Are we in the matrix? Physicist James Gates reveals why string theory stretches our imaginations about the nature of reality. Also, how failure makes us more complete, and imagination makes us more knowledgeable.
Symbols of Power: Adinkras and the Nature of Reality
by S. James Gates
Physicists have long sought to describe the universe in terms of equations. Now, James Gates explains how research on a class of geometric symbols known as adinkras could lead to fresh insights into the theory of supersymmetry — and perhaps even the very nature of reality.
Complex ideas, complex shapes Adinkras — geometric objects that encode mathematical relationships between supersymmetric particles — are named after symbols that represent wise sayings in West African culture. This adinkra is called “nea onnim no sua a, ohu,” which translates as “he who does not know can become knowledgeable through learning.”
In the land of theoretical physics, equations have always been king. Indeed, it would probably be fair to caricature theoretical physicists as members of a company called “Equations-R-Us”, since we tend to view new equations as markers of progress.
The modern era of equation prediction began with Maxwell in 1861, continued through the development of Einstein’s equations of general relativity in 1916, and reached its first peak in the 1920s with the Schrödinger and Dirac equations. Then a second, postwar surge saw the development of equations describing the strong force and the electroweak force, culminating in the creation of the Standard Model of particle physics in about 1973. The equations trend continues today, with the ongoing struggle to create comprehensive equations to describe superstring theory. This effort — which aims to incorporate the force of gravity into physical models in a way that the Standard Model does not — marks the extant boundary of a long tradition.
Yet equations are not the only story. To an extent, geometrical representations of physical theories have also been useful when correctly applied. The most famous incorrect geometrical representation in physics is probably Johannes Kepler’s model of planetary orbits; initially, Kepler believed the orbits could be described by five regular polygons successively embedded within each other, but he abandoned this proposition when more accurate data became available.
A less well known but much more successful example of geometry applied to physics is Murray Gell-Mann’s “eightfold way”, which is a means of organizing subatomic particles. This organization has an underlying explanation using triangles with quarks located at the vertices.
For the past five years, I and a group of my colleagues (including Charles Doran, Michael Faux, Tristan Hubsch, Kevin Iga, Greg Landweber and others) have been following the geometric-physics path pioneered by Kepler and Gell-Mann. The geometric objects that interest us are not triangles or octagons, but more complicated figures known as “adinkras”, a name Faux suggested.
The word “adinkra” is of West African etymology, and it originally referred to visual symbols created by the Akan people of Ghana and the Gyamen of Côte d’Ivoire to represent concepts or aphorisms. However, the mathematical adinkras we study are really only linked to those African symbols by name. Even so, it must be acknowledged that, like their forebears, mathematical adinkras also represent concepts that are difficult to express in words. Most intriguingly, they may even contain hints of something more profound — including the idea that our universe could be a computer simulation, as in the Matrix films.
From Being Visual:
This Crab Nebula is a remnant of a star’s supernova explosion. It’s six light-years wide and expanding! Congratulations to the three astrophysicists who won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for discovering that the fading lights of supernovas tell us that our universe is expanding into a cold, dark place.
(Photo by NASA via Getty Images)
A Twitterscript of Lord Martin Rees Interview
by Susan Leem, associate producer and Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Professor Rees gives The Reith Lectures 2010 (photo: The Reith Lectures/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
Rees’ calls for peaceful coexistence between believers and non-believers has made waves among atheists. He raised more hackles recently by accepting this year’s Templeton Prize (joining the ranks of past winners Mother Teresa, John Polkinghorne, and Billy Graham). He has one foot in each world as an atheist who is devoted to the cultural, “tribal” experience of attending church.
As a highly credentialed scientist, Lord Rees has studied and pondered the mysteries of black holes and separate universes, but what placed him on our radar is his concern for science’s impacts on human beings. He is a rare individual in that his sense of mystery and wonder for distant worlds and other forms of life doesn’t eclipse his awe of humankind.
