EventSymmetric SpaceTime
“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
Muriel Rukeyser
Philip Gibbs
EVENTSYMMETRIC
SPACETIME
WEBURBIA PUBLICATION
Cyberspace
First published in 1998
by Weburbia Press
27 Stanley Mead
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© 1998 Philip Gibbs
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Dedicated to
Alice
Contents
THE STORYTELLER ....................................................................................... 11
Between a story and the world ................................................................ 11
Dreams of Rationalism ............................................................................ 14
Light on Light .......................................................................................... 17
LightQuanta ........................................................................................... 23
The Principle of Least Action .................................................................. 26
Feynman Meets Dirac ............................................................................. 29
Feynman’s Sum Over Stories .................................................................. 30
Second Quantisation................................................................................ 35
The Storyteller’s Paradigm ..................................................................... 36
THE BEAUTY OF THE TIGER .......................................................................... 39
Natural Beauty ........................................................................................ 39
Symmetry in Physics ................................................................................ 44
Hidden Symmetry .................................................................................... 45
Conservation Laws .................................................................................. 46
Relativity .................................................................................................. 48
Gauge Symmetry and Economics ............................................................ 51
Supersymmetry ........................................................................................ 54
Universal Symmetry ................................................................................. 57
Particle Permutations .............................................................................. 58
Event symmetry ........................................................................................ 59
IN A GRAIN OF SAND .................................................................................... 61
Discrete Matter ........................................................................................ 61
Unification ............................................................................................... 63
Quantum Gravity ..................................................................................... 69
Einstein’s Geometrodynamics ................................................................. 69
The Planck Scale ..................................................................................... 72
The Best Attempts .................................................................................... 75
Supergravity ............................................................................................ 77
Canonical Quantum Gravity ................................................................... 78
NonCommutative Geometry ................................................................... 79
Black Hole Thermodynamics ................................................................... 80
Is There a Theory of Everything? ............................................................ 84
IS SPACETIME DISCRETE? ........................................................................... 88
Seeking the ultimate indivisible ............................................................... 88
Lattice Theories ....................................................................................... 90
Lattice Quantum Field Theory ................................................................ 93
Lattice Gauge Theories ........................................................................... 95
Fading Motivations ................................................................................. 99
It from Bit .............................................................................................. 100
Cellular Automata ................................................................................. 103
Discreteness in Quantum Gravity ......................................................... 106
Lattice Quantum Gravity ....................................................................... 107
Pregeometry .......................................................................................... 109
The Metaphysics of SpaceTime ............................................................ 110
So is it or isn't it? .................................................................................. 114
WHAT ABOUT CAUSALITY? ....................................................................... 116
Causality in the news............................................................................. 116
Causality in Physics .............................................................................. 117
A Block Universe ................................................................................... 121
The Second Law of Thermodynamics .................................................... 125
Could the Universe be Gold? ................................................................ 128
Antithermodynamic light from the future ............................................. 130
A Crystal Ball ........................................................................................ 132
Mixing or Meeting ................................................................................. 133
Matter and Antimatter.......................................................................... 134
Black Holes, White Holes. ..................................................................... 135
The Shape of Things to Come ................................................................ 138
Wider Perspectives ................................................................................ 139
Occam’s Razor ...................................................................................... 140
An Inhomogeneous Universe ................................................................. 143
Is The Big Bang a White Hole? ............................................................. 145
Time Travel ........................................................................................... 147
THE SUPERSTRING SUPERMYSTERY ........................................................... 149
Everything or Nothing? ......................................................................... 149
Why String Theory? ............................................................................... 150
All Is String ........................................................................................... 155
Duality ................................................................................................... 157
Black Strings ......................................................................................... 163
String Symmetry .................................................................................... 164
THE PRINCIPLE OF EVENT SYMMETRY ....................................................... 166
The Bucket of Dust ................................................................................ 166
The Universal Lattice ............................................................................ 167
Witten’s Puzzle ...................................................................................... 168
SpaceTime and Soap Films .................................................................. 170
Permutation City ................................................................................... 172
More Symmetry ..................................................................................... 174
Identical Particles ................................................................................. 178
Clifford’s Legacy ................................................................................... 178
Back to Superstrings .............................................................................. 179
EventSymmetric Physics ....................................................................... 180
EVENTSYMMETRIC STRING THEORY ......................................................... 182
Leap Frog .............................................................................................. 182
Eight Reasons to Believe ....................................................................... 183
String Inspired Symmetry ...................................................................... 184
Discrete String Theory .......................................................................... 187
EventSymmetric Open String Theory ................................................... 188
EventSymmetric Closed String Theory ................................................. 190
Algebraic String Theory ........................................................................ 196
IS STRING THEORY IN KNOTS? ................................................................... 198
Strings and knots ................................................................................... 199
The Symmetric Group to the Braid Group ............................................ 200
A String made of anyons? ...................................................................... 200
Multiple Quantisation ............................................................................ 202
Penrose Spin Networks .......................................................................... 203
What is Quantisation? ........................................................................... 204
The Supersymmetric ladder ................................................................... 206
The ladder of dimensions....................................................................... 208
THE THEORY OF THEORIES ........................................................................ 210
The Theory That Flies ........................................................................... 210
The Nature of Nature ............................................................................. 211
Can we ask why? ................................................................................... 213
Many Anthropic Principles .................................................................... 215
Is the Anthropic Principle Enough? ...................................................... 217
Universality ........................................................................................... 218
The Theory of Theories .......................................................................... 219
I think therefore I am... .......................................................................... 221
11
The Storyteller
Between a story and the world
The storyteller, surrounded by his enthralled audience, softly
ended his tale. After a few moments of silence a young voice from
the front asked a question. “What is the difference between a story
and the world?”
The storyteller replied “There is no big difference. The world is
just a story told with too much irrelevant detail.”
“That‟s nonsense!” The words came from a teacher listening
from the back. “The world is real, tangible, concrete. A story is just
made up fiction.”
“A child knows that a story can be as real as anything.” said the
storyteller. “As people grow older they learn to separate a part they
see as the real world from the rest, but they are mistaken. Some con
tinue to regard certain stories as real which others come to regard as
fiction. A story is not made up. It is discovered!”
The storyteller and the teacher might argue for many hours about
what is real. For centuries physical science has been based on a
paradigm which considers the universe as real and material. Other
things are held apart and regarded as part of the imagination. In the
real world, events are governed by the laws of physics and causality.
In our imagination anything goes.
As the second millennium draws to an end, science is searching
for a new paradigm. Many surprising discoveries have been made
over the past century and causality has been cast into doubt. Above
all our own place in the universe is a great mystery. Often physicists
have remarked that the laws of physics seem to be designed so that
life could evolve. But if the universe was designed just for us why
was it necessary that we evolve? Why not just put us there? In quan
tum physics it seems to be impossible to separate the laws of physics
from our role as observers. Does the universe depend on us to work?
And what about consciousness? What, if anything, does it mean to
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
12
be aware of our own existence? In the past these questions were re
garded as unscientific but now many scientists are trying to tackle
them and the old paradigm is totally inadequate.
Our storyteller sees the world differently. To him all stories al
ready exist and are real. We do not create them. We find them. The
universe is no different. It might be helpful to see it as a coherent
collection of stories which unfold. He may not be able to persuade
you to accept this immediately, so in the best storyteller‟s tradition,
he asks you to suspend your disbelief. If you can take his advice it
will help you to come to terms with some of the unusual things in
physics which I am going to describe in this book. I want to tell you
about how space can evaporate and how time might change direc
tion. Some people find such things hard to accept as a possible part
of real experience, yet somewhere, somewhen they may happen.
Try to imagine that there is a very large number of real or hypo
thetical storytellers all telling their favourite stories. They may be in
this universe  past, present or future  or perhaps they are some
where else, they may be very different from storytellers as we know
them. It does not really matter. Some storytellers will be telling the
same stories as others, perhaps with different details, or they may be
telling stories which start the same but end differently. There are so
many possible storytellers in our imagination that this is not really a
coincidence. Some will tell stories which are sequels or prequels of
others. Sometimes one story will seem to be the story of what is go
ing on next door to the location of another. Many of the stories will
be very imaginative when compared to our limited experience. They
may even make little sense to us, but somewhere in the whole collec
tion any possible story is being told.
Stories can be broken down into components such as chapters,
sentences and words. Those elements might fit together in other
ways. So the stories fit together to create whole universes like ran
dom jigsaws. Just for your entertainment here is a story broken down
into phrases and jumbled up. It is a wellknown anecdote told by a
famous physicist who himself has an important role to play in this
chapter. Can the phrases be put together uniquely?
“Heehehhehhehheh. Surely You‟re joking, Mr. Feynman.”
and there are some ladies,
The Storyteller
13
“I‟ll have both thank you,” I say,
I go through the door,
and some girls, too.
when I hear a voice behind me.
still looking for where I‟m going to sit,
“Would you like cream or lemon in your tea, Mr. Feynman?
and I‟m thinking about where to sit down
It‟s Mrs Eisenhart, pouring tea.
and should I sit next to this girl, or not,
It‟s all very formal
when suddenly I hear
and how should I behave,
You might solve this puzzle, either exactly or with a slight varia
tion which does not change the meaning. If there were many more
phrases, or if they were broken down into words you might end up
with a story different from the original. If I gave you just a jumble of
letters and punctuation marks, you could produce just about any
thing. Putting together the vast number of stories which can be told
would be the same. There would be no unique solution but you could
make some order out of the chaos.
To understand the physics of eventsymmetric spacetime which
I am going to explain, you must imagine that the universe is built
this way. There are many possible stories and where stories fit to
gether in a selfconsistent way they combine to form many different
universes. Each of us has a life which is a story somewhere in these
universes. We should not expect our future to be completely deter
mined since what we have experienced up to now could fit into
many stories with different endings. Even our pasts, and events hap
pening elsewhere in our present, may not be fully determined, yet we
are guaranteed a consistent story in the end. The storyteller‟s arena
of universes is called the multiverse and this is the storyteller‟s para
digm.
If you are not very impressed, remember that a paradigm is not a
theory. It is just an empty vessel within which you can place a the
ory. The storyteller‟s paradigm is much more flexible than other
paradigms such as mechanism, materialism and causality. It needs to
be if new physics is to be comprehensible.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
14
Dreams of Rationalism
On the night of November 10th, 1619, René Descartes was serv
ing in the army of the Duke of Bavaria. They were in the midst of
the thirty years war which burned across the continent. Outside it
was bitterly cold and Descartes, 23 years old, had fallen into an un
easy sleep in the stoveheated room.
During that night he had three dreams, showing him his past,
present and future. The first dream terrified him. A ghostly presence
showed him a melon which he interpreted as a sign of solitude and
human preoccupations. He was in pain; a punishment. In the second
dream he heard thunder which brought home his present uncomfort
able predicament, but the thunder was the Spirit of Truth coming for
him. He lay awake reflecting on these signs before having his third
and most revealing dream. In front of him on a table he saw two
books, a dictionary and a book of poems. A stranger appeared and
showed him a poem, “Est et Non” by Pythagoras.
This was the turning point in his life. He changed his ways.
From that time on, Descartes would pursue a reconstruction of
knowledge based on physics and mathematics. He came to believe
that a unified system of truth was attainable. The realisation of that
vision has been sought by generations of scientists throughout the
centuries which followed. Today we have not yet reached it but we
seem closer than ever before.
On that night in 1619 the time was certainly right for a new sci
ence. Just ten years before, Galileo had looked to the sky with his
telescope. He had seen mountains on the moon, the phases of Venus,
moons of Jupiter, sunspots and millions of new stars not known be
fore. Never since in the history of our world, has one person
announced a catalogue of so many unexpected discoveries all at
once. With these observations Galileo had crushed the old world
view and physics of Aristotle. Now it was clear that the Earth was
just like another planet circling the Sun as Copernicus and Kepler
had surmised. Galileo also judged that the same laws of physics
which act on Earth must also rule the heavens. Just imagine the ex
citement of those times. Plainly it was the beginning of something
big. Much more could be seen and known than previously thought
The Storyteller
15
possible. A new physics would have to be worked out to fit the new
facts and a new philosophy to go with it.
Descartes had heard of Galileo‟s discoveries as a 15 year old
student at La Flèche. In response, Descartes drew up a picture of the
world as the workings of a complicated machine whose motion is
governed by simple physical laws. He said that everything which
happened must have a prior cause. He hoped that the right laws
could be found by looking to mathematics and logic. By knowing the
equations and solving them, humankind would understand the
mechanism of the universe.
This Cartesian rationalism can be understood as two elements of
causality. There is temporal causality which means that if we know
the positions and velocities of all particles at a given time, and the
laws which govern the forces between them, then we can understand
their motions at all future times. To Descartes, rationalism also
meant that all things had a deeper explanation in terms of simpler
causes. This is ontological causality. Nothing comes from nothing.
The Cartesian philosophy was a reaction to the scientific method
which had been described by Francis Bacon just a few years before.
What mattered to Bacon was experiment and observation, but Des
cartes put more weight on the use of rational logic and deduction to
work out how things should be.
People often criticise scientific theories, saying that they do not
explain anything. They say that Maxwell‟s electromagnetism does
not explain what charge or magnetic fields are, or that general rela
tivity does not explain what spacetime or inertia is. Physicists will
argue that explanation in this sense is not what counts. The impor
tant thing is that the theory provides a successful means of
predicting the result of experiments. The scientific method requires
that physical theories must be drawn up in response to observations
and tested empirically. Anything more is just metaphysical.
Yet physicists are themselves always searching for deeper ex
planations and often express their wishes for an underlying theory
from which all phenomena can, in principle, be derived. What scien
tists do is often different from what they report. To Descartes,
experimental results are just hints that we need because we are not
clever enough to work things out from first principles. He admitted
the shortcomings of his method and resorted to experiments himself,
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
16
but he hoped to rectify the matter later. The last in order of discov
ery would be the first in order of knowledge. This dichotomy
between the scientific method and Cartesian rationalism has sur
vived intact since the time of Descartes and Bacon and has become
an ironic feature of scientific progress. Descartes himself predicted
that the journey on the road to that ultimate discovery was to be a
long one taking centuries to follow.
Descartes became a great mathematician. He became the founder
of analytic geometry as well as modern western philosophy. When
Newton spoke of “standing on the shoulders of giants” he meant
Descartes as well as Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus who had set in
motion the scientific revolution during the previous century. To
gether those individuals, and many others who joined them,
established a new order which would last until the twentieth century.
Newton used his prodigious mathematical skills to bring Descartes‟s
dream to life. Applying Cartesian geometry, he defined absolute
space and time as the arena for deterministic mechanical law.
The pillars of absolute space, time and determinism were the
supporting structures of physics until the end of the nineteenth cen
tury. Then they crumbled, but the notion that all cause comes from
the past and from deeper laws has remained as the foundation stone
of all science. Causality is now firmly embedded in our thought but
it was not always so. Before the mechanistic paradigm, philosophers
viewed change as part of becoming towards a purpose. To Aristotle
an acorn has a destiny to become a tree, it has telos and that is why it
grows. At least some of the cause was seen to lie in the future. A
child will become an adult, always developing towards perfection.
Lead will become gold in the fullness of time. Descartes had ex
pelled Aristotle‟s final cause, but Newton had reservations and
believed that final cause may yet play its part. What can be said of
temporal causality could also be said of ontological causality. The
reasons for existence may not all lie in the past or in the underlying
laws of nature. We have come too far to return to teleology and mys
ticism, but we need to prepare for a wider view of causality. There
may be no first cause, no deepest cause, no final cause or highest
cause; just a sea of interdependent possibilities; a synthesis of con
sistent stories.
The Storyteller
17
Light on Light
Among the many scientific discoveries made by Descartes is a
contribution to optics which is commonly known as Snell‟s sine law
of refraction. It was named after the Dutch mathematician, Wille
brod Von Roijen Snell who discovered it just prior to Descartes in
1625. Snell died just a year after his discovery and did not publish,
so the law was not widely known until Descartes published it in
1637. The law tells us how light bends when passing between two
mediums such as air and glass and is crucial to our understanding of
lenses and prisms.
The product of the refractive index and the sine of the angle of
incidence of a ray in one medium is equal to the product of the re
fractive index and the sine of the angle of refraction in a successive
medium.
r x r y
glass air
sin sin =
Descartes provided a derivation of Snell‟s law which we now
know to be incorrect, even though it gave the right answer. He en
visaged light as the motion of small spherical particles. He could see
that it is easy to explain light reflected from a mirror as a stream of
particles which bounce off the smooth surface, as balls bounce from
a wall. The component of velocity of the particles tangent to the sur
face does not change while the normal component is reversed. In
accordance with his general methods, Descartes wanted a similar
mechanical description of refraction. When light passes from air into
Air
x
y
Glass
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
18
a denser medium such as glass, it turns towards the normal of the
surface. If the tangential component of velocity is to remain un
changed for refraction as it is for reflection, light must go faster in
the denser medium.
Newton later perfected Descartes derivation and agreed with his
conclusion. He claimed that particles of light are attracted to denser
mediums when they enter, and so gain momentum perpendicular to
the surface. We can compare the situation with balls which roll
across a flat surface until they descend a short downward slope onto
another flat surface. They will gain energy and speed up, but only
the normal component of velocity changes. The result is that they
change direction, and if the initial velocity is fixed then the angles of
deflection will mimic Snell‟s sine law. This is the essence of the
CartesianNewtonian mechanistic explanation of refraction.
At that time, the French mathematician Marin Mersenne was act
ing as a clearing house for scientific information in Europe. It is no
accident that knowledge began to expand rapidly after Johann
Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe in 1450. Commu
nication has always been of vital importance in the development of
science. Mersenne‟s role was the 17th century equivalent of today‟s
electronic eprint archives on the internet. When he received Des
cartes‟s manuscript on optics in 1637 he circulated copies to other
scientists including Fermat.
Pierre de Fermat was by profession a councillor of the French
parliament, but his passion was mathematics and his theorems in
number theory are legendary. When he read Descartes‟s derivation
of the sine law of refraction he was not impressed. For one thing, he
felt that some unjustified assumptions had been made. He also felt
that, if anything, light should slow down in a denser medium, not
speed up. The ensuing argument between Descartes and Fermat pe
tered out quickly without resolution.
Some twenty years later Fermat decided to try and conclude the
matter by finding a better explanation for refraction. His philosophy
was very different from that of Descartes. Instead of seeking a me
chanical analogy he fell back on the old idea of Aristotle that nature
always takes the most economical way. In 125 AD Heron of Alexan
dria had shown that the law of reflection from a mirror could be
The Storyteller
19
explained if rays of light were taking the shortest path from the
source to destination via the surface of the mirror. This can be easily
seen by looking through the mirror at the path of light before reflec
tion. The ray traces a straight line from the apparent position of the
object in the mirror to the destination.
If the angle of incidence were not the same as the angle of reflec
tion it would not be a straight line and would therefore be a longer
path.
Fermat was interested in problems of finding maxima and min
ima before Newton and Leibniz developed the general methods of
differential calculus. He considered the hypothesis that the path of
the ray of light might give a minimum in the time taken for light to
go from A to B. This would work equally well as minimum distance
for reflection and could also explain refraction.
Imagine that instead of a light ray passing into a block of glass, it
is a life guard at the swimming pool. While standing at position A
she sees a swimmer in distress at position B. She needs to get to him
as quickly as possible but can run twice as fast as she can swim. To
get from A to B in the shortest time she would have to follow the
path shown.
mirror
source
of light
apparent
source
destination
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
20
It is not the path of shortest distance.
She must first get to a point at the side of the pool nearer to the
swimmer. The optimum route is given by the equivalent of Snell‟s
law,
2 1 sin sin x y =
A ray of light going from a point A to a point B in a rectangular
block of glass with a refractive index of two would take the same
route. Thus, in 1657, Fermat showed that if light was being slowed
down in a medium by a factor equal to its refractive index, then he
could derive Snell‟s sine law from a principle of least time. He was
astonished that he got the same refraction law as Descartes even
though his alternative theory predicted a slowing down of light in
dense media instead of a speeding up. It was not until 1850, almost
200 years later, that Jean Foucault was able to measure directly the
speed of light in different media. He confirmed that light slowed
down in water. Fermat was right and Descartes was wrong.
The beauty of Fermat‟s principle of least time is its generality.
The implication is that a ray of light passing through any complex
setup of mirrors and lenses takes a route which gives at least a local
minimum of time to go from start to finish. According to Descartes‟s
notion of causality, Fermat‟s principle is a bizarre way to formulate
a law of physics. What we expect are laws which allow us to begin
with a starting point and direction for a ray of light, and then work
out the route it takes and where it will end up. Of course, Fermat‟s
principle can be used in this way via a derivation of Snell‟s law, but
A
B
y
x
The Storyteller
21
it seems to work as if the light was given a starting and end position
and then worked out the optimum route between them. This is quite
absurd in terms of temporal causality.
By the mid 17th century the nature of light was a subject of hot
debate. Important experiments by the Italian Francesco Grimaldi in
1648 were then becoming known. Grimaldi had observed diffraction
of light and proposed that light had a wavelike nature.
At this time a wave theory of sound was already well estab
lished. Galileo had studied a vibrating string and clarified the
relationship between frequency and pitch in 1600. In 1636 Mersenne
had made the first measurements of the speed of sound by timing the
return of an echo and in 1660 Robert Boyle demonstrated that sound
could not travel through a vacuum by placing a bell in a jar and
pumping out the air. The conclusion was inescapable. Sound must be
due to compression waves travelling through the air. Using this the
ory, Isaac Newton was able to calculate the speed of sound from first
principles and obtain a result in agreement with Mersenne‟s meas
urement.
Newton‟s rival, Robert Hooke, was one of those who wanted an
analogous theory of light but he failed to see that light must slow
down in dense media rather than speed up. In 1673 Ignace Pardies
corrected Hooke‟s oversight and provided a new explanation for
Snell‟s law. If light propagated in a direction perpendicular to wave
fronts and slowed down as it passed through a dense medium, then
waves become closer together and would be deflected in accordance
with the sine law.
Christian Huygens agreed but wanted a deeper understanding.
Why should the wave theory be in agreement with Fermat‟s princi
Glass
Air
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
22
ple? Huygens was from Amsterdam so it is easy to imagine how he
might have seen the effects of water waves on the many canals of the
city as he walked home across the bridges. He developed an intuition
for the behaviour of waves which enabled him to grasp a deep rela
tion between the wave theory of light and the principle of least time.
Newton and Huygens were both followers of Descartes‟s mechanis
tic philosophy, but they had very different views of the road ahead.
Newton liked Descartes‟s theory of light and incorporated it into his
corpuscular theory. Huygens started from a different observation
made by Descartes, that crossed beams of light pass through each
other without interacting. He must have noticed that water waves
and sound waves pass through each other in a similar way. He could
not see how this would be possible for light if it was composed of
streams of particles.
Huygens explained instead that light propagated from each point
of a luminous source in spherical waves. These are analogous to the
circular waves propagating from a disturbance on the surface of wa
ter, but with immense speed and short wavelength. The speed of
light was deduced by Olaus Roemer in 1676 to account for a dis
crepancy in the timing of eclipses of Jupiter‟s moons. The short
wavelength could be confirmed by an experiment which Newton
performed, now known as Newton‟s rings. Huygens noticed that if
water waves pass through a tiny hole smaller than their wavelength
they again spread out from that point in spherical waves. He said
that spherical secondary waves propagated from any point but are
only seen clearly when a barrier shields the contributions from other
points. At that time the mathematics needed to express the propaga
tion of waves in the form of differential equations was not available,
but by combining Huygens‟s principle of secondary waves with the
effects of interference, it is possible to explain refraction and diffrac
tion. It is even possible to see why Fermat‟s principle of least time
applies: Constructive interference appears at points where light wave
fronts passing by different routes from the source arrive after the
same time of travel so that they are in phase. This corresponds to the
paths of least time. This conveniently reduced Fermat‟s principle to
a deeper wave principle which, to Huygens, had the greater merit of
being explicitly causal and Cartesian.
The Storyteller
23
Newton saw things very differently. In his theory, light was
composed of particles or corpuscles. These corpuscles undulated
with a frequency depending on their colour. This was his explana
tion for the experiment in which he was able to measure the
wavelengths of light of different colours by observing the rings of
light between two glass surfaces.
There the matter rested without further progress during the
whole of the eighteenth century. Newton‟s corpuscular theory and
Huygens wave principle were seen as opposing theories. Because of
the huge success of Newton‟s mechanics and theory of gravitation,
he was the greater authority and his ideas were favoured. Newton
objected to the wave hypothesis because light casts a sharp shadow
whereas sound and water waves can bend round an obstruction. In
the nineteenth century, opinion swung the other way. Thomas Young
and Augustin Fresnel were first to revive the wave theory of light
with new theory and experiments to study interference and diffrac
tion. With the superior mathematical methods of Fourier and
Laplace and the experimental basis of Ampere, Faraday, Henry, Oer
sted and others, rapid progress was made. James Clerk Maxwell
presented the unified theory of electromagnetism in 1864. Nine
years later he had derived the speed of light by supposing it to be a
form of electromagnetic wave. With this, all aspects of light known
at the time including colour and polarisation could be explained.
Newton‟s corpuscular theory was no longer needed, it seemed.
LightQuanta
Occasionally an important breakthrough in physics comes about
because of someone asking an important question which others had
not thought of. History will give the greater glory to the one who
finds the answer but often it is the person who posed the question
who made the greater contribution to science. This was the case in
1860 when Gustav Kirchhoff asked: “What is the electromagnetic
spectrum from a blackbody?” He realised that the radiation inside a
uniformly heated box must not depend on the characteristics of the
walls, otherwise the second law of thermodynamics could be vio
lated by letting radiation pass from box to another at a slightly
higher temperature. In that case the energy in the radiation from an
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
24
ideal black body must be a function of wavelength and temperature
which should be explainable solely in terms of fundamental physics.
However there was no theory at that time which could be used to
derive the answer and experiment could give only a rough guide. In
the decades that followed Maxwell‟s theory was to be found wanting
when applied to Kirchhoff‟s simple question. As the nineteenth cen
tury drew to a close Lord Rayleigh showed that Maxwell‟s equations
and the laws of thermodynamics predicted a spectrum which worked
well at low infrared frequencies but which would give a nonsensical
increasing intensity of emission at higher ultraviolet frequencies. In
fact there would be an infinite radiation of heat. Something was
badly wrong with the theory.
In Berlin at the world‟s best equipped physics laboratory of the
time, two teams were painstakingly measuring blackbody radiation
at temperatures from well below freezing up to as high as 1500 °C.
Most theorists could do little better than guess equations which
might fit the empirical curves. Finally it was Max Planck who wrote
down the correct law which fitted the data. Then Planck went a step
further than guesswork. He concluded, reluctantly, that the spectrum
at high frequencies diminished because the radiation was emitted in
discrete quanta. Thus in 1900, the quantum era began.
It was not easy for physicists to accept the new idea. At first it
was thought that the quantisation may apply only to emission and
perhaps absorption of light, and not as a property of light propaga
tion. For the first two decades of the twentieth century, Albert
Einstein alone believed that light quanta were real. He applied the
same idea to explain the photoelectric effect and successfully pre
dicted the correct law, E = h´  P, of photoelectric emission. In
1915 after 10 years of experiment a sceptical Robert Millikan con
ceded that the formula was correct.
It was Einstein who in 1909 saw the need for a theory of parti
clewave duality. It was he too, who in 1917 saw the first signs that
determinism was threatened. He understood that in the phenomenon
of stimulated light emission, the exact moment at which each light
quantum would be emitted, could not be determined from the initial
state. To Einstein this was an unacceptable breakdown of causality
which he hoped to fix later in a deeper theory. To other physicists
The Storyteller
25
who followed it became an experimentally verified fact of life. The
breakdown of causality was, however, postponed by a semantic ad
justment. We now say that quantum mechanics is indeterministic
rather than acausal. We mean that although we cannot determine the
outcome of an experiment, the result is still influenced only by the
past state and not the future. Cartesian temporal causality could live
to see another century.
In 1913 Niels Bohr used the theory of light quanta to explain the
Balmer series of emission lines in the spectrum of hydrogen, but
what did it mean? In 1923, Arthur Compton derived the relativistic
expression for hard scattering of a quantum of light from an electron.
The term “light quanta” was replaced by the word “photon” as if to
celebrate its wider recognition as a particle. No longer would the
reality of photons be questioned. It was impossible to deny the par
ticular side to their nature when the Compton effect was
photographed in cloud chambers and energy and momentum conser
vation was verified.
The almost fantastic story of those discoveries and the years that
followed have filled many volumes on the history of science. In that
golden age of physics many great scientists rose to the challenge.
Heisenberg, Pauli, Fermi, Schrödinger, Dirac, ... the rollcall is end
less. Now is a good moment to turn the clock back to the time of
Newton and his theory of undulatory corpuscles. One can only mar
vel at the profound insight implied by this theory. To be sure,
Newton was wrong to think that light is faster in dense media. Huy
gens and Fermat were correct that it slows down. It must also be
admitted that everything Newton had observed was later consistent
with the wave theory when it found its final form in Maxwell‟s
equations. Yet Newton‟s anticipation of the quantum theory was no
fluke. It grew out of a belief that the laws of physics were unified.
Following the chemist and philosopher Robert Boyle, he guessed
that everything was built from elementary units. It was Boyle who
had christened them corpuscles. History recounts that this was in
spired by alchemist sympathies. They wanted to believe that any
form of matter could be transformed into another because they
dreamt of becoming rich by transforming lead into gold. But their
guess that such transformations might come about by rearrangements
of the constituent corpuscles was founded on many observations of
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
26
other physical processes. It was natural for Newton to suppose that
light was produced by another transformation of this sort. We know
now that he was right, and we should not scoff just because the the
ory was not based purely on empirical induction from solid
observations.
With hindsight we can see the modern theory of light as a syn
thesis of the principles of Newton, Fermat and Huygens. Explaining
how, will lead up to my thesis of the storyteller‟s paradigm, but first
we must go back and trace the development of another principle.
The Principle of Least Action
At the end of the seventeenth century, European mathematicians
liked to show off their prowess by posing and solving puzzles. The
Bernoulli brothers particularly enjoyed this game and Jean Ber
noulli, the 10th child of Nicolaus Bernoulli, set an especially tricky
problem for his rival and older brother Jacques. In 1690 he asked
him to identify the curve of the brachistochrone, the curve down
which a particle will slide in the shortest time from one given point
to another. An interesting application of this problem would be to
build an underground train between two towns powered only by
gravity. Suppose the line was to go from the Bernoulli‟s home town
of Basle to Geneva, 259km to the southwest. By descending down a
steep slope from Basle, it could pick up momentum to cover the dis
tance on frictionless tracks. Then, using its kinetic energy, it would
finish by climbing back up to Geneva where it would come perfectly
to rest. What would be the optimum shape of the track to minimise
the travel time? Jean failed to trip up his brother with this problem
and other mathematicians solved it too. Newton is reputed to have
cracked the problem overnight when it was given to him. The solu
tion is a cycloid; the curve traced out by a point on the rim of a
rolling wheel. To get from Basle to Geneva the train would follow
the sweep of a point on a circle as it did a full revolution.
The Storyteller
27
It would descend to a maximum depth of 82.4km where it would
reach a speed of 4580 km per hour and it would complete its journey
in only 6 minutes 47 seconds.
The brachistrochrone puzzle influenced other mathematicians to
look for general methods of solving other similar optimisation prob
lems which involved curves, and so the calculus of variations was
invented. Since it grew out of a physical problem, physicists won
dered how the new maths might be applied to Newton‟s laws of
mechanics more widely. Remember that according to Fermat‟s prin
ciple, a ray of light follows the line of shortest time through any
system of mirrors and prisms. Could there be a more general princi
ple to be found? Gottfried Leibniz was especially keen on the idea.
He did not like the Cartesian exclusion of final cause and saw Fer
mat‟s principle as an example that demonstrated his point.
But applying Fermat‟s principle directly to mechanics does not
work. Particles do not seem to be trying to get from A to B in the
least time possible, otherwise they would accelerate towards their
destinations. A free particle goes in a straight line so its path has the
minimum length, but it would be better to have a principle which
explains why it goes at constant speed too. Leibniz proposed that
mechanics optimises the use of another quantity which he called ac
tion. Later, in 1744, Pierre de Maupertuis discovered how to make
this idea work. For the single particle subjected to no forces the ac
tion is energy multiplied by time which is also half momentum times
distance integrated along the path. When a particle travels from A to
B in a fixed time interval, it does so with the least possible action.
Maupertuis attached great philosophical significance to this princi
ple and was ridiculed by Voltaire for doing so. Yet it is hard for a
Basle Geneva
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
28
student learning mechanics not to be struck by the beauty and gener
ality of the principle of least action when he first encounters it.
Richard Feynman was one such student who heard about it from his
high school physics teacher. The consequences for Feynman and for
physics were profound, as we shall see.
The calculus of variations and the principle of least action were
further developed in the eighteenth century by mathematicians such
as Leonhard Euler and Joseph Lagrange. For any mechanical system
moving in an energy potential, the action is defined as the kinetic
energy minus the potential energy integrated with respect to time.
When the system evolves from an initial state to a final state at
given times, it does so in a way which minimises the action. Euler
and Lagrange showed how to derive the equations of motion of any
system of particles from this principle. This energy difference in the
integral is now called the Lagrangian and finding its form for more
general situations is the key to any problem of theoretical physics.
The principle of least action is a curious discovery from the
point of view of causality in the same fashion as for Fermat‟s optical
principle of least time. Recall that in classical mechanics (meaning
deterministic motion without the quantum theory), given the initial
positions and velocities of particles and the equations of force acting
on them, you can in principle predict their subsequent motion. This
is the principle of temporal causality. However, the principle of least
action tells us how a system evolves given the initial and final posi
tions of the particles and the equation for the action. It is as if the
evolution of the system is determined equally by the past and future.
Causality is only found indirectly through the derivation of the equa
tions of motion and, apparently, our own psychological bias for prior
cause.
The next in line to work on the action principle were William
Hamilton and Carl Jacobi. They developed techniques now known
as the HamiltonJacobi formalism which took them to the brink of
discovering quantum mechanics in 1834, eighty years before its
time. Recall that Huygens had used his theory of secondary waves to
provide an explanation for Fermat‟s principle which reconciled it
with causality. If Hamilton or Jacobi had considered a similar expla
nation of the principle of least action they could easily have found
The Storyteller
29
quantum wave mechanics. As it turned out, we only see this with the
hindsight which came from eighty more years of experimentation. It
is amusing to consider that we could write a fictional but almost
plausible sounding history in which mathematicians discovered all
the fundamental principles of physics without ever doing an experi
ment! In practice, Descartes has to concede that we need those
empirical signposts to keep us from straying onto false paths. Does it
have to be that way or is it just a human weakness?
In the real story it was 1923 that became the breakthrough year
for quantum mechanics. Einstein had already suggested particle
wave duality for light quanta in 1909, but only when Louis de
Broglie suggested that the same must apply to electrons did all be
come clear. He was only a student at the time but he realised
immediately that the HamiltonJacobi theory pointed in that direc
tion. Duality was, and still is, a hard lesson to learn. It had to be
accepted because it made sense, at last, of Bohr‟s model of the atom.
Many who would otherwise have doubted were swayed by convinc
ing experiments. Electron diffraction from metals was seen as the
perfect confirmation of de Broglie‟s matter wave theory. It was the
time of the greatest revelations in physics. Within three short years
the full theory of quantum mechanics was established and ten Nobel
Laureates had earned their physics prizes in the process.
Feynman Meets Dirac
It is difficult to think of two twentieth century physicists less
alike in character than Paul Dirac and Richard Feynman. Born in
Bristol, West of England, Dirac was a quiet genius, a man of few
words, overtypically the reserved Englishman. He was a master of
imaginative speculation; exploiting mathematical beauty to invent
new physics. He discovered the relativistic equation of the electron
and founded quantum field theory. Later in life, he anticipated string
theory, membrane theory and magnetic monopoles thirty years in
advance of their time. His masterpiece was the systematic construc
tion of the quantisation process described in his book, “The
Principles of Quantum Mechanics”. It showed how to derive a quan
tum theory from any classical Hamiltonian mechanics by introducing
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
30
a quantum state vector and replacing classical commuting quantities
with noncommuting quantum operators.
Feynman was born in New York City, 16 years younger than
Dirac. He was a popular genius, an outspoken character, over
typically American. His approach to physics was practical and down
to Earth. He was brilliant at finding new ways to look at things more
clearly and solving physical problems. He found the modern ap
proach to quantum field theory and renormalisation. He explained
superfluids and tackled quantum gravity directly. He wrote a series
of lecture notes on theoretical physics which will remain standard
texts for decades to come. His masterpiece was an alternative formu
lation of the process of quantisation using path integrals.
Despite these different styles, Feynman was a great admirer of
Dirac‟s work. In 1946 they met for the first time at a series of lec
tures which had been organised to celebrate the bicentennial of
Princeton University. After giving a talk, Feynman found Dirac rest
ing on the lawn outside by himself, and went out to talk to him. He
wanted to ask about an expression which Dirac had written in a pa
per in 1933, about the relation between quantum mechanics and the
principle of least action. Dirac had found what he thought was an
approximate relationship but Feynman saw that it was exact. This
was his opportunity to ask Dirac if he actually knew that. In fact
Dirac had not known but said it was a very interesting observation.
As a result, Feynman thought some more about it and had a marvel
lous flash of insight. Suddenly he could see a very direct and
intuitive relation between the classical action and quantum theory.
Feynman’s Sum Over Stories
To understand what Feynman came up with let us first look at
the simple case of a single particle. In 1923 Louis De Broglie sug
gested that if light waves behave as particles, then other particles
must also be considered to have wave properties. Almost immedi
ately Davisson and Kunsman were able to verify De Broglie‟s
conjecture by observing electron diffraction effects. In 1926 Erwin
Schrödinger came up with a more detailed wave theory in which the
state of the particle at any time is actually described by a complex
valued number assigned to each point in space. Soon after that, Max
The Storyteller
31
Born interpreted Schrödinger‟s wave function as a description of the
probability of finding a particle at any point in space. The probabil
ity density is given by the square of the wave amplitude.
The wave evolves according to a wave equation which
Schrödinger gave us and which was later generalised by many oth
ers. Now Feynman, inspired by Dirac, realised that the evolution of
the wave could also be described in terms of what he called “path
integrals”. The relationship between Feynman‟s path integral and
Maupertuis‟s principle of least action is the same as that between
Huygen‟s principle of secondary waves and Fermat‟s principle of
least time. The square was completed.
According to Feynman, in order to find the evolution of the wave
function for a single particle between given starting and end times,
we must consider all possible starting points A, all possible finishing
points B and all paths P which the particle could take in going from
A to B. The value of the wave function at the start time is a complex
number which can be pictured as the position of the hand of a clock.
Suppose that initially the particle has a definite position at A so the
wave function takes the value 1 there and zero everywhere else. We
now want to know what the wave function will look like at some
later finishing time. As a path P from A to B is traced out, the action
can be calculated using the classical equations of Lagrange. Imagine
that the hand of the clock turns as if clocking up action along the
path until it gets to B so that it ends up at some other position on the
clock face. For each path from A to B there is a different position
value. To get the final amplitude of the wave function at B you have
to sum up, or integrate, the values for all the paths. This path integral
Fermat Huygens
Maupertuis Feynman
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
32
has a built in normalisation so that the final answer has a sensible
value.
The evolution is wavelike since the turning hands of the clock
are like the phase of a wave. When the dials read the same values
they add together like constructive interference. When they point in
opposite directions they cancel like destructive interference. Con
structive interference is most pronounced when paths near to the
minimum of the action are added together. This explains why the
principle of least action describes the motion of the particle in the
classical limit.
The path integral makes sense, at last, of the theories of light of
both Huygens and Newton. Previously seen as rivals, they are now
seen as complementary. The path integral incorporates Huygen‟s
secondary waves and generalises his explanation of Fermat‟s princi
ple, but it also describes light as particles with an undulatory nature
as Newton wanted.
But quantum mechanics deals with much more than just light.
