We Need an Einstein for the 21st Century
Margaret Wertheim is a science writer with degrees in physics and mathematics. She has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, and is the author of Pythagoras' Trousers, a history of physics and religion, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, and most recently, Physics on the Fringe. In her pioneering work in new methods of science communication, she founded the nonprofit Institute For Figuring, through which she organized the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, a touring exhibition at the intersection of science and art. The IFF's Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project is perhaps the biggest art/science community project in the world. More than 5000 people from New York and London, to Riga and Cape Town, have actively contributed pieces to Crochet Reef exhibitions. As of mid-2011, more than 3 million people had seen these shows.
We do at this point in time need a new Einstein. The one thing that Einstein did, which is so powerful and important in the history of physics is with special relativity he found a way to unify Newton’s laws of motion and Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism. And then he found a way to unify that special relativity with our understanding of gravity, which is what produces general relativity.
We do, in fact, stand in a similar position now. We have two great theories of physics relativity, particularly general relativity and quantum mechanics, and they seem to paint completely different views of the world. Quantum mechanics operates at the subatomic level. General relativity tells us about the cosmological level. When you put these theories together they work in their own domains, but the pictures of the reality they paint are so fundamentally different. This is a huge problem. We live in one world. It’s called a universe. We do actually need one theory that as it were combines everything.
So we do in fact need a new synthesizer just as Einstein was able to find a very creative way to unify Newton’s laws of motion and Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism. So we do need someone to come along and unify relativity and quantum mechanics. That’s what string theory is trying to do. Myself, I don’t believe that string theory is really, as it were, going to be proven to be the ultimate theory and there are other approaches like loop quantum gravity, which is being pioneered by the great physicist Lee Smolin. I think we do need some synthesizer and where that person will come from, I don’t know. I mean, one thing I'm certain is he’s going to come from someone who is trained seriously in physics. I don’t think it’s going to come from someone outside the mainstream, but this person will probably appear very abhorrent when they first do it.
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