The Holy Grail of Physics

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String in a knot [photoplasia / Flickr]

So if you’re a theoretical physicist, the thing that will place you up there with Einstein is a unifying theory of “quantum gravity” — in essence a theory of everything — that brings together two big ideas of the twentieth century: general relativity and quantum mechanics. Einstein’s general theory of relativity explains the effect of gravity on the shape of space and the flow of time. And quantum mechanics replaces classical mechanics at atomic and subatomic levels.

Lots and lots of super-smart physicists have been wrestling with a unifying theory for years, of course. There are a number of possibilities out there — like string theory/theories or loop quantum gravity — that may yet prove to be the Holy Grail. But that’s part of the problem. They MAY prove to be. They’ve been impossible to prove or disprove experimentally, though there are a few experiments going on now (or coming soon to a lab not-so-near you) that will touch on small corners of these theories.

Already confused? So are we. So we’d like to tour the frontier of physics — passing through the outer reaches of the universe and the innermost realms of atoms — to try to understand parts of the cosmos that we can’t see directly: black holes, extra dimensions, quarks, and so on. And to puzzle out how they might all fit together. Our guide will be Lisa Randall, particle physicist and cosmologist at Harvard.

What would you like to ask Professor Randall?

Special thanks to JeffakBoston for his time and helpful suggestions.

Lisa Randall

Professor of Physics, Harvard University.

Author, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions.

One of the most cited physicists of the last five years.

Featured in Newsweek‘s “ Who’s Next 2006“.

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  • nother

    I have some facts scribbled on a piece of paper near my desk, these facts help keep my humility high.

    -The Milky Way Galaxy contains 200 billion suns.

    -There are billions of other galaxies.

    -Our 9 planet solar system surrounds JUST one of those suns in JUST one of those galaxies!

    Yet we believe we are the only carbon based or silicon based or whatever based life form.

    So my question for Lisa Randall (and anyone else) is, if she had to lay down Vegas odds for other carbon based life forms on other planets, what would her odds be?

  • jazzman

    I posted this in a slightly different form in the ‘God in our Genes’ thread:

    ALL THAT EXISTS is comprised of a unified field or force that manifest as Consciousness, Energy and Matter (CEM). Consciousness manifests as energy (3 of the 4 forces have been unified: Electromagnetism and the strong and weak forces which are aspects of what we call LIGHT and energy manifests matter (solid light). Consciousness manifests as elementary particles (quarks), black holes, viruses and humans.

    The phenomenon we call GRAVITY results from the innate gregariousness of consciousness, i.e., the attraction of consciousness to itself. That’s the missing link to a Unified Field Theory but most physicists have a problem with consciousness. Because they haven’t yet figured out a way to measure it with machines (ostensibly to eliminate their own consciousness from contaminating the research but the machines are also composed of consciousness) so many of them ignore it or term it emergent epiphenomenalism and believe it is somehow generated from the complex physical structure called the BRAIN. They use their conscious minds to derive their formulae but deny the mind’s or consciousness’ existence apart from the brain.

    Multidimensional mathematical models such as Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation of QM or string theory may be tailored to comport with observations but any unified theory that ignores consciousness as a fundamental property of everything IMO will fail.

  • jazzman

    nother: So my question for Lisa Randall (and anyone else) is, if she had to lay down Vegas odds for other carbon based life forms on other planets, what would her odds be?

    Nikos’ assertion that we are ancient stardust magically brought to life by sunlight, notwithstanding, no one yet has adduced any mechanism that demonstrates the transition from inert matter to that which meets the criteria we currently define as living. If I am correct in my assumptions that life (and ALL forces) are yet another manifestation of consciousness, then the odds are 100% that there are other “life forms� in the Universe, or Multiverse (the definition of life is not particularly meaningful in that scenario.) That said, unless we discover a mechanism to travel dimensionally, then the known laws of physics render the question moot as linear travel to planets in other star systems is currently not in the realm of possibility due to the distances involved.

  • Maybe it is the result of the recent shows on Black Men, Race, Class and Prisons and all the news of torture, but when I saw the picture above of the string in a tree, the referent that came to mind was that of lynching. Stange convergence.

  • serious lee

    That picture made me think of the game cats cradle I played as a girl.