Any system which has a classical principle of least action can be
quantised using the methods of Dirac or Feynman. A system of many
particles interacting through forces which conserve energy can be
dealt with in this way. An example is an atom consisting of a nu
cleus with its entourage of electrons. Classically we would describe
such a multiparticle system by giving the positions of each particle
in space. The quantum wave function of one particle is a complex
valued function on the 3 coordinates of space, so it might have been
expected that the quantum wave function of n particles would in
volve n such functions. In fact it is more complicated than that. The
A
B
The Storyteller
33
wave function is a much bigger complex valued function of the 3n
coordinates of the positions of all the particles.
It is nonlocal in the sense that it does not just give independent
wave functions for each particle. It also describes correlations be
tween them. If a group of n friends goes out to town for the evening
you could give a probability for each bar, club and cinema, that each
friend will be there at 11 o‟clock. If there are h such haunts that they
like to go to, there would be nh such probabilities. However, these
probabilities alone would be a very poor description of the total be
haviour because some friends like to stick together and are more
likely to be found together. There are actually h
n
possible situations
at 11 o‟clock and to account for all possible circumstances you must
give the probability for each one. The situation for particles is simi
lar except for a few important details. Firstly, as already said, the
wave function gives a complex number rather than a real number for
each possibility. Also, there are an infinite number of places the par
ticle can be at any given instant, but it may be useful to suppose that
space is discrete and finite with only a fixed number h of points. An
other crucial distinction between particles and our group of friends is
that particles do not have names. There is no way to tell photons
apart. They are absolutely identical. This means that we cannot dis
tinguish the difference in circumstance if any two photons are
swapped over. We only need to give a probability for the number of
photons which can be found at each place. This is less than h
n
but it
is still a large number.
Electrons are a little different again. They are also indistinguish
able like photons, but they never appear together in the same place.
Electrons are like a group of antisocial friends who detest each
other so much that each one avoids being found in the same haunt as
any other. Particles actually have just these two kinds of social be
haviour. Either they are like photons and do not mind being together,
or they are like electrons which stay apart. Particles which are like
electrons are called bosons and those like electrons are called fer
mions.
In the path integral of the system we cannot deal with the path of
each point separately because they interact through electromagnetic
forces. We must consider all ways in which the system of many par
ticles can evolve from a given classical starting state to a final one.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
34
The action for each such possible history contributes to the evolution
of the wave function. I hope that the reason for calling it a sum over
stories is now emerging. We are looking at stories of particles, like a
story of a group of friends who go out on the town. The story has a
given beginning and a given ending and we must consider all possi
ble stories which fit; where they could be at each moment of time. In
the macroscopic world where physics appears classical, we see only
one story but we know that in the microscopic world there are many
stories. We are just seeing the one which dominates through con
structive interference.
It is worth taking a moment to contemplate the complexity of the
system being described. If you were an engineer charged with the
task of programming a computer to simulate a galaxy at a level of
detail where each particle is described individually you would balk
at the task. Even doing it classically, you would require a high preci
sion variable for each coordinate of some n = 10
70
particles, plus a
field strength for the electromagnetic forces at each point of a
closely spaced lattice over the entire galaxy. That might need h =
10
80
points. If you are required to solve the problem with quantum
mechanics you need to cover the full wave function. If each particle
was behaving independently you could get away with about hn =
10
150
variables, but the full wave function requires more like (h/n)
n
=
10
10
71
. Even with today‟s powerful computers some further ap
proximations will be necessary.
Sometimes people talk about the “many worlds” interpretation of
quantum mechanics and the multiverse of possible universes. Scep
tics cannot accept it because it is hard to believe that so many things
are going on in parallel. Yet quantum mechanics is a theory of many
things happening at once and the huge size of the wavefunction for
all the particles of the universe is what makes quantum mechanics
work. Today physicists are looking at ways to harness the power
which lies hidden in these functions. It may be possible to tame them
in quantum computers which will do many simultaneous computa
tions as if they are each happening as a separate story.
The Feynman sum over stories is a realisation of the storyteller‟s
paradigm. It is the most fundamental principle known in physics.
The quantum theory is more general and more fundamental than any
The Storyteller
35
other theory because it must apply to all physics if it applies to any.
If we wish to understand why we exist we should not look to the big
bang where we think the universe began because the temporal cau
sality of Descartes is not what this paradigm is about. Our real
origins lie in the quantum principles which are held in the physics of
all times and all places.
Second Quantisation
There is a twist in the tale of quantisation which was introduced
by Pascual Jordan in 1925. A single particle which is quantised be
comes a field, i.e. values assigned to each point in space like the
classical electromagnetic fields. A field theory can also be derived
from a principle of least action and can therefore also be quantised.
The field theory of the single particle Schrödinger equation can be
quantised in this way as if it were a classical field. The result of this
second quantisation works out to be the same as the quantum theory
of a manyparticle system. The Schrödinger equation is linear but
quantisation can be applied to field theories with nonlinear terms.
The interaction between the electromagnetic field and Dirac‟s equa
tion for an electron is a nonlinear relativistic generalisation of the
Schrödinger equation. This is still called second quantisation but not
everyone likes the term used in this way. Many physicists prefer to
think that the first quantisation was a mistake and quantum field the
ory alone is correct.
The quantum field theories always describe the quantum interac
tions of many particle systems. Feynman was able to use his path
integrals to understand the process better. He found that the equa
tions of quantum field theory could be written out as a sum over
diagrams, now known as Feynman diagrams, which show the paths
and interactions of particles
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
36
The diagrams look just like the paths of particles which de
scribed the first quantisation of many particles except now there are
nodes where particles can interact. There is a subtle duality between
the fields and particles. Quantising particles gives fields, and quan
tising fields gives particles. Like the cliché of a novel about a writer,
second quantisation is confusing and perhaps there is more to be un
derstood about what the double process means.
The Storyteller’s Paradigm
A story is a cultural thing. Different peoples of the world have
different traditional stories. If we found that a tribe in the Amazon
knew a story which was identical to one told by the Eskimos, we
would think that it was either a fantastic coincidence or that there
had been some communication between them. Science is different.
We expect different countries to have similar theories about biology
for example, but written in different languages. This would be true
even if they had not shared their discoveries because their citizens
are all the same form of life and must have the same biology. If we
ever make contact with intelligent life on another planet we will be
interested to hear about their biology because it is likely to be rather
different from terrestrial biology. However, their laws of physics
will surely be the same even though they express them differently.
They will know about conservation of energy and will have a list of
particles which matches ours once we have sorted out how to con
vert terms and units. What if there are different universes where the
laws of physics are different? What would life in those universes
have in common with us? We would expect them to know the same
mathematics because mathematical logic is more abstract than phys
ics. They may choose different axioms as fundamental and will
certainly have a different notation, but there should be a correspon
dence between what they judge as true and what we do.
Pure mathematicians do not usually use ideas from physics to
decide what is worth studying. Yet often mathematicians working
independently discover the same theorems. Perhaps one day com
puters will be so powerful that we will be able to simulate creative
thought in a computer. Then we will verify that the same mathemati
cal concepts can develop without any influence from physics.
The Storyteller
37
According to Plato‟s theory of forms, the world of mathematics
exists in its own right and knowledge is attainable through the study
of logic. There is a hierarchy which puts maths at the foundation,
physics above, natural history over that and cultural knowledge at
the top. This is the scene of reductionism through Descartes‟ onto
logical causality. All knowledge is dependent on what is below, but
in our lives we have more direct experience of our culture and natu
ral history. Ultimately we want to explain our own perceptions.
There is a positivist philosophy which takes the opposite extreme to
Platonism saying that only the things we perceive directly are real.
Perhaps the truth is a mixture of both. Is there a larger realm beyond
mathematics where different rules of logic can be tried out? Perhaps
there is, but it seems like it must contain itself.
The role which mathematics plays in physics is certainly a curi
ous one. It is true that mathematics is the language of the universe.
No physicist can work without it. A theory which is expressed in
words may have some meaning but it is impossible to verify its cor
rectness unless it is backed up with a mathematical model which
makes testable predictions. It is hard to resist believing in an even
greater significance of mathematics because we find that the most
abstract concepts are applicable to the real world. It is this that Plato
recognised so long ago.
If our experiences are like stories then the laws of physics are the
grammar of the language in which it is written. But the same story
can be told in many languages so how important is the language of
physics? We still could not tell a story without words or something
similar. The laws of physics can also be written in many different
equivalent ways and it is not clear that any one way is more funda
mental. This is a special characteristic of the laws of physics.
Feynman remarked that if you modify the laws much you find that
you can only write them in fewer ways.
In one language of physics, the Feynman diagrams are the words
and sentences. We could collect together many diagrams and con
nect them together in different ways just as we can put together
sentences to make paragraphs and chapters. The stories of our ex
perience are told in that way. There are symmetries and dualities
which translate from one language to another. In the Platonic sense
those diagrams are the forms which exist in the world of mathemat
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
38
ics. They join together in every possible way which the rules of
logic, the grammar, permit. There is no need for temporal causality
in this language. We do not need to look to some creation event
where the universe was set in motion. The illusion of temporal cau
sality itself may emerge from such an event but it does not have to
be fundamental. It is a part of our story but stories with less linear
structure are also possible.
What about the storyteller? Remember that in his mind he did
not invent the story. He discovered it. He himself is part of another
story. Perhaps this is reflected in the rule of second quantisation.
Why do the Feynman diagrams obey the particular rules they do?
Those rules determine which particles exist and how they interact.
Do they represent some especially rich language? If the storyteller‟s
paradigm were taken to its logical conclusion there would be no
fixed Feynman rules. Feynman‟s sum over stories should be just part
of a much larger sum over all possibilities. All of these things remain
mysterious and we do not yet know the full grammar and vocabulary
of physics.
39
The Beauty of the Tiger
Natural Beauty
We do not have to examine nature very closely to admire its
beauty. A bird, a forest or a galaxy has a form of beauty which is
typical of complex organised systems in our universe. A tiger has
another element to its beauty which is also very common in nature
but which is often only evident on close inspection. We call it sym
metry. The common meaning of symmetry is a wellbalanced shape
or design but it also has a more specific mathematical meaning. The
tiger‟s shape and pattern are certainly well balanced but he has this
mathematical symmetry too. More specifically, this symmetry of a
tiger is bilateral: Divide his face and body by a vertical line, and the
left hand side is a mirror image of the right hand side. Many animals
including us have bilateral symmetry but it is especially engaging on
the tiger because it is seen in his striped patterns.
A few animals and many flowers have more than bilateral sym
metry. A daisy or a starfish has radial symmetry from its centre.
Crystals also form symmetrical shapes such as octahedra and cubes.
A snowflake is a crystal of ice with 6fold radial symmetry and it is
particularly elegant. How does it acquire its shape?
The snowflake begins its life as a minute hexagonal crystal form
ing in a cloud. The origins of this structure lie in a lattice
arrangement of the water molecules which form the ice. During its
passage from the clouds to the ground, it experiences a sequence of
changes in temperature and humidity which cause it to grow at vary
ing rates. Its history is recorded in the variations of thickness in its
six petals as it grows. This process ensures that each petal is almost
identical to any other and accounts for the snowflake‟s symmetry.
When a snowflake is rotated through an angle of 60 degrees
about its centre, it returns to a position where it looks the same as
before. Its shape is said to be invariant (meaning unchanged) under
such a transformation. It is invariance which characterises symmetry
in mathematics. The shape of the snowflake is also invariant if it is
rotated through 120 degrees. It is invariant again if it is turned over.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
40
By combining rotations and turning over it is possible to find 12 dif
ferent transformations which leave its shape invariant (including the
identity transformation which does nothing). We say that the order
of the snowflake‟s symmetry is 12.
+
Consider now the symmetry of a regular tetrahedron. That is a
solid shape in the form of a pyramid with a triangular base for which
all four faces are equilateral triangles. The shape of a regular tetra
hedron is invariant when it is rotated 120 degrees about an axis
passing through a vertex and the centre of the opposite face. It is also
invariant when rotated 180 degrees about an axis passing through the
midpoints of opposite edges. If you make a tetrahedron and experi
ment with it, you will find that it also has a symmetry of order 12.
But the symmetry of the tetrahedron is not quite the same as that of a
snowflake. The snowflake has a transformation which must be re
peated six times to restore it to its original position and the
tetrahedron does not.
Mathematicians have provided precise definitions of what I
meant by “not quite the same”. The invariance transformations or
isometries of any shape form an algebraic structure called a group.
You can consider composition of transformations as a kind of multi
plication. For example, two isometries of the snowflake are a
rotation of 60 degrees clockwise (call it a) and a reflection about the
vertical axis (call it b). The transformations are composed by doing
one and then the other, a followed by b. The result is a reflection
about a different axis set at 30 degrees to vertical which is also an
isometry (call it c). This composition is expressed algebraically as
ab = c, as if it were a multiplication. The algebraic structure defined
by these elements of symmetry is the group. The order of the sym
metry is the number of elements in the group. Two groups are
The Beauty of the Tiger
41
isomorphic if there is a onetoone mapping between them which
respects the multiplication. Two groups which are isomorphic are
often regarded as essentially the same thing. The symmetry group of
a snowflake is not isomorphic to that of a tetrahedron but it is iso
morphic to that of a hexagon. Groups can be considered to be a
mathematical abstraction of symmetry. Many of them have symbolic
names. The symmetry group of the snowflake and hexagon is called
D
6
while that of the tetrahedron is called A
4
.
The historical origins of group theory can be traced back to
tragic events of May 30th 1832. That morning a young Frenchman
named Évariste Galois died in a dual. At 21 years old his life was
already a tale of rejection and failure as a mathematician, yet the
night before he met his death he wrote a letter which brought about a
revolution in abstract thought. Galois developed a theory about
which polynomial equations could be solved exactly using simple
arithmetic operations such as addition, multiplication and square
roots. Polynomials up to degree four could be solved in this way but
quintic equations had been proven insoluble by the Norwegian
mathematician Niels Abel in 1823. Galois found that the answer lay
in the group of permutations of the solutions of the equations.
A permutation is a way of rearranging or shuffling an ordered set
of objects. Suppose, for example, that there are six numbered objects
in numerical order 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. A possible permutation would be
3, 4, 1, 6, 5, 2. It can be shown as a diagram,
It is not really the numbers which are important. It is the arrows
which permute them. There are 720, (6! = 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6) dif
ferent possible permutations of six objects.
1 2 3 4 5 6
3 4 1 6 5 2
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
42
A rotation of a snowflake can be regarded as a permutation of its
arms. Number them clockwise and look at the 60 degree rotation.
This is a permutation of the arms
Likewise a reflection about the vertical axis is another permuta
tion
Any of the twelve transformations which leave the shape of the
snowflake invariant can be shown as a permutation. To appreciate
the algebraic structure of the group formed by the transformations
we need to see how they can be combined.
1 2 3 4 5 6
1 6 5 4 3 2
+ +
1
2
3
4
5
6 1
2
3
4
5
6
1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 2 3 4 5
The Beauty of the Tiger
43
This is how it works for the rotation followed by the reflection
So combining permutations by joining the arrows is equivalent
to performing one isometry followed by another. This is the same as
multiplication in the group of isometries.
Like ordinary multiplication of numbers this kind of multiplica
tion is associative, i.e. a(bc) = (ab)c for any three transformations a,
b and c, but unlike ordinary multiplication it is not always commuta
tive (ab) * (ba). There is always an identity which has the property,
a1 = 1a = a. Each element has an inverse, aa
1
= a
1
a = 1. These
algebraic rules are taken as the definition of a group.
Permutations, symmetry and groups all go together. A permuta
tion is just a onetoone mapping from some set to itself. A
symmetry is a subset of permutations which leaves something (like
shape) invariant. The algebraic structure of symmetries and the ways
they combine is a group. To complete the triangle any group can also
be seen as a collection of permutations of its own elements because
multiplication by any element of the group is a onetoone mapping
onto itself.
The geometric symmetries of the snowflake and tiger are just
one type of symmetry which leaves the shape of an object invariant.
=
1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 2 3 4 5
6 5 4 3 2 1
1 2 3 4 5 6
6 5 4 3 2 1
Group Symmetry
permutations
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
44
The permutations on a set of n objects also form a group which is
called the symmetric group of the set or S
n
for short. All these things
are very important in physics but the theory of groups and symme
tries also has its own intrinsic power and beauty which makes it
interesting to mathematicians.
Permutations are not only applied to finite sets. There are also
infinite order symmetries described by infinite groups and permuta
tions of infinite numbers of objects. The simplest example is the
group of rotations in a plane about the origin. It describes part of the
symmetry of a circle and is known as U(1).
Symmetry in Physics
Symmetry is important in physics because there are all kinds of
transformations which leave the laws of physics invariant. For ex
ample, we know that the laws of physics are the same everywhere.
We can detect no difference in the results of any self contained ex
periment which depends on where we do it. Galileo realised just how
universal this principle is when he looked at the planets through his
telescope in 1609. He saw moons going round Jupiter in the same
way as our moon goes round the Earth. He proposed that the laws of
physics which describe the motions of the planets should be the
same as those which govern the motion of objects here. This was
very different from the way people had thought before.
Another way to say the same thing is that the laws of physics are
invariant under a translation transformation which would displace all
objects by the same distance in the same direction. This is a kind of
symmetry of physics which is just like the symmetry of shapes. The
infinite order group of translations is a symmetry of the laws of
physics.
The next important example is rotation symmetry. The laws of
physics are invariant under rotations in space about any axis through
some origin. An important difference between the translation sym
metry and the rotation symmetry is that the former is abelian while
the latter is nonabelian. An Abelian group is one in which the order
of multiplication does not matter, they commute (ab = ba). This is
true of translations but it is not true of rotations about different axis.
The Beauty of the Tiger
45
If the laws of physics are invariant under both rotations and
translations then they must also be invariant under any combination
of a rotation and a translation. In this way we can always combine
any two symmetries to form a larger one. The smaller symmetries
are contained within the larger one. Note that the symmetry of a
snowflake is already contained within rotation symmetry. Mathema
ticians say that the invariance group of the snowflake is a subgroup
of the rotation group. They are both subgroups of the full group of
permutations of points of space which leave the distance between
any two points invariant.
Such symmetry is important because we can use it to test new
theories of physics. Once we have accepted that certain symmetries
are exactly observed in nature we can check that any set of equations
looks the same after applying the transformations under which phys
ics is supposed to be invariant. If they are not then they cannot form
any part of the laws of physics. Mathematicians often go much fur
ther than this and work out all possible forms the laws of physics
might take to respect the symmetry. Given translational and rota
tional symmetry we know that the equations can be expressed using
scalars, vectors, tensors and spinors; quantities which can be com
bined in certain ways such as using vector and scalar multiplications.
Nature has been kind to physicists. With these rules they waste much
less time dreaming up useless theories of physics than they would if
there was no symmetry. The more symmetry they know about, the
better physicists can do. This is one of the secret of their success.
Hidden Symmetry
Symmetry in physics is not always evident at first sight. When
we are comfortably seated on the ground we notice a distinct differ
ence between up and down, and between the horizontal and the
vertical. If we describe the motion of falling objects in terms of
physical laws which have the concept of vertical and horizontal built
in then we do not find the full rotational symmetry in those laws. As
another example, many ancient philosophers thought that the Earth
marked a special place at the centre of the universe. In such a case
we could not say that the laws of physics were invariant under trans
lations. In medieval times the symmetry of rotational and
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
46
translational invariance in the laws of physics remained hidden to
philosophers despite many centuries of observation and thought.
It was the Copernican revolution that changed all that. Nicolaus
Copernicus described a cosmology in which the Earth had no special
place and initiated a new freedom of thought taken up by Galileo.
Newton, in response to Galileo, discovered his law of gravity which
could at the same time account for falling objects on Earth and the
motion of the planets in the Solar system. If the moon was subject to
Earthly forces why did it not fall down like objects do on Earth.
Newton‟s answer was that the moon does fall, but it moves horizon
tally fast enough to keep it from coming down. From that point on it
could be seen that the laws of physics are invariant under rotations
and translations. It was a profound revelation. Whenever new sym
metries of physics are discovered the laws of physics become more
unified. Newton‟s discovery meant that it was no longer necessary to
have different theories about what was happening on Earth and what
was happening in the heavens.
Once the unifying power of symmetry is realised and combined
with the observation that symmetry is hidden and not always recog
nised at first sight, the unique importance of symmetry is clear.
Physicists have discovered that as well as the symmetries of space
transformations, there are also more subtle internal symmetries
which exist as part of the forces of nature. These symmetries are im
portant in particle physics. In recent times it has been discovered that
symmetry can be hidden through mechanisms such as spontaneous
symmetry breaking. Such mechanisms are thought to account for the
apparent differences between the known forces of nature. This in
creases the hope that other symmetries remain to be found.
Conservation Laws
During the centuries which followed Galileo and Newton, physi
cists and mathematicians came to realise that there is a deep
relationship between symmetry and conservation laws in physics.
The law of conservation of momentum is related to translation in
variance, while angular momentum is related to rotation invariance.
Conservation of energy is due to the invariance of the laws of phys
ics with time.
The Beauty of the Tiger
47
The relationship was finally established in a very general
mathematical form known as Noether‟s theorem. Mathematicians
had discovered that classical laws of physics could be derived from
the philosophically pleasing principle of least action. In 1918 Emmy
Noether showed that any laws of this type which have a continuous
symmetry, like translations and rotations, would have a conserved
quantity which could be derived from the action principle.
Although Noether‟s work was based on classical Newtonian no
tions of physics, the principle has survived the quantum revolution
of the twentieth century. In quantum mechanics we find that the rela
tionship between symmetry and conservation is even stronger. There
are even conservation principles related to discrete symmetries.
An important example of this is parity. Parity is a quantum num
ber which is related to symmetry of the laws of physics when
reflected in a mirror. Mirror symmetry is the simplest symmetry of
all since it has order two. If the laws of physics were indistinguish
able from their mirror inverse then according to the rules of quantum
mechanics parity would be conserved. This is the case for electro
magnetism, gravity and the strong nuclear force. It was quite a
surprise to physicists when they discovered that parity is not con
served in the rare weak nuclear interactions. Because these
interactions are not significant in our ordinary daytoday life, we do
not normally notice this asymmetry of space.
Simple laws of mechanics involving the forces of gravity and
electricity are invariant under time reversal as well as mirror reflec
tion. If you could freeze every particle in the universe and then send
them on their way with exactly reversed velocity, they would retrace
their history in reverse. This is a little surprising because our every
day world does not appear to be symmetric in this way. There is a
clear distinction between future and past. In the primary laws of
physics time reversal is also only broken by the weak interaction but
not enough to account for the perceived difference. There is an im
portant combined operation of mirror inversion, time reversal and a
third operation which exchanges a particle with its antiparticle im
age. This is known as CPT. Again the universe does not appear to
realise particleantiparticle symmetry macroscopically because there
seems to be more matter than antimatter in the universe. However,
CPT is an exact symmetry of all interactions, as far as we know.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
48
Relativity
There is another symmetry which is found in ordinary mechan
ics. If you are travelling in a modern high speed train like the French
TGV, moving at constant speed on a long straight segment of track,
it is difficult to tell that you are moving without looking out of the
window. If you could play a game of billiards on the train, you
would not notice any effects due to the speed of the train until it
turned a corner or slowed down.
This can be accounted for in terms of an invariance of the laws
of mechanics under a Galilean transformation which maps a station
ary frame of reference onto one which is moving at constant speed.
Galileo used this symmetry to explain how the Earth could be mov
ing without us noticing it but he used a ship at sea rather than a train
to demonstrate the principle.
When you examine the laws of electrodynamics discovered by
Maxwell you find that they are not invariant under a Galilean trans
formation. Light is an electrodynamic wave which moves at a fixed
speed c. Because c is so fast compared with the speed of the TGV,
you could not notice this on the train. However, towards the end of
the nineteenth century, a famous experiment was performed by
Michelson and Morley. They hoped to detect changes in the speed of
light due to the changing direction of the motion of the Earth. To
everyone‟s surprise they could not detect the difference.
Maxwell believed that light must propagate through some me
dium which he called ether. The MichelsonMorley experiment
failed to detect the ether. The discrepancy was finally resolved by
Einstein and Poincaré when they independently discovered special
relativity in 1905. The Galilean transformation, they realised, is just
an approximation to a Lorentz transformation which is a perfect
symmetry of electrodynamics. The correct symmetry was there in
Maxwell‟s equations all along but symmetry is not always easy to
see. In this case the symmetry involved an unexpected mixing of
space and time coordinates. Minkowski later explained that relativ
ity had unified space and time into one geometric structure which
was thereafter known as spacetime. Symmetry was again a unifying
principle.
The Beauty of the Tiger
49
It seems that Einstein was more strongly influenced by symmetry
than he was by the MichelsonMorley experiment. According to the
scientific principle as spelt out by Francis Bacon, theoretical physi
cists should spend their time fitting mathematical equations to
empirical data. Then the results can be extrapolated to regions not
yet tested by experiment in order to make predictions. In reality
physicists have had more success constructing theories from princi
ples of mathematical beauty and consistency. Symmetry is an
important part of this method of attack. Of course these principles
are still based on observations and empiricism serves as a check on
the correctness of the theory afterwards, yet by using symmetry it is
possible to leap ahead of where you would get to using just simple
induction.
Einstein demonstrated the power of symmetry again with his
dramatic discovery of general relativity. This time there was no ex
perimental result which could help him. Actually there was an
observed discrepancy in the orbit of Mercury, but this might just as
easily have been corrected by some small modification to Newtonian
gravity or even by some more mundane effect due to the shape of the
sun. Einstein knew that Newton‟s description of gravity was incon
sistent with special relativity. Even if there were no observation
which showed it up, there had to be a more complete theory of grav
ity which complied with the principle of relativity.
Since Galileo‟s experiments with weights dropped from the lean
ing tower of Pisa, it was known that inertial mass is equal to
gravitational mass. Otherwise objects of different mass would fall at
different rates even in the absence of air resistance. Einstein realised
that this would imply that an experiment performed in an accelerat
ing frame of reference could not separate the apparent forces due to
acceleration from those due to gravity. This suggested to him that a
larger symmetry which included acceleration might be present in the
laws of physics.
It took several years and many thought experiments before Ein
stein completed the work. He knew that the equivalence principle
implied that spacetime must be curved, and the force of gravity is a
direct consequence of this curvature. In modern terms the symmetry
he discovered is known as diffeomorphism invariance. It means that
the laws of physics take the same form when written in any 4d co
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
50
ordinate system on spacetime. The form of the equations which ex
press the laws of physics must be the same when transformed from
one spacetime coordinate system to another no matter how curvi
linear the transformation equations are.
The symmetry of general relativity is a much larger one than any
which had been observed in physics before Einstein. We can com
bine rotation invariance, translation invariance and Lorentz
invariance to form the complete symmetry group of special relativity
which is known as the Poincaré group. The Poincaré group can be
parameterised by ten real numbers. We say it has dimension 10. Dif
feomorphism invariance, on the other hand, cannot be parameterised
by a finite number of parameters. It is an infinitedimensional sym
metry. Already we have passed from finite order symmetries like
that of the snowflake, to symmetries which are of infinite order but
finite dimensional like translation symmetry. Now we have moved
on to infinitedimensional symmetries and we still have a long way
to go.
Diffeomorphism invariance is another hidden symmetry. If the
laws of physics were invariant under any change of coordinates in a
way which could be clearly observed, then we would expect the
world around us to behave as if everything could be deformed like
rubber. Diffeomorphisms leave the physics invariant under any
amount of stretching and bending of spacetime. The symmetry is
hidden by the local form of gravity just as the constant vertical grav
ity seems to hide rotational symmetry in the laws of physics. On
cosmological scales the laws of physics do show a more versatile
form allowing spacetime to deform, but on smaller scales only the
Poincaré invariance is readily observed.
Einstein‟s field equations of general relativity which describe the
evolution of gravitational fields, can be derived from a principle of
least action. It follows from Noether‟s theorems that there are con
servation laws which correspond to energy, momentum and angular
momentum but it is not possible to distinguish between them. A spe
cial property of conservation equations derived from the field
equations is that the total value of a conserved quantity integrated
over the volume of the whole universe is zero, provided the universe
is closed. This fact is useful when sceptics ask you where all the en
The Beauty of the Tiger
51
ergy in the universe came from if there was nothing before the big
bang! However, the universe might not be finite.
A final remark about relativity is that the big bang breaks dif
feomorphism invariance in quite a dramatic way. It singles out one
moment of the universe as different from all the others. It is even
possible to define absolute time as the proper time of the longest
curve stretching back to the big bang. According to relativity there
should be no absolute standard of time but we can define cosmologi
cal time since the big bang. This fact does not destroy relativity
provided the big bang can be regarded as part of the solution rather
than being built into the laws of physics. In fact we cannot be sure
that the big bang is a unique event in our universe. Although the en
tire observable universe seems to have emerged from this event it is
likely that the universe is much larger than what is observable. In
that case we can say little about its structure on bigger scales than
those which are observable.
Gauge Symmetry and Economics
What about electric charge? It is a conserved quantity so is there
a symmetry which corresponds to charge according to Noether‟s
theorem? The answer comes from a simple observation about elec
tric voltage. It is possible to define an electrostatic potential at any
point in space. The voltage of a battery is the difference in this po
tential between its terminals. In fact there is no way to measure the
absolute value of the electrostatic potential. It is only possible to
measure its difference between two different points. Voltage is rela
tive. In the language of symmetry we would say that the laws of
electrostatics are invariant under the addition of a value to the poten
tial which is the same everywhere. This describes an internal
symmetry which through Noether‟s theorem can be related to con
servation of electric charge.
The electric potential is just one component of the electromag
netic vector potential which can be taken as the dynamical variables
of Maxwell‟s theory allowing it to be derived from an action princi
ple. In this form the symmetry is much larger than the simple one
parameter invariance I just described. It corresponds to a change in a
scalar field of values defined at each event throughout spacetime.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
52
Like the diffeomorphism invariance of general relativity this symme
try is infinitedimensional. Symmetries of this type are known as
gauge symmetries. The principles of gauge theories were first recog
nised by Herman Weyl in 1918. He hoped that the similarities
between the gravitational and electromagnetic forces would herald a
unification of the two. It was many years before the full power of his
ideas was appreciated.
There is an analogy of gauge symmetry in the world of finance.
Consider the money which circulates in an economy. If one day the
government wants to announce a currency devaluation, it has to be
implemented in such a way that nobody loses out. Every price can be
adjusted to be one tenth of its previous value, but everybody‟s wage
must be changed in the same way, as must their savings. If done cor
rectly the effect would be cosmetic. The economy is invariant under
a global change in the scale of currency. It is a symmetry of the sys
tem.
What about the combined system of economies of the different
countries of the world? Any one currency can revalue its currency
but to avoid any economic effect the exchange rates with other cur
rencies must also reflect the change. In this larger system there is a
degree of symmetry for each currency of the world. This is analo
gous to a local gauge symmetry which allows a gauge transformation
to take place independently anywhere in space. Prices and wages are
analogous to the wave functions of matter. Exchange rates are like
the gauge fields of gravity and electromagnetism. The purpose of
these fields which propagate the forces of nature is to allow the
gauge symmetry to change locally, just as varying exchange rates
allow economies to adjust and interact. In both cases the variables
change dynamically, evolving in response to market forces in the
case of economy and evolving in response to natural forces in the
case of physics.
Both diffeomorphism invariance and the electromagnetic sym
metry are local gauge symmetries because they correspond to
transformation which can be parameterised as fields throughout
spacetime. In fact there are marked similarities between the forms
of the equations which describe gravity and those which describe
electrodynamics, but there is an essential difference too. Diffeomor
The Beauty of the Tiger
53
phism invariance describes a symmetry of spacetime while the
symmetry of electromagnetism acts on some abstract internal space
of the components of the field.
The gauge transformation of electrodynamics acts on the matter
fields of charged particles as well as on the electromagnetic fields. In
1927 Fritz London noted that to implement the gauge transformation
the phase of the wave function of matter fields is multiplied by a
phase factor, which is a complex number of modulus one. Such fac
tors have no physical effects since only the modulus of the wave
function is observable. Through this action the transformation is re
lated to the group of complex numbers of modulus one which is
isomorphic to the rotation symmetry group of the circle, U(1).
In the 1960s physicists were looking for quantum field theories
which could explain the weak and strong nuclear interactions as they
had already done for the electromagnetic force. They realised that
the U(1) gauge symmetry could be generalised to gauge symmetries
based on other continuous groups. As I have already said, an impor
tant class of such symmetries has been classified by mathematicians.
In the 1920s Elie Cartan proved that a subclass known as semi
simple Lie groups can be described as matrix groups which fall into
three families parameterised by an integer N and five other excep
tional groups:
The special orthogonal groups SO(N)
The special unitary groups SU(N)
The special symplectic groups Sp(N)
Exceptional Groups G2 F4 E6 E7 E8
The internal gauge symmetry should be made up of combina
tions of these groups. They can be combined using a direct product
denoted A~B in which both groups are independent subgroups.
The best thing about gauge symmetry is that once you have se
lected the right group the possible forms for the action of the field
theory are extremely limited. Einstein found that for general relativ
ity there is an almost unique most simple form with a curvature term
and an optional cosmological term. For internal gauge symmetries
the corresponding result is YangMills field theory developed by
Chen Ning Yang and Robert Mills in 1954. Maxwell‟s equations for
electromagnetism are a special case of YangMills theory corre
sponding to the gauge group U(1) but there is a generalisation for
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
54
any other gauge group. From tables of particles, physicists were able
to conjecture that the strong nuclear interactions used the gauge
group SU(3) which is metaphorically referred to as colour. This
symmetry is hidden by the mechanism of confinement which pre
vents quarks escaping from the proton and neutron to reveal the
colour charge. For the weak interaction it turned out that the symme
try was SU(2)~U(1) but that it was broken by a Higgs mechanism.
There is a Higgs boson whose vacuum state breaks the symmetry at
low energies. By these uses of symmetry theoretical physicists were
able to construct the complete standard model of particle physics by
1972.
The rapid acceptance of gauge theories at that time was due to
the discovery by „t Hooft and Veltman that YangMills theories are
renormalisable, even when the symmetry is broken. Other theories
of the nuclear interactions were plagued with divergences when cal
culations were attempted. The infinite answers rendered the theory
useless. These divergences are also present in YangMills theory but
a process of renormalisation can be used to cancel out the infinities
leaving sensible consistent results. In the years that followed this
discovery, experiments at the world‟s great particle accelerator labo
ratories have rigidly confirmed the correctness of the standard
model. Of the four forces only gravity remains in a form which stub
bornly refuses to be renormalised.
Supersymmetry
Symmetry is proving to be a powerful unifying tool in particle
physics because through symmetry and symmetry breaking, particles
which appear to be different in mass, charge, etc. can be understood
as different states of a single unified field theory. Ideally we would
like to have a completely unified theory in which all particles and
forces of nature are related through a hierarchy of broken symme
tries.
A possible catch to this hope is that fermions and bosons cannot
be related by the action of a classical symmetry based on a group.
One way out of this problem would be if all bosons were revealed to
be bound states of fermions so that at some fundamental level only
elementary fermions would be necessary. This is an unlikely solu
The Beauty of the Tiger
55
tion because gauge bosons such as photons appear to be fundamen
tal.
A more favourable possibility is that fermions and bosons are re
lated by supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is an algebraic construction
which is a generalisation of the Lie group symmetries already ob
served in particle physics. It is a new type of symmetry which cannot
be described by a classical group. It is defined as a different but re
lated algebraic structure which still has all the essential properties
which make symmetry work.
If supersymmetry existed in nature we would expect to find that
fermions and bosons came in pairs of equal mass. In other words
there would be bosonic squarks and selectrons with the same masses
as the quarks and electrons, as well as fermionic photinos and
higgsinos with the same masses as photons and Higgs. The fact that
no such partners have been observed implies that supersymmetry
should be broken if it exists.
It is probably worth adding that there may be other ways in
which supersymmetry is hidden. For example, If quarks are compos
ite then the quark constituents could be supersymmetric partners of
gauge particles. Also, superstring theorist Ed Witten has found a
mechanism which allows particles to have different masses even
though they are supersymmetric partners and the symmetry is not
spontaneously broken.
Supersymmetry unifies more than just fermions and bosons. It
also goes a long way towards unifying internal gauge symmetry with
spacetime gauge symmetry. If gravity is to be unified with the elec
tromagnetic and nuclear forces there should be a larger symmetry
which contains diffeomorphism invariance and internal gauge in
variance. In 1967 Coleman and Mandula proved a theorem which
says that any group which contained both of these must separate in
to a direct product of two parts each containing one of them. In other
words, they simply could not be properly unified, or at least, not
with classical groups. The algebraic structure of supersymmetry is a
supergroup which is a generalisation and a classical group and is not
covered by the ColemanMandula theorem, so supersymmetry pro
vides a way out of the problem. There are still a limited number of
ways of unifying gravity with internal gauge symmetry using super
symmetry and each one gives a theory of supergravity.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
56
There is now some indirect experimental evidence in favour of
supersymmetry, but the main reasons for believing in its existence
are purely theoretical. During the 1970s it was discovered that su
pergravity provides a perturbative quantum field theory which has
better renormalisation behaviour than gravity on its own. This was
one of the first breakthroughs of quantum gravity.
The big catch with supergravity theories is that they work best in
ten or elevendimensional spacetime. To explain this discrepancy
with nature, theorists revived an old idea called KaluzaKlein theory
which was originally proposed as a way to unify electromagnetism
with gravity geometrically. According to this idea spacetime has
more dimensions than are apparent. All but four of them are com
pacted into a ball so small that we do not notice it. Particles are then
supposed to be modes of vibration in the geometry of these extra
dimensions. YangMills theory emerges from spacetime curvature
in the compacted dimensions so KaluzaKlein theory is an elegant
way to unify internal gauge symmetry with the diffeomorphism in
variance of general relativity. If we believe in supergravity then even
fermions fall into this scheme.
Supergravity theories were popular around 1980 but it was found
to be just not quite possible to have a version with the right structure
to account for the particle physics we know about. The sovereign
theory of supergravity lives in 11 dimensions and nearly manages to
generate enough particles and forces when compactified down to 4
dimensions, but unfortunately it was not possible to get the leftright
asymmetry in that way. It was also realised eventually that these
field theories could not be perfectly renormalisable. Supergravity
was quickly superseded by superstring theory. String theories had
earlier been considered as a model for strong nuclear forces but,
with the addition of supersymmetry it became possible to consider
them as a unified theory including gravity. In fact, supergravity is
present in superstring theories.
Enthusiasm for superstring theories became widespread after
John Schwarz and Michael Green discovered that a particular form
of string theory was not only renormalisable, it was even finite to all
orders in perturbation theory. That event started many research pro
jects which are a story for another chapter. All I will say now is that
The Beauty of the Tiger
57
string theory is believed to have much more symmetry than is under
stood, but its nature and full form are still a mystery.
Universal Symmetry
We have seen how symmetry in nature has helped physicists un
cover the laws of physics. Symmetry is a unifying concept. It has
helped combine the forces of nature as well as joining space and
time. There are other symmetries in nature which I have not yet men
tioned. These include the symmetry between identical particles and
the symmetry between electric and magnetic fields in Maxwell‟s
equations of electrodynamics known as electromagnetic duality.
Symmetry is often broken or hidden so it is quite possible that there
is more of it than we know about, perhaps a lot more.
Let us look again at the symmetry we have seen so far. There is
the SU(3)~SU(2) ~U(1) internal gauge symmetry of the of the
strong, weak and electromagnetic forces. Since these groups are
gauged there is actually one copy of the group acting at each event
of spacetime so the group structure is symbolically raised to the
power of the number of points in the spacetime manifold M. The
symmetry of the gravitational force is the group of diffeomorphisms
on the manifold which is indicated by diff(M). However, the combi
nation of the diffeomorphism group with the internal gauge groups is
not a direct product because diffeomorphisms do not commute with
internal gauge transformations. They combine with what is known as
a semidirect product indicated by A¯B. The known symmetry of
the forces of nature is therefore:
G(M) = diff(M)¯( SU(3)
M
~SU(2)
M
~U(1)
M
)
There is plenty of good reason to think that this is not the full
story. This group will be the residual subgroup of some larger one
which is only manifest in circumstances where very high energies
are involved, such as the big bang. Both general relativity and quan
tum mechanics are full of symmetry so it would be natural to
imagine that a unified theory of quantum gravity would combine
those symmetries into a larger one. String theory certainly seems to
have many forms of symmetry which have been explored mathe
matically. There is evidence within string theory that it contains a
huge symmetry which has not yet been revealed.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
58
Whether or not string theory is the final answer, it seems that
there is some universal symmetry in nature that has yet to be found.
