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Sunday, October 24, 2010
Science ... Spirituality ...

I just read a short but important essay by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in Scientific American, all about string theory and reality. The authors say that because string theory requires 5 or more different sub-systems in order to comprehensively cover the nature of reality, there really is NO UNCHANGING, BEDROCK OF REALITY in our Universe.

They use the analogy of a map to explain this. There is an inherent contradiction involved in drawing topological maps on flat paper with limited borders, given that the underlying reality is a spherical planet (Earth) that has no topological borders. Standard maps do a pretty good job of giving the viewer an idea of the shape of the terrain and the relative distances between cities, rivers, road and other landmarks, within a 100 to 1,000 mile zone. But if a map gets too big, distortions set in due to the curvature of the earth. Mapmakers have all kinds of tricks to deal with those distortions, but not without trade-offs; i.e., correcting for one thing (relative distances between cities, say) introduces other problems (the overall shape of coastlines and national boundaries, along with continents and oceans, get warped).

So, if you need to use maps to guide you over a long, long distance (e.g., New York to New Delhi), you best use a series of maps. Each map is pretty-good for a few hundred miles, but gets distorted if extended too far. Thus, you have to change maps as you progress on your journey. This is basically the idea behind M-Theory, according to Hawking. M-Theory is the comprehensive overview of the many variants of string theory. Each sub-component of M-Theory is good for a certain range of conditions, e.g. energy levels. But once things change enough, you need to bring out a different sub-theory (akin to going to the next map). For some reason, which I couldn’t begin to understand, the string theory / M-theory people cannot use mathematics and formulas to adequately describe the underlying reality in a unified fashion; just as flat maps with boundaries can’t truly capture the reality of a spherical, boundary-less Earth. M-Theory is more like a networking framework than a grand unified theory in itself. It requires an extra dimension along with imagined reality membranes, to boot; something we have no known way of proving or disproving.

If M-Theory can’t provide a truly unified image of reality, then perhaps objective science has reached some kind of limit. Physics relies on math and formulas to set forth theories that describe physical phenomenon, and allow predictions about it. Those formulas and predictions have allowed our technology to evolve with its lasers and wifi internet and big-screen TV’s and nuclear reactors. Until recently, physicists seemed optimistic that their high-powered math concepts could and would explain anything and everything about our Universe. Now Hawking seems to be saying (if I’m reading him right) that there’s an underlying “warp” of sorts to reality, which cannot be captured by math and logic.

This essay is a spin-off from Hawking and Mlodinow’s new book, The Grand Design. That book became instantly famous for its assertion that God is no longer necessary because M-theory adequately explicates the origin and nature of everything. So what is wrong with this picture? No God needed because M-Theory does such a good job of explaining everything, but there’s something that M-Theory just can’t explain. Hawking and Mlodinow seem to have trapped God in a cage with an open door!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:19 pm      

  1. Jim, You precisely point out what bothers me about Hawking recently.

    He seems so wrapped up in his own appreciation of his own ability to think that he can’t see that he’s thought himself into a place where he himself needs to take a step into “another dimension”–whatever one wants to call it. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 24, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

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