The Unification of Physics


1) There really is a complete unified theory, (or a collection of overlapping formulations) which we will someday discover if we are smart enough.

2) There is no ultimate theory of the universe, just an infinite sequence of theories that describe the universe more and more accurately.

3) There is no theory of the universe: events cannot be predicted beyond a certain extent but occur in a random and arbitrary manner.

Some would argue for the third possibility on the grounds that if there were a complete set of laws, that would infringe God's freedom to change his mind and intervene in the world. It's a bit like the old paradox: can God make a stone so heavy that he can't lift it? But the idea that God might want to change his mind is an example of the fallacy, pointed out by St. Augustine, of imagining God as a being existing in time: time is a property only of the universe that God created. Presumably, he knew what he intended when he set it up! With the advent of quantum mechanics, we have come to recognize that events cannot be predicted with complete accuracy but that there is always a degree of uncertainty. If one likes, one could ascribe this randomness to the intervention of God, but it would be a very strange kind of intervention: there is no evidence that it is directed toward any purpose. Indeed, if it were, it would by definition not be random. In modern times, we have effectively removed the third possibility above by redefining the goal of science: our aim is to formulate a set of laws that enables us to predict events only up to the limit set by the uncertainty principle.

Fig. 11.15  From a mathematical point of view the surface of the earth cannot be covered by a single map - one needs at least two overlapping maps. Similarly, it may not be possible to give a single fundamental formulation of theoretical physics: it may be necessary to use different formulations in different situations.

What would it mean if we actually did discover the ultimate theory of the universe? As was explained in Chapter 1, we could never be quite sure that we had indeed found the correct theory, since theories can't be proved. But if the theory was mathematically consistent and always gave predictions that agreed with observations, we could be reasonably confident that it was the right one. It would bring to an end a long and glorious chapter in the history of humanity's intellectual struggle to understand the universe. But it would also revolutionize the ordinary person's understanding of the laws that govern the universe. In Newton's time it was possible for an educated person to have a grasp of the whole of human knowledge, at least in outline. But since then, the pace of the development of science has made this impossible. Because theories are always being changed to account for new observations, they are never properly digested or simplified so that ordinary people can understand them.

If a complete unified theory was discovered, it would only be a matter of time before it was digested and simplified in the same way and taught in schools, at least in outline.

We would then all be able to have some understanding of the laws that govern the universe and are responsible for our existence. Even if we do discover a complete unified theory, it would not mean that we would be able to predict events in general, for two reasons. The first is the limitation that the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics sets on our powers of prediction. There is nothing we can do to get around that. In practice, however, this first limitation is less restrictive than the second one. It arises from the fact that we could not solve the equations of the theory exactly, except in very simple situations. (We cannot even solve exactly for the motion of three bodies in Newton's theory of gravity, and the difficulty increases with the number of bodies and the complexity of the theory.) We already know the laws that govern the behavior of matter under all but the most extreme conditions. In particular, we know the basic laws that underlie all of chemistry and biology. Yet we have certainly not reduced these subjects to the status of solved problems: we have, as yet, had little success in predicting human behavior from mathematical equations! So even if we do find a complete set of basic laws, there will still be in the years ahead the intellectually challenging task of developing better approximation methods, so that we can make useful predictions of the probable outcomes in complicated and realistic situations. A complete, consistent, unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence.

Fig. 11.16  Observations on smaller and smaller scales have led to a sequence of physical theories valid at higher and higher energies, up to quantum chromodynamics (QCD) and possibly beyond, to grand unified theories (GUT). However, the Planck energy may provide a cutoff and suggests that there is an ultimate theory.