Theory of Everything


A theory of everything (TOE) is a hypothetical theory of theoretical physics that fully explains and links together all known physical phenomena. Initially, the term was used with an ironic connotation to refer to various overgeneralized theories. For example, a great-grandfather of Ijon Tichy a character from a cycle of Stanislaw Lem's science fiction stories of 1960s - was known to work on the "General Theory of Everything". Over time, the term stuck in popularizations of quantum physics to describe a theory that would unify or explain through a single model the theories of all fundamental interactions of nature.

Ijon Tichy [initials = IT] is a space explorer whose interplanetary experiences are chronicled in The Star Diaries where the unfortunate Tichy gets caught in a time loop. He later moves in scientific circles on Earth.

There have been numerous theories of everything proposed by theoretical physicists over the last century, but as yet none has been able to stand up to experimental scrutiny, there being tremendous difficulty in getting the theories to produce experimentally testable results. The primary problem in producing a TOE is that the accepted theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity propose radically different descriptions of the universe: straightforward ways of combining the two lead quickly to the renormalization problem, in which the theory does not give finite results for experimentally testable quantities. Lastly, a number of physicists do not expect a TOE to be discovered.




Historical Antecendents

Although this is usually cited as a statement of determinism, a "single formula" may still exist even if physics is fundamentally probabilistic, as taught by modern quantum mechanics.

Since ancient greek times, philosophers have speculated that the apparent diversity of appearances conceals an underlying unity, and thus that the list of forces might be short, indeed might contain only a single entry. For example, the mechanical philosophy of the 17th Century posited that all forces could be ultimately reduced to contact forces between tiny solid particles. This was abandoned after the acceptance of Newton's long-distance force of gravity; but at the same time Newton's work in his Principia provided the first dramatic empirical evidence for the unification of apparently distinct forces: Galileo's work on terrestrial gravity, Kepler's laws of planetary motion, and the phenomonenon of tides were all quantitatively explained by a single law of universal gravitation.

In 1820 Hans Christian Oersted discovered a connection between electricity and magnetism, triggering decades of work that culminated in James Clark Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism. Also during the 19th and early 20th Centuries it gradually became apparent that many common examples of forces - contact forces, elasticity, viscosity, friction, pressure—resulted from electrical interactions between the smallest particles of matter. In the late 1920s the new quantum mechanics showed that the chemical bonds between atoms were examples of (quantum) electrical forces, justifying Dirac's boast that "[t]he underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known".

Attempts to unify gravity with electromagnetism date back at least to Michael Faraday's experiments of 1849–50. After Einstein's theory of gravity (general relativity) was published in 1915, the search for a unified field theory combining gravity with electromagnetism began in earnest. At the time it seemed plausible that no other fundamental forces existed. Prominent contributors were Gunnar Nordstrom, Hermann Weyl, Arthur Eddington, Theodor Kaluza, Oskar Klein, and most notably, many attempts by Einstein and his collaborators. None of these proposals were successful.

The search was interrupted by the discovery of the strong and weak nuclear forces, which could not be subsumed into either gravity or electromagnetism. A further hurdle was the acceptance that quantum mechanics had to be incorporated from the start, rather than emerging as a consequence of a deterministic unified theory, as Einstein had hoped. Gravity and electromagnetism could always peacefully coexist as entries in a list of Newtonian forces, but for many years it seemed that gravity could not even be incorporated into the quantum framework, let alone unified with the other fundamental forces. For this reason work on unification for much of the twentieth century focused on understanding the three "quantum" forces: electromagnetism and the weak and strong forces. The first two were unified in 1967-1968 by Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg, and Abdus Salam. The strong and electroweak forces peacefully coexist in the standard model of particle physics, but remain distinct. Several Grand Unified Theories (GUTs) have been proposed to unify them. Although the simplest GUTs have been experimentally ruled out, the general idea, especially when linked with supersymmetry, remains strongly favored by the theoretical physics community.




Modern Physics

In current mainstream physics, a Theory of Everything would unify all the fundamental interactions of nature, which are usually considered to be four in number: gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and the electromagnetic force. Because the weak force can transform elementary particles from one kind into another, the TOE should yield a deep understanding of the various different kinds of particles as well as the different forces. The expected pattern of theories is:

 
 
 
 
Theory of Everything
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Gravity
 
 
 
 
Electronuclear force (GUT)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Color force
 
 
 
 
 
Electroweak Force
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Strong Force
 
Weak Force
 
 
 
 
Electromagnetism
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Electric Force
 
 
 
 
Magnetic Force
 
 
 
 




In addition to the forces listed here, modern cosmology requires an inflationary force, dark energy, and also dark matter composed of fundamental particles outside the scheme of the standard model. Electroweak unification is a broken symmetry: the electromagnetic and weak forces appear distinct at low energies because the particles carrying the weak force, the W and Z bosons have a mass of about 100 GeV, whereas the photon, which carries the electromagnetic force, is massless. At higher energies Ws and Zs can be created easily and the unified nature of the force becomes apparent. Grand unification is expected to work in a similar way, but at energies of the order of 1016 GeV, far greater than could be reached by any possible Earth-based particle accelerator. By analogy, unification of the GUT force with gravity is expected at the Planck energy, roughly 10 (19) GeV.