  • Nikos

    Nother (5:13 PM): good question, but I wonder if Lisa could realistically answer it – my guess is that our existence on the third rock from our little sun is too small a sample size for any sort of working hypothesis. In other words, to make odds on the existence of life elsewhere, we would need at least one more referent of life elsewhere. (Does this make any sense?)

    Primer Recommendations, Anyone?

    I’d love to read a book before this show as a primer. And I’ve had the good luck recently to add a trio of science books to my collection, but don’t know if any of them are pertinent enough to read as a primer for this show.

    Here’s what I got:

    The Origin of the Universe, John D. Barrow, 1994, Phoenix:

    Its advantage is that it’s a mere 138 pages (sans notes); its disadvantage is that it’s 12 years old – which might render it nearly obsolete. (It also might not be terribly relevant.)

    The Life of the Cosmos, Lee Smolin, 1997, Oxford:

    It’s a whole lot longer than Barrow’s book, and has a glossary – a sure sign of trouble! Still, its chapter titles include the kind of topics the ROS hour is likely to touch on.

    Big Bang, Simon Singh, 2004, Harper Collins:

    This is the biggest of the bunch. It also appears to possibly be the most sumptuous.

    And then there’s this old classic, that’s been aging for years on my shelves:

    A Brief History of Time, Stephen W. Hawking, 1988, Bantam:

    Can anyone recommend one of these – or something other?

    I’ve got time to read only one!

    (lee: this is, of course, your chance to change your nom de plume again and send me on a wild goose chase!)

  • benchcoat

    My question for the physicists: what is energy?

    the physics texts I’ve looked at all define energy as “the capacity to do work”. they then quickly shift to talking about mechanical, thermal, chemical, etc. potentials of energy.

    So does this mean that string theory posits that everything is made up of vibrating capacities to do work? and work is force over a distance, so it’s actually vibrating capacities to express force over a distance?

    Is there a complicated explanation for energy that I just don’t have the mathematics to comprehend? or is energy something we don’t really have a physical definition for, yet?

  • Depending on the habitat, if it’s Spring, it’s very likely that the string will be used as nesting material by a bird. The bird sees the string in a utilitarian way. What’s the utility of a “theory of everything?” The concept is definitely fascinating, but I fail to understand the usefulness of it in everyday life.

  • DayLate

    Picking up on Benchcoat thoughts, here is what I have come to understand about energy over the years. In short, I think Benchcoat’s last paragraph hits the nail on the head. Energy is not anything physical (i.e. something that you could kick, throw, or spit on.) There are different forms of it — thermal, kinetic, potential, what have you. It can be transferred from one thing to another (the kinetic energy of a hammer, for example, being tranferred to my thumb), and transformed from one kind into another (thermal to kinetic as in the internal combustion engine), but it is nothing “real.” There is no generic, absolute, thing called energy. We will never be able to have a bowl of energy on our table. (But that would be REALLY cool!) So, it can only be discussed in mathematical terms.

    Other’s who know more… please correct me if I am leading readers astray!

  • DayLate

    Ok… one more thing. With a nod to ClimbTheMtns, humans are curious creatures. On the one hand, I can see why we soldier on endlessly searching for a grand unifying theory of everything. It might just be in our nature. But in the grand scheme of things, what a fool’s errand this might turn out to be! If such a theory is ever found, what then? What do we do with it? And worse yet… hundreds, perhaps thousands of idle physicists with nothing more to do! The horror…

  • Nikos

    My 8:17 PM, April 19th — — has so many links it was ‘awaiting moderation’ for a few hours — and may now be too far up the page to catch anyone’s attention. (Thanks for promptly liberating it though, ROS staff!)

    So, everyone and anyone: please read it and give me a recommendation! Please!!!

    What book should I read???

  • “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene

    This is the book that turned me on to string theory. The book is as elegant as its title suggests the Universe is!

    “Flat Land: A Romance of Many Dimensions” by Edwin A. Abbott

    It’s odd that such an insightful book was written by a humble mathemetician so long ago. A definite primer on multiple dimensions and a MUST READ if the notion of five or more dimensions makes your head swim. It is set in a simple, two-dimensional universe where all the people are polygons, and class is determined by the number of sides a person has. Chaos ensues when an unseen third dimension makes its presence known! Isaac Asimov wrote, “The best introduction one can find into the manner of perceiving dimensions”

  • miskatonic_40+

    As a former high-energy guy turned condensed-matter, my input isn’t worth much, and I know that. As an experimentalist turned theorist, I have mixed emotions about the role of phenomenology in the development of theory.

