Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Theory of Everything

Hi-De-Ho Rene,

I didn't see the first broadcast of the NOVA special on string theory -- The Elegant Universe -- but I'm considering the second showing, on Nov. 4, must-see educational TV.

I've read most of string theorist Brian Greene's wonderful book that inspired the NOVA special in an effort to understand a little more about string theory and its possible implications on a grand "theory of everything." I say I've read "most" of the book, because I've put it down at difficult points, requiring me to double back and re-read chapters before I'm back up to speed.

String theory is fascinating, although not immune to criticism. Maybe it's just my simple understanding of it, but while it is difficult to conceptualize (try this exercise about imagining even a fourth dimension; string theorists claim 10 or 11), it does not fundamentally challenge my worldview (or universe-view?). Extra dimensions are plausible to me. It almost seems like string theory is the rationalist's way to come around to accepting as truth something that cannot be understood or proven. Some of us call that faith: The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

But will there ever be a "theory of everything"? Brian Greene himself acknowledges that there are limits to our understanding:

"No matter how hard you try to teach your cat general relativity, you're going to fail. There we have an example of an intelligent living being that will never know this kind of truth about the way the world is put together. Why in the world should we be any different? We can certainly go further than cats, but why should it be that our brains are somehow so suited to the universe that our brains will be able to understand the deepest workings?"

But it's sure fun to try! So, mark your calendar, program TiVo -- whatever it takes. Next Tuesday is the final hour of the special (looks like it coincides with the stuff I've yet to fully absorb, like the implications of the mysterious M-theory). With luck our local PBS stations will replay the first two hours soon.



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