Nova: The Elegant Universe

Hubba Hubba!!

Anyone got any pics of this gal?

Anyrate, I watched the rebroadcast of the show last night and it became painfully obvious early on that when I said I thought it had great production value, I’d actually been thinking of a different program I watched that night.

You can tell I have a long way to go.

The show I was thinking of, or remembering, was NOVA, not this one. Check out their recent one dealing with telescopes.

Fascinating and incredibly well done.

I posted this in another message board on the same subject:

String theory is testable, I don’t think it is unreasonable at all to assume that we will be able to test as the energies of the strings are within the theoretical range of realistic colliders, infact you mioght not need colliders as some think that gravitaional waves could exhbit behaviour which wld act as a test of string theory. Also not all of it’s predictions are yet known.

It’s by far the best candidate for a TOE and has had some pretty promising results, including explaining intuitively why a black hole should have entropy.

Slight hijack here. Something came to mind when I started watching this program–a line from Pete Townshend’s *Psychoderelict * :

“Music and vibrations are the basis of everything…”

He’s used this concept in a lot of his work. I’ve seen interviews where he’s essentially explained the theory from a musician’s perspective.

They included the wishy-washy words? Great! The single greatest failing of science popularizations is that they tend to leave out those qualifiers. Scientists are never certain of anything. We always have some error in our results. Sometimes the uncertainty is small, which is of course good, but it’s always there, and you haven’t really stated your results if you haven’t specified how much the error is. Properly, this should be done quantitatively, but when you’re expressing ideas in a non-mathematical form, you need to use words like “might” and “could”.

All true, but let’s distinguish this kind of wishy-washy word from the kind which applies to string theory. I think most of us wouldn’t say, for example, that Newton’s Laws “might” be correct in their realm of applicability: we have confidence that the theory itself is right, even though of course we don’t have 100% certainty. Confidence in string theory is, I think, somewhat… looser.

I rather enjoyed the program, but I am a physics ignoramous.

One thing that stuck out to me was it seemed to be circular logic:

To “prove” string theory you need a number of extra dimensions and to “prove” those dimensions exist you need string theory.

Or I am I over simplifying here? I thought I heard on the program that scientists didn’t really take extra dimensions seriously until string theory.

I get the 6 or 10 dimension thing either, but that is a different question.

That is supposed to say I ** don’t** get the 6 or 10 dimension thing…

I don’t think this is true. Truly “stringy” behavior happens at the Planck scale, WAAAYYYY beyond todays accelerators. Evidence of SUSY etc. is not really evidence for string theory, as SUSY may occur even if strings are wrong.


That’s the big problem. A theory that is so complicated that no one can predict anything isn’t worth a hill of beans.


In fact, it’s the ONLY candidate at the moment, which explains why it’s getting so much attention.

Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? String theory predicts extra dimensions, so we try to look for extra dimensions. If we find them, yay for strings! If we don’t, well, maybe strings are wrong, but maybe we didn’t look hard enough, or in the right way.

If this sounds like PSI, or homeopathy, or astrology, or any other pseudoscience, … umm… it sort of is. Until you have specific, testable predictions. So far, 25 years of string theory, and no specific, testable predictions. According to Howard Georgi (no slouch of a physicist himself), string theory is “advanced mathematical theology”. (Or something like that…)

No, it certainly has not been ruled out that an acclerator can reach these predicted energies. They are big, but they are not so incredibly huge as to rule this out. IIRC you might see stringy behaviour on quite a large scale (1 mm) where gravity is concerned (indeed a group of string theorist are waitng for gravitaional radiation detctors large enough to possibly observe this)

It does make predictions and plenty of them (though most of these are just predictions of known phenoumna or things that we do not yet have the capabilty to test), as I said above it explains how a black hole’s entropy relates to Boltzmann’s formula, it also explains why parity is violated in weak interactions (both these phenoumna are known though). The problem with testing it’s predictions are the high energies of the strings. Of course the stringy theories these days all utilize supersymmetry, so they instantly make a prediction that we should observe the supersymetric partners of gauge bosons and leptons, though none yet have been observed.


In fact, it’s the ONLY candidate at the moment, which explains why it’s getting so much attention. **

Yes, I admit I don’t know any other candidate for TOE, but there are several candidates for quantum gravity.

