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Mon Apr 16, 2012, 12:28 PM

Where Do Space and Time Come From? New Theory Offers Answers, If Only Physicists Can Figure It Out [View all]

By George Musser

SANTA BARBARA—”Maybe we’re just too dumb,” Nobel laureate physicist David Gross mused in a lecture at Caltech two weeks ago. When someone of his level wonders whether the unification of physics will always be beyond mortal minds, it gets you worried. Since his lecture, I’ve been learning about a theory that seems to confirm Gross’s worry. It is so ridiculously hard that it could be the subject of an Onion parody. But at the same time, I’ve been watching how physicists are trying to power through their intimidation, because the theory promises a new way of understanding what space and time really are, at a deep level.

The theory was put forward in the late 1980s by Russian physicists Mikhail Vasiliev and the late Efin Fradkin of the Lebedev Institute in Moscow, but is so mathematically complex and conceptually opaque that whenever someone brought it up, most theorists started talking about the weather, soccer, reality TV—anything but that theory. It became a subject of polite conversation only in the past couple of years, as math whizzes who take a peculiar pleasure in impossible problems dove in and showed that the theory is not impossible to grasp, merely almost impossible.

Inspired by their bravery, I’m going to take a crack at explaining this strange beast, synthesizing lectures I’ve attended by Steve Shenker of Stanford University, Andy Strominger of Harvard, and Juan Maldacena of the Institute for Advanced Study, as well as informal chats with Joe Polchinski of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics and Joan Simón of the University of Edinburgh. I’m sure they’ll set me straight if I get something wrong, and I’ll edit this blog post to reflect comments I receive.

Vasiliev theory (for sake of a pithy name, physicists drop Fradkin’s name) takes to extremes the basic idea of modern physics: that the world around us consists of fields—the electrical and magnetic fields and a handful of others that represent the known forces of nature and types of matter. Vasiliev theory posits an infinite number of fields. They come in progressively more complicated varieties described by the quantum-mechanical property of spin.



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Reply Where Do Space and Time Come From? New Theory Offers Answers, If Only Physicists Can Figure It Out [View all]
n2doc Apr 2012 OP
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Odin2005 Apr 2012 #14