It will be a symmetry which includes the gauge symmetries and per
haps also others such as the symmetry of identical particles and
electromagnetic duality. The existence of this symmetry is a big clue
to the nature of the laws of physics and may provide the best hope of
discovering them if experiments are not capable of supplying much
more empirical data.
What will the universal symmetry look like? The mathematical
classification of groups is incomplete. Finite simple groups have
been classified and so have semisimple Lie groups, but infinite
dimensional groups appear in string theory and these are so far be
yond classification. Furthermore, there are new types of symmetry
such as supersymmetry and quantum groups which are generalisa
tions of classical symmetries. These symmetries are algebraic
constructions which preserve an abstract form of invariance. They
turn up in several different approaches to quantum gravity including
string theory so they are undoubtedly important. This may be be
cause of their importance in understanding topology. At the moment
we do not even know what should be regarded as the most general
definition of symmetry let alone having a classification scheme.
Particle Permutations
The importance of the symmetry in a system of identical parti
cles is often overlooked. The symmetry group is the permutation
group acting to exchange particles of the same type. The reason why
this symmetry is not considered to be as important as gauge symme
try lies in the relationship between classical and quantum physics.
There is an automatic scheme which allows a classical system of
field equations derived from a principle of least action to be quan
tised. This can be done either through Dirac‟s canonical quantisation
or Feynman‟s path integral. The two are formally equivalent. In
modern quantum field theory a classical field theory is quantised.
Particles appear as a consequence of this process. Gauge symmetry
is a symmetry of the classical field which is preserved in the process
of quantisation. The symmetry between identical particles, however,
does not exist in the classical theory. It appears along with the parti
The Beauty of the Tiger
59
cles during the process of quantisation. Hence it is a different sort of
symmetry.
But the matter cannot simply be left there. In a nonrelativistic
approximation of atomic physics it is possible to understand the
quantum mechanics of atoms by treating them first of all as a system
of classical particles. The system is quantised in the usual way and
the result is the Schrödinger wave equation for the atom. This is
known as first quantisation because it was discovered before the
second quantisation of the Schrödinger wave equation which became
a part of quantum field theory. In the first quantisation we have gone
from a classical particle picture to a field theory and the symmetry
between particles existed as a classical symmetry.
This observation suggests that the relationship between classical
and quantum systems is not so clear as it is often portrayed and that
the permutation group could also be a part of the same universal
symmetry as gauge invariance. This claim is now supported by string
theory which appears to have a mysterious duality between classical
and quantum aspects. A further clue may be that the algebra of fer
mionic creation and annihilation operators generate a supersymmetry
which includes the permutation of identical particles. This opens the
door to a unification of particle permutation symmetry and gauge
symmetry.
Event symmetry
Even now we can make some guesses. The universal symmetry
must be fundamental to the laws of physics. When the right symme
try is known the laws of physics might be fully determined by the
constraints imposed by invariance under the action of the symmetry.
Surely it should be some unique fundamental mathematical struc
ture, but G(M), the symmetry group we have so far, is dependent on
the topology of the spacetime manifold M. Should we expect the
topology of spacetime to be fixed by the laws of physics? There are
many different topologies which spacetime could have and it would
seem too arbitrary to make the choice at so fundamental a level. This
poses quite a puzzle.
There are two possible solutions that I know of. The first is the
principle of event symmetry which is the central theme of this book.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
60
It says that we must simply forget the topology of spacetime at the
most fundamental level and regard the spacetime manifold as just a
set of discrete spacetime events. The diffeomorphism group of any
manifold is a subgroup of the symmetric group of permutations on
the set of points in the manifold. The internal gauge symmetries also
fall into this pattern. This solution to the puzzle generates many new
puzzles and in later chapters I will describe them and start to resolve
them.
The second solution to this puzzle is to generalise symmetry us
ing the mathematical theory of categories. A category can describe
mappings between different topologies and a group is a special case
of a category. If the concept of symmetry is extended further to in
clude more general categories it should be possible to incorporate
different topologies in the same categorical structure. How should
we interpret these two solutions to a difficult problem when at first
one solution seemed difficult to find? Is only one right, or are they
both different aspects of the same thing?
There seems little doubt that there is much to be learnt in both
mathematics and physics from the hunt for better symmetry. The
intriguing idea is that there is some special algebraic structure which
will unify a whole host of subjects through symmetry, as well as be
ing at the root of the fundamental laws of physics.
61
In a Grain of Sand
Discrete Matter
At a seaport in the Aegean around the year 500BC the philoso
pher Democritus pondered the idea that matter was made of
indivisible units separated by void. He had been handed the idea by
his mentor Leucippus who had in turn heard about it from the Ionian
philosopher Anaxagoras. Was it a remarkable piece of insight or just
a lucky guess? At the time there was certainly no compelling evi
dence for such a hypothesis. Perhaps they were inspired by the
coarseness of natural materials like sand and stone. The insight of
Anaxagoras went far beyond such observations and his theories of
cosmological origins were just as uncanny. There is no accounting
for the similarity of these ideas to the modern view. With such bold
claims Anaxagoras had become one of the first heretics. He was pun
ished for his impiety and his books were burnt.
Democritus extended the atomic concept as far as it could go,
claiming that not just matter, but everything else from colour to the
human soul must also consist of atoms. These atoms were indivisible
but had different shapes and could combine in a variety of ways to
form the substances of the world. He saw creation as the natural
consequence of the ceaseless whirling motion of atoms in space. At
oms would collide and spin, forming larger aggregations of matter.
These ideas were soon rivalled by the very different philosophies
of Aristotle from the school of Plato, who believed that matter was
infinitely divisible and that nature was constructed from perfect
symmetry and geometry. According to Empedocles substance was
composed of four continuous elements; Earth, Air, Fire and Water.
Only with the Islamic Caliphates who studied the earlier Greek phi
losophers, did the atomistic theory hold out during the middle ages.
AlRazi of Persia is credited with an atomistic revival in the ninth
century but Aristotle‟s physics remained the dominant doctrine in
European philosophy until the seventeenth century.
In the 1660s Robert Boyle, a careful chemist and philosopher
proposed a corpuscular theory of matter to explain behaviour of
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
62
gases such as diffusion. According to Boyle there was only one fun
damental element, all corpuscles would be identical. Different
substances would be constructed by combining the corpuscles in
different ways. The theory was based as much on the alchemist‟s
belief in the existence of a philosopher‟s stone which could turn lead
into gold, as it is was on empirical evidence. Newton built on the
corpuscular theory. He saw the corpuscles as units of mass and in
troduced the laws of mechanics to explain their motion.
In 1808 the atomic theory was again resurrected by a school
teacher and amateur scientist by the name of John Dalton. He dis
covered a law of partial pressures of gases which revealed how gases
of equal volume contribute pressures in nearly integer ratios. He
concluded that these were ratios of atomic weights which were a
characteristic of indivisible atoms. This would also explain chemical
composition and the nature of the chemical elements. Amedeo
Avogadro developed the molecular theory and his law that all gases
at the same temperature, pressure and volume contain the same
number of molecules even though their weights are different. By the
mid nineteenth century the number of molecules in a volume of gas
could be measured. Maxwell and Boltzmann went on to explain the
laws of thermodynamics through the statistical physics of molecular
motion. The atomic theory was having unprecedented success in ex
plaining a wide variety of physical phenomena.
Despite this indirect evidence, positivists led by Ernst Mach re
mained sceptical about the kinetic theory. They argued that since
atoms could not be directly observed they are no more than meta
physical constructs with no basis in reality. The pressure of such
disputes was too much for Boltzmann who took his own life in 1906.
Ironically, Einstein had provided what would transpire to be the
clinching evidence for atoms just the previous year. In the early
eighteenth century, a biologist Robert Brown had observed random
motion of particles suspended in gases. Einstein explained that this
Brownian motion could be seen as direct experimental evidence of
molecules which were jostling the particles with their own move
ments. In 1956 the field ion microscope made it possible to form
images of individual atoms for the first time.
In a Grain of Sand
63
How far has modern physics gone towards the ideal of Democri
tus that everything should be composed of discrete units?
The story of light parallels that of matter. The Greeks saw an at
omistic theory of light as the explanation of light rays. In the Arabic
world of the middle ages Alhazen used a ballistic theory of light to
explain reflection. Newton extended Boyle‟s corpuscular theory to
light even though such a supposition had no empirical foundation at
that time. Everything he had observed and much more was later ex
plained by Maxwell‟s theory of Electromagnetism in terms of waves
in continuous fields. It was Planck‟s Law and the photoelectric ef
fect which later upset the continuous theory. These phenomena
could only be explained in terms of light quanta. Today we can de
tect the impact of individual photons on CCD cameras even after
they have travelled across most of the observable universe from the
earliest moments of galaxy formation.
Those who resisted the particle concepts had, nevertheless, some
good sense. Light and matter, it turns out, are both particle and wave
at the same time. This paradox is explained mathematically as a con
sequence of quantum field theory but the interpretation remains
unintuitive and mysterious.
As it turned out, the atomic theory of Dalton was a long way
short of the end of the road for divisibility. The atom was split and
broken down into its constituent particles, and they were in turn fur
ther divided. The way we now describe the composition of matter is
no longer so simple. When a neutron is observed to decay spontane
ously into a proton, neutron, electron and neutrino we do not
suppose that those four particles were parts of the neutron which
broke apart. Particles can transform and interact in a way which is
not simply division and recombination of immutable parts. Physi
cists continue their journey into the heart of matter, and the final
picture has not yet been seen.
Unification
Since Newton set the foundations of mechanics, the major leaps
forward have come mostly in the form of unification of two or more
previously unrelated concepts. Newton took the first leap himself
when he achieved the unification of celestial and terrestrial mechan
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
64
ics demanded by Galileo. The Newtonian theory of gravity and dy
namics could explain both the fall of an apple to Earth and the
motion of moons around Jupiter which Galileo had seen in 1609.
Two hundred years after Newton, James Clerk Maxwell unified
electricity, magnetism and light into one theory of electromagnetism.
This unification was the result of a series of experiments starting in
1820 when Hans Christian Oersted observed that an electric current
deflected a compass and Andre Ampere measured the corresponding
reaction force on a current in a magnetic field. Above all it was Mi
chael Faraday who appreciated the significance of these results and
devised the experiments which would unveil the unity of nature. He
showed that a moving magnet could induce a current in a wire and
also noticed that a magnetic field could change the polarisation of
light passing through a medium. Faraday is regarded as possibly the
greatest experimental physicist who ever lived and he proposed the
idea of force lines but he never used equations to describe his theo
ries. It was only when Maxwell applied mathematics to the problem
that the full power of electromagnetic unification was realised.
The atomic theory was the other important unification step of the
nineteenth century. Prior to 1808 chemistry was little more than a
catalogue of chemicals and their reactions, although the distinction
between elements and compounds had been recognised by Antoine
Lavoisier in 1786. The molecular theory was also already part of the
kinetic theory of gases when John Dalton proposed that molecules
were composed of immutable atoms. By 1869 Dmitri Mendeleyev
had laid out the periodic table of the elements in order of atomic
weights.
By the end of the nineteenth century most everyday observations
could be accounted for in terms of wellknown physics, and some
scientists thought that little remained to be understood. They failed
to see the lack of unity which remained in their theories. Mass, en
ergy, space, time, charge, the ether and atoms were the basic
constituents whose behaviour followed the laws of mechanics, elec
tromagnetics, gravity, chemistry, electricity and thermodynamics.
Other sciences such as biology and astronomy could have been re
garded as reducible to these terms but the case for vitality in biology
still held sway and astronomy was still a realm apart.
In a Grain of Sand
65
Even then there were other new phenomena, and unexplained
enigmas were appearing: By 1900 the electron, Xrays and nuclear
radiation had been discovered. Experiments had failed to detect the
ether and electromagnetism and thermodynamics could not explain
black body radiation. The spectral lines in light already seen by
Fraunhofer in 1814, the anomalous perihelion shift of Mercury dis
covered by Le Verrier in 1859 and the photoelectric effect of Hertz
in 1887, were all indications of future revolutions. That is easy for
us to see now, but at the turn of the century these things might just
have easily been accounted for by making small adjustments to
known physics. Many physicists were unprepared for what was to
come, but not all. At the dawn of the new century Henri Poincaré
wrote that there was a whole new world of which none had expected
the existence but that further progress would show how these com
plete the general unity.
Our greatest lesson of the twentieth century is what Poincaré
foresaw, that the universe is governed by a profound unity of physi
cal law. The revelation began with the special relativity of Poincaré
and Einstein which Minkowski recognised as a unification of space
and time into a single spacetime geometry. Mass and energy were
then also seen as equivalent, or at least interchangeable. In the same
decade the PlanckEinstein theory of light quanta brought together
electromagnetics and thermodynamics. Then Einstein unified space
time and gravity into one theory of general relativity and the atomic
theory was reduced to quantum mechanics by Bohr, Heisenberg,
Schrödinger and others. The quantum theory also produced an unex
pected unification of particles and waves. Later, when Dirac brought
together special relativity and quantum mechanics he predicted anti
matter particles which were found shortly after. At the same time as
all this unification, new things like the nuclear forces, new particles,
superfluidity, and quantum spin were being found but they were all
part of the new physics. The total number of fundamental concepts
needed to account for nature had diminished drastically.
By the end of the first half of the century the theory of quantum
electrodynamics was complete. The world was then recovering from
the second world war. Physicists had served their part, for better or
for worse, by developing radar and the atomic bomb. No doubt it
was by way of repayment, or the hope of further military spinoffs,
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
66
that they were granted funds to build the large accelerators which
were to dominate the discoveries in physics of the following dec
ades. Suddenly there was a new wealth of particles and properties to
explain. In 1960 physics was a messy catalogue of particle proper
ties, but the lesson had already been learnt and the search for unity
prevailed again. YangMills gauge theories were the key to under
standing the forces. By the midseventies the quark theory, quantum
chromodynamics and the electroweak force were part of a standard
model of particle physics.
At the end of the twentieth century physics is able to explain
much more than everyday observations. It can explain just about
every fundamental observation that we have been capable of making
up to now, from the laboratory to the cosmos. The last quarter of the
century has been a tough time for experimenters. They were impo
tent in their search for new phenomena and could do no more than
verify the standard model in ever greater detail. That is not to say
that experiments made no contribution to knowledge since the mid
seventies. While the standard model has been verified, many new
theories which were advanced have been ruled out through negative
results, allowing the theorists to concentrate their efforts on those
which remain.
But the main impetus which has been pushing forward the front
of physics over the last twenty years has come from a belief in com
plete unity. According to conventional wisdom among physicists, the
process of unification will continue until all physics is unified into
one neat and tidy theory. There is no a priori reason to be so sure
that this must happen. It is quite possible that physicists will always
be discovering new forces, or finding new layers of structure in par
ticles, without ever arriving at a final theory. It is quite simply the
unified nature of the laws of physics as we currently know them, the
lesson of the twentieth century, that inspires the belief that we are
getting closer to that end.
After physicists discovered the atom, they went on to discover
that it was composed of electrons and a nucleus, then that the nu
cleus was composed of protons and neutrons, then that the protons
and neutrons were composed of quarks. Should we expect to dis
cover that quarks and electrons are made of smaller particles? This is
In a Grain of Sand
67
possible but there are reasons to suppose not. Firstly there are far
fewer particles in the standard model than there ever were at higher
levels. Secondly, their interactions are described by a clean set of
gauge bosons through renormalisable field theories. Composite in
teractions, such as pion exchange, do not take such a tidy form.
These reasons in themselves are not quite enough to rule out the pos
sibility that quarks, electrons and gauge bosons are composite but
they reduce the number of ways such a theory could be constructed.
In fact all viable theories of this type which have been proposed are
now all but ruled out by experiment. There may be a further layer of
structure but it is likely to be different. It is more common now for
theorists to look for ways that different elementary particles can be
seen as different states of the same type of object. The most popular
candidate for the ultimate theory of this type is superstring theory, in
which all particles are just different vibration modes of very small
loops of string.
Physicists construct particle accelerators which are like giant mi
croscopes. The higher the energy they can produce, the smaller the
wavelength of the colliding particles and the smaller the distance
scale they probe. In this way, physicists can see the quarks inside
protons, not through direct pictures but through scattering data. They
have already examined quarks at a scale of 10
19
metres and they still
look pointlike. Such resolution is impressive given that atoms have a
typical size of 10
10
metres and nucleons have structure on the scale
of 10
15
metres. Suppose you have a cannon ball about 10 centime
tres in diameter in your hand. Imagine you scale it up until it is as
big as the Earth (a factor of 10
8
). The bumps and scratches on the
surface would have become mountain ranges and great ravines. As
you walked over the surface you could look down at the ground and
would see that it is made of atoms scaled up to the size of marbles 1
or 2 centimetres across. Each atom would be a hazy cloud of elec
trons around the tiny nucleus which appears as just a point in the
centre
Now scale one of those atoms again by the same factor. It would
now be about the size of Pluto. The nucleus will have expanded to a
huge jumble of nucleons, each the size of a house but appearing as a
fuzz of quarks. If you could now stop one of the electrons or quarks
in the atom and look at it closely with the naked eye, you would be
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
68
seeing it on the scale which today‟s biggest accelerators have
probed, so we know that it would still look like a point. Despite this
impressive achievement we have only gone half way towards the
smallest scale. If the superstring theory is right and electrons and
quarks have no structure until you see them on the string scale, it
will be necessary to scale them up twice again by the same factor
before they become visible as little loops of string. The atom, now
scaled up by a factor of 10
32
, would then be about a million light
years across. The scale of inner space is as impressive as the scale of
outer space.
In the first decade of the 21
st
century new accelerator experi
ments at CERN will probe beyond the electroweak scale. There is
some optimism that new physics will be found but nothing is certain.
After that, experimental particle physics may become more difficult.
There is a limit to how much funding for larger accelerators can be
found, even with many nations clubbing together. Perhaps other ob
servational clues will come from cosmic rays and big bang
cosmology. Perhaps experimenters will get lucky and find a better
way to accelerate particles. If they could have a wish granted it
might be the discovery of a stable charged elementary particle with a
1000 times the mass of the proton. It could then be produced in
quantity and accelerated to much higher energy. Alternatively they
might ask for a new form of stable matter which can be built into
superdense substances. Even with such luck there is a long way to go
before reaching the scale of grand unification, but ingenuity and the
unexpected should never by underestimated in experimental physics.
In any case, that empirical route is just the low road, and there is
an alternative high road which the theorists can take while the lower
remains blocked. Progress may come from the mathematical search
for greater unity. The electromagnetic and nuclear forces are now
only partially unified. They still have separate coupling strengths in
the standard model. There are also three generations of quarklepton
matter quadruplets and that need to be explained. Perhaps there
should be unification of the gauge bosons of the force fields and the
fermionic matter fields. Above all gravity must be brought together
with the other forces. That will require a unification of general rela
tivity and quantum mechanics. By searching through the
In a Grain of Sand
69
mathematical possibilities for new forms of unity, physicists may be
able to bypass the huge gap in energy between current day experi
ments and the higher unification scales. Ironically, as a result of such
endeavours, we may already know more about physics at distance
scales of 10
36
metres than we do at scales of 10
24
metres.
Quantum Gravity
The search for a theory of quantum gravity is reputed to be one
of the most difficult puzzles of science. In practical terms it is
probably of no direct relevance in our lives and may even be impos
sible to verify by experiment. But to physicists it is their holy grail.
It may enable them to complete the unification of all fundamental
laws of physics.
The problem which they face is to put together general relativity
and quantum mechanics into one self consistent theory. The diffi
culty is that the two parts seem to be incompatible, both in concept
and in practice. A direct approach, attempting to combine general
relativity and quantum mechanics, while ignoring conceptual differ
ences, leads to a meaningless quantum field theory with
unmanageable divergences. Conceptually, it is the nature of space
and time, seen differently from each side, which present the funda
mental differences.
There have, in fact, been many attempts to create a theory of
quantum gravity. From some of these it appears that the combination
of general relativity and the quantum theory will also be a unifica
tion of much more. It will probably require all four forces and the
matter fields to be brought together. It may also require a deeper uni
fication of spacetime and matter. If this is true, a complete theory of
quantum gravity will then be the realisation of Descartes‟s visionary
dream. It will be the final step on the long road of unification which
he foresaw.
Einstein’s Geometrodynamics
General relativity is Einstein‟s monumental theory of gravity and
it is rightly seen as the most elegant physical theory we know. It was
partially anticipated by the mathematician Bernhard Riemann who
developed a large part of the mathematics of curved surfaces. In
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
70
1854 he gave a lecture “on the hypothesis which underlie geometry”
and speculated that physical objects may be a consequence of non
Euclidean structures in space on both large and small length scales.
Einstein‟s special relativity was the culmination in 1905 of the
work of many physicists such as Lorentz and Poincaré. Mechanics
and electrodynamics were placed in a new kinematic framework in
which space and time were no longer absolute. When Minkowski
described a geometric formulation of special relativity in which
space and time were combined into a single spacetime continuum,
at first Einstein did not like it. Soon he changed his mind as he rec
ognised that this geometric way to understand relativity was more
easy to generalise than his original mechanical approach. He wanted
to extend relativity to include gravity. His genius is demonstrated by
the way in which he was able to perceive the correct principles
which were needed and follow their consequences to the right con
clusion.
General relativity is based on two fundamental principles:
The principle of relativity which states that all basic laws of
physics should take a form which is independent of any reference
frame, and
The principle of equivalence which states that it is impossible to
distinguish (locally) the effects of gravity from the effects of being
in an accelerated frame of reference.
Einstein struggled with the consequences of these principles for
several years, constructing many thought experiments to try to un
derstand what they meant. He had already recognised the value of
the equivalence principle in 1907. Finally he learnt about Riemann‟s
mathematics of curved geometry and in 1912 realised that a new
theory could be constructed in which the force of gravity was a con
sequence of the curvature of spacetime.
In constructing that theory, Einstein was not significantly influ
enced by any experimental result which was at odds with the
Newtonian theory of gravity. He knew of the anomalous precession
of the perihelion of Mercury and hoped that a new theory might ex
plain it but there is no route to develop general relativity directly
from such an observation. He also knew, however, that Newtonian
gravity was inconsistent with his theory of special relativity and he
In a Grain of Sand
71
knew there must be a more complete self consistent theory. A similar
inconsistency now exists between quantum mechanics and general
relativity and, even though no experimental result is known to vio
late either theory, physicists now seek a more complete theory in the
same spirit.
By 1915 Einstein‟s work was complete. The force of gravity was
now a consequence of geometrodynamics; the dynamic geometry of
spacetime. The equations for the gravitational field are complicated
but are an almost unique consequence of the relativity principles
which require that they must be independent of any coordinate sys
tem. Einstein calculated the motion of Mercury in his theory and
found that the relativistic corrections to the Newtonian prediction
correctly accounted for its anomalous motion. He then predicted that
starlight passing the sun would be deflected by twice the Newtonian
amount. Arthur Eddington measured this deflection on a South
American expedition to observe a solar eclipse in 1919. When he
announced to the world that the result agreed with the prediction of
general relativity, Einstein became a household name synonymous
with “genius”.
In the decades that have followed Einstein‟s discovery, a number
of other experimental confirmations of general relativity have been
found, and geometrodynamics has become the cornerstone of cos
mology. There still remains a possibility that it may not be accurate
on very large scales, or under very strong gravitational forces. There
are, however, no alternative theories with the force of elegance
found in general relativity. The fortuitous discovery by Hulse and
Taylor of a binary pulsar in 1974, made it possible to test and verify
general relativistic effects to very high precision. Still, the theory is
sure to break down finally under the conditions which are believed
to have existed at the big bang where quantum gravity effects were
important.
One of the most spectacular predictions of general relativity is
that a dying star of sufficient mass will collapse under its gravita
tional weight into an object so compressed that not even light can
escape its pull. Such collapsed objects were designated “black
holes” by John Wheeler in 1967 and the picturesque term has stuck.
Astronomers now have a growing list of celestial objects which they
believe are black holes because of their apparent high density and
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72
because of evidence of matter apparently falling silently through the
eventhorizon. The accuracy of Einstein‟s theory may be stringently
tested again in the near future when gravitational wave observatories
such as LIGO come online to observe such catastrophic events as
the collisions between black holes.
The Planck Scale
The Quantum theory was founded before Einstein began his the
ory of relativity but it took much longer to be completed and
understood. Max Planck‟s observations of quanta in the spectrum of
black body radiation first produced signs that the classical theories
of mechanics were due for major revisions.
Unlike general relativity which was essentially the work of one
man, the quantum theory required major contributions from Bohr,
Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Dirac and many others, before a
complete theory of quantum electrodynamics was formulated. In
practical terms, the consequences of the theory are more far reaching
than those of general relativity. Applications such as transistors and
lasers are now an integral part of our lives and, in addition, the quan
tum theory allowed us to understand chemical reactions and many
other phenomena.
Despite such spectacular success, confirmed in ever more detail
in high energy accelerator experiments, the quantum theory is still
criticised by some physicists who feel that its indeterministic nature
and its dependency on the role of observer suggest an incomplete
ness. For others the major task is to combine general relativity and
quantum mechanics. Opinions differ as to how much revision of
quantum mechanics is required to achieve it. Perhaps quantum me
chanics is more fundamental than general relativity or perhaps it is
the other way round. The answers lie in the realms of ultrahigh en
ergy physics, well beyond what can be attained experimentally with
known techniques. This leaves us with theory as the only means of
moving ahead for the time being at least.
At first thought it might seem ridiculous to suppose that we can
invent valid theories about physics at high energies before doing ex
periments. However, theorists have already demonstrated a
remarkable facility for doing just that. The standard model of parti
In a Grain of Sand
73
cle physics was devised in the 1960s by theoretical physicists. It de
scribed the physics of energies several orders of magnitude beyond
what had been observed before. Experimentalists have spent the last
three decades verifying it. The reason for this success is that physi
cists recognised the importance of certain types of symmetry and
selfconsistency conditions in quantum field theory which led to an
almost unique model for physics up to the electroweak unification
energy scale, with only a few parameters such as particle masses to
be determined.
The situation now is a little different. Experimentalists are about
to enter a new scale of energies and theorists do not have a single
unique theory about what can be expected there. They do have some
ideas, in particular it is hoped that supersymmetry may be observed,
but we will have to wait and see.
Despite these unknowns there are other more general arguments
which tell us things about what to expect at higher energies. When
Planck initiated the quantum theory he recognised the significance
of fundamental constants in physics, especially the speed of light
(known as c), Boltzmann‟s constant (known as k) and Planck con
stant (known as h). Scientists and engineers have invented a number
of systems of units for measuring lengths, masses, temperature and
time, but they are entirely arbitrary and must be agreed by interna
tional convention. Planck realised that there should be a natural set
of units in which the laws of physics take a simpler form. The most
fundamental constants, such as c, k and h would simply be equal to
one unit in that system.
If one other suitable fundamental constant could be selected,
then the units for measuring mass, length and time would be deter
mined. Planck decided that Newton‟s gravitational constant (known
as G) would be a good choice. Actually there were not many other
constants, such as particle masses known at that time, otherwise his
choice might have been more difficult. By combining c, h, k and G,
Planck defined a system of units now known as the Planck scale. In
1899 he wrote that it is possible to give units for length, mass, time
and temperature which retain their meaning for all time and all cul
tures, even extraterrestrial ones.
He calculated that the Planck unit of length is very small, about
10
35
metres. To build an accelerator which could see down to such
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lengths would require energies about 10
16
times larger than those
currently available. The Planck scale is not very good for practical
engineering, partly because the units are mostly either too small or
too big compared with everyday quantities. More importantly, it is
not possible to make accurate enough measurements using Planck
units because it would be necessary to measure the mass of an object
by measuring its gravitational pull on other objects. However,
Planck units are very convenient for physicists studying quantum
gravity because the values of the constants c, h, k and G are equal to
one and can be left out of the equations.
Physicists have since sought to understand what the Planck scale
of units signifies. One possibility is that at the Planck scale all the
four forces of nature, including gravity, are unified. Physicists who
specialise in general relativity have a different idea. In 1955 John
Wheeler argued that when you combine general relativity and quan
tum mechanics you will have a theory in which the geometry of
spacetime is subject to quantum fluctuations. He computed that
these fluctuations would become significant if you could look at
spacetime on length scales as small as the Planck length. Sometimes
physicists talk about a spacetime foam at this scale but we do not
yet know what it really means. For that we will need the theory of
quantum gravity.
Without really knowing too much for certain, physicists guess
that at the Planck scale all forces of nature are unified and quantum
gravity is significant. It is at the Planck scale that they expect to find
the final and completely unified theory of the fundamental laws of
physics.
It seems clear that to understand quantum gravity we must un
derstand the structure of spacetime at the Planck length scale. In the
theory of general relativity spacetime is described as a smooth con
tinuous manifold but we cannot be sure that this is correct for very
small lengths and times. We could compare general relativity with
the equations of fluid dynamics for water. They describe a continu
ous fluid with smooth flows in a way which agrees very well with
experiment. Yet we know that at atomic scales, water is something
very different and must be understood in terms of forces between
molecules whose nature is completely hidden in the ordinary world.
In a Grain of Sand
75
If spacetime also has a complicated structure at the tiny Planck
length, way beyond the reach of any conceivable accelerator, can we
possibly hope to discover what it is?
If you asked a group of mathematicians to look for theories
which could explain the fluid dynamics of water, without them
knowing anything about atoms and chemistry, then they would
probably succeed in devising a whole host of mathematical models
which work. All those models would probably be very different, lim
ited only by the imagination of the mathematicians. None of them
would correspond to the correct description of water molecules and
their interactions. The same might be true of quantum gravity in
which case there would be little hope of finding out how it worked
without further empirical information. Nevertheless, the task of put
ting together general relativity and quantum mechanics together into
one self consistent theory has not produced a whole host of different
and incompatible theories. The clever ideas which have been devel
oped have things in common. It is quite possible that all the ideas are
partially correct and are aspects of one underlying theory which is
within our grasp. It is time now to look at some of those ideas.
The Best Attempts
The physics of the electromagnetic and nuclear forces is success
fully described by quantum field theories which are constructed by
applying a quantisation process to the classical field equations. This
is not a straight forward matter. Troublesome infinite quantities ap
pear in the calculation of physical quantities. A messy
renormalisation must be applied to make the answers finite. Al
though it cannot be said for sure that this defines a mathematically
rigorous theory, it does at least provide an apparently consistent
means of calculation and prediction. It is rather fortuitous that this
works. Only a small class of field theories can be renormalised in
this way and the ones which describe the known particles are the
right sort.
In this scheme, particles are a consequence of the field quantisa
tion and are seen as less fundamental than the field waves out of
which they appear. The particles carry spin in integer or halfinteger
multiples of Planck‟s constant. They may be spin zero, spin a half or
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spin one according to the type of field which is quantised. All the
known fundamental fermions such as quarks and electrons are spin
half. The gauge bosons which mediate the electromagnetic and nu
clear forces are spin one. There are also thought to be Higgs
particles which have spin zero but they have not yet been found in
experiments. The interactions between these particles can be most
easily worked out using a perturbation theory. The clearest form of
this is a diagrammatic system which was worked out by Richard
Feynman.
In principle it should be possible to apply the same quantisation
methods to the gravitational field. It is necessary to first construct a
system of noninteracting graviton particles which represent a zero
order approximation to quantised gravitational waves in flat space
time. These hypothetical gravitons must be massless particles carry
ing spin two, because of the form of the gravitational field in general
relativity. The next step is to describe the interactions of these gravi
tons using the perturbation theory. Feynman himself spent a
significant amount of time trying to get it to work, but for gravity
this simply cannot be done in the way that works for the YangMills
gauge fields. The calculations are plagued by infinite quantities
which cannot be renormalised. The resulting quantum field theory is
incapable of giving any useful result.
Because quantum gravity is an attempt to combine two different
fields of physics, there are two distinct groups of physicists in
volved. These two groups form a different interpretation of the
failure of the direct attack. The relativists say that it is because grav
ity cannot be treated perturbatively. To try to do so destroys the
basic principles on which relativity was founded. It is, for them, no
surprise that this should not work. Perturbation theory requires that
you define a fixed approximate background and treat the full physics
as if it was a perturbative deviation from there. The fixed back
ground breaks the relativistic symmetry of general covariance. On
the other hand, particle physicists say that if a field theory is non
renormalisable then it is because it is incomplete. The theory must
be modified and new fields might have to be added to cancel diver
gences, or it may be that the observed fields are approximate
composite structure of more fundamental constituent fields.
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Supergravity
The first significant progress in the problem of quantum gravity
was made by particle physicists. They discovered that a new kind of
symmetry called supersymmetry was very important. particles can be
classed into two types; fermions such as quarks and electrons, and
bosons such as photons and Higgs particles. Supersymmetry allows
the two types to intermix. With supersymmetry we have some hope
to unify the matter fields with radiation fields.
Particle physicists discovered that if the symmetry of spacetime
is extended to include supersymmetry, then it is necessary to sup
plement the metric field of gravity with other matter fields.
Miraculously these fields led to cancellations of many of the diver
gences in perturbative quantum gravity. This has to be more than
coincidence. At first it was thought that such theories of supergravity
might be completely renormalisable. After many long calculations
this hope faded.
A strange thing about supergravity was that it works best in ten
or elevendimensional spacetime. This inspired the revival of an old
theory from the 1920s called KaluzaKlein theory, which suggests
that spacetime has more dimensions than the four obvious ones. The
extra dimensions are not apparent because they are curled up into a
small sphere with a circumference as small as the Planck length.
This theory provides a means to unify the gauge symmetry of gen
eral relativity with the internal gauge symmetries of particle physics.
The next big step taken by particle physicists came along shortly
after. Two physicists Michael Green and John Schwarz were looking
at a theory which had originally been studied as a theory of the
strong nuclear force but which was actually more interesting as a
theory of gravity because it included spintwo particles. This was the
new beginning of string theory. Combining string theory and super
gravity to form superstring theory quickly led to some remarkable
discoveries. A few string theories in ten dimensions were perfectly
renormalisable and finite. This was exactly what they were looking
for.
It seemed once again that the solution was near at hand, but na
ture does not give up its secrets so easily. The problem now was that
there is a huge number of ways to apply KaluzaKlein theory to the
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superstring theories. Hence there seem to be a huge number of pos
sible unified theories of physics. The perturbative formulation of
string theory makes it impossible to determine the correct way.
Canonical Quantum Gravity
While particle physicists were making much noise about super
string theory, relativists have been quietly trying to do things
differently. Many of them take the view that to do quantum gravity
properly you must respect its diffeomorphism symmetry or general
covariance. Starting from the old quantisation methods of Dirac it is
possible to formally derive the WheelerDeWitt equation together
with a Hamiltonian constraint equation, which describe the way in
which the quantum state vector should evolve according to this ca
nonical approach.
For a long time there seemed little hope of finding any solutions
to the WheelerDeWitt equation. Then in 1986 Abhay Ashtekar
found a way to reformulate Einstein‟s equations of gravity in terms
of new variables. Soon afterwards a way was discovered to find so
lutions to the equations. This is now known as the loop
representation of quantum gravity. Mathematicians were surprised to
learn that knot theory was an important part of the concept.
The results from the canonical approach seem very different
from those of string theory. There is no need for higher dimensions
or extra fields to cancel divergences. Relativists point to the fact that
a number of field theories which appear to be unrenormalisable have
now been quantised exactly. There is no need to insist on a renor
malisable theory of quantum gravity. On the other hand, the
canonical approach still has some technical problems to resolve. It
could yet turn out that the theory can only be made fully consistent
by including supersymmetry.
As well as their differences, the two approaches have some strik
ing similarities. In both cases they are trying to be understood in
terms of symmetries based on loop like structures. It seems quite
plausible that they are both aspects of one underlying theory. Other
mathematical topics are common features of both, such as knot the
ory and topology. Indeed there is now a successful formulation of
quantum gravity in threedimensional spacetime which can be re
In a Grain of Sand
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garded as either a loop representation or a string theory. A small
number of physicists such as Lee Smolin are looking for a more gen
eral common theory uniting the two approaches.
NonCommutative Geometry
A technique which introduces such a minimum length into phys
ics by quantising spacetime was attempted by Hartland Snyder in
1947. In analogy to the noncommuting operators of position and
momentum in quantum mechanics, Snyder introduced non
commutative operators for spacetime coordinates. These operators
have a discrete spectrum and so lead to a discrete interpretation of
spacetime. The model was Lorentz invariant but failed to preserve
translation invariance so no sensible physical theory came of it.
Similar methods have been tried by others since and although no
complete theory has come of these ideas there has been a recent up
surge of renewed interest in quantised spacetime, now reexamined
in the light of quantum groups and noncommutative geometry.
The traditional definition of a field in physics is a function from
the coordinates of spacetime events to field variables which may be
real, complex or whatever. Fields can be multiplied together event
by event. Differential operators which act on the fields are defined
using the continuous nature of the spacetime coordinates. The
equations of evolution for the fields are specified using these opera
tions which ensure their causal and local nature. In the new approach
fields are defined by their algebraic properties and spacetime co
ordinates are ignored. Fields are any kind of mathematical structure
which can be multiplied together and which can be operated on by
some operators which obey rules analogous to those of differentia
tion, such as Leibniz rule for products.
If enough algebraic rules are applied the new type of fields will
be equivalent to the old traditional definition for a spacetime with
some kind of topology. If the rules are allowed to differ then a more
general structure than spacetime is defined. The rule which is the
most likely candidate for change is that fields should multiply to
gether commutatively. This is analogous to the step taken in going
from classical to quantum physics where observables are replaced by
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noncommuting observables. Now the same idea is used to define
noncommutative geometry.
The technique can also be applied successfully to groups by gen
eralising the algebraic properties of a function from the group to the
real numbers. The result in this case is the discovery of quantum
groups which have all the important algebraic properties of functions
on a group except commutivity. Spacetime structure can be derived
from its group of symmetries in a way which can be generalised to
quantum groups. The result is various forms of quantum spacetime.
The hope of this program is that general relativity and quantum field
theories can also be generalised and that the results will not suffer
from the infinite divergences which are the primary obstacle to a
theory of quantum gravity.
Black Hole Thermodynamics
Although there is no direct empirical input into quantum gravity,
physicists hope to accomplish unification by working on the re
quirement that there must exist a mathematically self consistent
theory which accounts for both general relativity and quantum me
chanics as they are separately confirmed experimentally. It is
important to stress the point that no complete theory satisfying this
requirement has yet been found. If just one theory could be con
structed then it would have a good chance of being correct.
Because of the stringent constraints that self consistency en
forces, it is possible to construct thought experiments which provide
strong hints about the properties a theory of quantum gravity has to
have. There are two physical regimes in which quantum gravity is
likely to have significant effects. In the conditions which existed
during the first Planck unit of time in our universe, matter was so
dense and hot that unification of gravity and other forces would have
been reached. Likewise, a small black hole whose mass corresponds
to the Planck unit of mass also provides a thought laboratory for
quantum gravity.
Black holes have the classical property that the surface area of
their event horizons must always increase. This is suggestively simi
lar to the law that entropy must increase, and in 1972 it led Jacob
Bekenstein to conjecture that the area of the event horizon of a black
In a Grain of Sand
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hole is in fact proportional to its entropy. If this is the case then a
black hole would have to have a temperature and obey the laws of
thermodynamics. Stephen Hawking investigated the effects of quan
tum mechanics near a black hole using semiclassical
approximations to quantum gravity. Against his own expectations he
discovered that black holes must emit thermal radiation in a way
consistent with the black hole entropy law of Bekenstein.
This forces us to conclude that black holes can emit particles and
eventually evaporate. For astronomical sized black holes the tem
perature of the radiation is minuscule and certainly beyond
detection, but for small black holes the temperature increases until
they explode in one final blast. Hawking realised that this creates a
difficult paradox which would surely tell us a great deal about the
nature of quantum gravity if we could understand it.
