Marcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science (Richard Dawkins‘ old job) and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. A couple of days ago, he wrote a very intriguing piece in the Guardian:
The article tells of a new mathematical theory developed by physicist Eric Weinstein over the last couple of decades. This new theory, dubbed Geometric Unity by its creator, and motivated by a desire to unify gravity and quantum mechanics, is based on a larger group of symmetries that encompasses the standard model of particle physics and proposes to answer a number of intriguing questions raised by the current theory. As well as giving a more general explanation of facts we currently know – so that some old mysteries (such as why there are three generations of particle families in the standard model, and what is going on with the cosmological constant) seem rather more natural in the new framework – it makes a number of unexpected predictions such as the existence of a number of new particles, and a new, more natural way to understand dark matter and dark energy.
This means that Weinstein’s theory comes with its own way to be tested for validity. By putting its head on the chopping block in this way, it will happily be relegated to a fanciful idea that didn’t end up working if its predictions do not turn out to be true. But if the predictions lead to genuine new discoveries, we will be in possession of a brand new way of viewing the universe. As du Sautoy puts it:
This is such a major project spanning huge stretches of mathematics and physics that it will take some time to realise the full implications of the ideas. And just as Einstein’s general theory of relativity took some years to stabilise there are likely to be modifications to the theory before it is complete. But for me what is so appealing about Weinstein’s ideas is the naturalness of the story, the way things aren’t arbitrarily inserted to make the theory fit the data but instead emerge as a necessary part of the mathematics.
Weinstein begins the paper in which he explains his proposal with a quote from Einstein: “What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world.” Weinstein’s theory answers this in spades. Very little in the universe is arbitrary. The mathematics explains why it should work the way it does. If this isn’t a description of how our universe works then frankly I’d prefer to move to the universe where it does!
Einstein gave us a new description of reality. He didn’t prove Newton wrong, just that Newtonian mechanics was an approximation. If true, Weinstein’s theory will do the same to Einstein. The next improvement to Einstein, whether this theory due to Weinstein or something else, is likely to be “nothing more” than the next approximation, too. But a better understanding of the universe is a better understanding of the universe, and I’m excited! It’s early days yet, but this is worth keeping your eyes on.