    If I can’t even in principle test a theory, then it’s not *physics*.

    It will be interesting and certainly worth keeping an eye on both Fermilab and LHC (should it actually come up) to see what we see in the next 5 years.

    At any rate, it’s *definitely* more pleasing to attend Dr. Randall’s lectures in person than it is to attend Dr. Hawking’s lectures in person (no offense, mate)!

    Can we get AIP to start a ‘Most Beautiful High-Energy Theorist’ award in the vein of the mainstream magazines?

  • cheesechowmain

    The picture for this show reminds me why I adore velcro. Since we’re recommending science literature with heart, or physics for poets as we used to suggest back when, my personal favorite:

    Symmetries and Reflections

    It’s a bit dated, but still reads well and good explorations. Interesting reading:

    Wigner’s friend

    Von Neumann’s catastrophe

    Consciousness causes collapse

  • T:Porter

    String theory (M-theory, whatever) has been criticized for its seeming lack of test-ability. How, if at all, is that being addressed? If it hasn’t yet, is anybody even coming up with interesting suggestions how?

  • irbdavid

    Since Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity are distinct from each other at the moment does that imply that one or the other is “wrong” in some way, or at least inaccurate to some extent?

    Quantum Mechanics has been tested to breaking point and still been found to be a good description of nature; Newtons theories of gravity were later found to be inaccurate, and GR has had its problems with cosmological constants and its predictions of the existence of dark matter etc.

    Is it likely then that at least some of the difficulty in unifying these two theories is due to one of them not painting “a complete picture”?

  • DayLate

    Nikos — Try Stephen Hawking’s “The Universe in a Nutshell”.

  • The picture reminded me of the golden fleece (weird reference I know) but then string theory of course. I felt like I almost ‘got it’ when I saw the NOVA PBS Elegant Universe DVD. Somehow for me visuals really help with this sort of material. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit dyslexic but reading about stuff like this can be brain torture.

  • jazzman

    Nikos: Try this link –

  • Nikos

    Jazzman & CCM:

    It seems to me that your April 19th, 2006 at 5:31 PM (Jazzman) & April 20th, 2006 at 3:31 AM (CCM) are perhaps parallel in that CCM’s concluding link posits a ‘role’ for consciousness that is unexplainably greater than the apparent ‘sum of its parts’. However, whenever I read lingo like “substance dualism� and “the wavefunction collapse in quantum mechanics�, I tend to wonder what’s on TV, or whether it’s time to return my measly mind to the pleasant drudgery of writing fiction.

    So, since I can’t hope to contribute any comments apart from ‘Duh?’, do either of you have further thoughts to share on this consciousness business?

  • Nikos

    Thank You, one and all, for the recommended books and links — and keep ’em coming, please!

  • cheesechowmain

    Nikos: “So, since I can’t hope to contribute any comments apart from ‘Duh?’, do either of you have further thoughts to share on this consciousness business?”

    I’m working on a response to DayLate, let me put this on the backburner for now. And, I’ll defer to the effervescent Jazzman who has a much deeper understanding than myself. I really like this nugget: “The phenomenon we call GRAVITY results from the innate gregariousness of consciousness, i.e., the attraction of consciousness to itself.” This is fertile, fertile stuff.

  • Nikos

    CCM: I liked that one, too. A lot.

    (Great piece of writing, Jazzman!)

  • cheesechowmain

    To DayLate: “We will never be able to have a bowl of energy on our table.” This is going to be a painful exercise for me in dredging up old knowledge, but I believe we do in this case if you allow me to relax our intutive notion about energy and to misparse your sentence. Potential energy. The energy of this system can be viewed as the bowl and the table and their relationship with regards to proximity to each other and other bodies such as the earth which exerts a large gravitational force. Mass has an equivalency with respect to energy; though I believe the items you mention are potential energy in the macro view. If you remove the bowl and the table, then you have a different scenario. Remove the observers / modelers (us), and we start getting metaphysical. Back to your sentence, there are ways to enforce containment / control / macro measurement on energy in its different forms. Bowls are probably not the best choice for containment of some kinds of energy, though you can think of a bowl of cereal as a bowl containing potential energy, which is converted upon eating. To drive the point to death, a bowl which is contained within another bowl contains potential energy. The bowl sitting on the table has greater potiential energy than the bowl sitting on the earth’s surface.