The entropy of a system can be related to the amount of informa
tion required to describe it. When objects are thrown into a black
hole the information they contain is hidden from outside view be
cause no message can return from inside. Now if the black hole
evaporates, this information will be lost in contradiction to the laws
of thermodynamics. This is known as the black hole information loss
paradox.
A number of ways on which this paradox could be resolved have
been proposed. The main ones are:
 The lost information escapes to another universe
 The final stage of black hole evaporation halts leaving a
remnant particle which holds the information.
 There are strict limits on the amount of information held
within any region of space to ensure that the information
which enters a black hole cannot exceed the amount repre
sented by its entropy.
 Something else happens which is so strange we cannot bring
ourselves to think of it.
The first solution would imply a breakdown of quantum coher
ence. We would have to completely change the laws of quantum
mechanics to cope with this situation. The second case is not quite
so bad but it does seem to imply that small black holes must have an
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infinite number of quantum numbers which would mean their rate of
production during the big bang would have been divergent.
Assuming that something has not been missed out, which is a big
assumption, we must conclude that the amount of entropy which can
be held within a region of space is limited by the area of a surface
surrounding it. This is certainly counterintuitive because you would
imagine that you could write information on bits of paper and the
amount you could cram in would be limited by the volume only.
This is false because any attempt to do that would eventually cause a
black hole to form. Note that this rule does not force us to conclude
that the universe must be finite because there is a hidden assumption
that the region of space is static.
If the amount of information is limited then the number of physi
cal degrees of freedom in a field theory of quantum gravity must also
be limited. Inspired by this observation, Gerard 't Hooft, Leonard
Susskind and others have proposed that the laws of physics should
be described in terms of a discrete field theory defined on a space
time surface rather than throughout spacetime. They liken the way
this might work to that of a hologram which holds a three
dimensional image within its twodimensional surface.
Rather than being rejected as a crazy idea, this theory has been
recognised by many other physicists as being consistent with other
ideas in quantum gravity, especially string theory.
If Susskind is right, this solution to the information loss problem
may have even stranger consequences. What happens in the case of
an observer, Mr. X, who falls into a black hole. From his point of
view he will pass through the event horizon without incident and
continue to his gruesome fate at the blackhole singularity. Any
knowledge and information he carries will stay with him till the end.
To an outside observer, Miss Y, the situation must be different.
Gravitational time dilation ensures that she will watch Mr. X slow
down so much as he approaches the event horizon that he will never
cross it. Eventually he will fade from her view but the information
he carries must still be accessible. If Miss Y waits long enough the
black hole will evaporate and the information will be returned in the
radiation. At least it should be in principle even if it is too jumbled
to be read in practice.
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There is a conceptual difficulty which accompanies this situa
tion. The course of events as witnessed by Mr. X is very different
from that seen by Miss Y. If they are ever brought together in a court
of law and asked to account for what happened to the information
their stories will not be consistent. Mr X will claim he carried it to
his cosmic grave where time ended for him but Miss Y will say that
it never got past the event horizon and was brought back into the
outside universe as the hole evaporated. The judge and jury will be
forced to conclude that one of them was lying. This paradox is re
solved by the simple fact that the two witnesses never can be
brought back together. Presumably this must even be true if the
black hole harboured a wormhole through to another universe
through which Mr. X could escape his fate.
Susskind has called this the black hole complementarity princi
ple in deference to Niels Bohr‟s complementarity principle of
quantum mechanics. Just as there is no conflict between the dual
properties of matter as both particle and wave because no observa
tion brings them into contradiction, so too there is no conflict
between the contrary observations of Mr. X and Miss Y. The impli
cations of Susskind‟s principle may be even harder to contemplate
than Bohr‟s. In ordinary quantum mechanics observers who can
communicate freely should be able to agree what the probability of
future events is. However, if one plans to take a swan dive into a
black hole he may not agree on the most likely future events with his
partner who plans to rest outside. This removes physics further from
the conventional causal paradigms. The full implications may only
be understood when we have a complete consistent theory which
embraces the new complementarity.
Although there has been considerable progress on the problem of
quantising gravity, it seems likely that it will not be possible to com
plete the solution without some fundamental change in the way we
think about spacetime. To face the quantum gravity challenge we
need new insights and more new principles like those which guided
Einstein to the correct theory of gravity.
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Is There a Theory of Everything?
This is a good moment to take a pause and look at where we are.
If the physics lesson of the twentieth century is that progress comes
through unification, then how far can that unification go? It seems
likely that it will continue until all fundamental physical laws are
unified. There is more than unification of the four fundamental
forces. We have also seen how space and time, mass and energy,
thermodynamics and gravity and much more have become unified.
The final step may lead to a unification of matter and spacetime.
Will that be the end of physics?
At one point supergravity looked very promising as a theory
which might unify all physics. At the time I was a student at Cam
bridge University where Stephen Hawking was taking up his
position as the new Lucasian professor of mathematics. There was
great anticipation of his inaugural lecture to take place on 29th April
1980. Even though I made a point of turning up early I found only
standing room at the back of the auditorium. It was an exciting talk
at which Hawking made some of his most quotable comments. He
cautiously predicted that the end of theoretical physics was in sight.
The goal might be achieved in the nottoodistant future, perhaps by
the end of the century.
But early hopes faded as the perturbative calculations in super
gravity became difficult and it seemed less likely that it defined a
renormalisable field theory. There were other difficulties such as the
problem of fitting in the distinction between left and right which we
find in the weak force. Hawking pointed out himself that he was
joining a list of physicists who had thought they were near the end.
Faraday thought a unification of gravity and electromagnetism
would lead to a complete theory but he could not detect any effect
linking the two as he had with electricity and magnetism. After the
rapid progress in the foundations of quantum mechanics in the 1920s
Max Born told a meeting of scientists that physics would be over in
six months. Einstein, in his later years, also thought that a unified
theory was within reach. Those hopes were premature.
In 1985 The phrase “Theory of Everything” entered the minds of
theoretical physicists. It came up in articles written for science
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magazines such as New Scientist and Science and later appeared in
the title of a number of books. The discovery that set things going
was that the heterotic superstring theory is finite in all orders of per
turbation theory and has the potential to encompass all the known
theories of particle physics and gravity too. In other words it pro
vided potentially a unified theory of all the known underlying laws
of physics.
It was not long before scientists from other disciplines and
physicists too, started to question the validity of the claim that su
perstring theory was a theory of everything. For one thing it did not
really make any testable predictions, leading some to retort that it
was more like a theory of nothing. More to the point, they ques
tioned whether any theory of physics could rightly be called a theory
of everything. They were quite right.
The term Theory of Everything is a desperately misleading one.
Physicists usually try to avoid it but the media apparently cannot
help themselves. “Physicists on the verge of finding theory of every
thing.” It makes too good a headline. If physicists find a complete
unified set of equations for the laws of physics, then that would be a
fantastic discovery. The implications would be enormous, but to call
it a theory of everything would be nonsense.
For one thing, it would be necessary to solve the equations to
understand anything. No doubt many problems in particle physics
could be solved from first principles, perhaps it would be possible to
derive the complete spectrum of elementary particles including their
relative masses and the coupling constants of the forces which bind
them. However, there would certainly be limits to the solvability of
the equations. We already find that it is almost impossible to derive
the spectrum of hadrons composed of quarks, even though we be
lieve we have an accurate theory of strong interactions. In principle
any set of welldefined equations can be solved numerically given
enough computer power. The whole of nuclear physics and chemis
try ought to be possible to calculate from the laws we now have. In
practice computers are limited and experiments will never be obso
lete.
Furthermore, it is not even possible to derive everything in prin
ciple from the basic laws of physics. Many things in science are
determined by historical accident. The foundations of biology fall
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
86
into this category. The final theory of physics will not tell us how
life on Earth originated. The most ardent reductionist would retort
that, in principle, it would be possible to derive a list of all possible
forms of life from the basic laws of physics. Such justification is
weak. No theory of physics is likely to answer all the unsolved prob
lems of mathematics, chemistry, biology, astronomy or medicine.
Finally it must be said that even given a convincing unified the
ory of physics, it is likely that it would still have the indeterminacy
of quantum mechanics. This would mean that no argument could
finally lay to rest questions about paranormal, religion, destiny or
other such things, and beyond that there are many matters of phi
losophy and metaphysics which might not be resolved, not to
mention an infinite number of mathematical problems.
But string theorists never claimed that their work was applicable
to any of these things. Steven Weinberg tried to clarify what it was
all about in his 1988 book “Dreams of a Final Theory”. Physicists,
he argued, are seeking to take the last step of unification on a climb
which started as least as far back as Newton. Those steps could lead
us towards one “Final Theory” in which all the underlying laws of
physics are unified. Weinberg‟s term “Final Theory” is actually not
much better than “Theory of Everything”. It suggests, to some, that
the theory will mark the end of science and there will be no new
theories after. Again, this is not what is meant. Finding the final laws
of physics will be like arriving at the summit of the highest moun
tain. It is a special place from where you can see far, but getting
there does not mean you have been everywhere.
In my youth I found time to explore the mountains of Scotland
where I lived. Often as you climb one of those rounded peaks, you
see ahead what appears to be the top. As you get closer you realise
that it is a false summit with a further climb beyond. Sometimes
there are several of them before you reach the true summit and at last
take in the panoramic view, if the mist and rain have cleared.
Approaching the final theory of physics seems to be a very simi
lar experience. There have already been many false summits and
again we see another ahead. A mountaineer always knows that there
is a final summit and it can be reached if he has the courage to con
tinue. Can physicists know that their summit is there too? Hawking
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feels that it is. After Cambridge the next time I had the opportunity
to hear Hawking lecture was 17 years on at a conference for string
theorists. Hawking had never moved on from supergravity to string
theory as other physicists had, until then. His liking for strings ap
peared to have improved when it was discovered in 1995 that string
theories can be unified under a mysterious form of supergravity in
11 dimensions. Hawking must have felt that he had been vindicated
in his prediction that supergravity was near the end. With a charac
teristic touch of humour he told us, “twenty years ago, I said there
was a 50/50 chance that we would have a complete picture of the
universe in the next twenty years. That is still my estimate today but
the 20 years start now.”
There are a few who are not so certain. John Taylor in his book
“When the clock struck zero” argued that there could be an infinite
structure of levels of physical law to find. Noone thinks that there
will be a final theory of mathematics and if mathematics is so
strongly reflected in physics why should there be a limit to its appli
cation? For what my opinion is worth, I too think we really are near
the summit.
88
Is SpaceTime Discrete?
Seeking the ultimate indivisible
We have seen how atomic physics and quantum mechanics have
reduced matter and light to discrete components. Today history is
repeating itself for a third time and now it is spacetime which is
threatened to be reduced to discrete events. The idea that space or
time could be discrete has been a recurring one in the scientific lit
erature of the twentieth century and its origins go back much further.
A survey of just a few examples reveals that discrete spacetime can
actually mean many things and is motivated by a variety of philoso
phical or theoretical influences. As we shall see, it is only recently
that theories of quantum gravity have suggested the true scale at
which the structure of spacetime breaks up.
It has been apparent since early times that there is something dif
ferent about the mathematical properties of the real numbers and the
quantities of measurement in physics at small scales. Riemann him
self remarked on this disparity even as he constructed the formalism
which would be used to describe the spacetime continuum for the
next century of physics in 1876.
In mathematics numbers have unphysical properties like being
an exact ratio of two integers. When you measure a distance or time
interval you cannot declare the result to be a rational or irrational
number no matter how accurate you manage to be. Furthermore it
appears that there is a limit to the amount of detail contained in a
volume of space. If we look under a powerful microscope at a grain
of dust we do not expect to see minuscule universes supporting the
complexity of life seen at larger scales. Structure becomes simpler at
smaller distances. Surely there must be some minimum length at
which the simplest elements of natural structure are found and surely
this must mean spacetime is discrete rather than continuous?
This style of argument tends to be persuasive only to those who
already believe the hypothesis. It will not make many conversions.
After all, the modern formalism of axiomatic mathematics leaves no
room for Zeno‟s paradox. In the fifth century BC the philosopher
Is SpaceTime Discrete?
89
Parmedies and his disciple Zeno of Elea tried to discredit the senses
by posing paradoxes about the divisibility of spacetime. In a race
between the Archiles and the tortoise, the tortoise was given a head
start. To catch him up Archiles must first half the distance between
them, then half the remaining distance again. No matter how many
times he halves the distance he will not have caught the tortoise. If
space and time are infinitely divisible Archiles cannot pass the tor
toise according to Zeno. Such thoughts influenced the atomists of
ancient Greece, and a more complete philosophy of atomic space
and time was developed by the Kalam of Bahgdad from the 9th cen
tury.
But axiomatic mathematics has dispelled Zeno‟s paradox. It is
possible to talk about limits and infinity without reaching any
mathematical contradiction and it can be proven that the sum of an
infinite number of halving intervals is finite. Although some phi
losophers such as Bertrand Russell persisted with such arguments
and developed a detailed and general philosophy of atomism, there
are few physicists who would agree that logic and philosophy alone
can tell us whether or not space and time are discrete.
However, experimental facts are a different matter and the dis
covery of quantum theory with its discrete energy levels and the
Heisenberg uncertainty principle led physicists to speculate that
spacetime itself may be discrete as early as the 1930s. In 1936 Ein
stein expressed the general feeling that the success of the quantum
theory points to a purely algebraic method of description of nature
and the elimination of continuous function and spacetime contin
uum from physics. Heisenberg himself noted that the laws of physics
must have a fundamental length in addition to Planck‟s constant and
the speed of light, to set the scale of particle masses. At the time it
was thought that this length scale would be around 10
15
m corre
sponding to the masses of the heaviest elementary particles known at
the time. Searches for nonlocal effects in high energy particle colli
sions have now given negative results for scales down to about
10
19
m and today the consensus is that it must correspond to the
much smaller Planck length at 10
35
m.
The belief in some new spacetime structure at small length
scales was reinforced with the discovery of ultraviolet divergences
in Quantum Field Theory. From 1929 it was found that infinite an
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
90
swers appear when you sum up contributions to a physical quantity
from waves of ever smaller wavelength. In 1930 Viktor Ambarzun
mian and Mitrij Dmitrevich Iwanenko were the first of many
physicists to propose that space should be treated as discrete to re
solve the problems. Even after it was found possible to perform
accurate calculations by a process of renormalisation in 1948 many
physicists felt that the method was incomplete and would break
down at smaller length scales unless a natural cutoff was intro
duced.
Another aspect of the quantum theory which caused disquiet was
its inherent indeterminacy and the essential role of the observer in
measurements. The Copenhagen interpretation seemed inadequate
and alternative hidden variable theories were sought. It was felt that
quantum mechanics would be a statistical consequence of a more
profound discrete deterministic theory in the same sense that ther
modynamics is a consequence of the kinetic gas theory.
Lattice Theories
One way to provide a small distance cutoff in field theory is to
formulate it on a discrete lattice with spacetime events placed in a
regular array like the molecules of a crystal. The numerical method
for solving differential equations is to replace continuous space or
time by discrete intervals as an approximation. This has been used
since at least the eighteenth century and the possibility of applying
such techniques to a discrete geometry of space was investigated by
Oswald Veblen and William Bussey as early as 1906 but only later
was it studied in any depth.
Classical field theories are described in terms of quantities which
vary continuously over space and time according to certain wave
equations. For example, electromagnetism has an electric field and a
magnetic field each of which is described by three real numbers for
each event of spacetime. The equations which determine how they
evolve are Maxwell‟s equations. The equations have derivatives in
them which only make sense on continuous space and time, so if
spacetime is really a discrete lattice the equations will have to be
replaced by some alternative which avoids the derivatives and ap
proximates the original equations at large scales.
Is SpaceTime Discrete?
91
To make things simpler we will look at how this could be done
for a simpler wave equation. The massless KleinGordon equation in
two dimensions has just one field value at each event. The value will
be a complex number since the KleinGordon equation was first
proposed as a relativistic generalisation of the single particle
Schrödinger equation. Usually it is denoted by (x,t). The equation
is as follows:
c o
c
c o
c
o
2
2
2
2
2
0
t x
m ÷ + =
This has solutions which describe localised wave packets of en
ergy like particles of mass m moving at less than a speed of 1 unit
which is the speed of light.
In discrete spacetime the values of are only defined on the
sites of a lattice which are spaced regularly at a distance d apart in
the space dimensions and also in the time dimension.
The derivatives which appeared in the wave equation can no
longer be defined exactly but they can be approximated using finite
differences. E.g.
x
t
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92
c o
c
o o o
2
2 2
2 ( , ) ( , ) ( ) ( , ) x t
x
x d t x x d t
d
~
+ ÷ + ÷
If this and a similar approximation for the time derivative is sub
stituted into the KleinGordon equation we get an equation which is
well defined on the lattice.
o o o o
o
( , ) ( , ) ( , ) ( , )
( , )
x t d x t d x d t x d t
d
m x t
+ + ÷ ÷ + ÷ ÷
+ =
2
2
0
This equation must now hold true for each value of x and t on the
lattice. It describes a simple numerical relation between the field
values at a the site and the four nearest neighbour sites. Equations
like this can be used to numerically solve wave equations on a com
puter. The lattice solution is not exact but in the limit as d becomes
very small it gives a better and better approximation to continuum
solutions. It also has wave packet solutions which look like particles
of mass m moving through space, but close up they are revealed as
discrete fields at fixed sites.
If we believe in discrete spacetime we might guess that the
equation could be exact for some fixed value of d such as the Planck
length. If it is correct we should be able to do experiments which
detect the differences from continuum physics that the theory pre
dicts. At least we should in principle. In practice the difference
would be too small to find and it is impossible to rule out the lattice
theory directly.
Philosophically such a hypothesis seems a little strange. It would
mean that time is advancing in small discrete steps yet we experi
ence time as a continuous flow. There is no contradiction in this,
after all, when we watch television we see only a sequence of dis
crete pictures made up of discrete pixels on the screen, yet it appears
to flow continuously. A similar illusion could apply to real life but
on a much smaller scale. A sceptic might ask about what happens
between the discrete time steps or what lies in the space between the
Is SpaceTime Discrete?
93
sites of the lattice. The answer is simply that there is nothing be
tween. The sites are the only events of spacetime which exist and
the fields interact directly with their neighbours. Particles are formed
as wave packets which are spread over many sites of the lattice so
we never need to think of them as travelling between sites.
Lattice Quantum Field Theory
Part of the beauty of lattice theories is their simplicity. Contin
uum field theories are expressed in terms of differential equations
while lattice theories are written with simple arithmetic operations
such as subtraction. This economy of concepts is even more striking
when we move on from the classical theory to the quantum. Quan
tum field theory is notoriously difficult to learn because it requires
many mathematical concepts to describe. Even with these things un
derstood quantum field theory is not as complete and rigorously
defined as a mathematician would want. In contrast, lattice quantum
field theories are quite simple, and so long as we do not concern our
selves with the continuum limit, they are usually well defined.
Quantum field theory as expressed by Richard Feynman starts
from the Lagrangian formalism. In the case of the KleinGordon
equation a Lagrangian density is defined as follows:
L
x t
m = ÷ +
co
c
co
c
o
2 2
2
2
The modulus squared of the complex numbers is used so that the
Lagrangian is always real. The action is given by
S L d xdt ( ) ( ) o o =
í
3
By the principle of least action for the classical filed theory, this
must be minimised subject to boundary conditions which fix the
value of at any given start and end times. By an application of the
calculus of variations the KleinGordon field equations can be de
rived from this principle. According to Feynman the quantum theory
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
94
replaces the principle of least action with a path integral which de
fines a transition amplitude for going from each initial field
configuration to a final one.
P e D
i
h
S
=
í
2t
o
o
( )
The path integral must be taken over all possible evolutions of
the field between the start and end. Not only does this sound compli
cated, it is not even possible to define rigorously except when the
field equations are linear. Ordinary integration has been around
since Newton and Leibniz and was rigorously defined by Riemann in
the eighteenth century. Path integrals only appeared in the latter half
of the twentieth century and are still not well defined accept in re
stricted cases. Informally the path integral is a sum over all possible
ways the field can vary over space and time but defining exactly
what such an infiniteintegral means is less simple to do.
By comparison the lattice version of the same thing is much eas
ier to grasp. The lattice Lagrangian is just a discretised version of
the continuum Lagrangian.
L
x d t x t
d
x t d x t
d
m x t =
+ ÷
÷
+ ÷
+
o o o o
o
( , ) ( , ) ( , ) ( , )
( , )
2 2
2
2
The action is a sum over the lattice sites.
S d L x t
x t
=
¯
2
( , )
,
The classical lattice field equations already given above can be
derived from the action relatively easily by just requiring that the
action is minimised with respect to variation of each field variable
(x,t).
The lattice quantum field theory is then specified in a similar
way as for the continuum field except that now the integral is a
Is SpaceTime Discrete?
95
multivariable integral over each field variable. This may still sound
complicated but at least multivariable integrals are well defined
(when they converge) which is a big improvement over path inte
grals. If we believed that spacetime was a lattice we would never
have to worry about problems like renormalisation because the lat
tice spacing sets a cutoff scale which turns the divergences of field
theory into welldefined finite answers. Such convenience does not
make them right, of course, but it might count for something.
Lattice Gauge Theories
It is instructive to see how lattice theories work in more compli
cated cases. We know that the standard model of particle physics is
built around gauge theories so it would certainly be worth while to
look at gauge theories on the lattice. The obvious thing to do would
be to take the continuum Lagrangian for YangMills theory and re
place all the derivatives with finite differences as we did for the
KleinGordon equation. I have not described the YangMills equa
tions here so instead we shall see how lattice gauge theories can be
formulated directly from the symmetry principles of gauge theory
applied to the lattice KleinGordon Lagrangian.
The action for twodimensional KleinGordon theory can be
written differently by expanding the squares and collecting together
the square terms in the sum over lattice sites. Actually the square
terms from the difference terms cancel in the sum and we are left
with a sum over an alternative Lagrangian.
L
x t d x t
d
x d t x t
d
m x t =
+
÷
+
+
2 2
2
2 Re[ ( , ) ( , )] Re[ ( , ) ( , )]
( , )
* *
o o o o
o
Recall the gauge symmetry for the electromagnetic field is in
variance of the wave equation when the wave function is multiplied
by a complex phase.
o o
u
( , ) ( , )
( , )
x t e x t
i x t
÷
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96
The Lagrangian for the lattice Klein Gordon equation is already
invariant under this transformation when the phase ¯(x,t) is a global
constant, independent of x and t. The principles of gauge theory re
quire us to introduce a gauge field in such a way that the Lagrangian
is an invariant even when the phase is not a constant. As it stands the
Lagrangian is not invariant because the field values at (x,t) are di
rectly multiplied by field values at (x+d,t) and (x,t+d). Notice that
the mass term does not suffer this problem and is already invariant.
Remember the analogy between gauge fields and economics.
Multiplying field values together at different places is like trying to
exchange money between different countries with different curren
cies. An exchange rate must be used. In the gauge theory the
exchange rate is a phase factor U which is a unit complex number.
Since the Lagrangian has products extending between any site and
its nearest neighbours we must introduce such a factor on each link
between sites of the lattice in both space and time directions. We
will use U
i
(x,t) for the variables linking site (x,t) to (x+d,t) and
(x,t+d).
These phases are the field values of the gauge field. They repre
sent the electromagnetic force on the lattice. When a local gauge
transformation changes the matter field variables by a phase which
can vary from one site to another, the gauge field must also be ad
justed, just as exchange rates must be modified by a factor if the
values of currencies change.
(x,t) (x+d,t)
(x,t+d)
U
2
(x,t)
U
1
(x,t)
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97
The gauge transformation is as follows.
o o
u
u u
u u
( , ) ( , )
( , ) ( , )
( , ) ( , )
( , )
( , ) ( , )
( , ) ( , )
x t e x t
U x t e U x t e
U x t e U x t e
i x t
i x t i x d t
i x t i x t d
÷
÷
÷
÷ +
÷ +
1 1
2 2
With these fields the Lagrangian can be modified to be gauge in
variant. It suffices to introduce the appropriate gauge field in
between the product of matter field terms. For example
2Re[ ( , ) ( , )]
*
o o x t d x t
d
+
becomes
2
2
Re[ ( , ) ( , ) ( , )]
*
o o x t d U x t x t
d
+
This term and all others in the Lagrangian are then invariant un
der the local gauge transformation. However, the Lagrangian is still
incomplete because the gauge field itself must have some dynamics.
The Lagrangian should include a term made purely from gauge
fields and, of course, it must be gauge invariant and real. It turns out
that a suitable form for this term is a product of four gauge fields
round a square of links on the lattice (known as a plaquette).
L U x t U x d t U x t d U x t
Gauge
= + +  Re[ ( , ) ( , ) ( , ) ( , )]
* *
1 2 1 2
 is just a coupling constant parameter which controls the
strength of the electromagnetic force. When this term is added to the
matter field it gives a lattice version of electromagnetics in two di
mensions. In 1974 Ken Wilson discovered this elegant Lagrangian
and generalised it to a form which even gives a discrete lattice ap
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
98
proximation to YangMills theory with other gauge groups in any
number of dimensions. Using Wilson‟s formulation of lattice QCD
has been an important part of a method for performing numerical
calculations to study theoretically the structure of particles com
posed of quarks and held together by the strong nuclear force of
quantum chromodynamics.
Lattice gauge theory is an approximation to YangMills theory
which may become exact when the lattice spacing tends to zero if
the fields and coupling constants can be suitably renormalised. Here
we are more interested in the possibility that lattice theories could be
an exact description of physics at very small length scales. The sim
ple form of the theory and its elegant discrete version of gauge
invariance are points in its favour but what about spacetime symme
try? Lattice theories on a regular lattice have discrete translational
invariance because the equations can be displaced by any multiple of
the lattice spacing along any of the spatial axis. The same applies in
the time direction. The greater difficulty lies with rotational and
Lorentz invariance or more generally with coordinate transforma
tions. Only ninety degree rotations are a symmetry of the theory. If
spacetime was such a lattice there would be a preferred set of space
axis and a preferred reference frame but such things contradict rela
tivity and have never been observed.
If the continuum limit is not to be restored by taking the limit
where the lattice spacing goes to zero then the issue of the loss of
rotational invariance must be addressed. A spacetime constructed as
a discrete lattice is analogous to a crystal whose atoms are arranged
on a regular array. At first sight the internal structure of a crystal
solid appears isotropic but there its mechanical properties can be
carefully measured to determine the directions in which the atoms
are aligned. If spacetime was a regular lattice its loss of rotational
invariance would also be present even though it might not be detect
able with present technology. Lorentz invariance would also be lost
so relativity would be violated in a way which is hard for theorists to
accept.
The fact is that lattice theories of spacetime cannot easily be
ruled out but they are just too plain ugly to be right! The laws of
physics seem to be based on elegant principles such as symmetry
Is SpaceTime Discrete?
99
which help determine the correct form the laws of physics must take.
If we abandon those principles we have little hope of making pro
gress. Lattice theories are arbitrary in their form. There is an infinity
of ways to approximate any field theory on a lattice. How would we
know which is right if experiment can never probe at sufficiently
small length scales? This arbitrariness is the price you pay whenever
you abandon a principle of symmetry.
Nevertheless, the fact that we can accommodate gauge invari
ance on the lattice may be telling us something. If we could
represent diffeomorphism invariance in such a clean discrete form
too, there would be some hope. The discrete version of diffeomor
phism invariance is permutation invariance. Diffeomorphisms are
onetoone mappings of the set of spacetime events to itself which
preserve its continuum properties. Permutations are onetoone map
pings of a discrete set of events to itself. We call this event
symmetry. The eventsymmetric analogue of a lattice gauge theory is
a gauge glass with events each linked to each other using gauge
fields. The lattice structure is discarded. This gives a complete
model of symmetries but how could such a structureless model be
anything to do with physics?
Fading Motivations
Over the years many of the problems which surrounded the de
velopment of the quantum theory have diminished. Renormalisation
itself has become acceptable and is proven to be a consistent proce
dure in perturbation theory of YangMills gauge field physics. The
perturbation series itself may not be convergent but YangMills
theories can be regularised nonperturbatively on a discrete lattice
using the prescription introduced by Ken Wilson. There is good rea
son to believe that consistent quantum field theory can be defined on
continuous spacetime at least for nonabelian gauge theories which
are asymptotically free. In lattice QCD the lattice spacing can be
taken to zero while the coupling constant is systematically rescaled.
In the continuum limit there are an infinite number of degrees of
freedom in any volume no matter how small. This would be a coun
terexample to any claim that physical theories must be discrete.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
100
Quantum indeterminacy, which was another motivation for look
ing to discrete spacetime, has also become an acceptable aspect of
continuum physics. In 1964 John Bell showed that most ideas for
local hidden variable theories would violate an important inequality
of quantum mechanics. This inequality was directly verified in a
careful experiment by Alain Aspect in 1982. There are still those
who try to get round this with new forms of quantum mechanics
such as that of David Bohm, but now they are a minority pushed to
the fringe of established physics. Hugh Everett‟s thesis which leads
us to interpret quantum mechanics as the dynamics of a multiverse
has been seen as a resolution of the measurement problem for much
of the physics community. Others are simply content with the fact
that quantum mechanics provides the same way of doing calcula
tions no matter what interpretation is used.
Without the physical motivation discrete spacetime has been
disfavoured by many physicists but others have found reason to per
sist with the idea.
It from Bit
In the late 1970s the increasing power of computers seems to
have been the inspiration behind some new discrete thinking in phys
ics. Monte Carlo simulations of lattice field theories were found to
give useful numerical results with surprisingly few degrees of free
dom where analytic methods had made only limited progress. Their
newly found close contact with computers seems to have led some
physicists to wonder if the universe is itself some sort of giant com
puter.
In 1947 Claude Shannon laid the foundations of information the
ory. The smallest unit of information used in computers is the binary
digit or bit. Each bit can just have a value 0 or 1 but many bits can
record vast amounts of information in the form of numbers or binary
coded characters. Shannon‟s information theory turned out to be im
portant in physics as well as computers. It seems that the entropy of
a system may be a measure of the amount of information it contains
but it is difficult to make sense of such an idea unless the amount of
information in a physical system is finite. If the positions and orien
tations of molecules can be specified to any degree of precision then
Is SpaceTime Discrete?
101
there is no limit to the number of bits needed to describe the state of
a gas in a box so entropy from information may only make sense if
there is some minimum distance which can be measured.
Such reasoning has created a school of thought about the role of
information processing in the fundamental laws of physics. John
Wheeler has sought to extend this idea so that every physical quan
tity derives its ultimate significance from bits. He calls this idea “It
from Bit.” For Wheeler and his followers the continuum is a myth,
but he goes further than just making spacetime discrete. Spacetime
itself, he argues, must be understood in terms of a more fundamental
pregeometry. In the pregeometry there would be no direct concepts
of dimension or causality. Such things would only appear as emer
gent properties in the spacetime idealisation. All would be the
consequence of complex interactions based on very simple basic
elements, just as a complex piece of computer software is built from
a simple set of instructions.
There are many different instruction sets which have been used
to control computers. In RISC processors the number of different
instructions is kept to a minimum. In the theory of computers, with
out the practical constraints of efficiency, it is possible to reduce the
instruction set to very few elements indeed and still be able to use it
to do any computation which is theoretically possible. Such a ma
chine is called a universal computer. In 1979 while I was a student I
attended an extracircular course on logic given by the mathematics
professor John Conway. He introduced the class to a hypothetical
computer called a Minsky machine which had been devised by com
puter science theorist Marvin Minsky. The computer can store an
unlimited number of nonnegative integer values which are given
variable names a, b, c, … etc. The computer obeys two fundamental
instructions:
(1) increment a variable by adding one.
E.g. the instruction to increment variable a can be written sche
matically like this
a +
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102
(2) decrement a variable by subtracting one, unless it is zero in
which case branch
E.g. the instruction to decrement variable b or branch is shown
as follows
The branch with the double arrow is taken if b is zero on enter
ing the circle. A program for a Minsky machine is a diagram made
up of these two instructions. Here is an example of a simple program
to add a to b.
If you want an interesting puzzle to solve try and work out what
is the largest number which a Minsky machine can generate in a
variable when it stops if it is only allowed to have k instructions
where k is some small number of your choice.
In one lecture of the course, Conway showed us a program he
had written for a Minsky machine which could calculate the nth
prime number. It had only 16 instructions and he challenged us to do
better. The next week I showed him how to do it with only 14 in
structions. Can you do better still? Here is the program. Start with all
variables set to zero except n. When you arrive at the end p will be
the nth prime number. This Minsky machine program illustrates how
the simplest of rules can be used to generate nontrivial systems.
Perhaps some equally simple set of rules will account for physics.
b 
a 
b +
start
here
end
here
Is SpaceTime Discrete?
103
Cellular Automata
A similar idea which seems closer to the real world is the cellu
lar automata. Cellular automata became popular in the 1970s with
Conway‟s invention of the Game of Life. Its simple rules made it
popular with people who liked recreational mathematics and was
partly responsible for Conway‟s popularity as a lecturer.
The game of life is played on a twodimensional array of square
cells. Each cell at any given time step is either alive or dead. The
state of the game at the next time step is determined by rules which
are meant to mimic the life and death of living cells. If a living cell
at one moment is isolated or it is accompanied by no more than one
other living cell in the nearest neighbouring 8 cells, it will be dead
the next moment through lack of support. If it is surrounded by two
or three living cells in its neighbourhood it will continue to live but
if there are more it will die from over competition. On the other
hand, a cell which is dead will be revived if it is surrounded by ex
actly three living cells. Otherwise it remains dead. When these rules
are applied iteratively to an initial picture of living and dead cells,
the system evolves and patterns emerge. A computer can readily be
made to simulate the game and display the progress.
Typically regions of cells will die out or stabilise into patterns
which do not change such as an isolated square of four cells, or
which repeat such as a line of three cells. From time to time a group
of living cells will appear to separate from the activity and move
away on its own. These are called gliders. The most common variety
reflects about a diagonal axis after each second step and moves di
agonally.
d+ p+
start
here
q  e 
d 
e+
d  e  n 
end
here
f  e+
q+ p  f+
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Despite its simple rules defined on a discrete lattice of cells the
game has some features in common with the laws of physics. There
is a maximum speed for causal propagation which plays a role simi
lar to the speed of light in special relativity. Even more intriguing is
the comparison of gliders with elementary particles. Cellular auto
mata go a step further than lattice field theories. Even the continuous
values of the field variables have been replaced with discrete quanti
ties.
A great deal of research has been done to find out how cellular
automata like this one behave on very large arrays. Numerical simu
lations suggest that stable regions develop but some activity can
continue for a long time. It seems that self organised criticality is
established. This means that the system stops evolving leaving
steady or cyclic configurations of cells, but a small perturbation such
as a glider wandering in from outside can set the thing off again like
a spark lighting a fire. Little is known about how cellular automata
might behave on very large arrays and over very large numbers of
time steps. Recall that the smallest scales in physics seem to be
around 10
35
m. To correspond in size to our universe, a cellular
automaton would have to have an array of something like 10
240
cells.
Despite its simple rules the game of life has sufficient complexity
that we cannot imagine how an array that big would behave. On
large scales some kind of physical laws may emerge from the statis
tical behaviour of the system. It is quite possible that complex
organised structures would evolve. It is plausible that some cellular
automata specified in 3dimensions may be sufficiently interesting
places for life to develop inside them. At present we have no idea if
such things are likely.
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105
For those seeking to reduce physics to simple deterministic laws
this was an inspiration to look for cellular automata as toy models of
particle physics despite the obvious flaw that they broke spacetime
symmetries. Edward Fredkin is one of those people who suggests
that the universe really does operate like a gigantic computer. Fred
kin is a computer specialist with an interest in physics who has
managed to influence a number of respected physicists to take the
idea seriously. In 1981 Fredkin was one of the organisers of a con
ference at MIT which he wanted to be called something like “On
computational models of physics.” Fredkin managed to persuade
Richard Feynman to be the keynote speaker at the meeting, but when
Feynman heard the title he said “Well if you have that as a name,
and it implies that there are computational models of physics, then I
am not coming.” The title was changed to “Physics and computing”
and so Feynman went. However, by time Feynman arrived to give
his talk he had changed his mind and gave a talk about computa
tional models of physics. He and many other speakers spoke about
cellular automata which were very topical by then. Other speakers at
the conference included Wheeler, Minsky and Fredkin himself. This
conference and especially the presence of Feynman was very influ
ential on the subject.
There has been some progress towards using cellular automata to
study hydrodynamics and turbulence but there seems to be an im
passable hurdle when we attempt to apply the automata to quantum
physics. The evolution of automata is always based on what happens
locally to any cell in the array, but Bell‟s inequality and the experi
ments of Aspect and others strongly suggest that quantum reality is
not local in such a strong sense.
Another notable physicist who has been influenced by Fredkin is
Gerard 't Hooft. He is not put off by locality arguments and suggests
that the states of a cellular automaton could be seen as the basis of a
Hilbert space on which quantum mechanics is formed. Although the
idea is not popular, some interesting things may yet be learnt from
such research.
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Discreteness in Quantum Gravity
We have seen how some of the early motivations behind theories
of discrete spacetime have faded with time, but recently new evi
dence has come in to take their place. It is only when we try to
include gravity in quantum theory that we find solid reason to be
lieve in discrete spacetime. With quantisation of gravity all the old
renormalisation issues return and many new problems arise.
Whichever approach to quantum gravity is taken the conclusion
seems to be that the Planck length is a minimum size beyond which
the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle prevents measurement if ap
plied to the metric field of Einstein Gravity. In ordinary quantum
field theory the ability to measure small distances is limited only by
the energy of the particles available and according to relativity there
should be no theoretical limit to energy. When gravity is included,
however, the metric itself becomes uncertain. At smaller distances
the quantum fluctuations of the metric become more significant un
til, at the scale of the Planck length, it is impossible to do any
reliable measurements.
Does this mean that spacetime is discrete at such scales with
only a finite number of degrees of freedom per unit volume? Recent
theoretical results from string theories and the looprepresentation of
gravity do suggest that spacetime has some discrete aspects at the
Planck scale. These are akin to the discrete quantum numbers of the
quantum mechanics of an atom which still also has a continuum de
scription so the answer may be that space and time have a dual
discrete and continuous nature.
The far reaching work of Bekenstein and Hawking on black hole
thermodynamics has led to some of the most compelling evidence
for discreteness at the Planck scale. The black hole information loss
paradox which arises from semiclassical treatments of quantum
gravity is the nearest thing physicists have to an experimental result
in quantum gravity. Its resolution is likely to say something useful
about a more complete quantum gravity theory. There are several
proposed ways in which the paradox may be resolved most of which
imply some problematical breakdown of quantum mechanics while
others lead to seemingly bizarre conclusions.
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One approach is to suppose that no more information goes in
than can be displayed on the event horizon and that it comes back
out as the black hole evaporates by Hawking radiation. Bekenstein
has shown that if this is the case then very strict and counter
intuitive limits must be placed on the maximum amount of informa
tion held in a region of space. It has been argued by 't Hooft that this
finiteness of entropy and information in a blackhole is also evidence
for the discreteness of spacetime. In fact the number of degrees of
freedom must be given by the area in Planck units of a surface sur
rounding the region of space. This has led to some speculative ideas
about how quantum gravity theories might work through a holo
graphic mechanism, i.e. it is suggested that physics must be
formulated with degrees of freedom distributed on a two
dimensional surface with the third spatial dimension being dynami
cally generated.
At this point it may be appropriate to discuss the prospects for
experimental results in quantum gravity and small scale spacetime
structure. Over the past twenty years or more, experimental high en
ergy physics has mostly served to verify the correctness of the
standard model of particle physics as established theoretically be
tween 1967 and 1973. We now have theories extending to energies
way beyond current accelerator technology but it should not be for
gotten that limits set by experiment have helped to narrow down the
possibilities and will presumably continue to do so.
It may seem that there is very little hope of any experimental in
put into quantum gravity research because the Planck energy is so
far beyond reach. However, a theory of quantum gravity would al
most certainly have low energy consequences which may be in reach
of future experiments. The discovery of supersymmetry, for exam
ple, would have significant consequences for theoretical research on
spacetime structure.