It may seem premature to be searching for a TOE when there is as yet no direct evidence for an electronuclear force, and while in any case there are many different proposed GUTs. In fact the name deliberately suggests the hubris involved. Nevertheless, most physicists believe this unification is possible, partly due to the past history of convergence towards a single theory. Supersymmetric GUTs seem plausible not only for their theoretical "beauty", but because they naturally produce large quantities of dark matter, and the inflationary force may be related to GUT physics (although it does not seem to form an inevitable part of the theory). And yet GUTs are clearly not the final answer. Both the current standard model and proposed GUTs are quantum field theories which require the problematic technique of renormalization to yield sensible answers. This is usually regarded as a sign that these are only effective field theories, omitting crucial phenomena relevant only at very high energies. Furthermore, the inconsistency between quantum mechanics and general relativity implies that one or both of these must be replaced by a theory incorporating quantum gravity.

The only mainstream candidate for a theory of everything at the moment is superstring theory / M-theory; current research on loop quantum gravity may eventually play a fundamental role in a TOE, but that is not its primary aim. These theories attempt to deal with the renormalization problem by setting up some lower bound on the length scales possible. String theories and supergravity (both believed to be limiting cases of the yet-to-be-defined M-theory) suppose that the universe actually has more dimensions than the easily observed three of space and one of time. The motivation behind this approach began with the Kaluza-Klein theory in which it was noted that applying general relativity to a five dimensional universe (with the usual four dimensions plus one small curled-up dimension) yields the equivalent of the usual general relativity in four dimensions together with Maxwell's equations (electromagnetism, also in four dimensions). This has led to efforts to work with theories with large number of dimensions in the hopes that this would produce equations that are similar to known laws of physics. The notion of extra dimensions also helps to resolve the hierarchy problem, which is the question of why gravity is so much weaker than any other force. The common answer involves gravity leaking into the extra dimensions in ways that the other forces do not.

In the late 1990s, it was noted that one problem with several of the candidates for theories of everything (but particularly string theory) was that they did not constrain the characteristics of the predicted universe. For example, many theories of quantum gravity can create universes with arbitrary numbers of dimensions or with arbitrary cosmological constants. Even the "standard" ten-dimensional string theory allows the "curled up" dimensions to be compactified in an enormous number of different ways (one estimate is 10500) each of which corresponds to a different collection of fundamental particles and low-energy forces. This array of theories is known as the string theory landscape.

A speculative solution is that many or all of these possibilities are realised in one or another of a huge number of universes, but that only a small number of them are habitable, and hence the fundamental constants of the universe are ultimately the result of the anthropic principle rather than a consequence of the theory of everything. This anthropic approach is often criticised in that, because the theory is flexible enough to encompass almost any observation, it cannot make useful (as in original, falsifiable, and verifiable) predictions. In this view, string theory would be considered a pseudoscience, where an unfalsifiable theory is constantly adapted to fit the experimental results.




Potential Status of a Theory of Everything

No physical theory to date is believed to be precisely accurate. Instead, physics has proceeded by a series of "successive approximations" allowing more and more accurate predictions over a wider and wider range of phenomena. Some physicists believe that it is therefore a mistake to confuse theoretical models with the true nature of reality, and hold that the series of approximations will never terminate in the "truth". Einstein himself expressed this view on occasions. On this view, we may reasonably hope for a theory of everything which self-consistently incorporates all currently known forces, but should not expect it to be the final answer. On the other hand it is often claimed that, despite the apparently ever-increasing complexity of the mathematics of each new theory, in a deep sense associated with their underlying gauge symmetry and the number of fundamental physical constants, the theories are becoming simpler. If so, the process of simplification cannot continue indefinitely.

There is a philosophical debate within the physics community as to whether or not a theory of everything deserves to be called the fundamental law of the universe. One view is the hard reductionist position that the TOE is the fundamental law and that all other theories that apply within the universe are a consequence of the TOE. Another view is that emergent laws (called "free floating laws" by Steven Weinberg), which govern the behavior of complex systems, should be seen as equally fundamental. Examples are the second law of thermodynamics and the theory of natural selection.

