Monday, November 17, 2003

The Elegant Universe

In his book The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene explores string theory, parallel universes, and the quest for the 'Theory of Everything', the Grand Unified Theory that unites the strong, weak, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces. Physicists have been trying to come up with such a theory for the last century.

Physics breaks down, to some extent, at very small or very large scales. If you throw a ball, Newton's physics can calculate where it will land, how high it will go, how hard it will hit the ground. But subatomic particles (even atoms themselves, they've recently discovered) don't follow the rules of 'classical' Newtonian physics, so we look to Einstein's theory of relativity and Feynman's quantum physics for answers. And on the scale of galaxies, there appear to be some problems too; our theories of gravitation don't add up correctly, leading to theories involving 'dark matter'.

A Grand Unified Theory, if one exists, would tidy up our perceptions of the universe, giving us a greater understanding of how it all works. The breakdown of scale and the breakdown of what is believed to be a single unified force into the strong, weak, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces represent our largest obstacles to understanding more about the universe. There is a lot of speculation about the possibilities, however. NOVA recently aired a documentary based on The Elegant Universe. If you're like me and don't watch television, you can watch The Elegant Universe online. There are 24 segments of streaming Quicktime or RealVideo, the entire 3-hour show.