Lattice Quantum Gravity
If discrete spacetime is a feature of quantum gravity then the
early ideas of lattices and cellular automata were just not inventive
enough. A lattice is surely too rigid a structure to model curved
spacetime. General relativity is about invariance of the form of laws
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of physics under coordinate transformations but the spacetime co
ordinates are really artificial constructs without any direct physical
basis. In 1961 Tulio Regge came up with a way of doing relativity
without any coordinates. He imagined spacetime as a network of
points joined together by links, triangles, tetrahedrons and pentahe
droids. These are simplexes of dimension 1 to 4. The structure is
analogous to the faceted surface of a geodesic dome. Just as the
curving vaults of a modern building can be approximated by a sur
face of flat triangles, so too can curved spacetime by approximated
to any desired accuracy with the simplicial structure of the Regge
skeleton.
The concept is very much like a lattice except that it is not rigid.
Instead of varying field values on sites the length of the links be
tween the sites is allowed to be variable. It is sufficient to specify
how the sites are connected and the lengths of all the links. Then the
size and shape of all the simplexes can be determined. The curvature
of the spacetime surface can be derived from the angles of the sim
plexes around any site. It is possible to work out the equations which
express the dynamics of the structure and which reduce to Einstein‟s
field equations of general relativity in the limit where the size of the
simplices becomes very small. The Regge calculus is therefore a dis
crete version of general relativity. Useful numerical simulations of
either the classical or quantum dynamics can be done on a fast com
puter.
To Regge this discrete spacetime was just an approximation
scheme which would give ordinary general relativity in the fine
limit. To us it could also be a pregeometric model of spacetime,
valid even while discrete. If spacetime was a Regge skeleton we
would have to find some rules about how it should be split into sim
plexes. Loss of spacetime symmetry is also a problem just as it was
with a regular lattice.
An alternative scheme which has proved to work better in nu
merical studies of quantum gravity is random triangulation. Instead
of varying the lengths of the links joining sites the links are all the
same length and the way spacetime is divided into simplexes is var
ied. Spacetime curvature varies with the number of simplexes which
meet at each site. The path integral of quantum gravity is then effec
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tively a sum over all the ways of triangulating a fourdimensional
surface. The action can be given in terms of just the numbers of sim
plexes in the lattice. Discrete effects are averaged out so that
rotational symmetry is exact in the quantum version. This is an in
teresting pregeometric model though it would be surprising if it was
anything like reality.
Pregeometry
For John Wheeler simplicial spacetime was not radical enough.
He demanded a pregeometry much more basic than the spacetime
manifold or any discrete approximation to it. A true description of
the structure of spacetime at the smallest scales may require us to
discard some other properties which it appears to have at larger
scales. For example, dimension may not be a fundamental quantity.
We know that spacetime is fourdimensional on scales at least as
large 10
19
m which have been probed with particle accelerators, but
at the Planck scale the number of dimensions may change. It may
even become a vague concept with no definite meaning. Other fea
tures which spacetime physics may lose along with continuity
include its metric, topology, symmetry, locality or causality. We
cannot be sure that spacetime events have a precise meaning or that
quantum mechanics works the same way. In short it is difficult to
imagine what spacetime may be like at all.
Any pregeometric model can be characterised according to
which of the highlighted properties in the previous paragraph it
throws out and which it keeps. For example, lattice models discard
continuity and symmetry but keep dimension, metric, events, etc.
Cellular automata also discard quantum mechanics. Some physicists
have played the game of building toy models which throw out all but
a few of these concepts, the ones which they feel might be the most
fundamental. They might try to keep causality, locality and quantum
mechanics for example, because they think these things are of pri
mary significance and must be part of the laws of physics at the most
fundamental level. Another feature like topology, a metric or even
information might be thrown in just to see what it led to.
Before about 1980 only a rare few physicists had made any seri
ous attempts at this sort of thing. The best examples were Hartland
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Snyder with quantum spacetime, David Finkelstein with his quan
tum net dynamics, Carl von Weizsäcker with Urtheory and Roger
Penrose with spin networks and twisters. Then in the 1980s and
early 1990s there was a flurry of new speculative ideas. The time
seemed right for bold ideas. Chris Isham and others looked at the
quantum mechanics of spaces with just a distance metric between
scattered points, or topologies of sets or even just random networks
of links between spacetime events.
Is there really any hope that such methods can tell us something
about the real world? Physicists have succeeded before with theories
they devised with little more than mathematics and insight. Dirac
was a strong advocate of the power of mathematical beauty as an
indicator of truth and successfully predicted the positron on such a
basis. If you examine the pregeometries which have been studied up
till now it is easy to dismiss them because none is complete. How
ever, rather than discarding each one because of some feature which
does not correspond to reality, you can also look for features which
seem promising. Better theories can then be produced by combining
things from different models which might work well together. It
seems improbable that someone is going to have complete success
by such methods alone, but if clues from superstring theory and ca
nonical quantum gravity are also considered there may be some
hope.
Sadly, there is little encouragement or funding for such specula
tive research. Happily there are still a hand full of physicists and one
or two journals which keep it alive.
The Metaphysics of SpaceTime
Space and time have been favourite subjects of debate for phi
losophers since at least the ancient Greeks. The paradoxes of the
infinite and the infinitesimal are reinvented each day by children
with inquisitive minds. How can space be infinite? If it is not infinite
what would lie beyond the end? Can the universe have a beginning
and an end? What is the smallest thing and what can it be made of?
What is time? Do time and space really exist?
How have modern physicists learnt to deal with these questions?
The simplest answer is that they use mathematics to construct mod
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els of the universe from basic axioms. Mathematicians can define
the system of real numbers from set theory and prove all the neces
sary theorems of calculus that physicists need. With the system of
real numbers they can go on to define many different types of ge
ometry. In this way it was possible to discover nonEuclidean
geometries in the nineteenth century which were used to build the
theory of general relativity in the twentieth.
The self consistency of general relativity can be proven mathe
matically from the fundamental axioms within known limitations.
This does not make it correct, but it does make it a viable model
whose accuracy can be tested against observation. In this way there
are no paradoxes of the infinite or infinitesimal. The universe could
be infinite or finite, with or without a boundary. There is no need to
answer questions about what happened before the beginning of the
universe because we can construct a selfconsistent mathematical
model of spacetime in which time has a beginning with no before.
So long as we have a consistent mathematical model we know
there is no paradox, but nobody yet has an exact model of the whole
universe. Newton used a very simple model of space and time de
scribed by Euclidean geometry. In that model space and time are
separate, continuous, infinite and absolute.
This is consistent with what we observe in ordinary experience.
Clocks measure time and normally they can be made to keep the
same time within the accuracy of their working mechanisms. It as if
there were some universal absolute standard of time which flows
constantly. It can be measured approximately with clocks but never
directly.
So long as there is no complete theory of physics we know that
any model of spacetime is likely to be only an approximation to re
ality which applies in a certain restricted domain. A more accurate
model may be found later and although the difference in predicted
measurement may be small, the new and old model may be very dif
ferent in nature. This means that our current models of space and
time may be very unrealistic descriptions of what they really are
even though they give very accurate predictions in any experiment
we can perform.
Philosophers sometimes try to go beyond what physicists can do.
Using reason alone they consider what space and time might be be
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yond what can be observed. Even at the time of Newton there was
opposition to the notion of absolute space and time from his German
rival Leibniz. He, and many other philosophers who came after, have
argued that space and time do not exist in an absolute form as de
scribed by Newton.
If we start from the point of view of our experiences, we must
recognise that our intuitive notions of space, time and motion are
just models in our minds which correspond to what our senses find.
This is a model which exists like a computer program in our head. It
is one which has been created by evolution because it works. In that
case there is no assurance that space and time really exist in any ab
solute sense.
The philosophical point of view developed by Gottfried Leibniz,
the Bishop Berkeley and Ernst Mach is that space and time should
be seen as formed from the relationships between objects. We ex
perience objects through their relationships with our senses and infer
space and time more indirectly. The mathematical models used by
physicists turn this insideout. They start with space and time, then
they place objects in it, then they predict our experiences as a result
of how the objects interact.
Mach believed that space and time do not exist in the absence of
matter. The inertia of objects should be seen as being a result of their
relation with other objects rather than their relation with space and
time. Einstein was greatly influenced by Mach‟s principle and hoped
that it would follow from his own postulates of relativity.
In the theory of special relativity he found that space and time do
not exist as independent absolute entities but Minkowski showed
that spacetime exists as a combination of the two. In General Rela
tivity Einstein found, ironically, that the correct description of his
theory must use the mathematics of Riemannian geometry. Instead of
confirming Mach‟s principle he found that spacetime can have a
dynamic structure in its own right. Not only could spacetime exist
independent of matter but it even had interesting behaviour on its
own. One of the most startling predictions of general relativity; that
there should exist gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space
time itself, may soon be directly confirmed by detection in gravita
tional wave observatories. In short, relativity succeeded in showing
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that all motion is relative but it failed to construct a complete rela
tional model of physics.
Einstein‟s use of geometry was so elegant and compelling that
physicists thereafter have always sought to extend the theory to a
unified description of matter through geometry. Examples include
the KaluzaKlein models in which spacetime is supposed to have
more than four dimensions with all but four compacted into an unde
tectably small geometry. This is the opposite of what the
philosophers prescribed. Thus physicists and philosophers have be
come alienated over the subject of space and time during the
twentieth century.
Recent theories of particle physics have been so successful that
it is now very difficult to find an experimental result which can help
physicists go beyond their present theories. As a result they have
themselves started to sound more philosophical and are slowly re
viewing old ideas. The fundamental problem which faces them is the
combination of general relativity and quantum theory into a consis
tent model.
According to quantum theory a vacuum is not empty. It is a sea
of virtual particles. This is very different from the way that space
and time were envisioned in the days of Mach. In a theory of quan
tum gravity there would be gravitons; particles of pure geometry.
Surely such an idea would have been a complete anathema to Mach.
But suppose gravitons could be placed on a par with other matter.
Perhaps then Mach would be happy with gravitons after all. The the
ory could be turned on its head with spacetime being a result of the
interactions between gravitons.
Leibniz might also have been satisfied with such an answer. In
his philosophy everything is constructed from monads. These could
be packets of energy or more abstract entities. A discrete spacetime
would fit in well with the idea. Discrete elements of spacetime can
be put on a par with particles of matter suggesting the final unifica
tion of spacetime and matter.
In string theory, the most promising hope for a complete unified
theory of physics, we find that gravitons are indeed on an equal foot
ing with other particles. All particles are believed to be different
modes of vibration in loops of string. Even black holes, one of the
ultimate manifestations of the geometry of spacetime are thought to
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be examples of single loops of string in a very highly energised
mode. There is no qualitative distinction between black holes and
particles, or between matter and spacetime.
The problem is that there is as yet no mathematical model which
makes this identity evident. The equations we do have for strings are
somewhat conventional. They describe strings moving in a back
ground spacetime. And yet, the mathematics holds strange
symmetries which suggest that string theories in different back
ground spacetimes and even different dimensions are really
equivalent. To complete our understanding of string theory we must
formulate it independently of spacetime. The situation seems to be
analogous to the status of electrodynamics at the end of the 19th cen
tury. Maxwell‟s equations were described as vibrations in some
ether pervading space. The MichelsonMorley experiments failed to
detect the hypothetical ether and signalled the start of a scientific
revolution.
Just as Einstein banished the ether as a medium for electromag
netism we must now complete his work by banishing spacetime as a
medium for string theory. The result will be a model in which space
time is recovered as a result of the relationship between interacting
strings. It will be the first step towards a reconciliation of physics
and philosophy. Perhaps it will be quickly followed by a change of
view, to a point from where all of our universe can be seen as a con
sequence of our possible experiences just as the old philosophers
wanted us to see it. What other ways will we have to modify our un
derstanding to accommodate such a theory? Not all can be foreseen.
So is it or isn't it?
There do seem to be good reasons to suppose that spacetime is
discrete in some sense at the Planck scale. Theories of quantum
gravity suggest that there is a minimum length beyond which meas
urement cannot go, and also a finite number of significant degrees of
freedom. In canonical quantisation of gravity, volume and area op
erators are found to have discrete spectra, while topological quantum
field theories in 2+1 dimensions have exact lattice formulations.
At the same time, the mathematics of continuous manifolds
seems to be increasingly important. Topological structures such as
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instantons and magnetic monopoles appear to play their part in field
theory and string theory. Can such things be formulated on a discrete
space?
Hawking says that he sees no reason to abandon the continuum
theories that have been so successful. It is a valid point but it may be
possible to satisfy everyone by invoking a discrete structure of
spacetime without abandoning the continuum theories if the dis
cretecontinuum duality can be resolved as it was for light and
matter.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant may have had some insight into
this question. The human mind can pose questions about nature
which have contradictory but perfectly logical answers. One such
question is whether the world is made of elementary parts. The an
swer can be both yes and no. The riddle may be resolved through a
dual theory of spacetime which has both discrete and continuous
aspects.
116
What About Causality?
Causality in the news
I read a news article recently which reported that family conflict
can stunt the growth of young children. A survey had shown that
parents who divorce or separate tend to have smaller children. Ac
cording to the team who conducted the study this is scientific
evidence of how conditions in childhood can have lifelong conse
quences.
But how right were they? To conduct the survey someone visited
schools and measured the height of many children with the same
age. The results were then compared statistically with the circum
stances of their parents. Presumably they found a statistically
significant negative correlation between height and indicators of
family conflict such as divorce, thus proving the link. Fine so far, but
can we conclude that the conflict caused children to be smaller?
Would it not have been equally valid to conclude that having small
children leads to divorce? The scientist in charge speculated that
stress may reduce the amount of growth hormone that young chil
dren produce.
In fact he applied his prejudices and drew a conclusion which
sounds reasonable without realising that the converse was also a
possible explanation of the survey results. It is not difficult to be
lieve his theory but there was nothing from the survey which proved
it. In fact the real reason behind the correlation may have been one
or more third factors such as wealth. Children of poorer families
may have worse standards of nutrition resulting in slower growth,
and lack of money might also lead to higher divorce rates. Another
cause may have been a genetic trait which shows up in both the
growth and temperament of family individuals. Such effects are
equally likely to show up as a correlation in the survey but the news
article said nothing about such possibilities.
The difference between the possible conclusions from the survey
is not just one of semantics. People reading the article could blame
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117
their frequent family rows for having a small child. Such feelings of
guilt are unlikely to help the situation. They may have been right but
I suspect they would have been wrong. Surveys such as this are
common and are often reported in the media by people who do not
appreciate the traps that statistics can lead us into.
When responsible scientists wish to establish causal links be
tween different effects they are more careful. For example, when a
new drug is tested it is necessary to know how effective it is and
what side effects it may produce. To do this a group of volunteers is
selected for trials. The group is divided in two at random and one
half is given the drug. The other half is given a placebo pill which is
known to have no effect. Nobody taking part knows which group
they are in. Both groups are then monitored for possible effects. The
effect is known to be real if it is significantly more noticeable
amongst those who took the drug than those who took the placebo. It
is then certain that taking the drug really caused the effect. The dif
ference between this example and the survey is that the choice of
who got the drug and who did not was controlled. In the survey
which claimed to link height and family strife there was no control
over whose parents were divorced which were not so it was impossi
ble to distinguish cause from effect or rule out other factors with
certainty.
Causality in Physics
Suppose your child bumped into a table and an expensive vase
fell off, smashing into pieces on the floor. Would you conclude that
her carelessness caused the vase to be broken? Probably you would,
but why would you not conclude that the vase falling off the table
caused her to bump, quite innocently, into the table? Your response
might be that, for one thing, the vase was broken after her collision
with the table so the direction of the causal link is incontestable.
This reflects the modern concept of causality: Cause precedes effect.
Yet the logical relation between the two events; her bumping into
the table and the vase falling off, are symmetrically related. If one
has happened the other probably has too. Is it just our prejudices
which have made us favour a causal link or is it justified by physics?
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Philosophers such as David Hume have been sceptical about
these notions of causality. In 1740 Hume questioned the basic idea
of causation. It is sometimes thought that his rejection of causation
implies a rejection of scientific laws but it does not. What it really
implies is a rejection of free will. Compare the case of the broken
vase with the survey and the medical trials. Which does it more
closely resemble? You might argue that it is more like the medical
trials because a person has control over whether or not they do
something like bump into a table. They have free will. The vase
breaking is a response to an action of free will, even if it was an ac
cident. If an action is controlled then it must be the cause rather than
the effect. If we accept the contention of Hume we deny any distinc
tion between cause and effect so we must also deny our free will.
Causality was not always characterised so simply as it is today.
In ancient Greece, at the Lyceum in Athens, Aristotle taught that
there were four types of cause: the material, the formal, the efficient
and the final. If you build a boat he would have said that the causes
were the materials you used, the plans you drew up, the labour you
put into it and what you wanted to do with it. If any of these four
things were not there, the boat would not be made.
In terms of modern physics we would regard the efficient and fi
nal cause as the two extremes of temporal causality, that is, causality
related to time. The efficient cause is the initial set of conditions and
the final cause is the final set of conditions. Likewise we can regard
the material and formal causes as two opposite views of ontological
causality, that is causality related to the way in which something is
formed.
Let us imagine another example. You are very proud because
you have successfully grown a good crop of potatoes in your back
garden. You bring a handful in to show your daughter saying “Look,
I grew some potatoes!”
“Why did they grow?” she inquires, as children do. How would
you respond? Just suppose that you are rather philosophical in your
ways and you respond according to which types of causality you be
lieve in. The conversation might continue as follows:
“They grew because of biological processes such as pho
tosynthesis.”
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119
“Why are there biological processes like photosynthesis?”
“because of atoms and the laws of chemistry which make
biological processes work”
“Why are there atoms and laws of chemistry?”
“because of nuclear physics and electromagnetic forces
which make atoms out of protons, and electrons?”
“why...?”
“because of more elementary particles and laws of physics
which we don‟t know everything about yet!”
These answers characterise a reductionist or atomist who be
lieves that all explanation can be reduced to underlying laws of
physics which may one day be explained through some deep princi
ple of mathematics. Aristotle would say that you had invoked the
material cause.
In another mood you might answer differently:
“They grew because I planted them”
“Why did you plant them?”
“because I knew they would be good to eat when they
were ready”
“Why did you know?”
“because I learnt such things in school”
“Why did you go to school?”
“because a long time ago people realised that having an
education was useful”
... and so on. This time the conversation might continue through
the history of humanity, life on Earth and cosmology until you ex
plain that everything is a result of what happened at the big bang. Of
course we are stuck again because we cannot say what caused the
big bang. This may be a strange way to explain why potatoes grow
but it is exactly how conventional wisdom describes causality in
physics. Aristotle would have called it the efficient cause.
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Since the 17th century scientists have replaced Aristotle‟s four
causes with just those two: The efficient or prior cause and the mate
rial cause, or physical laws. The final and formal cause is gone.
Descartes‟s mechanistic causality is the most widely accepted today.
We would say that a cause of an event is any preceding event with
out which it would not have happened. In addition to this temporal
causality many physicists believe that there are fundamental laws of
physics to which are other phenomena can be reduced. This reduc
tionism is the material cause and it is what is left of the ontological
causality.
If your mind is opened a little by my story of the survey in the
news article, then you may also be ready to reconsider your notions
of causality in physics. How would you explain the growth of your
potatoes if you believed in a final cause?
“They grew to become potatoes”
“Why did they become potatoes?”
“So that we could eat them and grow ourselves”
“Why do we grow?”
“So that we can become strong enough to do our jobs”
Eventually it seems that this will lead towards some ultimate un
known destiny of humanity. These days most scientists do not
believe in destiny but Aristotle would defend the final cause. A seed
grows because it is destined to become a plant and produce more
seeds. His error is easily exposed if we tear up the plant before it
matures. It grew just the same to begin with even though the final
cause was taken away. The same would not be true if we intervened
before the seeds grew. Prior cause seems to be more right than final
cause but notice that we have invoked our free will again to prove it.
It could be harder to explain growth in terms of the formal cause.
We would have to suppose that the potatoes grew because it had a
design purpose. You might say:
“They grew because if they didn‟t we would have nothing
to eat. Then we would not be here to ask such questions!”
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121
This may sound like an invalid explanation at first. Yet it is an
explanation which might be given by someone who advocates the
anthropic principle. Such people claim that the laws of physics and
other aspects of our world are the way they are because they must be
that way for us to be here. Reductionism and the anthropic principle
are opposing philosophies of ontological causality. They correspond
to Aristotle‟s material and formal cause respectively. Aristotle ac
cepted both types of explanation but most people prefer one or the
other.
Let us put ontological causality aside for now and consider tem
poral causality in more detail. Do the laws of physics justify
Descartes who threw out final cause in favour of prior cause?
To keep things simple, let us start by considering just classical
Newtonian mechanics. The form which the laws of physics take is
crucial to our understanding of causality. Newton‟s laws take the
form of a set of differential equations describing the motion of parti
cles under forces that act between them. If we know the initial
positions and velocities of all the particles at an initial time then
their positions are determined at any future time. So does this form
for the laws of physics allow us to justify our concept of temporal
causality, that cause comes always from the past and precedes its
effect? It would seem so because the initial conditions seem to be
causing all that happens in the future.
There is a catch. The laws of physics in this form can be made to
work identically in reverse. If we know the final state of a system we
can just as easily determine its past. Furthermore, the classical laws
of mechanics do not allow any room for free will. All actions are
predetermined by any complete past state. They are also postdeter
mined by any future state. Newton‟s laws do not explain why past
events are the cause of future events.
A Block Universe
It is difficult to think clearly and rationally about causality be
cause it is bound up with our experience. It is sometimes difficult to
separate logical deduction from intuition. We are so used to the flow
of time that it is almost impossible to detach ourselves from it and
appreciate time as part of physics. Time flows past while space re
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mains, yet since the debut of the theory of relativity we have known
that the distinction between space and time is not so profound.
To appreciate the physics without being misled by intuition we
must imagine ourselves separated from space and time. We need to
imagine spacetime as a single entity which does not evolve. Like a
block of existence, the universe just is. Our lives are worldlines
through the block stretching between birth and death. We might
equally well say that they stretch between death and birth. On close
examination we can tell which way our lives went from past to fu
ture because we recognise the symptoms of ageing but there are no
time stamps built in to spacetime. The block universe has no past,
present or future. It is just a collection of events.
If the universe is finite and closed with a beginning at the big
bang and an end at the big crunch you can think of it as a kind of
rugby ball shaped surface which narrows at either end. Spacetime is
fourdimensional and has nothing outside or inside but we have to
visualise it as a twodimensional surface sitting in space. This limita
tion of our minds does not matter. We do not have to visualise
something to understand it.
People often discuss what came before the big bang. Some think
that there must have been something. Others say there was nothing.
When we think about the block universe we see that there was no
“before”. The surface of the sausage is all that there is to the uni
verse and time is part of it. We should not think of an empty space
Big
Crunch
Big
Bang
worldline
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around it since that space does not exist. Of course we do not know
that the universe is really rugby ball shaped and there could have
been something before the big bang, but it is not necessarily so. We
should not let our experience influence our reasoning since our ex
perience is limited to a small part of the universe and prejudices our
judgement. It is not easy to imagine a universe which is curved but
which has no outside, no before and no after, but we can describe the
shape of spacetime mathematically without referring to anything
outside, so an outside is not necessary. Asking about what came be
fore the big bang is like asking what comes before the letter A in the
alphabet. Asking about what is outside the universe or where it is, is
like asking what is outside the alphabet or where it is. It is nowhere
or everywhere. It just is.
Nevertheless, we can imagine that we are examining the universe
from outside as a psychological crutch to support out thoughts. We
look closely to see if there are signs of causality but if we are outside
we have no control over events. We are in the place of someone who
does a survey and tries to establish causal relationships between
things we observe. Without control any judgement about causality is
subjective. We may be able to measure a correlation between certain
sets of events but we have no definitive way of knowing which is
cause and which is effect unless we could draw from our experience
of how we think past influences future.
Does such a view of a block universe from outside make sense?
It is a classical view which ignores the quantum nature of the world.
In quantum mechanics it is impossible to separate observer from ob
served. It is difficult to know what is the significant of quantum
theory to causality. There are many different interpretations of quan
tum mechanics and some would suggest a different answer to others.
Time is an infamous problem when applied to quantum mechanics
and general relativity. Without a theory of quantum gravity we can
not be sure of any response to the question.
I will adopt a position on quantum mechanics which extends the
block universe metaphor. Our spacetime can be cut like a sliced
sausage. Each thin slice represents the universe at one moment in
time and records the state of everything classically at that instant.
According to physicist Julian Barbour, the quantum multiverse is a
heap of slices. The heap contains all possible slices from all possible
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universes and is not ordered. Time and change have no absolute
meaning and just represent the different ways that the slices can be
put back together to make histories of the universes. Our passage
through the quantum world is just one of many possible sequences
which can follow from each instant.
A different analogy of the same notion has been described by
David Deutsch. Each slice is a snapshot of the universe. They can be
put together as frames in a sequence of film which tells the story of a
universe. Indeed, this is the film version of the storyteller‟s para
digm. Our experience of the universe is like a showing of the film,
but even when the film lies in the can the universe still exists with
out any frame singled out as the present moment. The unordered
heap of all possible frames is the multiverse.
Einstein and Minkowski taught us that space and time cannot be
separated. A universe can be sliced up in different ways just as a
sausage could be sliced at different angles. A natural development of
the time slice analogies is to break each slice down further into small
morsels. If spacetime is minced up finely enough the multiverse is
reduced to a heap of events. The rules which tell us how they can be
put back together are the Feynman rules of quantum gravity, what
ever they may be. Just like a story broken down into sentences and
then words and then letters, there are fewer components each time.
The finer the universe is chopped, the smaller is the heap, but each
bit can be used many times and combined in an infinity of different
permutations. Such a view of the universe seems to demand event
symmetry. The heap is unordered and shuffling its contents has no
consequence to the multiverse. It should follow that event symmetry,
the symmetric group acting to permute spacetime events, should be
part of the universal symmetry of nature.
Where does this leave the present? At some time we all ask our
selves “why now?” What distinguishes this moment from others?
Given that the universe lasts many billions of years it seems a fantas
tic coincidence that the present even falls within our lifetime. Of
course this is nonsense. It could be no other time than “now”. When
we view the block universe we see all moments at a glance. There
before us are all the moments when we asked “why now?” It be
comes a stupid question, a trick of our psychology which has a need
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to know something it calls consciousness. Within the universe it is a
hotly debated subject. From outside the question loses its meaning
and we judge it differently. It is fortunate that we do not need to ap
ply our philosophy of physics to our everyday lives otherwise we
would lose all sense of purpose.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics
It is all very well to say that temporal causality is not absolute,
but then we must explain why it is such a good illusion. How about
the laws of thermodynamics? If we have a system of many particles
then we cannot determine all their positions and velocities exactly.
When we know only some statistical information about them they
obey laws which seem not to be reversible. The second law of ther
modynamics says that entropy must always increase. Could this be
linked to causality?
Indeed, the continual increase of entropy is intimately linked to
our perception of causality. Entropy is a measure of disorder in a
system and defines a thermodynamic arrow of time which can be
linked to the psychological arrow of time. There is, however, a catch
again. The second law of thermodynamics is inexplicable in terms of
the underlying laws of physics which, as far as we know, are re
versible. This is enshrined in a theorem of relativistic quantum field
theory which proves the necessity of CPT conservation.
The increase of entropy can be understood in certain idealised
experiments. For example, take two closed containers filled with
gases which are each in thermal and chemical equilibrium, and allow
them to mix by connecting the two systems without allowing any
energy to escape or enter. When the system comes back into equilib
rium the entropy of the final state can be shown theoretically to be
higher than the combined entropies in the two original systems. This
seems to be theoretical evidence for increasing entropy and it is con
firmed by experiment, but we must not be misled. The assumption
that prepared systems tend towards equilibrium has been justified,
but theory would tell us that they tend towards equilibrium in the
past as well as the future. We are victims of our prejudices about
causality again and have devised an argument with circular reason
ing to support it.
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Such attempts to prove the second law of dynamics originated in
the 19th century with the work of physicists such as Ludwig Boltz
mann. Such a feat can never be achieved because the laws of physics
are time symmetric and it is impossible to derive a time asymmetric
result from time symmetric assumptions. Boltzmann slipped in some
timeasymmetric assumptions in order to derive the result.
Physicists have devised many other arguments for why entropy
always increases, trying to get round the problem of CPT symmetry.
Here are a few possibilities:
 CPT symmetry exchanges matter for antimatter so perhaps en
tropy would decrease for antimatter.
Fault: Electromagnetic radiation cannot be distinguished
from its antimatter image, and yet it obeys the second law of
thermodynamics.
 CPT symmetry does not apply to the collapse of the wavefunction
in quantum mechanics which is a time asymmetric process.
Query: Does this mean that the third law of thermodynamics
is not valid for classical statistical mechanics?
 CPT conservation is violated by quantum gravity.
This could be true but can the laws of thermodynamics be a
result of quantum gravity whose effects are normally
thought to be irrelevant except in the most extreme physical
regimes?
 Entropy increases as a result of the fact that it started very low at
the beginning of time. Thus it is due to the initial conditions be
ing set in a special way, and from then on it could only increase.
But then why were initial conditions set rather than final or
mixed boundary conditions?
When I was an undergraduate student I naively thought that
physicists understood entropy. Some have produced arguments
based on any or all of the above possibilities. In retrospect I think
now that I should be no more convinced by any of those arguments
than I should if I heard someone arguing that family strife stunts the
growth of children based on the correlation reported in the survey.
One of the difficulties is that we do not really have an ideal defi
nition of entropy for systems which are not in equilibrium. We can
understand it as a measure of disorder in a closed system. More gen
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erally we have to resort to some kind of coarse graining process in
which we imagine that a nonequilibrium system can be seen as
made of small subsystems, or grains, which are in equilibrium
themselves but not in equilibrium with each other.
Entropy might be better understood in terms of information. It
can be linked to the number of bits which are needed to describe a
system accurately. In a hot disordered system you need to specify the
individual state of each particle, while a cold lattice can be described
in terms of its lattice shape, size and orientation. Far less information
is needed for the low entropy system.
The claim that entropy increases because it started low in the big
bang is perhaps the one which has fallen into conventional wisdom,
even if it is admitted that we do not understand why it started low.
Perhaps it is because of some huge unknown symmetry which was
valid at the high temperatures of the big bang and broken later. This
is also my opinion but I think that if the universe were closed we
would have to apply the argument in reverse at the big crunch too.
In a completely deterministic system the evolution of the system
is equally well determined by its final state as by its initial so we
could argue that the amount of information in the system must be
constant. The difficulty there is that we are assuming an exact
knowledge of state which is impossible. In any case, quantum me
chanics is not deterministic. If we make a perfect crystal with an
unstable isotope, as time passes some of the atoms will decay. The
amount of information needed to track the decayed atoms increases.
Perhaps, then, it really is quantum mechanics and the collapse of the
wave function which is responsible.
If physicists used to think they understood entropy then their
faith was deeply shaken when Stephen Hawking and Jacob Beken
stein discovered that the laws of thermodynamics could be extended
to the quantum mechanics of black holes. The entropy is given by
the area of the black hole but its temperature can only be understood
through quantum mechanical effects. This shows that classical un
derstanding of thermodynamics is indeed incomplete and perhaps
only a complete theory of quantum gravity can explain the laws
fully.
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Could the Universe be Gold?
In the mid 1960s there was a widely held belief that the universe
should be closed. The simple homogeneous cosmological models
can describe a space which is finite in size, curving gradually so that
it eventually joins back on itself like the surface of a sphere. Time
would start at the big bang from where it expands for many billions
of years. Eventually, according to the equations of general relativity,
gravity must arrest the expansion and it will contract again like a ball
falling back to Earth towards its final crunch.
At present the universe is certainly expanding, as demonstrated
by Hubble in 1929 when he started measuring the redshifts of far
away galaxies and correlating them to their distance. This defines a
cosmological arrow of time which distinguishes past from future. In
1962 J. E. Hogarth suggested the possibility that this cosmological
arrow could be linked to the thermodynamic arrow of time. Thomas
Gold proposed that when the universe starts to contract the increase
of entropy might reach a turning point. As the universe collapses
history would run in reverse.
Needless to say, Gold‟s model of the universe is quite controver
sial. Intuition suggests that the arrow of time cannot change
direction. It would be a complete reversal of causality with events
being determined by the future instead of the past. In 1985, Stephen
Hawking unexpectedly came out in support of Gold. He published a
paper demonstrating that a time reversal was to be expected because
the physics of the final crunch must be the same as the physics of the
big bang.
We might try to understand the quantum state of the entire uni
verse by using Feynman‟s path integral formulation of quantum
mechanics. We must form a sum over all possible spacetime mani
folds allowed in general relativity. Hawking has argued that we can
understand entropy in this way if the universe is an entirely closed
system, finite in both time and space but with no boundary. There
would be no initial or final conditions to worry about, and both the
end and start of the universe would be a consequence of the same
laws of physics which are obeyed at all times. If the laws of physics
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are time reversal invariant we should then expect the end to be like a
reversed playback of the beginning.
Before Hawking‟s paper had passed through the publishing
process he was already under pressure to change his mind. His col
leagues Laflamme and Page set out to convince him that he had
made an error. Before the paper went to press they succeeded and he
added a note to the paper admitting his mistake. He now claims that
there are two possible ways a universe could start or end. One has
low entropy the other high. The only consistent picture is one in
which it is low at one end and high at the other hence temporal
symmetry is broken.
If this argument could be made solid then it would be a powerful
one. The path integral formulation avoids problems of time since it
is a sum over all possible universes rather than an evolution with
separate boundary conditions. However, Hawking‟s method uses an
incomplete semiclassical description of quantum gravity. The ar
gument could only be made complete when we understand quantum
gravity better. Until then it is an open question whether or not a
closed cosmological model will have a time reversal at half time or
not.
There remain very few scientists who have argued in favour of a
Gold universe and stuck to it. Most cosmologists have sought rea
sons to rule it out and have often claimed success. As the
philosopher Huw Price has shown, most of those arguments are
based on double standards of reasoning. Often time asymmetric con
clusions are drawn from time symmetric assumptions. This is just
about impossible unless there is some spontaneous symmetry break
ing such as that proposed by Hawking.
Intuition suggests that the arrow of time could never reverse. If
we could meet other intelligent lifeforms who are evolving in re
verse, many paradoxes would present themselves. Their past would
be our future. What would there be to prevent them from telling us
about events in our future? Suppose we decided they were a threat
and decided to destroy them. If we succeeded they would cease to
exist in their own past. What is to prevent us from bringing about
such a paradoxical situation?
The only reasonable answer must be that the arrow of time will
only reverse when we are long gone and other timereversed life
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forms are not there either. In other words, the epoch in which the
universe will reverse its collapse must be lifeless. Some people al
ready find it hard to accept that the human race must be extinguished
at the big crunch. To suggest that we cannot even survive for half as
long even when there is no such catastrophe to wipe us out seems
almost unthinkable. After many trillions of years the stars will have
faded. The universe will be a cold place, hard to live in with so few
sources of energy. Could we not at least hope to build a powerful
computerised automaton which could be programmed to hibernate
through the aeons, using the least power possible to steer away from
black holes and other places where it would be destroyed? If so it
would be able to take a message of our past into the future? In the
collapsing universe it might revive and deliver a message to the anti
thermodynamic inhabitants of the other half of spacetime. Sadly the
answer must be no since it would create unresolvable paradoxes, but
unless we can explain what would stop it we must give up the possi
bility of a Gold universe.
Antithermodynamic light from the future
Although such reasoning may be what motivates disbelief in re
versal of time‟s arrow, most attempts to rule out the Gold universe
have concentrated on arguments which may be simpler and more
certain. Physicists such as Murray GellMann have asked about the
fate of starlight. We know that starlight can cross the universe for
billions for years without being absorbed. Each photon loses energy
as it is redshifted by the expanding universe but still it can continue
with only a very small chance of hitting another particle. As the uni
verse expands the matter becomes more thinly spread. The chance of
a collision grows smaller. According to a calculation by Jason
Twamley and Paul Davies in 1995, a photon which heads out into
space has only a small probability of being lost no matter how long
the universe lasts before it arrives in the collapsing universe. If that
is so then most of the light being emitted by stars now will be pre
sent in the collapse. Conversely, the timereversed stars of the future
will absorb photons because they are time reversed. Those photons
should be around now. Could we see them?
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GellMann believes that if they are there they could be detected.
He says that they would add to the background light of the universe
which could be measured. If the light is not there a Gold universe
might be ruled out. Huw Price pointed out that it is not so simple.
The light from future stars cannot be detected simply by looking at
the night sky with a telescope. These photons would be heading for a
time reversed star in the future. If you block their passage with any
kind of detector such as a photographic film they will simply not be
there because they would not then be around in the future. Their be
haviour is distinctly acausal. According to Price they would be
invisible by ordinary means.
If you hold up a piece of paper in space. Photons of future star
light would not be absorbed. Instead they would be emitted as if they
were being drawn out of the paper by a future cause. You are proba
bly thinking that all this is already just too absurd to be possible
anyway, but you must suspend your disbelief until a contradiction
with either logic or observation has been reached. Light drawn off a
surface like this would not register in the ordinary way. It is actually
quite difficult to predict what would really happen because the pho
tons are acausal and the paper is not. Would the effect of the photons
be detected before or after they are emitted? Despite such logical
difficulties we know that energy must be conserved what ever hap
pens. This means that energy will be drawn off the paper. It should
be detectable in principle.
It is not absolutely clear whether or not observation can already
rule this out but I think they can. The antithermodynamic radiation
would be present at many wavelengths. Light photons may be diffi
cult to detect in this way but radio waves would be likely to affect
radio telescopes and gamma rays would also surely leave their mark.
Above all an antithermodynamic cosmic background radiation des
tined for the big crunch would be similar in energy and temperature
to the cosmic background radiation from the big bang. Instead of
imparting heat to a detector it would take it away. The net effect of
both the big bang and big crunch radiation would be no heating. Yet
the heat of the cosmic background was detected by Andrew Mckellar
in cosmic cyanogen as long ago as 1941 even before its significance
was recognised.
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A Crystal Ball
There is another reason why we should suspect that anti
thermodynamic radiation is not present in the universe today: If it
was, we would be able to use it to send messages back in time.
When you hold up your hand to light it casts a shadow behind it.
Even faint starlight casts such a shadow. What about our anti
thermodynamic light from the future? If you could expose your hand
to antithermodynamic radiation you expect it to have photons drawn
off it destined for some antithermodynamic star in the distant future
as the universe collapses. Radiation would surround your hand but
instead of casting a shadow behind the direction the light is travel
ling, there would be a kind of antishadow in front of it from the
direction the radiation is coming. This is simply because light in
front of your hand is blocked in its passage towards its destiny.
If you move your hand in front of a lamp, the shadow moves
with it. Because of the finite speed of light there is always a slight
delay and the movement of the shadow lags behind the movement of
your hand by an imperceptible amount. The antishadow cast by
antithermodynamic light behaves differently. It is not difficult to
see that it must move ahead of the hand, anticipating every move by
the instant of time it would take the light to travel from the shadow
to the hand.
This effect could be used in principle to send messages back in
time. To do it effectively the distance from the hand to where the
shadow was cast would have to be made large. A mirror could be
used to reflect the shadow from a long distance away back to a point
near where the hand is moving. By detecting the antishadow you
could see what your hand is about to do. You could literally use
hand signals to send messages into the past. It is difficult to see how
the paradoxes presented by such a phenomenon could be avoided
unless antithermodynamic light is invisible, but as I have already
argued, it should be detectable. Either antithermodynamic light is
not available to us or we will have to face up to these paradoxes.
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Mixing or Meeting
The arguments I have presented so far have made the assumption
that a Gold universe would contain a mix of what we have been call
ing antithermodynamic matter (or radiation) with ordinary
thermodynamic matter. For antithermodynamic matter the arrow of
time is reversed and its behaviour is affected by future causes. This
is the opposite of the more familiar thermodynamic matter for which
cause precedes effect. Thermodynamic and antithermodynamic mat
ter might coexist in the present universe.
