Last night, I watched a NOVA special from 2003 taken from Brian Greene’s famous book, The Elegant Universe. Toward the end, Brian Greene asks whether string theory will turn out to be “the one true theory.” It struck me as an odd turn of phrase for a science show. It’s a phrase you hear almost exclusively in the context of religion—the one true faith. But the more I thought about it, the more apt it appeared to be.
For those who have been living under a scientific rock, we’ll take a quick historical tour of string theory. Or should I say “theories.” After the quantum revolution, scientists had a problem. Einstein’s theories of relativity perfectly described the macro world while quantum mechanics perfectly described the very micro world—but the two theories were incompatible. Einstein would spend the rest of his life searching for the Theory of Everything or TOE. Spoiler alert: He failed.
Although originally proposed in the 1970s along with supersymmetry, it wasn’t until the 1980s that string theory—a previously demolished idea—came bursting out of the gate. So much so, that we ended up with five string theories, which meant the TOE was really more like a foot. In the mid-1990s, another breakthrough would unify the five theories by adding another dimension and be called M Theory. M, it seems, stands for membranes. (Perhaps the single coolest idea in all of theoretical physics, but worth exploring in a different post, I think.)
The quick version of the theory is that tiny vibrating strings—some open and some closed in a ring—function to combine quantum mechanics and gravity by allowing interactions at zero distance and explain the probabilistic wave functions Schrödinger’s cat found so troubling.
Here’s the fun part: there is no proof for string theory. It is purely a theoretical explanation of the universe that caught fire in the scientific world because of its beauty, if not its simplicity. Yet, all the predictions made by string theory have yet to pan out. Fermi Lab didn’t find the graviton. Cern thinks they might have found the Higgs-Boson, a.k.a. the God Particle, but nothing definitive has been released yet.
And so, I am left to think that string theory as the “one true theory” may have been an appropriate allusion after all. Now, you may be saying that religion and science are far apart. After all, string theory isn’t turtles all the way down. And I couldn’t agree more. Science makes predictions that theoretically verifiable. Religion is taken on faith—the very absence of proof or predictions.
But what about when we lack the science to test the very predictions made by the theories? After all, where does religion meet atheism meet philosophy meet metaphysics meet scientific theories without the technical ability to test its predictions?
An article came out in Slate this weekend that made me cringe, discussing how hard it is to be an atheist in middle America. It pointed to polling that people would be happier voting for a Mormon than an atheist. Aside from it being poorly written and researched (including a stunningly ignorant statement on the First Amendment’s religion clauses), it lacked any self-awareness surrounding what the difference between atheism and religion may be. Instead, it focused on persecution similar to the gay and lesbian communities. I wonder if string theorists have similar support groups?
Liebniz’s metaphysical writings on the Monadology come to mind as well. In it, Leibniz posits that matter is unreal. The indivisible parts of the universe—he refers to as monads—are not bound by space or time like atoms but are computational rather than physical. The monads perceive the state of every other monad in the universe and is capable of changing its state based on the intrinsic rule governing that monad. In the end, minds and cognition are the ultimate reality, leaving a plethora of possible worlds.
What is interesting is that this was pure metaphysics at the time—a derogatory term for a scientific philosophy without a basis in reality. Of course, what sounded crazy at the time has now come full circle. Certainly Einstein’s theories show that spacetime is not absolute, but bendable at the least. And experiments have shown that electrons communicate information about their quantum spin faster than the speed of light. Just like the monads.
As it turns out, many of Liebniz’s ideas come together in the main TOE rival for string theory: Loop Quantum Gravity, which posits that space and time are emergent properties that result from interactions between more basic structures. Even string theory posits a multiverse made of a potential infinite number of membranes containing possible worlds. So maybe its turtles all the way down, after all.
And then, of course, there’s the problem of whether time exists at all. In the Wheeler-DeWitt Equation, which provides a possible framework for unifying relativity and quantum mechanics, time simply melts away such that all points in time we experience exist simultaneously. Much the same way that He “make[s] known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come” because “God is from everlasting to everlasting.” And so we end up with Calvinism having the same beliefs as Drs. Wheeler and Dewitt.
My point, I hope you can see, isn’t that science is simply a religion that is deluding itself. It clearly is not. Rather, it is to point out that as humans we are all trying to make sense of our world and have been doing so since the beginning of recorded time. As we struggle and preserve in different directions, we would be wise to find comfort in the knowledge that we do so as a species. And, unlike politics or sexual orientation or race, it is a question with an answer and an answer that unites us on our tiny planet. Who are we? Why are we here?