October 4, 2012

A Revolution in Multiverse

In Kuhnian terminology, the current state of cosmology is testing the limits of "normal science." Essentially, this means that physicists have begun to suspect that things are not strictly what they seem; that certain mathematical conclusions hint at truths that, within our current scientific paradigm, can't be empirically verified. But that doesn't delimit the possibility for new knowledge: look how long Peter Higgs had to wait before his groundbreaking prediction was revealed to be accurate. It took the biggest, most expensive, most sophisticated piece of machinery on earth to find the Higgs-like particle...and it was already included in the Standard Model! As exciting as BSM physics may be in theory, its yield is still out of reach--but not necessarily forever.

In fact, folks like Marcelo Gleiser at Dartmouth suspect that a revolution is nigh: namely, the multiverse theory. He dubs this a possible "third Copernican revolution," and one that carries with it the heaviest philosophical implications yet: that our creation story, the big bang, is totally ordinary, and just one of trillions. (Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality goes into more detail; his theory about the percentage of dark energy in our universe, and what that implies, is fascinating.) It's a mind-bending realignment, for sure, but hardly stranger than repositioning the earth from being the center of the galaxy, or the galaxy from being the center of the universe. Each time, we realize anew how vast, how unexpected, our celestial home is.

But: how can we affirm whether the multiverse is real? Gleiser suggests that there may be physical remnants of the birth of this universe, but that the problem of an infinitely-expanding and infinitely-existing entity pushes current mathematical language to the breaking point. I've read some writers who feel that incorporating a heuristic model is vital to any post-SM physics; others fear that, barring a legitimate breakthrough in technology (quantum computing could help), empirical verification of the more exotic theories--the multiverse, m-theory, the holographic principle--may be permanently beyond our capacity to verify them.

I remain an optimist: the power of the mind, and its proven ability to supersede epistemological constraints, gives me hope. That, plus the fact that there are (possibly) a trillion other Einsteins out there: surely one of them will not give up on quantum mechanics and deduce a Theory of Everything after all! Maybe it's time to change the tune we beam into outer space from "Across the Universe" to this, and admit that our most exceptional cultural product is no longer the Beatles, but the Higgs. (I mean, it's close, but...)

Bonus links: Thomas Kuhn interviews Niels BohrNPR talks Flatland! An updated, visual interpretation of the Drake equation! Plus, images of STAR, PHENIX, and NSLS at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon as a visiting photog. My excitement level may or may not have weirded out the experimentalists, but come on: PARTICLE COLLIDERS!

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