There is an alternative way in which a Gold universe might
work. It could be that thermodynamic and antithermodynamic mat
ter and radiation never mix. Instead they might meet in the middle of
time when thermodynamic matter may slowly transform into anti
thermodynamic matter. Thermodynamic matter would only be pre
sent in the expanding half of the universe and antithermodynamic
matter would only be present in the collapsing half .
Think again about the electromagnetic radiation. Remember it
was argued that light left over from the stars in the expanding uni
verse and the cosmic background radiation would survive into the
collapsing half. It was assumed that this radiation would be ran
domly dispersed so that it would strike any objects that are around
during the collapse. However, this assumes that each photon is caus
ally influenced only by its dim and distant past, never the future. On
reflection this is not what would be most probable. It is more likely
that the radiation would fall under the influence of its destiny if the
collapse is antithermodynamic. In that case the photons which are
radiated from stars now and pass into the collapsing phase of the
universe will be the same photons which are antithermodynamically
absorbed by the antithermodynamic stars in the collapse. If this
were to be the case then there would likewise be no anti
thermodynamic radiation from the future around now and we would
not be able to send paradoxical messages back in time. There would
be no inconsistency.
You might think that a huge coincidence would be required for
all the photons emitted by stars now to conspire to fall onto anti
thermodynamic stars in the future, but the whole point is that a low
entropy phase of the universe already appears as a fantastic statisti
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cal fluke. This comes about because the initial and final state force it
to happen and the rest of time has to cope with it. It drives evolution
and other acts of the universe which would otherwise seem highly
improbable. A fluke such as photons travelling through the aeons
and hitting an antithermodynamic star must be weighed against the
equally unlikely events which must happen if it hits a cold anti
thermodynamic surface.
Matter and Antimatter
I have been saying a lot about antithermodynamic matter and
radiation and you might have been wondering if it is related to anti
matter. They are certainly not the same thing because there is no dis
tinction between photons and antiphotons yet we can talk about
thermodynamic radiation and antithermodynamic radiation in terms
of whether they are causally effected by the past or future.
Substance made out of protons, electrons and neutrons is a dif
ferent matter. Time reversal (T) alone is not an exact symmetry of
nature but if we combine it with charge conjugation (C) and parity
inversion (P) we do get an exact symmetry called CPT. This opera
tion effectively exchanges matter and antimatter. In 1967, Andrei
Sakharov found a way to account for why the universe is dominated
by matter with very little antimatter. It is due to the slight CP violat
ing effects in the nuclear forces. In the heat of the big bang these
would have been significant enough to account for the imbalance left
over from the first instants. If this is correct then a similar effect
must apply in reverse at the big crunch which we are assuming is
antithermodynamic. The alarming consequence is that the collaps
ing phase shall be dominated by antimatter.
It is going to be more difficult to explain how thermodynamic
matter can transform into antithermodynamic antimatter some
where around the middle of time because CP violating effects are
improbable at low temperatures. If the universe lasts long enough the
problem will be resolved because protons can decay to produce posi
trons and then the electrons can antidecay to make antiprotons. But
the half life of this process is at least 10
32
years, so unless the uni
verse is set to live much longer than that there is a problem. Proton
decay could be forced to happen as the statistically least costly way
What About Causality?
135
of making the transformation but if so it would probably be happen
ing already. Experiments which try to detect proton decay say
otherwise.
A second possibility is that all the matter falls into black holes
where matter is indistinguishable from antimatter. The antimatter
would then have to emerge from white holes in the reverse fashion.
This brings us to the next problem. Where are the white holes?
Unless the universe is going to go on long enough for all the protons
to decay we will need them. Even if it is going to go on long enough
for the protons to decay, there are other particles such as neutrinos
which may never reach an equilibrium state with an equal mix of
particles and antiparticles. Only photons and other particles which
are their own antiparticles can be guaranteed to carry over from the
expanding phase to the collapsing phase without spoiling the time
symmetry.
Black Holes, White Holes.
If black holes can solve the matter to antimatter problem, they
themselves may present a greater problem. It is a fundamental prop
erty of black holes in classical general relativity that they swallow
up matter which can never escape again. They can only get bigger
and bigger. This is the second law of black hole thermodynamics.
How then, can the black holes which form from collapsed stars and
galaxies in the expanding universe be reconciled with an anti
thermodynamic collapsing universe?
The gravitational field equations of classical general relativity
are symmetric under time reversal just as for all the other forces. To
complement black holes there can also be white holes which are the
time reversal of black holes. Just as black holes swallow matter, al
ways get bigger and can never be destroyed, white holes can release
matter, always get smaller and can never be created. If black holes
survive after the first half of the history of the universe as the classi
cal theory says they must, then a Gold universe must likewise
contain white holes which are their time reversal. Those white holes
would have to be out there now and must have been already there at
the big bang, even though the true cause of their creation is in the
future.
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136
The white holes would be dormant, waiting for the distant future
when their destiny will be to release all the antithermodynamic anti
matter which makes up the antistars of the collapsing universe.
There seem to be some probable inconsistencies in this scenario.
We should be able to detect those white holes because they will act
as gravitational lenses even if they are alone in deep intergalactic
space. Astronomers are increasingly finding that black holes are
common and that they range in size from a few solar masses up to
billions of solar masses. The white holes would have to be at least as
common and as big. We do see gravitational lenses but they appear
to be due to ordinary galaxies and it already seems unlikely that we
can account for so many white holes in the universe. There are other
conceptual problems if white holes are around. What if they were to
collide with ordinary stars, galaxies or even dust. White holes must
attract ordinary matter yet it is not supposed to be able to fall in.
Dormant white holes would be very paradoxical objects, especially
if we could locate them. The difficulties would be even greater in the
early universe where they would inevitably have had a significant
influence.
It begins to look like we have finally found a likely contradiction
which would rule out a Gold universe, but once again we have only
considered the mixing solution for black and white holes. Could
there be a better meeting solution as there seems to be for radiation
and matter? The only way out would be if black holes could some
how transform gently into white holes. Then there would be no need
to account for white holes in the universe now. The black holes
which are being discovered all over the universe now, would trans
form into the complementary white holes which will have to be
around in the collapsing universe.
The transformation of black holes into white holes is not easy to
understand. In classical physics it simply cannot happen. In quantum
mechanics the situation is a little different. According to Hawking,
black holes radiate and can lose mass. When Hawking considered
the possibility of a Gold universe he considered whether it would be
possible for the transformation to happen. A black hole would be
come quiet when all the matter around it had been pulled in. It could
gently radiate but any black hole of the size we have found them to
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137
be would be too large to radiate significantly. How could it switch to
throwing out matter like a white hole?
As a matter of fact, a dormant black hole would be virtually in
distinguishable from a dormant white hole from an external point of
view. The gravitational field around them is the same. Only inter
nally are they different. Hawking argued that if a black hole comes
into thermal equilibrium with the radiation that surrounds it, so that
it radiates the same as it takes in, then it should be in a time symmet
ric state. This leaves open the possibility that the transformation
could take place. From outside the black hole Hawking radiation
would just appear to get stronger until what was a black hole is be
having just like a white hole. What would happen internally? A
black hole has an internal singularity which lies in the future of any
one who falls in, whereas a white hole must have one in the past
from which any outgoing matter originates.
H Dieter Zeh is one physicist who has continued to study this
possibility. Matter which fell into the black hole would seem to be
frozen on the event horizon from the point of view of someone who
stays outside. Zeh has suggested that quantum effects could simply
cause it to turn round and come back out again. The black hole sin
gularity would never form. Unfortunately it is difficult to envisage
how the dynamics could work. The curvature at the event horizon of
a large black hole is slight and quantum effects should be small.
From the point of view of what we are trying to imagine here there is
an even worse problem. We were going to claim that the matter
which fell into the black hole would later reemerge as antimatter
from the white hole, but if it is the same matter which turns round
and heads back out it cannot change from matter to antimatter.
It is interesting that Stephen Hawking still believes that black
holes and white holes are identical when they are very small. Such
virtual quantum black/white holes must be part of the vacuum but
they are very different from the macroscopic ones which form from
collapsed stars. They would be more like elementary particles and
may even turn out to be the same thing as particles when we under
stand quantum gravity. It would be extraordinary if large black holes
could also be identified with white holes. They would have to have
both a future and past singularity. As it happens, the classic static
model of a black hole found by Schwarzschild does have a future
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and past singularity, but a more realistic model of a black hole which
formed from a collapsing star cannot have such time symmetry in
classical general relativity. If it is possible for it to happen when
quantum gravity effects are taken into account it will be very differ
ent from what we expect classically. Yet, despite the strangeness of
the idea, the possibility cannot be ruled out. The closest description
of what it would be like in the language of physics we understand
would be that the inside of a black hole would be a quantum suppo
sition of the wave functions of a black hole and a white hole.
The black hole complementarity principle proposed by physicists
considering the information loss problem gives further hope to the
possibility that a black hole can transform into a white hole. The
principle asserts that there is no inconsistency between the point of
view of an observer who falls past the event horizon of a black hole
towards its singularity and another observer outside who sees him
stop at the horizon and eventually return as thermal Hawking radia
tion. If this is true then we should also accept that there is no
inconsistency if there is a third observer who emerges from the event
horizon as if it were a white hole too. It is as if the event horizon
were a crossroads in time.
The Shape of Things to Come
I have put together a picture of a Gold universe in which a closed
universe expands from a big bang then collapses towards a big
crunch. The collapsing phase will be like the expanding phase only
in reverse. Galaxies, stars and planets will be made of antimatter
and will absorb light and other radiation rather than emitting it and
will run their history in reverse. Life would also evolve backwards
driven by a decreasing entropy unlike the increasing entropy of the
expanding phase.
The sources of low entropy are both the initial and the final sin
gularity of the universe. Thus it has two origins. Entropy follows its
natural statistical tendency to increase away from those origins
where some unknown principle of quantum gravity must be respon
sible for the extraordinary low entropy. Although life evolves
backwards, intelligent life in the collapsing phase will have experi
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139
ences similar to ours. Their future is our past and they can find no
record of it.
The light radiation from our thermodynamic stars, as well as the
cosmic background radiation which fills space today, will survive
into the collapsing phase. It will gradually transform from being
thermodynamic to being antithermodynamic. All matter made of
particles with mass is most likely to fall into the black holes which
are the dead remnants of stars and galaxies. Even neutrinos must
follow such a fate, which may only be possible for them if they have
a small mass. The black holes themselves will slowly transform to
white holes from which the antithermodynamic matter of the col
lapsing phase emerges.
Perhaps the most difficult part of this vision for us is the fate of
ourselves and other life. It cannot survive until the collapse or even
leave any reminder of its past. Otherwise there might be a paradoxi
cal mixing of thermodynamic and antithermodynamic life. The
universe will see to it that this does not happen and its job will cer
tainly be made easier if the universe grows to a very old age before
the expansion stops.
Wider Perspectives
The universe can only be as Gold proposed if it is finite and
closed. This used to be the preferred model of theoretical cosmol
ogy. Cosmologists favoured a universe which is finite in space and
time mostly for philosophical reasons. These days they are generally
more open minded. Still it is most common to read about the stan
dard homogeneous cosmologies which were first worked out by
Alexsandr Friedmann in 1922. These can be either open or closed.
The closed case corresponds to the geometry of the Gold universe
but the open one is asymmetric in time. There is a single big bang
from which the entire universe emerges and then expands forever.
Space is infinite and time is indefinite into the future. There would
be no need for any time reversal in such a universe.
The question of homogeneity has always been a controversial
one in cosmology. In 1933 just a few years after Hubble had shown
that the universe is expanding, Arthur Milne proposed homogeneity
as a cosmological principle. It is certainly a convenient principle
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because homogeneous models of the universe are much easier to
analyse, but why should we believe it is true? Even in the 1930s
Fritz Zwicky was arguing for the presence of galactic clusters in the
cosmos, evidence for less homogeneity than others wanted. In 1953
Gérard de Vaucouleurs also produced evidence for large scale struc
ture but still most were sceptics. In the 1980s when detailed maps of
the distribution of galaxies were produced the doubters had to con
cede. There are huge voids and walls on scales which extend to a
significant fraction of the size of the observable universe.
Our measurements of the cosmic microwave backgrounds show
a high degree of isotropy and this is taken as proof that the universe
is homogeneous on larger scales. Our observation is limited by a
horizon defined by the age of the universe and the speed of light.
Thus we cannot observe anything beyond about 15 billion light years
distance. Why should we imagine that the size of the universe is a
similar order of magnitude to its current age? We have been unable
to measure the extent to which space is curved and cannot place lim
its on its size.
Martin Rees has compared our view of the universe with a sea
scape as seen from a ship in the middle of the ocean. As far as the
eye can see it seems unchanging except for the waves which we see
at close range. The view is limited to the horizon and beyond who
knows what there is. It seems to be only an application of Occam‟s
razor which justifies the assumption that space is homogenous on
scales hundreds of orders of magnitude larger than the observable
horizon.
Occam’s Razor
Occam‟s (or Ockham‟s) razor is a principle attributed to the 14th
century logician and Franciscan friar; William of Occam. Ockham
was the village in the English county of Surrey where he was born.
The principle states that "Entities should not be multiplied unnec
essarily." Sometimes it is quoted in one of its original Latin forms
to give it an air of authenticity.
"Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate"
"Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora"
"Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem"
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In fact, only the first two of these forms appear in his surviving
works and the third was written by a later scholar. Many scientists
have adopted or reinvented Occam‟s Razor. Isaac Newton stated the
rule: "We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as
are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances."
The most useful statement of the principle for scientists is,
"When you have two competing theories which make exactly the
same predictions, the one that is simpler is the better."
In physics we use the razor to cut away metaphysical concepts.
The canonical example is Einstein‟s theory of special relativity
compared with Lorentz‟s theory that ruler‟s contract and clocks slow
down when in motion through the Ether. Einstein‟s equations for
transforming spacetime are the same as Lorentz‟s equations for
transforming rulers and clocks, but Einstein and Poincaré recognised
that the Ether could not be detected according to the equations of
Lorentz and Maxwell. By Occam‟s razor it had to be eliminated.
But the nonexistence of the ether cannot be deduced from Oc
cam‟s Razor alone. It can separate two theories which make the
same predictions but does not rule out other theories which might
make a different prediction. Empirical evidence is also required and
Occam himself argued for empiricism, not against it.
Ernst Mach advocated a version of Occam‟s razor which he
called the Principle of Economy, stating that "Scientists must use
the simplest means of arriving at their results and exclude every
thing not perceived by the senses." Taken to its logical conclusion
this philosophy becomes positivism; the belief that what cannot be
observed does not exist. Mach influenced Einstein when he argued
that space and time are not absolute but he also applied positivism to
molecules. Mach and his followers claimed that molecules were
metaphysical because they were too small to detect directly. This
was despite the success the molecular theory had in explaining
chemical reactions and thermodynamics. It is ironic that while apply
ing the principle of economy to throw out the concept of the ether
and an absolute rest frame, Einstein published almost simultaneously
a paper on Brownian motion which confirmed the reality of mole
cules and thus dealt a blow against the use of positivism. The moral
of this story is that Occam‟s razor should not be wielded blindly. As
Einstein put it in his autobiographical notes:
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"This is an interesting example of the fact that even scholars of
audacious spirit and fine instinct can be obstructed in the interpreta
tion of facts by philosophical prejudices."
Occam‟s razor is often cited in stronger forms than Occam in
tended, as in the following statements...
"If you have two theories which both explain the observed
facts then you should use the simplest until more evidence comes
along"
"The simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more
likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations."
"If you have two equally likely solutions to a problem, pick
the simplest."
"The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most
likely to be correct."
... or in the only form which takes its own advice...
"Keep things simple!"
Notice how the principle has strengthened in these forms which
should be more correctly called the law of parsimony, or the rule of
simplicity. To begin with we used Occam‟s razor to separate theories
which would predict the same result for all experiments. Now we are
trying to choose between theories which make different predictions.
This is not what Occam intended. Should we not test those predic
tions instead? Obviously we should eventually, but suppose we are
at an early stage and are not yet ready to do the experiments. We are
just looking for guidance in developing a theory.
This principle goes back at least as far as Aristotle who wrote
"Nature operates in the shortest way possible." Aristotle went too
far in believing that experiment and observation were unnecessary.
The principle of simplicity works as a heuristic ruleofthumb but
some people quote it as if it is an axiom of physics. It is not. It can
work well in philosophy or particle physics, but less often so in
cosmology or psychology, where things usually turn out to be more
complicated than you ever expected.
Simplicity is subjective and the universe does not always have
the same ideas about simplicity as we do. Successful theorists often
speak of symmetry and beauty as well as simplicity. Paul Dirac said
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that if requirements for simplicity and beauty clash we should strive
for mathematical beauty first and simplicity second.
The law of parsimony is no substitute for insight, logic and the
scientific method. It should never be relied upon to make or defend a
conclusion. As arbiters of correctness only logical consistency and
empirical evidence are absolute. Dirac was very successful with his
method. He constructed the relativistic field equation for the electron
and used it to predict the positron. But he was not suggesting that
physics should be based on mathematical beauty alone. He fully ap
preciated the need for experimental verification.
The final word falls to Einstein, himself a master of the quotable
one liner. He warned,
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not
simpler."
An Inhomogeneous Universe
If there is enough matter in the expanding universe space will
have a positive curvature and the expansion will be slowing down.
Eventually it will stop and start to recollapse. If the best observa
tional data we have is taken at face value there is not enough matter
and the universe will continue to expand. It used to be thought that
there would be sufficient unseen dark matter to place the universe
near the critical point between eventual collapse and continued ex
pansion but a series of indirect observations now seems to indicate
otherwise. Unless further corrections change the situation again we
must now assume that the universe is not the simple closed cosmol
ogy.
Now cosmologists are turning to the open homogeneous cos
mologies as the most likely model of our universe. Time starts at a
big bang singularity and space is infinite from that moment onwards.
The observable universe is a small finite part of the whole universe
which lies inside the light cone traced back to the big bang. In the
diagram below, the size of the observable universe appears bigger
near the singularity but this is not an isometric diagram. In fact the
universe is expanding as illustrated by the sequence of fixed length
rulers which get smaller with time just as a scale gets smaller on a
flat map of the world with increasing distance from the poles.
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The net result is that the size of the observable universe shrinks
to zero near the horizon even though the whole universe remains
infinite.
This model of the universe poses some paradoxes. The singular
ity appears as a region of infinite extent yet it is everywhere uniform
and flat. There is nothing mathematically inconsistent about such a
universe and it does not come into contradiction with any known
laws of physics, but is it a reasonable model of the universe? The
uniformity suggests a difficult horizon problem: How is it co
ordinated over the infinite extent of the universe just an instant after
the big bang. In a finite closed universe the horizon problem can be
explained away by invoking inflationary theories, but no matter how
rapidly the universe may have expanded in the first instants you can
not explain correlations over unlimited distances.
One possible way to explain this homogeneity would be Pen
rose‟s Weyl curvature hypothesis. This suggests that there is some
physical law which applies to singularities and ensures that the Weyl
part of the curvature tensor must be zero there. That would be suffi
cient to resolve the problem and it is quite possible that it could be a
observer
Big
Bang
time
space
observable
universe
fixed
length
rulers
What About Causality?
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consequence of the unknown theory of quantum gravity which is
significant at the singularity. However, the singularities which form
in black holes cannot be subject to the same law since black holes
are finite in size. The only known distinction between black hole
singularities and the big bang is that the former always sits in the
future light cone of all observers while the latter is in the past. A law
which applies to one and not the other would have to break CPT in
variance. Penrose has conjectured this possibility but the favourite
theories of quantum gravity like superstring theory are all CPT in
variant. What is the solution to this puzzle?
In truth there are several acceptable resolutions, but which is the
most reasonable? How should Occam‟s razor be applied here? We
could postulate two physically different types of singularity for the
big bang and black holes to keep the simplest homogeneous model
alive, or we can break CPT, or we can discard the homogeneous uni
verse. In my opinion the last of these is the preferred but this is just
my philosophical prejudice. I would like the universe to be symmet
rical in time. It does not have to be so clearly symmetrical in shape
as the Gold universe. It may have a random distribution of regions
where time‟s arrow points in different directions and others where
the absence of matter or thermal equilibrium makes the direction of
flow indeterminate. All this must be happening far beyond our cur
rently observable horizon. This description of reality fits best the
storyteller‟s paradigm since it means the universe is more diverse.
Of course the universe has no obligation to satisfy anyone‟s philoso
phical preferences but it is at least worth while exploring this
possibility. A future unified theory may be able to tell us what the
universe is like on very large scales, but it might equally well remain
an unanswerable question.
Is The Big Bang a White Hole?
When people hear about the big bang theory they often ask
“Where is its centre?” The standard answer is that it has no centre
because it is expanding uniformly everywhere. In giving this answer
cosmologists are forgetting about alternative models which Georges
Lemaître first discovered in 1927 when he developed Friedmann‟s
original work into the big bang theory. Lemaître found solutions to
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the equations of general relativity which are centred on a point in
space. They are inhomogeneous spherically symmetric models of the
universe which have been rediscovered many times since, but they
are rarely considered as plausible cosmological models on very large
scales.
The time reversal of Lemaître‟s models can also describe the
formation of a black hole from a pressureless, spherically symmetri
cal, nonrotating cloud of dust. A particular case of this was studied
by Oppenheimer and Snyder in 1939. A sphere of dust is uniform in
density with empty space outside. The dust sphere collapses to form
a black hole. The interesting thing about this solution of the equa
tions of gravity is that the geometry inside the sphere is identical to
the standard homogenous cosmology of Friedmann except that it
runs in reverse. The lesson to be learnt from this is that the same
model in reverse is a possible model of the big bang. It looks identi
cal to the standard homogeneous big bang within a region which
might cover the whole observable universe. In other words, the big
bang could be a white hole which is indistinguishable from the stan
dard cosmological models for restricted observers such as us.
Lemaître‟s solutions were more general than this. The density of the
dust could vary gradually away from the centre, but so long as the
variation was gradual this could describe the universe with our ob
servable universe being one small region well within the event
horizon.
The idea that the big bang may be a white hole is not popular
with many serious cosmologists. One reason is that classically white
holes cannot form. Since I have discounted causality I can accept the
possibility of a white hole as easily as I can a black hole. Indeed, the
white hole could also be a black hole in accordance with Hawking‟s
complementarity. Once it was thought that the universe consisted of
just our galaxy which had a centre and no stars outside a certain
limit. Now I am suggesting that the big bang could be a similarly
isolated object on a much larger scale. Just as our galaxy turned out
to be one of many, so too may the big bang.
It is quite possible, as far as we can tell, that the big bang is ac
tually just a huge white hole which formed in a larger universe.
Perhaps on some huge scale there is a population of black and white
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holes of vastly different sizes. What does that say about the laws of
thermodynamics? We can expect that inside a very large white hole
time‟s arrow is flowing away from the singularity as we observe in
our neighbourhood of the universe. The opposite can be expected in
a very large black hole. The big bang is represented by a large object
which is both a black hole and a white hole with time flowing out
wards in both directions which we would call past and future. There
might be many such objects in the universe. Within them there are
smaller black holes which form from collapsing stars. These will
eventually emerge from the large white hole and may subsequently
fall into another large black hole. Then their arrow of time will re
verse as they become white holes.
According to this model black holes always become white holes
as the arrow of time reverses yet there are two distinct possibilities.
For small black and white holes the arrow of time always flows in,
while for large ones it always flows out. This is not inconsistent. The
arrow of time must be most strongly influenced by the largest singu
larity in the past light cone. The full explanation will have to await a
more unified theory of physics. The effects of quantum gravity near
a singularity must determine the extent of its homogeneity and low
entropy. Over all the universe is not governed by temporal causality.
Time flows in both directions. For example, the near flatness of the
universe near the big bang is due to influence from the future, not
the past.
Occam‟s razor does not have a very good track record in cos
mology. Usually space turns out to contain more complexity than we
imagined before we looked. It will be billions of years before we are
able to see beyond the current horizon defined by the speed of light.
In the shorter term, theory is our only hope to know what the struc
ture of spacetime is like on very large scales.
Time Travel
Apart from entropy there are other aspects of causality. We
know that in general relativity causal effects are limited by the light
cones which are part of the geometry of spacetime. But the geome
try is itself dynamic. In general relativity it is possible to construct
spacetime models which have closed timelike paths. If such things
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really exist in the universe we would be able to travel back to our
past.
Traditionally physicists have simply said that such universes
must be ruled out because if we could travel back to our past we
could change our history, which seems to raise contradictions. Re
cently some physicists have started to question this assumption. It
seems possible that quantum mechanics may allow closed time like
curves through spacetime wormholes to be constructed, at least in
principle. The contradictions which were thought to be a conse
quence of time travel do not stand up to close examination.
Perhaps it would be possible to travel back to the past and see
our parents but some chance event would prevent us from being able
to change their lives in ways which we know never happened. If that
is a correct interpretation then it attacks our faith in our own free
will.
There is perhaps little that we can conclude reliably about cau
sality from our current understanding of physics. Only when we
have found and understood the correct theory for quantum gravity
will we be able to know the truth. We may be prevented from find
ing that theory if we hold fast to our prejudices.
149
The Superstring Supermystery
Everything or Nothing?
In 1984 Michael Green and John Schwarz made a discovery
which might turn out to be the greatest advance in physics of all
time, if it is right. They found that a particular quantum field theory
of supersymmetric strings in 10 dimensions gives finite answers at
all orders in perturbation theory. This was a breakthrough because
the superstring theory had the potential to include all the particles
and forces in nature. It could be a completely unified theory of phys
ics. By 1985 the press had got hold of it. Articles appeared in
Science and New Scientist. They called superstrings a Theory Of
Everything.
Following the media reports about string theory there was an
immediate backlash. People naturally asked what this Theory Of
Everything had to tell us. The answer was that it could not yet tell us
anything, even about physics, yet. On closer examination it was re
vealed that the theory is not even complete. It exists only as a
perturbation series with an infinite number of terms. Although each
term is well defined and finite, the sum of the series will diverge. To
understand string theory properly it is necessary to define the action
principle for a nonperturbative quantum field theory. In the physics
of point particles it is possible to do this at least formally, but in
string theory success has evaded all attempts. To get any useful pre
dictions out of string theory it will be necessary to find non
perturbative results. The perturbation theory simply breaks down at
the Planck scale where stringy effects should be interesting.
More bad news was to come. Systematic analysis showed that
there were really several different tendimensional superstring theo
ries which are well defined in perturbation theory. If you count the
various open and closed string theories with all possible chirality
modes and gauge groups which have no anomalies, there are five in
all. This is not bad when compared to the infinite number of renor
malisable theories of point particles, but one of the original selling
points of string theory was its uniqueness. Worse still, to produce a
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fourdimensional string theory it is necessary to compactify six di
mensions into a small curled up space. There are estimated to be
many thousands of ways to do this. Each one predicts different parti
cle physics. With the Heterotic string it is possible to get
tantalisingly closed to the right number of particles and gauge
groups. At the moment there are just too many possibilities and the
problem is made more difficult because we do not know how the
supersymmetry is broken.
All this makes string theory look less promising. Some critics
called it a theory of nothing and advocated a more conservative ap
proach to particle physics tied more closely to experimental results.
Yet a large number of physicists have persisted. There is something
about superstring theory which is very persuasive.
Why String Theory?
The most commonly asked question from the public about string
theory is Why? To understand why physicists study string theory
rather than theories of surfaces or other objects we have to go back
to its origins. The first person to consider string theories was Paul
Dirac in 1950. Dirac had a way of doing physics which few others
managed so well. His motto was that “mathematics can lead us in a
direction we would not take if we only followed up physical ideas by
themselves.” The whole idea of it will seem crazy to most people
who have not seen this principle at work, but many theoretical
physicists now practice the same technique.
In 1950 it was known that physics holds fast to solid principles
including the principle of relativity, causality and the quantum ver
sion of the principle of least action. These impose very tight
mathematical constraints on the kind of theories you can build. One
day those principles may be superseded but it is not easy to modify
them without destroying the successes of the past. You cannot just
replace linear quantum mechanics with some nonlinear version and
expect it to make sense, nor can you break the symmetries of relativ
ity without invalidating the whole thing. There is more sense in
thinking about how physical theories can be generalised within these
principles and that is what Dirac was doing.
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At the time particle physics was understood in terms of quantum
field theory derived from quantised interaction of point particles.
There is very limited scope for relativistic theories of this type which
are renormalisable. We now know that YangMills theory with spin
half and spin zero particles with a few possible interaction terms is
all that is permitted. Dirac considered the possibility that more gen
eral theories might start from stringlike and membranelike objects
rather than point particles. It may seem like a wild idea but actually
there is not much else you can do without revising our concepts of
spacetime or quantum mechanics. As a mathematical problem in its
own right you can study the full class of possible theories of p
dimensional surfaces, known as pbranes moving in Ddimensional
space. 0branes are just particles, 1branes are strings and 2branes
are membranes. You can work out all the ways these objects might
interact which are consistent with relativity and then try to work out
which of those can be consistently quantised and which are consis
tent with causality. The final step would be to see which of the
remaining possibilities matches the real world. It is an ambitious
program which is far from easy to complete.
As it turned out Dirac‟s ideas about strings and membranes were
forgotten and history delivered string theory by a less direct route. In
1968 physicists were trying to understand the nature of the strong
nuclear interactions which held the quarks together in nucleons. It
was by no means clear that quantum field theory was adequate to
solve the problem. Even the quark hypothesis was not universally
accepted although experiments were just beginning to see signs of
their effects. One way to tackle the problem was to work directly
with the matrix of scattering amplitudes, the Smatrix, which de
scribes how hadronic particles interact. Instead of trying to derive it
from some underlying field theory it could be considered fundamen
tal. The rules of quantum mechanics and relativity restrict the S
matrix to satisfy a set of equations. It was hoped that a few more ad
ditional principles might pin it down to some unique form.
An extra principle which would help was a form of duality.
When two particles come together, interact and scatter off each other
they could have done one of two things. It could be that they ex
changed an intermediate particle, like an electron and positron
exchanging a photon. Or, it could be that they join to form a new
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particle which then reverts back to the original two, like an electron
and positron which annihilate briefly and are then recreated from a
photon. These two scattering modes are known as the tchannel and
schannel respectively. For strong interactions it was found experi
mentally that these two amplitudes were approximately the same.
There might be a principle which meant that the two channels were
somehow really the same thing. Could there be an underlying inter
action which possessed such duality exactly?
No sooner had the idea been thought of when Gabriele
Veneziano came up with a simple formula for the scattering ampli
tude which did indeed possess this duality. He gave no model of
what it was going on during the scattering process, just a formula
which satisfied the constraints on the Smatrix. It was not long be
fore the answer emerged suddenly from three different people.
Lenny Susskind, then at Yeshiva University published his “Dual
symmetric theory of hadrons”. Holger Nielsen of the Niels Bohr in
stitute in Copenhagen called his paper “An almost physical
interpretation of the dual N point function” while Yoichiro Nambu
in Chicago produced “Quark model and the factorisation of the
Veneziano amplitude”. It was 1970 and string theory had been re
born.
By that time the evidence in favour of quarks as constituents of
the proton and neutron was becoming more convincing, but nobody
could understand why they were never seen on their own. They
seemed to be bound together inside the hadrons. According to string
theory “bound” was just the right word. The quarks were always at
tached to the end of strings which resisted them being pulled apart.
When stretched too far it would break but a new quark antiquark
tchannel schannel
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pair formed from the energy released would take hold of the lose
ends. The process could also reverse when strings join together. In
spacetime the strings sweep out a surface or world sheet. The scat
tering of two mesons would now be described by a process in which
two strings joined momentarily and then broke. When the world
sheet is drawn the explanation for duality suddenly becomes clear.
The same picture can be interpreted as either a tchannel or s
channel scattering mode.
String theory was considered as a theory of strong interactions
for some time but it had problems. It only worked correctly in 26
dimensional spacetime, not a very physical feature. Eventually this
theory gave way to another theory called Quantum Chromo Dynam
ics which explained the strong nuclear interaction in terms of colour
charge on gluons. In any case, string theory may have sounded good
for mesons made of two quarks but protons have three. A string can
not have three ends. It looked like string theory was about to be lost
for a second time.
String theory suffered from certain inconsistencies apart from its
dependence on 26 dimensions of spacetime. It also had tachyons,
particles with imaginary mass which must travel faster than light.
Tachyons could reek havoc with causality and would destabilise the
vacuum, but string theory had already cast its spell on a small group
of physicists who felt there must be something more to it. Pierre
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Ramond, Andre Neveu and John Schwarz looked for other forms of
string theory and found one with fermions in place of bosons. The
new theory in 10 dimensions was supersymmetric and, magically,
the tachyon modes vanished.
What then was the interpretation of this new model? Schwarz
teamed up with Joel Scherk and found that at low energies the
strings would appear as particles. Only at very high energies would
these particles be revealed as bits of string. The strings could vibrate
in an infinite tower of quantised modes in an ever increasing range
of mass, spin and charge. The lowest modes could correspond to all
the known particles. Better still, the spin two modes would behave
like gravitons. The theory was necessarily a unified theory of all in
teractions including quantum gravity. In 1978 the leading candidate
for a super unified theory was elevendimensional supergravity and
superstrings were largely ignored. Despite early hopes, supergravity
was not quite renormalisable and it just failed to have the right prop
erties to explain the leftright asymmetry of particle physics. Then
came the historic 1984 paper of Green and Schwarz and their dis
covery of almost miraculous anomaly cancellations in one particular
theory. Almost instantly superstrings took over as the hottest topic of
research.
To come back to the original question, why string theory? The
answer is simply that it has the right mathematical properties to be
able to reduce to theories of point particles at low energies, while
being a perturbatively finite theory which includes gravity. The sim
ple fact is that there are no other known theories which accomplish
so much. Of course physicists have now studied the mathematics of
vibrating membranes in any number of dimensions. The fact is that
there are only a certain number of possibilities to try and only the
known string theories work out right in perturbation theory.
Of course it is possible that there are other completely different
selfconsistent theories but they would lack the important perturbat
ive form of string theories. The fact is that string theorists are now
turning to other pbrane theories. Harvey, Duff and others have
found equations for certain pbranes which suggest that self
consistent field theories of this type might exist, even if they do not
have a perturbative form.
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155
All Is String
In 1985 string theory developed rapidly. It was discovered to
have a rich and compelling mathematical structure which persuaded
a growing band of physicists that it must be the next step forward.
All particles were imagined to be tiny threads vibrating like resonat
ing guitar strings. The strings can be open ended or they can be
closed loops. The different harmonics correspond to different parti
cles with different mass, spin, charge etc. In experiments physicists
will only have seen the first few modes of vibration among the parti
cles we know since most of them will have relatively high mass.
There are modes which can have as high a mass and spin as you may
demand. The strings are not made of anything in particular. It is
wrong to say they are made of energy because energy is actually just
one of the properties they carry. They are best thought of as strands
of pure substance with length but no thickness.
One of the strengths of string theory is that it also included mass
less spin two bosons in its repertoire. These were identified as
gravitons; quantum particles of gravity. Physicists had thought be
fore then that they could see how to fit together the electromagnetic
and nuclear forces but the gravitational force had been a big prob
lem. Now they were replacing quantum field theory, which could not
include gravity, with string theory which must include it.
By 1981 Green and Schwarz had identified two separate types of
superstring theory. Type I is the theory of open strings but it must
include closed strings as well to be complete. The other known as
Type II has only closed strings. In the Type II theories the bosons
and fermions appear as wave modes which circle round the strings in
opposite directions. There is a version of either type for each gauge
group, but the breakthrough of 1984 was the discovery that the quan
tisation of Type I is only free of infinities when the gauge group is
SO(32) . They also found that Type II theory worked with the same
group and that it had two versions Type IIa and Type IIb. In 1985 the
family of string theories was enlarged by the arrival of the heterotic
string. This version discovered at Princeton by David Gross, Jeffrey
Harvey, Emil Martinec and Ryan Rohm, also had two versions
which were finite. One with gauge group SO(32) again, and the
other with E8~E8. The total number of possibilities was therefore
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five, sometimes denoted I, IIa, IIb, HO and HE. No other theories
with the same good behaviour can be found. String theorists would
like to have a unique theory so five is an embarrassment of choice.
On the other hand it is much better than the situation regarding quan
tum field theory which works with any gauge group and a whole
variety of possible matter fields, yet cannot unify all the forces.
All five superstring theories only work in 10 dimensions, 9 space
dimensions plus 1 time dimension. If they have anything to do with
real physics then six of the space dimensions must be rolled up or
compactified just as a twodimensional sheet of paper can be rolled
into a narrow tube which becomes a onedimensional line. If the dis
tance around the compact dimension is very small, perhaps the
Planck length, then we would not be aware of it. While there is only
one way to roll up one dimension giving a tubular crosssection
which is a circle, more dimensions can be rolled up in many differ
ent ways. With two dimensions there is already the choice of a
sphere, torus or other surfaces with more than one hole. These are
topologically distinct and for any given choice of compactification
for each string theory a different theory of the universe with differ
ent particles is found. The number of ways you can go about
reducing string theory to four dimensions in this fashion is just mind
boggling. It is too difficult to find the one which should correspond
to our universe.
String theory is a superb example of unification. Through super
symmetry, matter is united with force. There is only one type of
object; the string. If it vibrates one way it can be a quark, another
way it is an electron, change its mode again and it becomes a force
carrying photon or even a graviton.
But by 1988 string theory was in trouble. Past history shows that
breakthroughs in physics are at first largely ignored until experiment
forces the community of physicists to accept them. Such had been
the case with atoms, relativity, parity violation, quark theory and
electroweak unification. By contrast string theory was immediately
taken up by a huge proportion of physicists and then it failed to
make any experimental predictions which could be tested. Richard
Feynman was one of those who spoke against his mostly younger
colleagues who supported string theory. He did not like the fact that
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157
string theorists were not calculating anything which would allow
them to check their ideas empirically.
Yet they carried on. String theory was still young and rather than
letting its critics stop them they would rise to the challenge. The ac
knowledged leader in the fight to understand string theory is Ed
Witten. He speaks in a very different tone, explaining that the critics
do not seem to have fully grasped the scope and richness of the
structure involved in string theory. They are too impatient for quick
answers.
Duality
In 1986 one of the niggling problems in superstring theory was
the fact that there were 5 different versions. Which one would corre
spond to our world and what is the point of the other four? Then
there was a sequence of big discoveries which brought new hope.
A fine example of the rich and beautiful structure of string the
ory is Tduality, short for target space duality. The target space of a
string theory is just the spacetime in which it is placed. The five
principal superstring theories are most at home in flat ten
dimensional spacetime infinite in all directions, but they can also be
placed in spacetimes where some of the dimensions have been
compactified. The simplest case is where one of the space dimen
sions is rolled up round a circle of radius R. A string theory in such a
spacetime appears like a ninedimensional theory of strings. The
rolled up dimension becomes invisible and the compactification ra
dius R becomes just one of many arbitrary parameters.
Since there are five superstring theories in 10 dimensions and
only one way to compactify to 9 dimensions, you would expect there
to be five superstring theories in 9 dimensions too. In actual fact
there are only three. The two different heterotic theories in 10 di
mensions, HE and HO, reduce to the same ninedimensional theory.
The compactification radii R
E
for HE and R
O
for HO heterotic string
appear as a parameter in this theory but they are related inversely R
E
= /R
O
. HE is recovered as the limit of the ninedimensional string
theory as R
E
is made large and HO is the limit as R
O
is made large.
So the two heterotic string theories are really two aspects of the
same theory. They are said to be Tdual. The same magic can be ap
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plied to the two Type II theories. IIa is Tdual to IIb. This leaves us
with just three separate superstring theories Type I, Type II and Het
erotic.
