laws prevail and everything is ruled by laws of chance.
At the cosmological level, things flow; in the subatomic realm they jitter. Physicists like to use musical analogies, and we might say that if general relativity describes a Strauss waltz, quantum theory gives us a speed-metal riff. Practically speaking this duality has little effect, but aesthetically it’s profoundly unsatisfying. Physicists cannot bear the bifurcation within their world picture; they yearn for unity. At the Santa Barbara conference, David Berman, a young English physicist from Hawking’s department at Cambridge University, took the musical theme further. In music, he told me, “You can have two voices that sound discordant, then a third comes in and resolves them into a harmonic whole.” Physicists are searching for this resolving voice, and in string theory they believe they might have found their answer.
Certainly, the universe has no trouble reconciling itself. The schizophrenia is not in nature but in our mathematical models. It is not the world that is fractured, but ourunderstanding of it.
ON THE DAY following Hawking’s talk, UCSB hosted another intellectual superstar, Jacques Derrida, at 73 the bad pensioner of French philosophy. Derrida had been invited to speak at a conference on religion, and his theme was living together, a subject he addressed through the prism of his experience as a Jewish child growing up in prewar Algeria. I had gone along to his sold-out lecture for entirely separate reasons beyond my interest in string theory, but it turned out there were uncanny resonances between the two events. The organizing motif of Derrida’s talk, the idea to which he returned again and again (his singularity, as it were), was the notion of the ensemble, or collection. Here, of course, he meant ensembles of people — ethnic groups, religious communities, nation-states, local neighborhoods, families and so on. But Derrida also wanted to alert us to the French use of the word, its adverb sense, ensemble, as in “vivre ensemble — living together.”
For Derrida the two senses of this one word were necessarily entwined. Unity, he said, is an illusion. Ensembles are never homogeneous; differences between members and parts of the whole will always exist. Not just small differences, but radical dissimilarity. “Otherness,” Derrida insisted, is the norm, and we must learn to live with it. Even within ourselves there is fragmentation. In Derrida’s terms we are all multiple beings, ensembles within. Accordingly, the demand for oneness is a pathology we must renounce, for only by accepting the radical “otherness” of others can we live in harmony with them. As he put it, “Living together contests the closure of the ensemble.”
From a Derridian perspective, physicists’ demand for a harmonic whole takes on the cast of an unhealthy obsession. Insistence upon closure is the very ideal he rejects.
STRING THEORY closes the chasmbetween relativity and quantum mechanics by smoothing out the jitters of the subatomic realm, replacing point particles with microscopic loops, or “strings.” According to the mathematical basis of this theory, everything in our universe is made up of tiny vibrating loops of some fundamental stringy stuff. Don’t even ask what this might be — there is no answer. Just accept the notion that at its most basic level the world is made of minute rubber bands.
But in order to get this theoretical unity, you have to be willing to take on board a radical extension of the universe beyond all bounds of human experience. According to string theory, these microscopic loops require their own dimensions of space. In most currently popular versions, strings vibrate in six dimensions, though in some versions it is seven. All of these are additional dimensions tacked on to the three dimensions of space and the one of time we normally encounter. It is this aspect of string theory that its detractors so dislike. Where are these dimensions?, they demand. What are they? How come we don’t see them?