    The fluidity of the conservation principle has always been counterintuitive, strange and wonderful to me. One question I’ve not understood is the relationship between energy and our models for symmetry. Space has much asymmetry, though psychologically human beings often impose symmetry to order their system of interest. With concepts like energy and equilibrium the concept of symmetry is more difficult for my mind to manage Conservation laws and Noether’s theorem. A puzzle beyond my current skill set. My mind’s tired now… perhaps a second year physics major can straighten us out on this?

  • cheesechowmain

    Nikos: I can heartily recommend the following books. They are well written and well illustrated. They make thinking about physics fun. Something most of the educators I’ve interacted with have successfully sucked out of the learning process in this area of human endeavor. And don’t get me started on mathematics education. I’ll really hurt myself with the soapbox.

    Relativity Visualized

    Thinking Physics: Understandable Practical Reality

  • jazzman

    nikos: This is an excellent starting point for Quantum Physics: The Dancing Wuli Masters >> by Gary Zukav

  • joel

    Nikos – You might try;

    for a quick, pick-your-own-level run through some aspects of string theory.


  • Potter

    CCM: When I make a bowl, I can tell you a lot of energy goes into it.

  • joel

    benchcoat : April 19th, 2006 at 8:47 pm


    DayLate : April 19th, 2006 at 9:46 pm


    Potter : April 20th, 2006 at 4:01 pm

    The bowl is the energy, all energy, and a lot of it. If M = the mass of the bowl, and C = the speed of light, then the bowl is M times C squared of Energy. If you demolished the matter the bowl is made of, the result is energy in the amount of E=MC^2, a very large number (all units must be in the same system, of course, and compatible.)


  • jazzman

    DayLate & CCM: We will never be able to have a bowl of energy on our table.

    Via the equation E=MC2, the bowl and table are pure energy (solid light.) The total energy contained in 1 ml (1 gram) of water (or the equivalent mass of any matter) is equal to approximately 21.5 Kilotons of TNT or the power of Fat-Man, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. I see my old pal Joel from the Global Warming thread posted essentially the same information while I was writing this. Thanks Joel.

  • cheesechowmain

    To Jazzman & Joel. These are excellent descriptions of power the potential energy I was alluding to. Thanks for fleshing these out further. It’s breathtaking to me the power in the stars is the power found in a common bowl. The universe is a poet to me.

  • Nikos

    And one of her poems is named ‘cheesechowmain’!

  • cheesechowmain

    Right back at ya Nikos!

  • Potter

    Well I missed the 10,000th but here it is anyway”

    Mystical dance, which yonder starrie Spheare

    Of Planets and of fixt in all her Wheeles

    Resembles nearest, mazes intricate,

    Eccentric, intervolv’d, yet regular_

    Then most, when most irregular they seem,_

    And in thir motions harmonie Divine

    So smooths her charming tones, that Gods own ear_

    Listens delighted.

    John Milton, Paradise Lost

    Book 5

  • Potter

    Eccentric. Moving in an orbit that circles a point other than the main center earth; this eccentric center itself moves around earth, its planet describing a complicated spiral pattern. Eccentrics were modifications of Ptolemiac cosmology introduced to account for apparent anomalies in celestial motion.

    Eccentric. Moving in an orbit that circles a point other than the main center earth; this eccentric center itself moves around earth, its planet describing a complicated spiral pattern. Eccentrics were modifications of Ptolemiac cosmology introduced to account for apparent anomalies in celestial motion.

    Hello Joel: The bowl is the energy, all energy, and a lot of it.

    I was not referring only to the work I put into it as you know— the forces that make the clay, the forces that make the rock powders that make the clay, the rock powders and ashes that go into the glaze, the spinning of the wheel, the heat of the kiln, the fuel that makes the fire(propane gas)…If you contemplate a bowl it is amazing what goes into it.

  • What I want to know CCM is whether a bowl of Soba has more potential energy than that cereal? I know more human energy goes into it and, at least in my case, more enjoyment results.

  • cheesechowmain

    sidewalker: A bowl of Soba definitely has more bang for the buck! I had just finished a bowl of oatmeal when I wrote that comment. I love Soba noodles. Much better and apt metaphor!