That is how the situation stood in 1993 but then another kind of
duality was found. It concerns a relation between electric charges
and magnetic monopoles. Maxwell‟s equations for electromagnetic
waves in free space are symmetric between electric and magnetic
fields. A changing magnetic field generates an electric field and a
changing magnetic field generates an electric one. The equations are
the same in each case, apart from a sign change. If you take the
equations and switch the electric and magnetic fields, while chang
ing the sign of one of them, you arrive back at the same form. The
free fields without charges are invariant but if electric charges are
included there must also be magnetic charges to complete the sym
metry. However, it is an experimental observation that there are no
magnetic monopole charges in nature which mirror the electric
charge of electrons and other particles. Despite some quite careful
experiments only dipole magnetic fields which are generated by cir
culating electric charges have ever been seen.
In classical electrodynamics there is no inconsistency in a theory
which places both magnetic and electric monopoles together. In
quantum electrodynamics this is not so easy. To quantise Maxwell‟s
equations it is necessary to introduce a vector potential field from
which the electric and magnetic fields are derived by differentiation.
This procedure cannot be done in a way which is symmetric between
the electric and magnetic fields.
Forty years ago Paul Dirac was not convinced that this ruled out
the existence of magnetic monopoles. Again motivated by mathe
matical beauty in physics, he tried to formulate a theory in which the
gauge potential could be singular along a string joining two mag
netic charges in such a way that the singularity could be displaced
through gauge transformations and must therefore be considered
physically inconsequential. The theory was not quite complete but it
did have one saving grace. It provided a tidy explanation for why
electric charges must be quantised as multiples of a unit of electric
charge.
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159
In the 1970s it was realised by 't Hooft and Polyakov that grand
unified theories which might unify the strong and electroweak
forces would get around the problem of the singular gauge potential
because they had a more general gauge structure. In fact these theo
ries would predict the existence of magnetic monopoles. Even their
classical formulation could contain these particles which would form
out of the matter fields as topological solitons.
There is a simple model which gives an intuitive idea of what a
topological soliton is. Imagine first a straight wire pulled tight like a
washing line with many clothes pegs strung along it. Imagine that
the clothes pegs are free to rotate about the axis of the line but that
each one is attached to its neighbours by elastic bands on the free
ends. If you turn up one peg it will pull those nearby up with it.
When it is let go it will swing back like a pendulum but the energy
will be carried away by waves which travel down the line. The an
gles of the pegs approximate a field along the onedimensional line.
The equation for the dynamics of this field is known as the sine
Gordon equation. It is a pun on the KleinGordon equation which is
the correct linear equation for a scalar field and which is the first
order approximation to the sineGordon equation for small ampli
tude waves. If the sineGordon equation is quantised it will be found
to be a description of interacting scalar fields in one dimension.
The interesting behaviour of this system appears when some of
the pegs are swung through a large angle of 360 degrees over the top
of the line. If you grab one peg and swing it over in this way you
would create two twists in the opposite sense around the line. These
twists are quite stable and can be made to travel up and down the
line. A twist can only be made to disappear in a collision with a twist
in the opposite direction.
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These twists are examples of topological solitons. They can be
regarded as being like particles and antiparticles but they exist in the
classical physics system and are apparently quite different from the
scalar particles of the quantum theory. In fact the solitons also exist
in the quantum theory but they can only be understood non
perturbatively. So the quantised sineGordon equation has two types
of particle which are quite different.
What makes this equation so remarkable is that there is a non
local transformation of the field which turns it into another one
dimensional equation known as the Thirring model. The transforma
tion maps the soliton particles of the sineGordon equation onto the
ordinary quantum excitations of the Thirring model, so the two types
of particle are not so different after all. We say that there is a duality
between the two models, the sineGordon and the Thirring. They
have different equations but they are really the same because there is
a transformation which takes one to the other.
The relevance of this is that the magnetic monopoles predicted in
GUT‟s are also topological solitons, though the configuration in
threedimensional space is more difficult to visualise than for the
one dimension of the clothesline. It would be nice if there was a
similar duality between electric and magnetic charges as the one dis
covered for the sineGordon and Thirring equations. If there was
then a duality between electric and magnetic fields would be demon
strated. It would not be quite a perfect symmetry because we know
that magnetic monopoles must be very heavy if they exist.
In 1977 Olive and Montenen conjectured that this kind of duality
could exists, but the mathematics of field theories in 3 space dimen
sions is much more difficult than that of one dimension and it seems
beyond hope that such a duality transformation can be constructed.
But they made one step further forward. They showed that the dual
ity could only exist in a supersymmetric version of a GUT. This is
quite tantalising given the increasing interest in supersymmetric
GUT‟s which are now considered more promising than the ordinary
variety of GUT‟s for a whole host of reasons.
Until 1994 most physicists thought that there was no good rea
son to believe that there was anything to the OliveMontenen
conjecture. Then Nathan Seiberg and Ed Witten made a break
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through which rocked the worlds of physics and mathematics. By
means of a special set of equations they demonstrated that a certain
supersymmetric field theory did indeed exhibit electromagnetic du
ality. As a bonus their method can be used to solve many unsolved
problems in topology and physics. The duality exchanges strong
coupling with weak coupling. This is very significant for theories
like QCD where the strong coupling limit is not understood.
This kind of duality is now known as Sduality to distinguish it
from Tduality. In string theory Sduality is very natural. There is a
general rule about the dimensions of dual objects. An “electric”
p1brane which is a fundamental construct of a theory in D dimen
sions can have a p2brane “magnetic” soliton when p1 + p2 = D  4.
In the familiar case the electric and magnetic charges in D=4 are
particles, i.e. 0branes. In D=10 string theory the strings are 1branes
so their duals must be (1041)dimensional 5branes. In the last year
physicists have discovered how to apply tests of duality to different
string and pbrane theories in various dimensions. Conjectures have
been made and tested. This does not prove that the duality is correct
but each time a test has had the potential to show an inconsistency it
has failed to destroy the conjectures. It now seems that any string
theory with sufficient supersymmetry must have an Sdual waiting to
be found. What makes this discovery so useful is that the dualities
are a nonperturbative feature of string theory. Now many physicists
see that pbrane theories can be as interesting as string theories in a
nonperturbative setting.
Using Tduality we made reduced the five superstring theories to
three. Now with Sduality we can make further links which leave
them all connected. Type I is Sdual to HO while HE is Sdual to IIa
(but only when compactified to six dimensions). The last of the five
IIb is self dual.
That was not quite the end of the story. If these five theories are
all part of the same thing then what is that thing? The answer, it
seems, is that they are all derived from something called Mtheory in
11 dimensions. Mtheory is like string theory except that it is a the
ory of membranes (2branes) rather than strings (1branes). It also
has an Sduality between its 2branes and solitonic 5branes. All five
string theories are special points in the parameter space of this one
theory, but so is elevendimensional supergravity theory, the same
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theory that string theory ousted as the most popular superunified
theory in 1984.
This may be too simple a picture of Mtheory which really in
cludes open and closed strings, membranes, pbranes etc. Each of the
string theories appears in some corner of Mtheory where particular
states become weakly coupled and can be described using perturba
tion theory.
It would be wrong to say that very much of this is understood
yet. There is still nothing like a correct formulation of Mtheory or
pbrane theories in their full quantum form, but there is new hope
because now it is seen that all the different theories can be seen as
part of one unique theory. The best way to formulate that theory is
not yet known.
I
HO
HE
IIa
IIb
Supgravity
Mtheory
T
S T
S
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Black Strings
As if one major conceptual breakthrough was not enough, string
theorists had to come to terms with a whole wave of new finds
which started around 1994. Just as physicists have been quietly
speculating about electromagnetic duality for decades, a few have
also speculated that somehow elementary particles could be the same
things as black holes so that matter could be regarded as a feature of
the geometry of spacetime.
It is curious that various stellar objects under the influence of
strong gravity parallel various entities from particle physics. A white
dwarf star is like an atom in that it resists collapse due to the Pauli
exclusion principle. A more massive star will collapse further to a
neutron star which is like a stable nucleus. A stronger gravitational
force can reduce it to a quark star which is like a neutron. The final
stage of gravitational collapse reduces the star to a black hole. If the
analogy continues to hold, the black hole should be like a quark or
other elementary particle.
The theory started to look a little less ridiculous when Hawking
postulated that black holes actually radiate particles. The process
could be likened to a very massive particle decaying. If a black hole
were to radiate long enough it would eventually lose so much energy
that its mass would reduce to the Planck scale. This is still much
heavier than any elementary particle we know but quantum effects
would be so overwhelming on such a black hole that it would be dif
ficult to see how it might be distinguished from an extremely
unstable and massive particle in its final explosion.
To make such an idea concrete requires a full theory of quantum
gravity and since string theory claims to be just that, it seems a natu
ral step to compare string states and black holes. We know that
strings can have an infinite number of states of ever increasing spin,
mass and charge. Likewise a black hole, according to the no hair
conjecture is also characterised only by its spin, mass and charge.
With magnetic duality we can add magnetic charge to the list. It is
therefore quite plausible that there is a complementarity between
string states and black hole states, and in fact this hypothesis is quite
consistent with all mathematical tests which have been applied. It is
not something which can be established with certainty simply be
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cause there is not a suitable definition of string theory to prove the
identity. Nevertheless, many physicists now consider it reasonable to
regard black holes as being single string states which are continually
decaying to lower states through Hawking radiation.
It was discovered that if you consider Planck mass black holes in
the context of string theory then it is possible for spacetime to un
dergo a smooth transition from one topology to another. This means
that many of the possible topologies of the curled up dimensions are
connected and may pave a way to a solution of the selection of vac
uum states in string theory.
String Symmetry
Superstring theory is full of symmetries. There are gauge sym
metries, supersymmetries, covariance, dualities, conformal
symmetries and many more. But superstring theory is supposed to be
a unified theory which should mean that its symmetries are unified.
In the perturbative formulation of string theory that we have, the
symmetries are not unified.
One thing about string theory which was discovered very early
on was that at high temperatures it would undergo a phase transition.
The temperature at which this happens is known as the Hagedorn
temperature after a paper written by Hagedorn back in 1968, but it
was in the 1980s that physicists such as Witten and Gross explored
the significance of this for string theory.
The Hagedorn temperature of superstring theory is very high,
such temperatures would only have existed during the first 10
43
sec
onds of the universe existence, if indeed it is meaningful to talk
about time in such situations at all. Calculations suggest that certain
features of string theory simplify above this temperature. The impli
cation seems to be that a huge symmetry is restored. This symmetry
would be broken or hidden at lower temperatures, presumably leav
ing the known symmetries as residuals.
The problem then is to understand what this symmetry is. If it
was known, then it might be possible to work out what string theory
is really all about and answer all the puzzling questions it poses.
This is the superstring mystery.
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165
A favourite theory is that superstring theory is described by a
topological quantum field theory above the Hagedorn temperature.
TQFT is a special sort of quantum field theory which has the same
number of degrees of gauge symmetry as it has fields, consequently
it is possible to transform away all field variables except those which
depend on the topology of spacetime. Quantum gravity in (2+1)
dimensional spacetime is a TQFT and is sufficiently simple to
solve, but in the real world of (3+1)dimensional Einstein Gravity
this is not the case, or so it would seem.
But TQFT in itself is not enough to solve the superstring mys
tery. If spacetime topology change is a reality then there must be
more to it than that. Most physicists working in string theory believe
that a radical change of viewpoint is needed to understand it. At the
moment we seem to be faced with the same kind of strange contra
dictions that physicists faced exactly 100 years ago over
electromagnetism. That mystery was finally resolved by Einstein and
Poincaré when they dissolved the ether. To solve string theory it
may be necessary to dissolve spacetime altogether.
In string theory as we understand it now, spacetime curls up and
changes dimension. A fundamental minimum length scale is intro
duced, below which all measurement is possible. It will probably be
necessary to revise our understanding of spacetime to appreciate
what this means. Even the relation between quantum mechanics and
classical theory seems to need revision. String theory may explain
why quantum mechanics works according to some string theorists.
All together there seem to be rather a lot of radical steps to be
made and they may need to be put together into one leap in the dark.
Those who work at quantum gravity coming from the side of relativ
ity rather than particle physics see things differently. They believe
that it is essential to stay faithful to the principles of diffeomorphism
invariance from general relativity rather than working relative to a
fixed background metric as string theorists do. They do not regard
renormalisability as an essential feature of quantum gravity.
Working from this direction they have developed the canonical
theory of quantum gravity which is also incomplete. It is a theory of
loops, tantalisingly similar in certain ways to string theory, yet dif
ferent. Relativists such as Lee Smolin hope that there is a way to
bridge the gap and develop a unified method
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The Principle of Event Symmetry
The Bucket of Dust
Many theoretical physicists, and other people besides, will ask
themselves at some time “What could the most fundamental laws of
physics be like?” It is next to impossible to find the answer but it is
still a useful question to think about. Most people will give an an
swer tainted by what they are familiar with. Descartes thought the
answer would be mechanical and causal because that was what was
familiar at the time. Today we might think of quantum mechanics
instead.
As we ascend a mountain the scenery changes. We may pass
from grassy pastures to harsher slopes, through alpine forest, up
rocky cliffs till beyond the snow line we find the summit. As we
climb the mountain of scientific truth our experience is similar.
What will remain of our familiar surroundings when we reach the
top, if indeed there is a top. When we passed from the land of classi
cal certainty to the indeterminism of quantum mechanics Einstein
said it was like the ground had been pulled out from under us leaving
nothing to stand on. He was left behind as others climbed on. As we
rise higher spacetime is fading from our grasp and we have even
less to hold on to.
A philosopher would tell you that the only thing which remains
at the top is the realm of our perceptions. According to the story
teller‟s paradigm the universe is no more than the sum total of all
possible experiences which can be perceived. This is realised in the
multiverse of quantum mechanics described by Feynman‟s path in
tegral. Thus some remnant of quantum mechanics should be valid on
at least the final slopes. All else must emerge further down the levels
of thought.
Indirectly we apprehend events and the relations between them.
According to a dictionary an event is anything which happens, but to
a physicist an event is also a point of spacetime; a place and a mo
ment where something could happen. Events are also what the
physicist sees in his experiments when particles come together and
The Principle of Event Symmetry
167
interact. Particle physics, both theoretical and experimental is the
pursuit of the most basic events and the rules which join them.
Spacetime is made of events but events are more fundamental than
their when and where. Spacetime forms out of the relationships be
tween events.
In 1925 Alfred North Whitehead, philosopher of science, asked
us to regard events as primordial. Spacetime is constructed by us
from the prehension of events. A physics based on events is some
times called Whiteheadian but the origins of such philosophy can be
traced back through the monadology of Leibniz to the atomistic doc
trine of space and time in the Kalám of tenth century Baghdad, and
perhaps beyond to the ancient Greeks.
With heavy irony John Archibald Wheeler described a universe
constructed out of events as “a bucket of dust”. He sought a pre
geometry for spacetime but felt that starting from the set of events
is premature. A deeper guiding principle must be found.
The Universal Lattice
After I had finished my doctorate in 1985 I also wondered what
the fundamental laws of physics might be like. My thesis had been
about lattice gauge theories so I was used to thinking about space
time as made up of discrete events (or lattice sites) with links joining
nearest neighbours together. Fields are represented by numbers at
tached to events and links. It is just an approximation trick for doing
calculations. The continuum is supposed to be regained from the
cubic array of the lattice in the limit when the distance between lat
tice points goes to zero. In fact the sites can be linked in other ways,
so long as they make some kind of fourdimensional lattice. The
continuum limit should be the same in all cases.
I imagined what might happen if the fixed linkage structure of
the lattice was discarded. It could be made dynamic allowing any
site to link to any other nearby site at random. Why not even allow
ing linkage to any site no matter how far away? For maximum
simplicity each site should have no preferences for which other sites
it likes to link to. When doing lattice gauge theory calculations, the
path integral of quantum mechanics becomes a sum over different
configurations of the field variables weighted by a factor related to
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168
the action. Dynamic links changing at random fit into the sum quite
naturally. It now includes a sum over all the ways of linking up the
lattice sites as well as a sum over the values of the field variables.
You can even look for interesting physics in models where there are
no field variables, just random links between events.
This paints a rather strange image of the universe. Events and
links between events would be fundamental objects but there would
be no built in structure to spacetime, no continuity, no dimension.
The dynamics would be determined by the form chosen for the ac
tion as a function of the way the events were linked up. It might take
into account the number of links meeting at each event, the number
of triangles which form and other similar quantities which depend on
the network of connections. For the right choice of action, lattices
with a fourdimensional structure might be favoured and the struc
ture of spacetime could be determined dynamically. In some
appropriate limit a continuum might emerge. If it could be done it
would show how the laws of physics, including the nature of space
time, could be derived from much simpler equations than those nor
mally used to specify them.
Such speculations are often naive and unlikely to work out right,
which is why Wheeler likened such models to a bucket of dust. Nev
ertheless you have to try these things out because if you do not make
a few mistakes you never learn anything. The attractive thing about
the idea for me was that you could simulate such systems on a com
puter and watch what happened. The results I got were not overly
encouraging. There is no simple and natural way to specify the dy
namics of the lattice so that it tends to form structures like space
time, unless you build in some preference for which sites want to
join up. To go further it would be necessary to think more carefully
about how spacetime is expected to behave.
Witten’s Puzzle
Back in 1958 John Wheeler suggested that when general relativ
ity and quantum theory were put together there would be astonishing
things going on at the very small length scale known as the Planck
length (about 10
35
metres). If we could look down to such distances
we would see space changing wildly. In general relativity gravity
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169
results from spacetime curvature. If gravity is quantised the curva
ture should fluctuate. Wheelers rough calculations showed that at the
Planck scale the fluctuations would be so wild that space would be
likely to tare open forming microscopic wormholes and other topo
logical variations. The structure of this spacetime foam has been a
mysterious area of research ever since.
Topology change is found to be an important feature of super
string theory, so again string theorists seem to be on the right track.
When they try to understand together the concepts of topology
change and universal symmetry they come up against a strange
enigma known as Witten‟s Puzzle after the much cited string theo
rist, Ed Witten, who first described it.
The difficulty is that both diffeomorphism invariance and inter
nal gauge symmetry are strictly dependent on the topology of the
space. Different topologies lead to nonequivalent symmetries. The
diffeomorphism group of smooth mappings on a sphere is not iso
morphic to the diffeomorphism group on a torus. The same applies
to internal gauge groups. If topology change is permitted then it fol
lows that the universal symmetry must, in some fashion, contain the
symmetry structures for all allowable topologies at the same time.
Witten admitted he could think of no reasonable solution to this
problem.
An old maxim of theoretical physics says that once you have
ruled out reasonable solutions you must resort to unreasonable ones.
As it happens there is one unreasonable but simple solution to Wit
ten‟s puzzle. It can already be identified as a property of the
universal lattice where any event has no preference for which other
events it connects to. This implies a simple permutation symmetry
on events.
Consider diffeomorphisms to begin with. A diffeomorphism is a
suitably smooth one to one mapping of a space onto itself. The set of
all such mappings form a group under composition which is the dif
feomorphism group of the space. A group is an algebraic realisation
of symmetry. One group which contains all possible diffeomorphism
groups as a subgroup is the group of all onetoone mappings irre
spective of how smooth or continuous they are. This group is the
symmetric group on the manifold. Unlike the diffeomorphism
groups, the symmetric groups on two topologically different space
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
170
times are algebraically identical. A solution of Witten‟s puzzle
would therefore be for the universal group to contain the symmetric
group acting on spacetime events.
This is called The Principle of Event Symmetry which states
that: The universal symmetry of the laws of physics includes the
symmetric group acting on spacetime events.
The principle of event symmetry is realised by the universal lat
tice, but it is more general. The universal lattice is a naive model of
spacetime whereas event symmetry is a deep principle which solves
the puzzle of combining symmetry and topology change. There are
also philosophical reasons for holding to the principle of event
symmetry. According to the storyteller‟s paradigm, the multiverse
describes all ways of putting together events. The events are taken
from a heap within which they are not ordered. If something is not
ordered then it does not matter how its contents are mixed up. They
can be permuted without consequence. The symmetric group is a
symmetry of the heap.
In its simplest form, event symmetry is realised in a heap of dis
crete events. The universal lattice is a good example. But the
symmetric group can be a subgroup of a larger group allowing the
individuality of events to be blurred. There are other ways of includ
ing event symmetry within larger symmetries. You can have a
mapping from a larger symmetry onto a smaller one which preserves
its structure. This is called a homomorphism. You can also deform
symmetries by introducing a more general symmetry structure with a
deformation parameter which reduces to something containing the
symmetric group for one special case of that parameter. I will de
scribe examples of all of these. The beauty of event symmetry is
revealed in the ways it can become part of the full universal symme
try.
SpaceTime and Soap Films
There are a number of reasons why this principle of event sym
metry may seem unreasonable. For one thing it suggests that we
must treat spacetime at some level as a discrete set of events. In
fact, as I have already explained, there are plenty of reasons to be
lieve in discrete spacetime. Theorists working on quantum gravity
The Principle of Event Symmetry
171
in various forms agree that the Planck scale defines a minimum
length beyond which the Heisenberg uncertainty principle makes
measurement impossible. In addition, arguments based on black hole
thermodynamics suggest that there must be a finite number of physi
cal degrees of freedom in a region of space.
A more direct reason to doubt the principle would be that there is
no visible or experimental evidence of such a symmetry. The princi
ple suggests that the world should look the same after permutations
of spacetime events. It should even be possible to swap events from
the past with those of the future without consequence. This does not
seem to accord with experience. Event symmetry cannot be a princi
ple of nature unless it is well hidden. Since the symmetric group
acting on spacetime can be regarded as a discrete extension of the
diffeomorphism group in general relativity, it is worth noting that the
diffeomorphism invariance is not all that evident either. If it were
then we would expect to be able to distort spacetime in ways remi
niscent of the most bizarre hall of mirrors without consequence.
Everything around us would behave like it is made of liquid rubber.
Instead we find that only a small part of the symmetry which in
cludes rigid translations and rotations is directly observed on human
scales. The rubbery nature of spacetime is more noticeable on cos
mological scales where spacetime can be distorted in quite
counterintuitive ways.
If spacetime is eventsymmetric then we must account for
spacetime topology as it is observed. Topology is becoming more
and more important in fundamental physics. Theories of magnetic
monopoles, for example, are heavily dependent on the topological
structure of spacetime. To solve this problem is the greatest chal
lenge for the eventsymmetric theory.
To get a more intuitive idea of how the event symmetry of space
time can be hidden we use an analogy. Anyone who has read popular
articles on the Big Bang and the expanding universe will be familiar
with the analogy in which spacetime is compared to the surface of
an expanding balloon. The analogy is not perfect since it suggests
that curved spacetime is embedded in some higherdimensional flat
space, when in fact, the mathematical formulation of curvature
avoids the need for such a thing. Nevertheless, the analogy is useful
so long as you are aware of its limitations.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
172
We can extend the balloon analogy by imagining that spacetime
events are like a discrete set of particles populating some higher
dimensional space. The particles might float around like a gas of
molecules interacting through some kind of forces. In any gas model
with just one type of molecule the forces between any two molecules
will take the same form dependent on the distance between them and
their relative orientations. Such a system is therefore invariant under
permutations of molecules. In other words, it has the same symmet
ric group invariance as that postulated in the principle of event
symmetric spacetime, except that it applies to molecules rather than
events.
Given this analogy we can use what we know about the behav
iour of gases and liquids to gain a heuristic understanding of event
symmetric spacetime. For one thing we know that gases can con
dense into liquids and liquids can freeze into solids. Once frozen, the
molecules stay fixed relative to their neighbours and form rigid ob
jects. In a solid the symmetry among the forces still exists but
because the molecules are held within a small place the symmetry is
hidden.
Another less common form of matter gives an even better pic
ture. If the forces between molecules are just right then a liquid can
form thin films or bubbles. This is familiar to us whenever we see
soap suds. A soap film takes a form very similar to the balloon
which served as our analogy of spacetime for the expanding uni
verse. The permutation symmetry of the molecular forces is hidden
and all that remains is a surface. The same idea works in higher di
mensions so it is possible that fourdimensional spacetime may
condense out of something like a gas of events, just like the forma
tion of a soap bubble. Curvature of spacetime is similar to the
curvature of the surface of the soap film.
Permutation City
In 1991 I had worked out the basic ideas behind the principle of
event symmetry. At that time I was working as a contract software
engineer and was isolated from front line research in theoretical
physics. I did not take my physics very seriously and I imagined that
such a simple and obvious notion as event symmetry would have
The Principle of Event Symmetry
173
been considered already by physicists. They would, I thought, have
already extracted any useful consequences there might be. I was
wrong.
Two years later the world went through a new revolution in in
formation technology: the internet. Its impact on science rivals the
introduction of the printing press into Europe in the fifteenth cen
tury. The internet had already existed for some time. I had used it
myself as a research student in 1984 when I used to control com
puters in Germany from my base in the University of Glasgow. But
in 1993 the internet came out of academic institutes into the wider
world, where I was then working as a programmer in France. I
gained access to usenet and the world wide web and I regained ac
cess to what was happening in physics. I could download the latest
papers in physics which appeared as electronic preprints each day. I
could search databases of papers compiled over the previous twenty
years. Best of all, I could write my own papers and circulate them on
the internet. In April 1994 my first tentative paper about event
symmetric spacetime emerged and drew no response.
I decided that it would be prudent to find out who else had done
similar work in the past. Using online databases I searched the lit
erature for papers with titles that had anything to do with discrete
spacetime and then followed their hyperlinked references and cita
tions to find other relevant papers. I discovered the work on
Wheeler, Finkelstein and others which I had not heard of before.
There were, in fact, just a few examples of such work which dared to
speculate about the small scale structure of spacetime with models
not unlike my universal lattice. Some of what I found was more
mathematically sophisticated, yet not one example expressing the
principle of event symmetry came to light. I continued my work.
A couple of years later a contact on the internet told me about a
book which discussed ideas similar to mine. It was not a physics
book. It was „Permutation City‟, a science fiction novel by Greg
Egan, but it was a science fiction novel with more interesting things
to say about the philosophy of physics than many physicists or phi
losophers.
In 2045 the protagonist, Paul Durham, programs a simulation of
himself into a computer. Applying the strong AI hypothesis, the
story line continues from the point of view of the copy. It is another
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
174
invocation of the storyteller‟s paradigm. A computer simulation can
be regarded as a sophisticated way of recounting a story. As the sto
ryteller told us, there is no need to distinguish between the story and
reality. Durham performs some experiments with his copy, now re
ferred to as Paul, in the simulation. He divides the program up and
changes the order in which states are computed. The events of Paul‟s
simulated life are permuted but he does not experience anything dif
ferent from normal.
Paul tries to understand what is happening to him in terms of the
theory of general relativity. Relativity declares that points of view of
different observers are equally valid, but only observers whose ref
erence frames can be related by continuous coordinate
transformations. The mapping between the events of Paul‟s exis
tence and the events of spacetime outside the computer were
discontinuous. In relativity influences have to be localised travelling
from point to point at a finite velocity. Paul thought that if you chop
up spacetime and rearrange it, then causal structure would fall apart.
Finally Paul appreciates the principle of event symmetry, or as
Egan calls it; the dust theory. It would be a new principle of equiva
lence, a new symmetry between observers. Relativity threw out
absolute space and time but it did not go far enough. Absolute cause
and effect must go too.
Permutation City was first published in 1994 and parts were
adapted from a story called „Dust‟ which was first published in Isaac
Asimov‟s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1992.
More Symmetry
When Einstein decided to try to revise Newton‟s gravity he was
advised not to waste his time. The problem was regarded as too dif
ficult. Einstein persisted and succeeded against short odds in
formulating a relativistic theory of gravity because he recognised the
importance of the principle of equivalence. He deduced that the
principle required curved spacetime and reduced it to a need for
generally covariant equations. This was the powerful symmetry
which we now call diffeomorphism invariance. It was sufficiently
stringent as a requirement that Einstein was able to deduce the es
sential form of the field equations for gravity leaving only Newton‟s
The Principle of Event Symmetry
175
gravitational constant and the possibility of a cosmological constant
to be determined empirically.
The principle of event symmetry is stronger, in a sense, than dif
feomorphism symmetry because it is larger, but it also allows for
more general models of spacetime as discrete sets. Einstein was
able to assume that spacetime was a continuous manifold with one
temporal and three spatial dimensions. We no longer have such a
restriction and consequently there are too many possible ways to
devise eventsymmetric theories. Event symmetry on its own is not
very powerful. To go further the symmetry must be extended.
So far we have seen how the principle of eventsymmetric space
time allows us to retain spacetime symmetry in the face of topology
change. Beyond that we would like to find a way to incorporate in
ternal gauge symmetry into the picture too. It turns out that there is
an easy way to embed the symmetric group into matrix groups. This
is interesting because, as it happens, matrix models are already stud
ied as simple models of string theory. String theorists do not
normally interpret them as models on eventsymmetric spacetime
but it would be reasonable to do so in the light of what has been said
here.
To see how eventsymmetry leads naturally to matrices consider
how the universal random lattice may be represented. Each event
could be labelled with an index i. For each pair of events (i, j) there
may or may not be a link joining them in the lattice. This could be
represented by a matrix of variables a
ij
each of which is zero or one.
One indicates that events i and j are linked, and zero indicates that
they are not linked.
a a
a
ij ji
ii
=
= 0
So the state of the random lattice is specified by a symmetric
square matrix with zero diagonal other entries may be zero or one.
To put a model of a gauge theory on this lattice, field variables
i
can be associated with each event and gauge variables U
ij
with
each link. The field variables form a column vector ³ and the gauge
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
176
variables can again be collected together in a matrix A. If it is a Z
2
gauge theory, the elements of the matrix are now always zero or plus
or minus one. The matrix A can be symmetric but it may be more
convenient to make it antisymmetric since the diagonal elements are
then necessarily zero without imposing an extra condition. Gauge
invariant quantities which could be used in an action for this model
can be expressed in matrix notation e.g.
S m A tr A
T T
= + + u u u u [ ]
4
A gauge transformation can be effected as a similarity transfor
mation on the matrix and vector. That is,
u u ÷
÷
÷
T
A T AT
1
For the Z
2
gauge transformation T is a diagonal matrix with 1
and 1 down the diagonal. For example,
T =
÷

\

.



1 0 0
0 1 0
0 0 1
All of this generalises easily to other gauge groups. For an
SO(N) gauge transformation T is a block diagonal matrix with
blocks of N by N orthogonal matrices down the diagonal.
What about event symmetry? A permutation of events is also a
symmetry of an action expressed in matrix notation as above. Col
umns and rows of the matrix and vector are permuted. This can also
be effected by a similarity transformation T which is a permutation
matrix. I.e. T has a single element equal to 1 in each row and column
and all other elements equal to zero. For example,
The Principle of Event Symmetry
177
T =

\

.



0 1 0
0 0 1
1 0 0
Now that we have put internal gauge symmetry and event
symmetry into similar forms it is tempting to unify them. In both
cases the similarity transformations are orthogonal matrices. If the
elements of ³ and A are allowed to be any real numbers the matrix
action has a full symmetry of orthogonal matrix transformations
which includes the gauge transformations and event permutations as
special cases. The same can be done with other gauge groups using
orthogonal or unitary matrix models.
In these models the total symmetry of the system is a group of
rotation matrices in some highdimensional space. The number of
dimensions corresponds to the total number of spacetime events in
the universe, which may be infinite. Permutations of events now cor
respond to rotations in this space which swap over the axes.
So does this mean that the universal symmetry of physics is an
infinitedimensional orthogonal matrix? The answer is probably no
since an orthogonal matrix is too simple to account for the structure
of the laws of physics. For example, orthogonal groups do not in
clude supersymmetry which is important in superstring theories. The
true universal symmetry may well be some much more elaborate
structure which is not yet known to mathematicians.
Before moving on it is worth taking note of how the amount of
symmetry has increased in going over to matrix models. In conven
tional gauge theory there are a few degrees of symmetry for each
event so the symmetry is of dimension N; the number of spacetime
events. With the matrix model there is a degree of symmetry for
each independent element of the matrix so the symmetry is of di
mension N
2
. This is just the first step towards the much larger
symmetries which may be present in the universe.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
178
Identical Particles
Theorists often talk about unifying the gauge symmetries which
are important to our understanding of the four natural forces. There
are, however, other symmetries in nature which are rarely mentioned
in the context of unification. These symmetries take the form of an
invariance under exchange of identical particles. For example, every
electron in the universe is the same, they all have the same charge,
mass etc. If we swap one electron in the universe with another the
universe will carry on as before.
The symmetry involved here is described by the symmetric
groups, just like eventsymmetric spacetime. Obviously we should
ask ourselves whether or not there is any connection between the
two. Could the symmetric group acting to exchange identical parti
cles be part of the symmetric group acting on spacetime events? If it
were, then that would suggest a deep relation between spacetime
and matter. It would take the process of unification beyond the
forces of nature towards a more complete unification of matter and
spacetime.
As we shall see it is natural to combine the permutation symme
try of particles and eventsymmetry and it will imply a unification of
particle statistics and gauge symmetries which has now become ap
parent in superstring theories.
Clifford’s Legacy
On its own, the principle of eventsymmetric spacetime is not
very fruitful. What is needed is a mathematical model which incor
porates the principle and which gives body to some of the
speculative ideas outlined above.
It turns out that such a model can be constructed using Clifford
algebras. These algebras are very simple in principle but have a re
markable number of applications in theoretical physics. They first
appeared to physicists in Dirac‟s relativistic equation of the electron.
They also turn out to be a useful way to represent the algebra of fer
mionic annihilation and creation operators.
If we regard a Clifford algebra as an algebra which can create
and annihilate fermions at spacetime events then we find we have
The Principle of Event Symmetry
179
defined a system which is eventsymmetric. It can be regarded as an
algebraic description of a quantum gas of fermions.
This is too simple to provide a good model of spacetime but
there is more. Clifford algebras also turn out to be important in con
struction of supersymmetries and if we take advantage of this
observation we might be able to find a more interesting supersym
metric model.
The definition of Clifford Algebras is very simple. It is an alge
bra generated by a set of elements
i
such that
¸ ¸ ¸ ¸ o
i j j i ij
+ = 2
A general element of the algebra can be expressed as sums of
products of these elements. Since they square to one each need ap
pear only once in any product.
If there is one generator for each of N spacetime events then the
algebra has 2
N
independent terms. To each of these we can assign a
field variable. Each one is the coefficient of k different
i
with k <
N and can be interpreted as a field variable for a ksimplex with the k
events as vertices. In comparison with the matrix model which had a
field variable for each event and each pair of linked events, a model
using Clifford algebras will have these plus a variable for each trip
let of events, each quadraplet etc.
Back to Superstrings
Superstring theory was an important part of the motivation for
proposing the principle of eventsymmetric spacetime in the first
place. String theorists seem to believe that the subject they are study
ing is already the correct theory of physics, but they are probably
missing the key to understanding its most natural formulation.
The situation seems to parallel Maxwell‟s theory of electromag
netism as it was seen at the end of the 19th century. Many physicists
did not accept the validity of the theory at that time. This was largely
because of the apparent need for a medium of propagation for light
known as the ether, but experiment had failed to detect it. Einstein‟s
theory of special relativity showed why the ether was not needed. He
did not have to change the equations to correct the theory.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
180
Instead he introduced a radical change in the way space and time
were viewed.
It is likely that the equations we have for string theory are also
correct, although they are not as well formed as Maxwell‟s were. To
complete the theory it is again necessary to revise our concept of
spacetime and remove some of its unnecessary structure just as Ein
stein removed the ether.
It would be natural to search for an eventsymmetric string
model. We might try to generalise the fermion model described by
Clifford algebras to something which was like a gas of strings. A
string could be just a sequence of spacetime events connected in a
loop. The most significant outcome of the eventsymmetric program
so far is the discovery of an algebra which does just that. It is an al
gebraic model which can be interpreted as an algebra of strings made
of closed loops of fermionic partons.
The result is not sophisticated enough to explain all the rich
mathematical structures in string theory but it may be a step towards
that goal. Physicists have found that new ideas about knot theory and
deformed algebras are important in string theory and also in the ca
nonical approach to quantisation of gravity. This has inspired some
physicists to seek deeper connections between them. Through a turn
of fate it appears that certain knot relations have a clear resemblance
to the relations which define the discrete eventsymmetric string al
gebras. This suggests that there is a generalisation of those algebras
which represents strings of anyonic partons, that is to say, particles
with fractional statistics.
EventSymmetric Physics
What can this theory tell us about the universe? Since it is in
complete it is limited. The one place where a theory of quantum
gravity would have most significance would be at the big bang. In
the first jiffy of existence the temperature was so high that the struc
ture of spacetime would have been disrupted. It is known that in
string theory there is a high temperature phase transition in which
the full symmetry is realised. If the principle of eventsymmetric
spacetime is correct then that is a much larger symmetry than peo
ple have previously imagined. At such high temperature spacetime
The Principle of Event Symmetry
181
would cease to exist in the form we would know it, and only a gas of
interacting strings would be left. A reasonable interpretation of this
state of affairs would be to say that spacetime has evaporated. The
universe started from such a state, then spacetime condensed and
the rest is history.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
182
EventSymmetric String Theory
Leap Frog
In my mind, the principle of event symmetry would be a mere
curiosity if it were not for string theories. Although they appear con
ceptually similar to quantum field theories with particles replaced by
strings and higherdimensional pbranes, it has become clear that
string theories are really an altogether different and much stranger
animal. For quantum field theories spacetime is just a static arena
within which the action is played out, but in string theory spacetime
is part of the show. String theory seems to understand the small scale
structure of spacetime better than we do. The best part of its trick is
to fool us into thinking that spacetime is real, flat and continuous.
We should not be fooled into taking this for anything other than the
clever illusion which it must surely be.
There have been many amazing discoveries about superstring
theory, but there are still some deep conceptual problems concerning
the way it is formulated. The most profound of these is that string
theory does not directly account for the equivalence principle. We
know that superstring theory has gravitons and supergravity is there
fore a component of the effective theory of strings at low energy.
Supergravity is generally covariant and so incorporates ordinary
general relativity with its equivalence principle. Thus string theory
seems to include the equivalence principle, but the formulations we
know are not generally covariant. There are versions which are Lor
entz covariant but that is a long way short of the general covariance
under all coordinate transformations. It is a little surprising and
frustrating that this is the case and it may well be a key part of why
we do not fully understand string theory.
The principle of eventsymmetric spacetime is the solution
which I propose as a resolution of the superstring mystery. Event
symmetry is a step beyond the diffeomorphism invariance of general
covariance. If we can formulate string theory in a way which is
eventsymmetric we can leap frog over the conceptual hurdles.
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183
Eight Reasons to Believe
Why should anyone believe that string theory is event
symmetric? I cannot prove it to you but I can give seven good rea
sons why I think it is right. The first is the problem of general
covariance I just described. If string theory cannot be made covari
ant it seems hopeful that it may be eventsymmetric instead.
Another reason which I already covered is the solution to Wit
ten’s puzzle. Topology change and the universal symmetry put
together are difficult to reconcile without event symmetry.
The third reason is the presence of a very large symmetry of
string theory beyond its Hagedorn temperature. It is not known what
this symmetry is but it seems to reduce the effective number of de
grees of freedom enormously. It is likely that there must be one
dimension of symmetry to match each degree of freedom of the
string. No mere gauge symmetry can achieve this but event symme
try is much larger than any gauge theory in quantum field theory.
Next I cite the important idea that strings can be considered as
composites of discrete partons; particles bound together like beads
on a necklace. Spacetime too seems to have a discrete character.
This picture may seem opposed to the usual formulation of strings as
cords of continuous substance, yet it can explain many mysteries
especially in the context of black holes. In that case it is easy to pic
ture strings as loops connecting discrete points of space, and with
such discreteness, event symmetry is easily imagined.
After that comes matrix models. String theory may ultimately
be described by something like a model of random matrices whose
rows and columns may index particles, colours of gauge symmetry
or spacetime events. Models on eventsymmetric spacetime also
drive physics towards the dynamics of matrices. The matrix model
which seems to contain the essence of Mtheory can be interpreted
in any of these ways, bringing event symmetry a step clearer. A uni
fication of gauge symmetry and particle statistics was a
prediction of the principle of event symmetry which soon after ap
peared as a feature of this matrix model.
