Reflections on a Self-Representing Universe

Shahn Majid

This will be my last regular post for a while because of Christmas and teaching three courses next term at my University. These past eleven posts, see here and here, have been my personal take on many of the topics covered in On Space and Time and its now time in this twelfth post to address the larger picture of the volume itself.

In fact the volume is about opening a genuine public debate on the true nature of space and time, starting with a public panel discussion on this topic in 2006 in Cambridge, England. Where this came from was my increasing unease about the portrayal of fundamental physics — quantum gravity in particular — as already solved by string theory when, in fact, theoretical physics is in need of fresh profound ideas and contact with experiment, when these are the most exciting and turbulent of times.

I also insist in the preface to On Space and Time that this debate needs to involve not only scientists but the wider public. The reason is that scientists’ ideas have to come from somewhere, from sitting around in cafes, from contemplation of art. We don’t know where the key revolutionary idea is going to come from. Put another way, to progress, scientists need now to see what Science is, which means they have to step outside it and see it in part as a non-scientist.

In particular, and this being Christmastime, I want you to ask yourself what does someone singing a Christmas carol have to say about quantum gravity? What does that person have in common with a theoretical physicist? What I think they have in common is contemplation of the infinite. I mean a sense of something bigger than ourselves. As a confirmed atheist I won’t call it God, but its a sense of awe at the Universe and a wonder about our place in it. My approach as a theoretical physicist is to use mathematics and the scientific method to explore the issue, while a carol singer is surely using other means to ‘connect’.

In fact it is only since the 17th century Enlightenment that Science somehow replaced religion as the font of physical truth. But the Scientific Method pioneered by Hooke and others replaced religious dogma, good, yet itself is based on certain assumptions and ways of doing things, of dividing knowledge into ‘theory’ and ‘experiment’, in other words some other dogma.

As a scientist I am 1000% committed to the Scientific Method but I see it as a particular way of exploring reality. One that we might now need to understand better by seeing it from the outside.

Read the rest of the entry here!

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