  • jazzman

    CCM: A bowl of Soba definitely has more bang for the buckwheat

  • jazzman

    CCM: Have you tried Bob’s Red Mill Scottish Oatmeal? It’s available at most large DeMoulas Market Basket Stores in the natural foods section or at it’s better than buckwheat and I love buckwheat (which is also available from Bob) I even sleep on a buckwheat hull pillow.

  • cheesechowmain

    Jazzman: I’m actually not sure about the oats I’m eating. What an embarrassing admission. I get them out of a bin at our local natural food store, but there isn’t any product attributes; just basic nutritional information. Thanks for the info, I’ll check it out as I do enjoy good oats (and soba too).

  • Potter

    You definitely get more BANG out of oats than soba. But if your soba is buckwheat it may be too close to call.

  • I wonder if Prof. Randall would be willing to address or speculate upon the recent work of Peter Lynds:

    Could this be the missing link between quantum and relativistic cosmology?

  • Potter, You may find this site of interest…

    AESTHETRON – Compression Strength Testing of Classical Ceramics

  • Potter

    Thank you PeggySue..I will check it out.

    String theory: The string in the picture above is awaiting a bird to come and take it to weave in his/her nest.

  • bft

    I’m in the middle of reading Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion, which has, as a principal element of its plot, the 17th- and 18th-century controversies between followers of Newton and Leibniz over calculus and physics and what it all means (and who invented it first, which comes out in the novel as a pretext for larger questions). Leibniz was working out even then that something like consciousness had to be in the smallest components of what the world is made of (which Leibniz called “monads”, distinguishing them from the “atoms” in someone else’s theory). I’m not sure whether quantum mechanics, which came along much later, has made the question harder or easier to resolve.

  • diemos3211

    The problem with all of the talk about consciousness as a physical force is that we have not been able to clearly detect such a thing. If we can figure out a way to measure the effect of cosciousness then we can study it scientifically, otherwise while it may be an interesting philosophical ball to kick around it’s not science. I’ll be the first to cheer if someone figures out how to measure and study mental/consciousness energy (if only because I am bald, and thusly according to comic-book physics will have psychic abilities and/or be capable of astonishing mental feats;)), but until this is done I will have to remain skeptical.

  • I like to think about “energy” as being a verb in noun clothing 🙂

    To be able to isolate “E” as in “E=MC^2” on the left-hand-side

    makes it seem like a noun, ’cause you can point to it, but that

    don’t make it so 🙂

    Sorry, I’ll stop now, probably only amusing myself….

  • Nikos

    oolitic: ‘I like to think about “energyâ€? as being a verb in noun clothing’

    Right on!

    Day Late: The Universe In A Nutshell was at my library — I checked it out and it’s terrific. It’s sumptuously illustrated and wryly humorous to boot.


  • DayLate

    Regarding the consciousness thread, are we speaking about it as in “conscious versus unconscious”, or more along the lines of being “conscious” of our existance and the world around us. I gotta admit, I’ve never considered this angle before! Jazzman, you blow my mind!

    And if I may return to the concept of energy for a bit… indeed I had not considered the bowl AS energy. But even so, we’re still talking about energy in mathematical terms with appropriate units thrown in. We can see, feel, and measure the effect of energy being transferred, or transformed, and (thanks to the conservation of energy) we can even determine how much energy we’re dealing with in a given situation. But we cannot directly observe the energy itself.

    To Diemos: it seems to help if you have unusual eyebrows or a really cool goatee!

  • Nikos

    Day Late: it seems to me that consciousness is a ‘universal property’ in that humans are both conscious and ‘universal properties’ too (since we occur naturally in the universe). My take on the details of this, however, is that the Sun isn’t aware of itself per se as humans are self-aware — except that humans are naturally occuring manifestations of the solar system (and thereby of the universe) aware of itself. To mix metaphors (and probably too carelessly): the ‘DNA’ of consciousness existed in space-time long before any actual DNA developed on Earth. Human consciousness is an environmental ‘niche’ development (evolution) of this latent universal consciousness.

    Jazzman, however, likely has a different take on this than me.

  • alexwill

    no confusion, just exciting to see this happening. big fan of the area lisa randall is exploring, i might be doing very similar this summer or at least by a year from now. the consciousness thread that acame, used to interest me when i was younger, but far into physics to see it as a path to those topics.