He argues that even science is not unassailable, and its truths can be quite difficult to grasp. In fact, the mere questions that scientists ask today could not have even been imagined 30 years ago.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:
Being Comfortable with the Presence of Mystery
Krista Tippett, host
I am so happy to be back in the studio making radio, though these last few months of public conversations about Einstein’s God have been fascinating and energizing. And we continue to build on our cumulative conversation with and about science and the human spirit. I picked up Mario Livio’s book, Is God a Mathematician, sometime last year, and knew I wanted to speak with him.
Given that title, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Mario Livio is not himself a religious man. But in his science, he is working on frontiers of discovery where questions far outpace answers — exploring the nature of neutron stars, white dwarfs, dark energy, the search for intelligent life in other galaxies.
In vivid detail and with passionate articulation, he reinforces a sense that has come through in many of my conversations with scientists these past years. That is, in contrast to the 19th- and 20th-century Western cultural confidence that science was on the verge of explaining most everything, our cutting-edge 21st-century discoveries are yielding ever more fantastic mysteries. The real science of the present, Mario Livio says, is far more interesting than science fiction could ever be.
For example, the fact that the universe is expanding rather than contracting is new knowledge. That has led to the discovery of what is called, for lack of precise understanding, “dark energy,” which is accelerating this expansion. And this utterly unexplained substance is now thought to comprise something like 70 percent of the universe. Likewise, the Hubble telescope has helped humanity gain intricate new detail on the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos and the relative insignificance of the space we take up in it. At the same time — and this is one of Livio’s intriguing mysteries — this new knowledge and perspective also shine a new kind of light on the inordinate power of the human mind.
Livio’s question, “Is God a mathematician?,” is actually an ancient and unfolding question about the uncanny “omnipotence and omnipotent power” of mathematics as experienced by science and philosophy across the ages. The question itself, as Livio says, is as rich to ponder as any of its possible answers. And so is the fact, behind it, that our minds give rise to mathematical principles, which are then found to have what one great physicist called “an unreasonable effectiveness” in describing the universe.
Livio also picks up on an intriguing theme left dangling in my lovely Easter conversation with Vatican astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — the enduring question of whether mathematical truths, laws of nature, are discovered or invented. He unapologetically offers his conclusion that there is no either/or answer possible here — that mathematics is both invented and discovered. That is to say, as he tells it, scientists habitually “invent” formulations and theories with no practical application, which generations or centuries later are found to describe fundamental aspects of reality. Even mathematical ideas that are at first invented yield real discoveries that are relevant, true, and wholly unexpected.
I was also interested, as I went into this conversation, that when Mario Livio is not doing science he is a lover of art. “Beauty” is a word that recurs across my cumulative conversation with scientists, and Mario Livio infuses that word with his own evident passion. He is not quite sure, when I press, what that might have to do with his simultaneous passion for art. And yet there is something intriguing — mysterious even — about his description of how echoing allusions from science and art come to him effortlessly in his writing.
And in the backdrop of our conversation, images from the Hubble Space Telescope have brought a lavish beauty of the cosmos into ordinary modern eyes and imaginations. One senses that of all the accomplishments in which he has played a part, Mario Livio is most proud of this one. For him, science is a part of culture — like literature, like the arts. And he wants the rest of us, whether we speak his mother tongue of mathematics or not, to experience it that way too. This conversation (listen above) brings me farther forward on this path.
And I kept thinking, as I spoke with Mario Livio, of Einstein’s references to the reverence for beauty and open sense of wonder that Einstein saw as a common root experience of true science, true religion, and true art. His use of the word “God,” Mario Livio tells me, is similar to Einstein’s grasp for the word “God” as a synonym for the workings of the cosmos. I am struck once again with the capacity of modern scientists to be more comfortable with the presence of mystery, and bolder in articulating its reality than many who are traditionally religious.