‘Theory of everything’ provokes fierce backlash

Exceptions to the rule: Three (or four?) ‘lone geniuses’ who single-handedly revolutionised their field.

When a famous mathematician claimed he had witnessed the solution to the great mysteries of physics, it set the internet buzzing with excitement. Is this ‘the answer’, or just a red herring?

General relativity and quantum mechanics are the two ingenious theories which loom over all modern physics. The implications of these dizzying ideas underpin nearly every belief scientists hold about the fundamental laws of the universe. But physicists have a problem: relativity and quantum theory do not seem to agree. Either one of them is wrong, or there is a missing link.

Finding this link has been a holy grail of theoretical physics for the best part of a century. It has puzzled and thwarted many brilliant minds, including that of Albert Einstein, who himself developed the theory of general relativity.

Then, last month, one of Britain’s best-known mathematicians published an article that sent the scientific world into uproar.

Two years ago, Marcus du Sautoy revealed, he had met with an old acquaintance called Eric Weinstein, a former mathematician who had left academia to work for a financial firm. For 20 years Weinstein had been working on a complex mathematical theory; now he was finally ready to show du Sautoy the results.

‘As he took me through the equations,’ du Sautoy relates, ‘I began to see emerging before my eyes potential answers for many of the major problems in physics.’ It feels, he says, like ‘the answer’. The article became an internet sensation; and when Weinstein gave a talk in Oxford presenting some of his findings, professors flocked to hear what he had to say.

Now, however, scientists have hit back furiously at Weinstein’s theory. Where, they ask, is his proof? He has not published a paper, and only a few people had seen his workings. Weinstein, one commentator writes, ‘has short-circuited science’s basic checks and balances’.

Weinstein has promised that his work will be published soon. Until then, hopeful physicists must hold their breath: is this simply an elegant piece of mathematics? Or is it the master key to the mysteries of science?

Theory of everything

Most physicists remain extremely cautious. It’s exciting to think that a revolutionary idea might suddenly and miraculously spring from the mind of one obscure genius, they admit; but the realities of scientific breakthroughs are usually messier than that. Modern science is a constant conversation involving thousands of talented and devoted thinkers. If ‘the answer’ exists, they say, this collaboration is surely where it will originate.

Very occasionally, however, an earth-shattering discovery does burst from out of the blue. Einstein was famously working as a patent clerk when he published the four papers that revolutionised physics, while Isaac Newton rewrote the laws of the universe while hiding from the Plague. Could this be one of those rare and spectacular breakthroughs? Some scientific optimists still have hope.

You Decide

  1. Do the most important breakthroughs come from individual geniuses or big communities working together?
  2. Will humans ever fully understand how the universe functions?

Activities

  1. Choose one of the people in the graphic (not Weinstein) and write a paragraph summarising the events of their life.
  2. Get into pairs. One of you research the theory of general relativity, the other research quantum mechanics. Now try to explain the theories you have read about to your partner. How much (if anything!) have you understood?

Some People Say...

“Theoretical physics is more religion than science.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is there anything to suggest that this isn’t just some crackpot fantasy?
Yes: Weinstein is a respected academic who has already made contributions in several fields, and the people who have seen his work say that it is clever and coherent. The question is whether it can be made to match the available evidence or whether it’s just a well-constructed bit of logic.
If it is the real thing, will there be any practical results?
Discoveries like this are too abstract and sweeping to predict the precise real world consequences. But theoretical physics and even pure maths has played a huge part in creating the modern world, from fridges to smartphones to nuclear power, and it’s a fair bet that another breakthrough would be equally momentous.

Word Watch

General relativity
We tend to think of space and time as two separate and unchanging things. But according to Einstein’s theory, this is wrong: they are in fact two aspects of something called spacetime, which can be influenced by the gravitational pull of very large objects like stars. In other words, material things exert a force not only on other material things, but also on time and space itself.
Quantum mechanics
If you find relativity mind-bending, just wait. Quantum physics deals with particles even smaller than atoms, which behave in ways that we find impossible to grasp. At this level, particles appear to be capable of appearing in two places at once, their location becoming fixed only when they are observed. As a famous physicist said: ‘Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.’
Holy grail
A mythical, magical vessel (usually a cup) which supposedly caught the blood of Jesus while he was on the cross.
Marcus du Sautoy
Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Marcus du Sautoy writes popular books and articles explaining complicated mathematical concepts to the general public.
Major problems
It’s not only the incompatibility between relativity and quantum that bothers physicists: there are many troubling puzzles, including the fact that only 5% of the material in the universe is fully accounted for.
Four papers
During Einstein’s ‘annus mirabilis’, he published research that revolutionised understanding of optics, spacetime and matter. The last of these is the source of the famous equation E=mc².

Subjects

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