  • diemos3211

    Daylate: I actually have a goatee and arguably cool eyebrows. This is why I will be so excited if consciousness became a recongizable and manipulable force. The real question is whether I shall use my powers for good or for evil.

    Nikos: Isn’t that something close to the basic preimise of Hindu cosmology, i.e. that all things in the universe are simply parts of Brahman, who split himself up into many varying sorts of pieces to try and better understand himself? (that may be a deeply flawed interpretation, I can’t remember where I got it from).

  • diemao et Nikos

    Sounds like the net of Indra…

    In the words of Sir Charles Eliot:

    “In the Heaven of Indra, there is said to be a network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one you see all the others reflected in it. In the same way each object in the world is not merely itself but involves every other object and in fact IS everything else.”

  • Potter

    This show is coming up sooner than I will be able to grasp all the necessary physics but then again they could schedule it for next year and I still would not be ready.

    I have been listening to old audio tapes on the subject ( off of the radio). Chris did some excellent ones for “The Connection” that unfortunately I cannot link for you because they are not available although one is with Arno Penzias here:

    Here is one that Terry Gross did with Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe)

  • Potter

    Here is a link to Brian Greene episode of NPR’s “This I Believe” series

    Greene/String Theory/ Science Friday

  • I wonder if there is some clue to the nature of consciousness in the fact that the observer impacts the observed. I believe that in science there is an understanding that when a scientific study is done, it is not necessarily pure because the mere fact that a process/object is being observed impacts said process/object.

    Is there an observable cause and effect there that could lead to a measurable force?

    As for the Hindu cosmology reflecting this idea that universe has divided itself into smaller bits, this is not limited to Hinduism.

    read the Religious Origin Beliefs section of this page:;jsessionid=1w8ka3276c140?method=4&dsid=2222&dekey=Origin+belief&curtab=2222_1&sbid=lc03b&linktext=origin%20beliefs

    There are basically two ‘creation” theories 1) out of chaos, order was created and 2)out of the one, many were created. Most religions are based on one or the other. And that choice is fundamental to the culture of the religion, since number one believes chaos is the antithesis of ‘god’ and creation, but doesn’t necessarily imply an ultimate goal other than keeping chaos at bay. and number 2 believes that ‘remembrance’ – regaining consciousness of the one self – is the ultimate goal, and does not imply any concern about the nature of things as they are now.

    Interestingly, different aspects of science embrace different cosmologies. I’m not sure that the two cosmologies are incompatible. But it seems that if Quantum Physics is seeking a grand unifying theory, it may belie the fact that Quantum Physicists inherently believe in the 2nd cosmology theory.

  • rlewis

    Question for Physicists: On the experimental verification of string theory, I understand string theory predicts supersymetry particles, which may be detected by a new supercolider, I think this is the LHC at Fermilab or some other new supercolider. Is it tru that if supersymetry particles are discovered this may be verification of string theory, or were supersymetry particles predicted intependently of string theory? It would be nice to know if there is in fact some way to verify this theory.

    My pet theory, I believe in the Everet Many Worlds interpretation of QM, in particular I beleive that wave function collapse is an illusion. I think Roger Penrose has described something like this. In particular, a very strange experiment called a delayed choice qunatum eraser, which was in fact confirmed by Kim, et al in Phys.Rev.Lett. 84 1-5 (2000) “A Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser”, I think supports this interpetation. In this experiment they seem to show through the magic of quantum entanglement that the result of an observed event can be changed AFTER the event has been “observed” by a detector. The only way this is possible is that if in fact BOTH outcomes occur, and the wave function splits into a perpetual superposition of each state, but through quantum entanglement the wave functtion “state” of the second particle is simply a result of the complimentary state of the entangled particle’s wave function, which was “observed” by the primary detector to be either in one state or another. Whether we observe wave like or particle like behavior at the primary detector is simply a matter of which part of the wave function we inspect. The wave function does not collapse, and both results occur with equal validity. We do not in fact choose which part of the wave function we get to inspect, that is determined by our own wave function which is basically which of the many possible “universes” we exist in. We ourselves are part of the overal wave function of the universe so we can never “see” the whole thing, but that does not mean that the wave function has collapsed or ceases to exist.

    One more thing, all this spooky tree hugging crystal loving nonsense about consciousness and energy and QM is super neeto but the real difference between science and mysticism is that science is confined to those things which we can show to be true through experiment and observation, while mysticism simply dispenses with the inconvenient need to verify that what they say is actually true through some kind of observable result.