The point being that, although in our universe these laws describe systems whose behavior could ("in principle") be predicted from a TOE, they would also hold in universes with different low-level laws, subject only to some very general conditions. Therefore it is of no help, even in principle, to invoke low-level laws when discussing the behavior of complex systems. Some argue that this attitude would violate Occam's Razor if a completely valid TOE were formulated. It is not clear that there is any point at issue in these debates (e.g. between Steven Weinberg and Philip Anderson) other than the right to apply the high-status word "fundamental" to their respective subjects of interest.

Although the name "theory of everything" suggests the determinism of Laplace's quote, this gives a very misleading impression. Determinism is frustrated by the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanical predictions, by the extreme sensitivity to initial conditions that leads to mathematical chaos, and by the extreme mathematical difficulty of applying the theory. Thus, although the current standard model of particle physics "in principle" predicts all known non-gravitational phenomena, in practice only a few quantitative results have been derived from the full theory (e.g. the masses of some of the simplest hadrons), and these results (especially the particle masses which are most relevant for low-energy physics) are less accurate than existing experimental measurements. The true TOE would almost certainly be even harder to apply. The main motive for seeking a TOE, apart from the pure intellectual satisfaction of completing a centuries-long quest, is that all prior successful unifications have predicted new phenomena, some of which (e.g. electrical generators) have proved of great practical importance. As in other cases of theory reduction, the TOE would also allow us to confidently define the domain of validity and residual error of low-energy approximations to the full theory which could be used for practical calculations.

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In the News ...





Major Big Bang Discovery Brings 'Theory of Everything' a Bit Closer to Reality   Live Science - March 21, 2014

The discovery that the universe really did expand at many times the speed of light immediately after the Big Bang should bring physicists slightly closer to their ultimate goal - the long-sought "Theory of Everything." The bottom part of this illustration shows the scale of the universe versus time. Specific events are shown such as the formation of neutral Hydrogen at 380 000 years after the big bang. Prior to this time, the constant interaction between matter (electrons) and light (photons) made the universe opaque. After this time, the photons we now call the CMB started streaming freely.




New study suggests researchers can now test the 'theory of everything'   PhysOrg - September 1, 2010
String theory was originally developed to describe the fundamental particles and forces that make up our universe. The new research, led by a team from Imperial College London, describes the unexpected discovery that string theory also seems to predict the behavior of entangled quantum particles. As this prediction can be tested in the laboratory, researchers can now test string theory. Over the last 25 years, string theory has become physicists' favorite contender for the 'theory of everything', reconciling what we know about the incredibly small from particle physics with our understanding of the very large from our studies of cosmology. Using the theory to predict how entangled quantum particles behave provides the first opportunity to test string theory by experiment.




Scientists Drop Theory of Everything Down Elevator Shaft   Live Science - June 17, 2010

Scientists dropped an experiment nearly five stories down an elevator shaft of sorts to test a possible way to meld the physical theory of the very small - quantum mechanics - with the very large - general relativity, to create a theory of everything. The theory of quantum mechanics reigns over atoms and electrons and quarks and other things too tiny to see with the naked eye. It describes these most basic building blocks of matter as both particles and waves. The theory famously includes some befuddling concepts such as the uncertainty principle (you can't simultaneously know both the position and momentum of a particle with accuracy) and the idea of quantum entanglement, whereby two particles that were formerly linked can be separated by great distances and retain an eerie connection, with one responding when an action is performed on the other.




The quest for a theory of everything MSNBC
'Holy Grail' would explain relativity, quantum physics - Over the past century, physicists have unlocked the secrets behind radio and television, nuclear energy and the power of the sun. Now they're seeking the ultimate prize: a 'theory of everything' that could reveal a bizarre realm of interdimensional wormholes and time warps. Such a theory would give us the ability to read the mind of God, says Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking. And in Hawking's opinion, there's a 50-50 chance that someone will discover the Holy Grail of physics within the next 20 years.

It won't be easy, though: The discoverer would have to find the harmony underlying two themes as discordant as light Bach and heavy rock. On one side is Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. Einstein saw the large-scale universe as a smooth, curved surface in four dimensions (the three dimensions of space plus time). The gravitational force that binds us to the earth arises from the very structure of that space-time continuum. On the other side is quantum theory. Beginning in the 1920s, a generation of scientists defined the small-scale universe as a collection of fuzzy phantoms. These subatomic particles couldn't be precisely located in space and time, but their interaction could be described in statistical terms.




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