As one of the scientists on the program said, it is philosophy. And this is really what it is if it cannot be proved. Philosophy gives an explanation of the fundamentals of the universe. Aquinas said, for example, everything is made out of the fundamental materials of “prime matter” and “substantial form.” Scientists said that everything is made out of the fundamental materials of quarks, finally, after finding that atoms, the once indivisible, were divisible, and that hadrons and leptons, which later were thought to be indivisble, were divisible, etc. Since these theories could be tested, it is science. Since prime matter and substantial form cannot be shown by experimental or observation, it is philosophy.

Actually, it’s not gravitational wave detectors you need for this; just gravitational force detectors. And disappointingly, the test has been performed, with negative results (that is to say, no non-Newtonian behaviour was observed). I’m not sure what the next reasonable candidate for a “stringy scale” is off the top of my head, but it’s considerably smaller. Really, the a priori most likely scale is the Planck scale, which we may never be able to probe; tests at more accessible scales are somewhat wishful thinking. There’s a fairly small chance of a jackpot, but the potential benefits are great enough to justify the search.

And while there are other potential models floating around for quantum gravity, they all have about the same status as string theory at the moment: Nobody really understands them well enough, and there are no plausible experiments to distinguish between them.

It doesn’t seem to me that something like loop quantum gravity has the same staus as string theory as there are about 10,000 SMT papers produced every year, yet only a few hundred or less LQG papers produced in the same time period (Though mathematical physicists working on LQG are constantly on the lookout to connect it with string theory), but perhaps thats a matter of fashion.

Regarding the dimension thing. All a dimension is, is a variable in an equation. For everyday life we typically use x, y, z, and t. All they’re saying is that strings are defined by 6 variables, say a, b, c, d, e, f. You plug in values and you get the different types of strings. They are no way implying that we would be able to see, travel, breath in such dimensions. At least, that’s my take - and there is a simplicity in 10 - since it’s just 3 squared + 1 for time - which isn’t a spacial dimension anyway.

A dimension is more than a mathematical variable. It is a physical reality. However, the other 5 dimensions (it is up to 11 now) are so infinestimally small that no matter that we know of can travel through it.

A dimension is more than a mathematical variable. It is a physical reality. However, the other 7 dimensions (it is up to 11 now) are so infinestimally small that no matter that we know of can travel through it.

I was sad that I was working too late to see the show … but by the time I got home, I did get to see what was on after it – a documentary on Einstein’s wife! It did go into a fair amount of detail on their work together as students, but was somewhat poorly edited when discussing the work done in 1905. They showed various people giving their opinions, from “a sounding board cannot create, only amplify” to “she deserves equal credit” and mentioned that one journal had both their names on a paper, with hers later removed, but then just skipped on; they really seemed set up to give a little more than they did. It was nonetheless an interesting show, as I’d known little about her before.

CNoteChris, Here you go -Mileva Maric.

I have the Nova on tape, but I haven’t watched it yet. Granted, they are tackling some deep subjects while trying to appeal to a general audience interested in science.

As for Cosmos: As a long-lived amateur astronomer, I fail to see what Sagan did for all you folks curious about astronomy. Typical of a college prof, he put me to sleep while killing any spark of curiosity the layman might have had about basic astronomy and basic cosmology. IMHO, it was done in a lecture style - too dry for human consumption. - Jinx

It was weird for me, yet somewhat entertaining at the same time.

I started the program already with a recognition of the four forces of nature, the contradiction between the Relativistic and Quantum views of the universe, and the notion that string theory may well be the “theory of everything” physicists have been looking for even if they’d need an accelerator the size of the solar system to verify any of it, so I found the first half of the program painfully slow. (Was the program really only an hour? I swear it felt like two.)

The second half was a little better, because once they’d given a tantalizing hint of what string theory is they began exploring some of the objections against it, which is what I’m really interested in. Philosophically I trust empiricism but it was intuitivism that gave us Relativity, so I realize one mustn’t discard an idea simply because there’s no objective means of proving, for example, that ‘good’ is not actually ‘evil’ – evolution was a similarly mind-bending intuition that has taken a century to become inarguably established yet millions of people still refuse to believe it.

I tried watching the program through “everyman’s eyes,” the way non-science-buffs might see it, and I think the special effects detracted from the clarity of the explanation by offering too-clever animation in place of structure. There was zero discussion of particle-wave duality, for example, and without that how can you possibly understand how the Copenhagen interpretation is relevant to the competing “flavors” of string theory?

The program was too obtuse for Joe Savant yet too abstract for Joe Sixpack, so it makes you wonder whether the purpose of the program was to popularize cutting-edge physics or give Adobe After Effects the workout it so richly deserves.