    Well, I guess thats kind of like string theory, isn’t it. 😉

  • rlewis

    Peggy sue and potter, regarding the Lynds article

    That is interesting. On more thing to consider is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle forbids us to know both position and momentum within limits of uncertainty. However, momentum is related to the time rate of change of position, that is momentum is velocity times mass, and velocity is the time rate of change of poisiton (dP/dt where P is position and t is time)

    Since the uncertainty principle seems to be the central issue in alot of the spooky behavior of QM, I think it is no coincidence that this is related to two “independent” physical qunatities where one is the first derivative of the other with respect to time. And we have never had an adequate, rigorous definition of what time is in the first place. Einstein simply defines time as that which is measured by a clock. Maybe Lynds is on to something when he proposes time is an illusion, I agree but for probably very different reasons. (see my comments on the wave function, wave function collapse, and the Everet many worlds interpretation of QM)

  • Here is an exerpt from the Dalai Lama’s book Universe in a Single Atom regarding quantum physics, the interdependent nature of things and human ethics:

    “I once asked my physicist friend David Bohm this question: From the perspective of modern science, apart from the question of misrepresentation, what is wrong with the belief in the independent existence of things? His response was telling. He said that if we examine various ideologies that tend to divide humanity, such as racism, extreme nationalism, and Marxist class struggle, one of the keys factors of their origin is the tendency to perceive things as inherently divided and disconnected. From this misconception springs the belief that each of these divisions is essentially independent and self-existent. Bohm’s response, grounded in his work in quantum physics, echoes the ethical concern about harboring such beliefs that worried Nagarjuna, who wrote nearly two thousand years before. Granted, strictly speaking, science does not deal with questions of ethics and value judgments, but the fact remains that science, being a human endeavor, is still connected to the basic question of the well-being of humanity. So in a sense, there is nothing surprising about Bohm’s response. I wish there were more scientists with his understanding of the interconnectedness of science, its conceptual frameworks, and humanity.�

  • rlewis: Whoa, so if a tree hugging crystal wearer leaves Chicago on a train going 75 mph at 10:35 am… and a quantum physicist leaves Paris on a space ship at 1:30 pm going 80 mph backwards in time… how will they ever meet for lunch? I’m sorry. I’m just a tree hugger. I’ve always had a hard time with story problems of this nature.

  • jazzman

    Time is an illusion and relative to the speed (also an illusion) of light, Einstein stated this and it has been proven experimentally. The reason we experience time as a phenomenon is because of the neural transmission across synapses, this forces us to experience a series of linear events so it appears that before and after are realities – a mental illusion.

    Light does not experience “timeâ€?; it is instantaneously emitted and absorbed from its point of view no matter how great the distance is between emission and absorption. Therefore ALL time is NOW. What separates the presumed past from NOW is distance which grows at the speed of light. Time is an infinite series of dimensionless NOW points as Lynds also seems to note. He also notes that there are no static instances in time which negates the idea of a quantum unit of time (or a chronon which is 5×10 raised to the minus 43rd seconds – i.e. the time it takes light to traverse the Planck distance). If the Multiverse is oscillating (i.e., the universe is its own clock) with a period of 2 chronons, then time while being dimensionless and continuous would appear to be quantized.

    An interesting sidenote regarding time and time travel: A couple of my favorite physicists, Richard Feynman and John Wheeler advanced the idea that a positron is identical to an electron moving backwards in time. This leads to the theory that only 1 electron or elementary particle is necessary, it’s just VERY busy.

  • jazzman

    I need to go to my car to listen to the show, I will answer you soon Nikos.

  • kel

    Lisa, tell us about demensionality and Black Holes

  • Flatland: Read it once, and you’ll never experience three dimensions in the same way again.

  • Dianne Lynn

    You mentioned that Einstein temporarily halted the theories on other dimensions of space by introducing time as the fourth dimension. Is there a theory that suggests that what we call time is really a dimension of space and that what we experience as “moments” are really the “slices” that you mentioned earlier that a lower dimensional being use to experience a higher dimension?

  • Nikos

    My expert opinion: Lisa Randall rocks.

    That’s an expert ROS listener’s opinion, mind you.

    Moreover, Robin the Substitute Blog-Mistress rocks too. (You got a great voice and delivery, girl.)

    Rachel: I checked Flatland out from my local library earlier today (as if I needed yet another frickin’ book to read!!!) It’s off to a great beginning, too.

    Anyone: is Professor Randall’s book readable for science-imbeciles (like me)?

  • I perked up my ears when Lisa Randall talked about the art historian. It seemed like she said artists were thinking about other dimensions prior to the idea of time being thought of as the 4th dimension. It seems like artists are often translating from one dimension into another like transposing three dimensions into two if you are painting a bowl of apples on a flat board or in sculpture starting with a block with that has two dimensional drawings on each side and you carve into it until it becomes a three dimensional object. There is an exquisite moment if you are carving a stone piece and you create a hole that goes all the way through. The moment you carve all the way though it’s like you’ve suddenly slipped from the second into the third dimension. Drawing in one point, two point or three-point perspective also seems to be a way to tweak the second dimension.

    I’m wondering after listening to Lisa Randall if this play between the dimensions that we are used to floating around in might be a way to develop sensitivity to moving from one dimension into another. With practice, could a person possibly be able to develop the perception muscles enough to perceive dimensions hitherto un-seen.

  • 3-D Neil


    I just listened to the interview with Lisa today, and it was thrilling. I have been working myself on the question, why are there three *large* dimensions of space? (There are probably more, like a total of 10 or 11 space dimensions, but the rest are curled up very small.) After extrapolating electromagnetic interactions to spaces of other dimensions, I found at least two arguments:

    1. In spaces with other than one or three dimensions, an oscillating charge does not project the same *average* field along the axis of oscillation. That is due to two things: the combination of “projection� of its retarded distance – where it would be had it continued at the velocity it had when light left it – and the distortion of the field due to Lorentz contraction, which weakens it to

    gamma^(1-N) the value it has at rest. N is the number of large space dimensions. That would impose a net force on a second “target� charge, and violate conservation of momentum and energy. The one-dimensional case is rule out due to infinite potential energy (why didn’t Dewdney realize that about the 2-D Planiverse?)

    2. Let two charges be connected by a reasonably rigid rod. Then, accelerate the rod along its length. The combined force between the charges will be derived from the sort of considerations given in (1.), as the projected field of each charge catches up to the other charge. Then we must take into account the relativistic stress-correction to the momentum and energy of the rod. Only in three dimensions of space does that equal in net the effective momentum the charges should have given their potential energy. (In higher dimensions, taking the integral of f = q1q2/r^(N-1), that potential w.r.t. infinity is:

    -q1q2r^(2-N)/(2-N). )

    I hope I can publish the full development of this before long. I don’t think anyone else has an explicit proof that N *must* equal three, only reasons it was more likely to form that way, or oddities like being unfriendly to life, distorted wave propagation etc. (see Barrow and Tipler’s _The Anthropic Cosmological Principle_ for great discussion of this.)

    Neil Bates

  • elevine

    I want to add my voice to the chorus of praise for Flatland.

    The book was recommended to me by a teacher iin my junior high school. It completely changed my view of the world, and I have lost track of the number of people I have suggested it to.

    Gene Levine

  • SourcePatchKid

    If, as the physicists claim, everything is really only various forms of energy, then why is it that I never seem to have any?

  • Anyone heard any good birdsong lately? You can hire me. I’m a mimic-thrush. Click my name and find the booking information in my profile.

  • Explanations in physics never come to an end and it doesn’t appear they ever will. If everything is just vibrating strings and branes then what is vibrating and where are they vibrating? The end of all this just seems to be our brains. Isn’t the assumption that mathematics is required to explain everyting a BIG assumption? Is mathematics invented or discovered?

  • 3-D Neil


    You are asking very deep questions, for which no clear answers can be demonstrated. Nevertheless, they are worth asking and reflecting upon, IMHO. For insight, consult _The Mind of God_ by Paul Davies about foundational issues of physics, creation, and “Why?” Also consult _Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty_ by Morris Kline, which delves into the still-debatable question of to what extent mathematics is invented or discovered, and its internal contradictions such as logic paradoxes, infinite set dilemmas, and the infamous Gödel Paradox of incompleteness (of any mathematical system.)

  • 3-D Neil

    Note: Please check out my blog at .

  • JohnM

    Do multiple dimensions simultaneously co-exist? If so, can humans hope to experience them? Is access to them determined by sensory ability, or …. ?

    Could dancing get us there?