Then there are the new Sdualities which reverse the roles of
solitons and particles, or more generally, solitonic pbranes with
fundamental pbranes. But string theory also has instantons, some
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
184
times called (1)branes because they have one less dimension than
particles which are 0branes and two fewer than strings which are 1
branes. Instantons are excitations of a field which exist for an in
stant. Their importance in nonabelian gauge theories such as QCD
has been known for many years and now they are playing a starring
role in string theories too. In passing through a duality transforma
tion the instanton must reverse its role with a fundamental (1)brane
and what other character can that be than a spacetime event? Like
particles and any other pbrane instantons have statistics; a symme
try over their permutations. This symmetry must be dual to a
corresponding symmetry of spacetime events; event symmetry.
I have now given seven bits of evidence that event symmetry is a
feature of string theory. Some of them are more convincing than oth
ers. None of them are absolutely conclusive. The final proof would
be a version of string theory which explicitly exhibited event sym
metry and which was equivalent to the familiar string theories. I
cannot offer that yet, but I can describe some string inspired super
symmetries which appear to lead the way. These supersymmetries
are especially elegant and, of course, they include event symmetry.
String Inspired Symmetry
Superstrings are, of course, full of supersymmetry. They also
have other symmetry which comes in various forms and includes all
the types of symmetry which have been observed in nature, as well
as almost all others which have ever been studied but never yet seen.
String theory is meant to be a unified theory of everything so its
symmetries should also be unified but apparently they are not. When
a set of physical equations is found their symmetry does not always
jump out at you from the start. For example, Maxwell‟s equations
for electromagnetism at first only appeared to have rotational and
translational invariance. Later they were found to be invariant under
the Poincaré group of special relativity and then they were found to
have an internal gauge symmetry. These symmetries can be made
much more explicit by reformulating them in a different but equiva
lent way. It is likely that string theories also have much more
symmetry than we now recognise, but it is hidden because we are
EventSymmetric String Theory
185
forcing ourselves to write the equations in terms of concepts which
we are accustomed to.
There have been many discoveries or near discoveries of new
symmetry in string theory, but there is one which I found particularly
inspirational. It was the string inspired symmetries of Michio Kaku.
Symmetry is about groups so to discover a new symmetry all you
really need is a way of defining an associative product with an in
verse and a unit on whatever objects come to mind. So how might
open ended strings be multiplied? Strings can interact by joining to
gether at their ends so we could think about multiplying them in a
similar way. Think of open strings as continuous paths through space
starting at one point and ending at another. We will multiply them
together by joining them together if the end of the first coincides
with the start of the second, cancelling out the part where they join.
Take one string A starting at a point W passing through point X and
ending at point Y and multiply it by another string B which starts at
Y, passes back through X and ends at Z. B follows the same path in
reverse as A took from X to Y. The product C=AB is then the path
from W to Z passing through X and following the same path as A be
tween W and X and the same path as B between X and Z.
This product of strings is nicely associative, i.e. (AB)C = A(BC)
but it fails miserably to make a group. It has no unit, no inverses and
it only defines multiplication for strings which join together at their
ends.
What we are looking for is the stringy generalisation of gauge
symmetry. The group elements of ordinary local gauge theories are
described by a field, that is an element of the base group at each
W
X
Y
Z
A
B
C=AB
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
186
event in spacetime. For example, if we are talking about the U(1)
gauge symmetry of the electromagnetic field there is an element of
U(1) (i.e. a complex number of modulus one) at each event. In other
words the gauge transformation is specified by a function f(X) from
spacetime events X to the complex numbers. The charged matter
fields are gauge transformed by multiplying by this phase factor at
each event with the accompanying gauge transformation of the elec
tromagnetic field. To generalise this, think of events in spacetime as
possible points that a particle worldline can pass through. The
stringy generalisation of a gauge transformation would be specified
by a function f(A) from all possible string paths A to the complex
numbers. A string path is just one of the path segments through
spacetime which we have already thought about. So what we are
really looking for is a group of objects with a complex number as
signed to each string.
Gauge transformations are multiplied together by on a simple
event by event basis. If f(X) is one gauge transformation and g(X) is
another, then the product h(X) is just,
h X f X g X ( ) ( ) ( ) =
For strings we do things a little differently like this,
h C f A g B C AB ( ) ( ) ( ) : = =
¯
The sum is over all pairs of strings A and B whose product ac
cording to the previous definition is C. For a complete field there
would be an infinite number of such strings and the sum becomes a
difficult to define integral, but we will not worry about this detail
just yet.
This definition of string gauge fields actually includes ordinary
particle field gauge transformations if a particle at X is identified
with a zero length string which starts and ends at the same point X. A
little thought will show that string fields which are nonzero only for
such strings will multiply together in the same way as particle fields.
Now we can also see that this multiplication has a grouplike iden
EventSymmetric String Theory
187
tity. It is the string field which is equal to one for every zero length
string and zero for all others. Not all string fields have inverses for
this multiplication but some do, and the set of those that do forms a
group. This group is then what we will consider as the general gauge
group for continuous open strings. It is essentially the symmetry
which Kaku defined in 1988.
Of course we would need to define some model of string dynam
ics which was invariant under the action of this group. That is what
Kaku tried to do with some success.
These open strings, however, are less interesting than closed
strings, formed from closed loops. Indeed open string theory is in
complete without closed strings along side. Kaku tried to work out a
version of gauge symmetry which also works for closed strings. It is
not so easy. Closed strings can interact by coming together and join
ing where they touch to form a single loop, but if you multiply loops
together by joining them in this way you do not get an associative
algebra like we did by joining open strings at their ends. Kaku
solved the problem by looking at the commutators of the product and
defining a supersymmetry in a clever way, or at least he almost
solved it. In fact there were cases which did not quite work out. The
symmetry was flawed and sadly it never proved useful as a way to
understand string gauge symmetry.
Discrete String Theory
Now I will turn to another question. Are strings discrete? In
string theory as we currently know it there is not much indication
that string theory is discrete. Strings are described as continuous
loops in space. However, there has been some interesting work by
Susskind and others which does seem to suggest that string theory
could be discrete. It may be possible to describe strings as objects
made of small partons strung together. These partons would not exist
as hard objects but can be conceptually subdivided and rejoined.
They are points on the string which describe the topology of its in
teractions.
If the partons can be subdivided then they must be permitted to
have fractional statistics. They must live on the string world sheet.
The statistics of a whole loop of string would be the sum of the frac
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
188
tional statistics of its partons and would be an integer or half integer
so that the string can live in threedimensional space.
If spacetime is eventsymmetric and we wish to consider event
symmetric string field theory, then a discrete string approach is es
sential. The partons of the string can be tied to the events through
which the string passes. It will be permitted to pass through space
time events in any order it likes. In this way strings can tie together
the events of spacetime and provide an origin of topology in an oth
erwise unstructured eventsymmetric universe.
If strings are formed from loops of partons with fractional statis
tics then it seems natural to allow them to be knotted. We should
look for ways of describing this algebraically in an eventsymmetric
string theory.
String theorists are now also turning to higherdimensional
pbrane theories. If strings can be made of partons then surfaces, or
2branes, can be made from strings. The process could continue ad
infinitum. Spacetime itself might be viewed as a membrane built in
this way. There may be structures of all dimensions in physics. The
twodimensional string world sheets and threedimensional space
time are more visible only because they stand out as a consequence
of some as yet unknown quirk in the maths.
EventSymmetric Open String Theory
In 1994 I decided that if I was to do anything serious with the
principle of event symmetry I would have to apply it to string theory.
String theory seemed to be crying out for a new type of symmetry
and I thought that event symmetry could be a part of it. The obvious
place to begin was from was Kaku‟s string gauge symmetry. They
can be reconstructed for discrete strings with interesting results.
Imagine spacetime as a large number N of discrete events which
are arbitrarily numbered 1, 2, ... , N. In analogy to continuous strings,
an open ended string will be defined simply by the sequence of
events it passes through. An example would be
A = 15213
A general string of length 4 might be written
EventSymmetric String Theory
189
B = abcd
a, b, c and d are variables for the events the string passes
through.
The shortest permissible strings have length 2 because they must
have at least start and end points, even if these coincide at the same
event. Strings can be any finite length from the 2 upwards.
These strings are taken as the defining basis of a vector space.
This is just a way of saying that we are going to look at fields de
fined over these strings as we did for continuous fields. The field is a
function from the set of all strings to the complex numbers. Those
fields can be added, subtracted and multiplied by complex number
constants like vectors, so we call the collection of fields over strings
a vector space.
I define multiplication of strings where the end of one coincides
with the start of the other by joining them together and summing
over all possibilities where identical events are cancelled. If they do
not meet it is convenient to define the product to be zero. e.g., using
a dot for the product
5431.12 = 5432
1234.4351 = 123351 + 1251
637.346 = 0
The multiplication is associative. It defines not a product for the
strings, but a product for the vector space. It also has a unit. Just as
the unit for continuous strings came from the shortest strings with
just the same start and end point, so also the unit for this algebra is
the sum,
I = 11 + 22 + 33 + ... +NN
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
190
What I have defined then, is an infinitedimensional unital asso
ciative algebra. From any such algebra a group can be formed simply
by taking the subset of everything which has an inverse. This group
could be the algebra of a symmetry of discrete open strings. Of
course we would need to define some model of string dynamics
which was invariant under the action of this group. This can be done
in the same way as it is done for random matrix models. In fact, what
I have defined is really just an extension of matrix algebra since the
subalgebra formed of strings of length two multiplies in the same
way as N by N matrices.
A benefit of the discrete string version is that it is easy to go
from the bosonic discrete open string to the supersymmetric version.
Strings of even length are taken to be bosonic and strings of odd
length are taken to be fermionic.
This describes a rather simple sort of string theory which does
not do very much except have supersymmetry. The interpretation is
that these are open strings made of discrete fermionic or bosonic par
tons at spacetime events. The model is eventsymmetric in the sense
that the order in which the events are numbered is irrelevant, but the
transformations of event symmetry which would permute the num
bering of events are not a part of the symmetry algebra. This is a
disappointing failure which means that string gauge symmetry and
general covariance are not yet unified for open strings.
EventSymmetric Closed String Theory
Can we do the same thing with discrete closed strings? Kaku had
attempted this with his formulation of string gauge theory so why
not?
What is needed is a Lie superalgebra defined on a basis of closed
discrete cycles. It actually took me quite a lot of investigation before
I discovered the correct way to do this. I started by writing down
strings of events just like for open strings, but if they are closed
strings the starting point should not matter. For example a loop
which went through the events numbered 2, 5, 3, 4 and 1 returning
back to 2 can also start and return at any other of the five events, so
long as it went round in the same cyclic order. This is signified by
equations such as this,
EventSymmetric String Theory
191
25341 = 53412 = 34125 = 41253 = 12534
I found that if the number of events in a loop is even it is better
to use,
7134 = 1347 = 3471 = 4713
You cannot do that for strings of odd length because you would
go round the cycle and arrive back at the beginning and find that the
string was minus itself.
It is not easy to define a product directly for two closed strings
and make it associative but to construct groups all you really need to
define is a commutator in the algebra. i.e.
[A, B] = AB  BA
Commutators satisfy a special equation known as the Jacobi rela
tion
[[A, B], C] + [[B, C], A] + [[C, A], B] = 0
Since closed strings are meant to interact by joining together I
tried defining commutators by cancelling out bits of strings wherever
they went through the same events. I experimented endlessly to work
out which rules about sign factors could fit in with the Jacobi equa
tions. I discovered that I could get it to work, but only for even
length strings. The cancellation of common bits of string must only
be done when there is an odd number of them in a row. In short there
was only one way to make it work and it seemed lucky that it worked
at all.
What about odd length strings, were they to be excluded? The
answer was not difficult to guess as with open strings the odd length
loops could be considered as fermionic. The commutators for fer
mionic variables must be replaced with anticommutators where the
minus sign is changed to a plus sign. These define a supersymmetry
algebra in place of a classical symmetry. This was a very satisfying
result. I had found myself forced to use supersymmetry for closed
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
192
strings even before I had begun to think about any dynamics, or
anomalies or any of the things which were usually used to justify
supersymmetry in string theory.
There was one other satisfying result. The way the strings of
length two commuted with all other strings was exactly what was
required to define a rotation matrix acting on the vector space where
events correspond to axis. A rotation can be used to permute axis, in
other words, event symmetry must be part of the symmetry algebra I
had discovered. This seemed to happen only by chance, if the signs
had needed to be different, or it had been necessary to cancel out
even length bits of string instead of odd length bits, this would sim
ply not have worked. Yet I had had no choice in the matter. It was a
sign that I was doing something right. It meant that if I built a model
of strings with this supersymmetry algebra, it would have spacetime
symmetries unified with internal gauge symmetry; something that
had never been achieved with string theories in continuum space
time.
I wanted to know if the supersymmetry algebra I had discovered
was already known to mathematicians. The way the relations worked
out was rather mysterious. Usually when you find something like
this there turns out to be some deeper explanation of why it exists.
Anything I could turn up might help me understand what to do next.
In 1995 a strange coincidence helped me out. I saw a paper about
the role of Borcherds algebras in superstring theory. Borcherds was
a name I recognised. The algebras had been discovered by an old
friend of mine. I had become aquatinted with Richard Borcherds at
high school when we used to participate in mathematics competi
tions. In fact Richard and I had been the joint winners of the 1978
British Mathematical Olympiad. We had both been in the same Brit
ish team for the International Mathematical Olympiads two years
running and then we knew each other at Cambridge University.
However, we had very different tastes in what kind of maths we
liked. Richard was definite that he wanted to do pure maths, whereas
I was becoming interested in mathematical physics. It was a bit of a
surprise to discover 15 years later that Richard had made his name
from a discovery about string theory, but he had approached the sub
ject as a pure mathematician to study its symmetry. He had found a
EventSymmetric String Theory
193
rigorous way to define an infinitedimensional supersymmetry alge
bra of string theory which was of interest to mathematicians.
I sent an email to Richard with an explanation of my super
symmetry algebra. I knew that they were not the same thing but per
haps there would be a relation between them. I was a little surprised
when Richard quickly replied to tell me that my algebra did not quite
work. He had found a particular case which failed to satisfy the
Jacobi identity. In fact he too had already looked at Kaku‟s defini
tions of superstring gauge theory and had found that they were
flawed. He easily found a similar fault in my discrete string versions.
Fortunately, as so often happens, the flaw itself gave the clue to
how it should be repaired. I had to extend my algebra to include
more than one loop at a time, and I had to allow them to interact by
touching at more than one point of contact so that two loops which
could come together and split into two others. At first it seemed like
this was going to be even harder to define but I found that actually
there was a conceptually simpler way to do it. This new way would
give further clues about what the algebra meant.
Start with a set E of N events. Write sequences of events in the
same way as for the open strings
A = abcdef, a, b, .. ± E
To introduce closed loops we define permutations on these se
quences. The permutation can be shown as arrows going from each
event to another (or itself).
An example would look like this,
The permutation is composed of cycles. In the example there are
two cycles, one of length 2 and one of length 4. But the order of the
events across the page is also important.
a b c d e f
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
194
As before these objects form the basis of a vector space. An as
sociative algebra is defined on these objects by simply taking
multiplication to be concatenation of two of these objects together.
The empty sequence is a unit for this algebra.
A more interesting algebra is now formed by factoring out a set
of relationships among these elements. The relations are defined in
the following diagram.
This says that the order of two events can be interchanged keep
ing the loop connections intact. The sign is reversed and if the two
events are the same an extra reduced term must be included. To get a
complete relation the ends of the string in these diagrams must be
connected to something.
If they are just joined together the following two equations can
be formed,
a b + b a =
2
ab
a b + b a = 2
ab
a b + b a = 2
ab
EventSymmetric String Theory
195
The first shows the cyclic relationships for a loop of two events.
The second is the anticommutation relation for two loops of single
events.
Since the relationship can be used to order the events as we
wish, it is possible to reduce every thing to a canonical basis which
is a product of ordered loops. A more convenient notation without
the connections shown is then introduced.
This notation allows the relations to be written in a way similar
to those of the open strings, but now the cyclic relations mean that
they must be interpreted as closed loops.
The algebra is associative and it is consistent to consider combi
nations of loops with an odd total number of events as fermionic,
and with an even number of events as bosonic. So again this gener
ates a supersymmetry using the appropriate commutator and anti
commutators. As far as I know this infinitedimensional supersym
metry has never been studied by mathematicians. It is possible that it
can be reduced to something well known but until this is demon
strated I will assume that it is original and interesting.
Here are a few important properties of the discrete closed string
algebra which did not apply to the open string algebra.
 closed strings which do not have any events in common commute
or anticommute. This is important because it can be interpreted to
mean that strings only interact when they touch.
 the algebra contains a subalgebra isomorphic to a Clifford alge
bra. It also has a homomorphism onto a Clifford algebra which is
defined by stripping out the string connections. This is important
because the algebra of creation and annihilation operators for
fermions is also isomorphic to a Clifford algebra. This justifies
the interpretation of this algebra as a model of discrete closed
strings made from fermionic partons.
( ) ab c = a b . . . c
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
196
 The length two strings generate an orthogonal group acting on the
vector space spanning events. The symmetric group permuting
events exists as a subgroup of this. It follows that the symmetry
of eventsymmetric spacetime is included in this supersymmetry.
Algebraic String Theory
Although great strides have been taken towards an understanding
of nonperturbative string theory, there is still little progress towards
a formulation which shows manifest general covariance. In previous
work I have tackled the issue by employing the principle of event
symmetry as a means of incorporating topology change. Spacetime
is regarded as a discrete set of events with the permutation group on
the events being contained in the universal symmetry of physics. The
symmetric group on events trivially contains the diffeomorphism
group over any topology.
It may be that string theory has to be formulated in the absence
of spacetime which will then emerge as a derived property of the
dynamics. Another interpretation of the eventsymmetric approach
which embodies this is that instantons are fundamental. Just as soli
tons may be dual to fundamental particles instantons may be dual to
spacetime events. Eventsymmetry is then dual to instanton statis
tics. In that case a unification between particle statistics and gauge
symmetry follows on naturally from the principle of event
symmetry. It is encouraging that this unification also appears in the
matrix model of MTheory.
The final string theory may be founded on a mixture of geome
try, topology and algebra. The dual theory origins of string theory
hide a clue to an underlying algebraic nature. In dual theories the s
channel and tchannel amplitudes are supposed to be equal. At tree
level, in terms of Feynman diagrams this means that,
=
A
B C
D A
B
C
D
EventSymmetric String Theory
197
This diagram could also be distorted to look like this,
This figure is familiar to many mathematicians who recognise it
as a diagrammatic representation of the associative law,
D = (A B) C = A (B C)
In developing an algebraic string theory the first step would be to
define creation and annihilation operators for strings analogous to
Dirac‟s operators for bosonic and fermionic particles. It might be
possible to do this if strings are described as composites of particles
like a string of beads. The creation and annihilation operators can
then be strings of ordinary bosonic or fermionic operators. The alge
bras I have just defined are symmetry algebras for superstrings but
they are also isomorphic to algebras of string creation and annihila
tion operators so they represent the first steps towards an algebraic
theory of strings.
=
A B C A B C
D D
198
Is String Theory in Knots?
When I was a mathematics student at Cambridge back in 1980, I
remember going to one of John Conway‟s popular lectures which he
gave to the mathematics clubs. This one was about knot theory.
Conway performed a series of tricks with bits of rope to demonstrate
various properties of knots. A fundamental unsolved problem in knot
theory, he told us, is to discover an algorithm which can tell when a
loop of string is a knot or not.
It is possible to tie up closed loops of string into complicated
tangles which can nevertheless be untied without cutting the string.
But suppose I gave you a tangled loop of string. How could you de
termine if it could be untied?
Conway showed us a clever trick with groups which enabled him
to determine that some knotted loops could not be untied, but there
were others which were not classified in this way. Conway had gen
eralised a polynomial invariant of knots first discovered by
Alexandria many years ago. The Conway Polynomial was quite a
powerful tool to distinguish some knots from others, but it could not
separate all.
I remember thinking at the time that this was a piece of pure
maths which would never have any useful applications apart from
providing a way of proving that your boat cannot slip its moorings,
perhaps. Mathematicians delight in this kind of problems.
Ten years later a dramatic change had taken place. Knot theory
now looked like it was going to have applications to solving quan
tum gravity and probably other problems in condensed matter
theory. Louis Kauffman had even written a substantial book called
Knots and Physics (World Scientific). Conway‟s Knot Polynomial
had been generalised and the problem of classifying knots seemed
all but solved.
To summarise, I will list just a few points of interest here:
 Knot theory is important in understanding the physics of parti
cles with fractional statistics: anyons or parafermions. These
particles, which can exist in one or two dimensions have properties
between fermions and bosons. The symmetric group is the symmetry
Is String Theory in Knots?
199
of fermions and bosons, while the braid group from knot theory
plays the same role for anyons.
 Knot theory is important in canonically quantised quantum
gravity. Where knotted loop states provide a basis of solutions to the
quantum gravity equations. This is described in the important loop
representation of quantum gravity.
 Knot theory is closely related to quantum groups. These are a
generalisation (or deformation) of classical Lie groups and are im
portant in condensed matter theory, string theory and other physics.
Knot theory seems to be very closely related to symmetry.
 Quantum groups are also used to construct Topological Quan
tum Field theories which can be used to find invariants of manifolds.
From this point on things are going to get more technical and I
am going to assume that the reader knows some maths.
Strings and knots
Knotted loops have turned out to be important in the canonical
approach to quantum gravity and it is natural to wonder if these
loops are the same stuff as the strings of string theory, the other im
portant approach to quantum gravity. It would be nice to think that
the two are related, surely it is not a coincidence, but we must not
become carried away. By way of illustration consider the following:
When Wheeler took some of the first steps in the development of
canonical gravity he used the term “superspace” to refer to the three
dimensional geometry of space which describes the states of the the
ory. Similarly, in the early days of string theory, they discovered that
spacetime symmetry must be generalised to something they also
called “superspace” . Are these two types of superspace related?
Surely it is not a coincidence!
But, of course, it was just a coincidence. Wheeler‟s superspace
has nothing to do with the new superspace of superstring theories.
They are very different. Likewise, most string theorists hold the
opinion that there is probably no connection between the loops of
the loop representation of quantum gravity and the strings of string
theory. The knot which the loops make in space cannot pass through
each other without changing the quantum state discontinuously. On
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
200
the other hand, superstrings can pass through each other and them
selves without consequence.
Despite this there is a small group of people such as John Baez
and Lee Smolin who have suggested that there might be a connec
tion all the same. The strings and loops both have a common origin
in gauge theories and they share some mathematics such as quantum
groups in their description.
The Symmetric Group to the Braid Group
The principle of eventsymmetric spacetime states that the uni
versal symmetry of physics must have a homomorphism onto the
symmetric group acting on spacetime events. Now the symmetric
group can be defined by the following relations among the transposi
tion generators a
1
, a
2
, a
3
,...
a
i
a
j
a
i
= a
j
a
i
a
j
a
i
a
i
= 1
The braid group is defined in the same way but with only the
former relation. Put into words, this means that the braid group de
scribes a symmetry where it does not matter in which order you
exchange things but if you exchange two things then exchange them
again you do not necessarily get back to where you were before.
There is a homomorphism from the braid group onto the sym
metric group generated by the second relation. This means that the
braid group is also a candidate for part of the universal symmetry
according to the principle of eventsymmetric spacetime. In that
case spacetime events would behave like particles with fractional
statistics.
A String made of anyons?
It is almost certainly incorrect to model strings as loops of fer
mions. They must have some continuous form. To achieve this in an
eventsymmetric framework it will be necessary to replace the fer
Is String Theory in Knots?
201
mions with partons having fractional statistics which can be divided,
i.e. anyons.
Defining creation and annihilation operators for anyons is not a
simple matter. Various schemes have been proposed but none seem
ideal. However, here we have the advantage that our anyons are
strung together. The statistics and symmetries of anyons must be
described by knot theory.
The commutation relations used to generate the closed string al
gebra will remind anyone who knows about knot polynomials of
Skein relations. This suggests a generalisation may be possible if the
string connections are replaced by knotted cords which can be tied.
These could be subject to the familiar Skein relations which define
the HOMFLY polynomial.
In the special case where q=1 and z=0 this relation says that
string can pass through itself. This is what we have for the strings
which join the fermions. The crucial question is, are there generali
sations of the parton commutation relations which are consistent
with the general Skein relation?
One way to do it is as follows, but does this define a consistent
algebra? It is not easy to say without some interpretation of what
these symbols mean. A deeper understanding could guide us towards
the right solution.
q  q
1
= z
q a b  q
1
b a = z
ab
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
202
Multiple Quantisation
Baron Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker had an inauspicious begin
ning to his career as a physicist. In 1938 he had made an important
contribution to the theory of the „carbon cycle‟ of nuclear fusion in
stars. Then in 1939 war broke out and Weizsäcker became a key sci
entist under Heisenberg in the team which failed to build the atomic
bomb for Nazi Germany. After the war he became a director of a
department in the Max Planck Institute of Physics in Göttingen, but
the centre of research in physics had then shifted to America and
working in Germany at that time must have seemed like being cut off
from the main action.
Perhaps that is why Weizsäcker came up with a fundamental
idea which seemed completely out of touch with what anybody else
was doing at the time. He proposed a bold theory of a way that
spacetime and physics might be constructed from a single bit of in
formation by repeatedly applying the process of quantisation.
A binary digit or bit can take the value zero or one. You could
think of a bit as about the simplest universe possible. Any amount of
information can be coded using a sufficient number of bits. The uni
verse is quantised, so quantise the bit. Now you have the quantum of
spin1/2, the spin of an electron which can take to values, spinup or
spindown. The spin state is a unit length vector with two complex
components which rotates under the action of SU(2) matrices. This
group is also a double covering of SO(3); the group of rotations in
threedimensional space. Weizsäcker wrote the two components as
u
r
where r = 1 or 2, so he called them urs and the theory was ur
theory, but ur is also a prefix meaning „original‟ or „primitive‟ in
German so there is a double meaning.
Just as bits can be combined to make volumes of information,
urs can be combined by tensor products to define higherdimensional
state spaces. It is also possible to quantise a second time, each u
r
of
the quantum bit is replaced with a creation and annihilation operator,
just as when a harmonic oscillator is quantised. This defines a more
structured object which includes the symmetries of spacetime. Just
as quantisation of a field generates a multiparticle theory, the urs
can be quantised again. This third quantisation generates a primitive
Is String Theory in Knots?
203
form of field theory. Perhaps further quantisation can produce more
of the structures of physics but the work remains incomplete.
Penrose Spin Networks
In 1971, Roger Penrose initiated an inspired attempt to derive the
properties of spacetime from combinatorics. Like Weizsäcker, he
recognised the importance of spinhalf and the way spins can be
combined to make higher spins. Penrose was able to define discrete
networks of spins which possessed geometric properties of three
dimensional space. Later a connection was found between the spin
networks and Regge‟s discrete lattice approach to quantum gravity.
It was discovered that spin networks solved quantum gravity in three
dimensions. If only this could be extended to four dimensions we
would have found the holy grail of physics; a theory of spacetime
combining general relativity and quantum mechanics. However,
gravity in three dimensions is much simpler than in four dimensions.
There are no gravitational waves in a universe with one less space
dimension than ours.
But spinnetworks turned out to be significant for four
dimensional quantum gravity too. Using the canonical quantisation
methods which had led to the loop representation, relativists discov
ered that spinnetworks should define a base of states for quantum
gravity. If only they could discover the correct dynamics the break
through would be complete. There has already been much progress
towards a fourdimensional theory of spin foams.
An interesting aspect to this story which makes it relevant here,
is a remarkable parallel between the spinnetwork program started
by Penrose and the urtheory of Weizsäcker. Both are based in prop
erties of SU(2) spinors. In urtheory these spinors are regarded as the
first quantisation of a bit, and are then quantised twice more. Spin
networks are also derived by quantising SU(2) twice, but in rather
different ways. SU(2) is first quantised to give the quantum group
SU
q
(2), an algebraic deformation of the original group which was
discovered in the 1980s. Then in 1992 Boulatov showed how you
could define a quantisation of functions on quantum groups which
formed spin networks. This achieved the same end as Weizsäcker
but in a mathematically more powerful form.
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
204
What all this suggests is that multiple quantisation is of some
fundamental importance to physics. It had been known since nearly
the beginning of quantum theory that second quantisation was the
way to construct quantum field theory, but this has always been re
garded as a quirk rather than a fundamental feature. The first
quantisation is often seen as a mistake of little significance. Some
physicists even want to get rid of the term second quantisation be
cause they dislike that interpretation so much. It is possible that they
will turn out to be utterly wrong and Weizsäcker‟s multiple quantisa
tion will be seen as a great insight many years ahead of its time
when he first wrote about it in 1955.
What is Quantisation?
Quantisation as a formal process was introduced by Dirac as a
generalisation of Heisenberg‟s mechanics of noncommuting matri
ces. Dirac showed that in principle you can take any classical system
based on a principle of least action and turn it into a quantum theory.
You just have to systematically find the momenta p
i
corresponding
to each position variable x
i
in the system and then substitute opera
tors for each position and momentum such that they satisfy a
commutator relation,
[ , ] x p
i j ij
= o
The operators act on a state wavefunction ¯ which evolves ac
cording to a general form of the Schrödinger equation.
If Planck‟s constant h were zero this would merely mean that all
operators commute like real numbers, which is what happens in clas
sical mechanics. Quantum mechanics is said to be a deformation
because it reduces to classical mechanics as a special case.
It is rather curious that this process of quantisation exists. We
now think of classical mechanics as just an approximation to the real
quantum mechanics. The fact that it is possible to derive the quan
tum mechanics from the classical approximation through a process
of quantisation is just a handy trick of nature to which we should
Is String Theory in Knots?
205
attach no great significance, or should we? The fact that we have to
do a second quantisation to get field theory is also just a curiosity,
after all, it only works exactly for a simple nonrelativistic system of
noninteracting electrons. In the real world the Schrödinger equation
must be modified to make it relativistic and gauged to introduce
forces between the first and second quantisation. This certainly
mucks up the procedure. Then again, it is very curious that things
should work that way at all. Could multiple quantisation as we now
understand it nevertheless be an echo of some deep feature of the
final theory which just happens to become messed up as that theory
is reduced to the approximation we know of it?
In modern times the term quantisation has been used to mean
things other than what Dirac and Feynman meant. A symmetry from
a classical matrix group like SU(N) can be quantised to give a quan
tum group SU
q
(N). Here quantisation is another type of deformation.
q is a complex number parameter and in the special case where q = 1
the quantum group reduces to the classical one. This is not quite the
same process as Dirac‟s quantisation but the analogy goes further
than just borrowing the terminology. There is a real sense in which
quantising a group with q=exp(ih) is very similar to quantising a sys
tem of mechanics. The suggestion is that there is some much more
general algebraic process of quantisation of which both these things
are a special case. We do not yet know what that general process is.
Since Dirac‟s first formulation, other equivalent ways to quan
tise a classical system were found. The most revealing of those was
Feynman‟s path integral. Again you could in principle take any clas
sical system with an action and quantise it using the path integral to
define how the wave function evolves. Mathematicians have found
ways in which quantum groups can arise through path integration
too, but it is less direct.
Path integrals may give a clearer picture of what quantisation
really is. Quantising a system which has different states seems to
have something about all the different ways of going from A to B
which are two different states of the system. In quantum mechanics
these ways are the possible time evolutions of the system between
the two states but it may be possible to generalise the concept fur
ther.
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In quantum field theory multiple particle systems are a derived
consequence of quantising a classical field theory. Strangely, there
are other types of particle which appear as solutions of some classi
cal systems. They are called solitary waves or just solitons. A special
kind of soliton was discovered to be a solution of classical non
abelian gauge theories and they are interpreted as magnetic mono
poles. What makes these especially strange is that they exist in the
classical system and yet there may be a duality between monopoles
and the electrically charged particles which only appear in the quan
tum field theory. The duality mixes up classical and quantum. There
could be no clearer signal that the role of quantisation in physics is
more special than it has often been given credit for.
The Supersymmetric ladder
I shall now demonstrate a supersymmetric ladder construction
which generalises the discrete fermion string symmetry. This con
struction may explain why structures of so many different
dimensions are important in string theory. It may also provide some
clues about what multiple quantisation is.
The fermionic operators which are strung together in the discrete
string model form a Heisenberg Lie superalgebra when the strings
are removed. The universal enveloping algebra of this is then a Clif
ford algebra. I would like to repeat the string construction starting
from a general Lie superalgebra. To keep things simple I will begin
with just an ordinary Lie algebra A.
As before, the elements of the Liealgebra can be strung together
on strings but this time the commutation relations will look like this,
A B  B A = [A,B]
Is String Theory in Knots?
207
The commutation relations can be shown to be consistent with
the Jacobi relations provided the functors satisfy the following asso
ciativity relationship,
and also the similar coassociativity relationship upside down. In
this way we can take out Lie algebra A and generate a new Lie alge
bra L(A). The process can be generalised to a Lie superalgebra. In
the case where A is a Heisenberg superalgebra there is a homo
morphism from L(A) onto the discrete string algebra which I defined
previously. So this process can be regarded as a generalisation.
The interesting thing to do now is look at what happens if we
apply the L ladder operator to the string algebra. This can be visual
ised by circling the discrete strings around the network so that they
are replaced with tubes. The interpretation is that we generate a su
persymmetry algebra as string world sheets. The ladder operator can
be applied as many times as desired to generate higherdimensional
symmetry algebras. Furthermore. There is always a homomorphism
from L(A) back onto A. This makes it impossible to apply the ladder
operator an infinite number of times to generate a single algebra
which contains all the previous ones.
This last observation raises some interesting mathematical puz
zles. The algebra formed by applying the ladder operator an infinite
number of times will have the property that it is isomorphic to the
algebra formed by applying the ladder operator to itself. It is cer
tainly of interest to ask whether this situation actually arises after
just a finite number of steps of the ladder. Would it be too daring to
conjecture that the algebra becomes complete after only 26 steps in
the ordinary Lie algebra case and 10 steps in the supersymmetric
case?
To progress further it will be necessary to study more general
categories like those defined by Skein relations. Mathematical
=
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208
physicists such as Louis Crane have looked at ways to construct n
categories by stepping up a ladder of dimensions. The symmetries I
have described here could be a related to such structures. The hope
is that a full theory of quantum gravity and string theory can be con
structed algebraically in such a fashion.
The ladder of dimensions
In string theory there is evidence that membranes and space
times of various different dimensions play important roles. Accord
ing to a principle of pbrane democracy we should not regard any
particular objects as more fundamental than others. Some may be
seen as composites in one manifestation but in a dual theory the
roles may be reversed. What simple explanation can account for
such a diversity of fundamental objects.
It is possible to go down the scale of dimensions by compactify
ing spacetimes. From Mtheory in 11 dimensions or Ftheory in 12
dimensions it is possible to construct the important critical string
theories in 10 dimensions. The strings themselves arise by winding
membranes round the compactified dimensions so embedded objects
can also be reduced in dimension. To construct such theories from
first principles it may be necessary to go the other way and open up
hidden dimensions but what is the process which performs this op
eration? The suggestion of this chapter is that it is quantisation
which allows us to go back up the dimensional ladder. This is sup
ported in string theory by the observation that second quantised
string theory in 10 dimensions is first quantised Mtheory in 11 di
mensions. In general we should expect a ktimes quantised D
dimensional theory to correspond to a (k1)times quantised theory
in (D+1) dimensions.
The ultimate theory may have the property that it is equivalent to
itself under quantisation. In other words, quantisation acts as a sym
metry on the theory. This is consistent with the observation of
classical/quantum dualities in compactified string theories. Invari
ance under quantisation may be a fundamental principle which
explains pbrane democracy.
Quantisation raises the dimensions of objects as well. Quantisa
tion of a pbrane generates a (p+1)brane. Everything is ultimately
Is String Theory in Knots?
209
built out of instantons and the process of composition is multiple
quantisation, but instantons too can be regarded as higher
dimensional objects which have been compactified so the process
has no bottom as well as no top.
This dream of a structured theory of pbranes invariant under
quantisation will only be realised if a suitable definition of quantisa
tion can be found. It must be an algebraic definition which can be
applied recursively. The best candidate for a mathematical discipline
in which such a definition may be possible is category theory and its
generalisation to ncategory theory. Category theory is a way to de
scribe objects and morphisms between them. ncategories permit
higherdimensional processes which map between morphisms. It is
known that ncategories are related to ndimensional topological
quantum field theories but there is still much about them which is
not understood. Mathematical physicists such as John Baez have
been studying their properties which relate beautifully to quantum
theory and geometry. If the process of quantisation could be defined
as a constructive mapping from an ncategory to an (n+1)category
the link between dimension and quantisation would be established.
A complete theory may be defined as the ¯category which is
equivalent to itself under quantisation.
210
The Theory of Theories
The Theory That Flies
As everybody knows, the job of a theoretical physicist is to in
vent theories of the universe. A nonprofessional might ask a
physicist “What is charge?” or “What is time?” or “What is grav
ity?” He will be disappointed when the physicist replies that his
theories do not even try to explain what these things are. Theories
are just mathematical models which make predictions about how
they will behave in experiments.
When pressed the physicist will probably admit that he does
physics because he too seeks deeper explanations of what things are
and why things are the way they are in the universe. One day he
hopes to understand the most basic laws of physics and he hopes that
they will provide an answer to the most difficult question of all,
“Why do we exist?”
Physicists can be justly proud of the fact that almost everything
in physics can be accounted for with just a small number of basic
equations embracing general relativity and the standard model of
particle physics. There remain many puzzles but those will probably
be solved once a unified theory of quantum gravity and the other
forces is found. Such a theory would be the final fundamental the
ory, although it will not be the end of physics. The equations may be
cast in other forms but they would always be exactly equivalent.
There is no a priory reason why such a theory should exist but, as
Steven Weinberg argues in “Dreams of a Final Theory”, the conver
gence of principles in modern physics seems to suggest that it does.
How many physicists have not wondered what principle of sim
plicity and beauty underlies that final theory? Could we not take an
intellectual leap and work it out from what we already know? Surely
the equations which describe the evolution of the universe at its most
fundamental level must possess some magical properties to distin
guish them all the other equations which merely describe
hypothetical universes. What could be so unique about them that
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211
they take on a life of their own? As John Wheeler put it: What
makes them fly?
Some people imagine that some reason for existence was present
at the moment of creation. Some cause must have brought the uni
verse into being in a “big bang” and the laws of physics were set
there and then, they say. I have already argued against such temporal
causality in all forms and I also see no reason to believe that the Big
Bang is not a unique event in the cosmos. That leaves ontological
causality which is what I am discussing here.
The Nature of Nature
If there is really a unique principle on which the laws of physics
are founded then to understand it we should look for clues in the na
ture of nature, or as Feynman called it; the character of physical law.
One thing is clear: Nature uses mathematics. If this were not the
case, if nature was governed instead by a committee of demons who
made nature follow their whims, then there would be little hope for
us to understand physics and predict the outcome of experiments or
invent new technology. Scientists would be replaced by sorcerers.
The relationship between physics and mathematics seems to be
much deeper than we yet understand. In early history there was little
distinction between a mathematician and a physicist but in modern
times pure mathematicians have explored their subject independ
ently of any potential application. Mathematics has an existence of
its own. Those pure mathematicians have constructed a huge web of
logical structures which have a remarkable inner beauty only appar
ent to those who take the time to learn and explore it. They would
usually say that they discovered new mathematics rather than in
vented it. It is almost certain that another intelligence on another
planet, or even in a different universe, would have mathematicians
who discover the same theorems with just different notation.
What becomes so surprising is the extent to which mathematical
structures are applicable to physics. Sometimes a physicist will dis
cover a useful mathematical concept only to be told by
mathematicians that they have been studying it for some time and
can help out with a long list of useful theorems. Such was the case
when Heisenberg formulated a theory of quantum mechanics which
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used matrix operations previously unfamiliar to physicists. Other
examples abound, Einstein‟s application of nonEuclidean geometry
to gravitation and, in particle physics, the extensive use of the classi
fication of Lie groups.
Recently the mathematical theory of knots has found a place in
theories of quantum gravity. Before that, mathematicians had con
sidered it an area of pure mathematics without application (except to
tying up boats of course). Now the role played by knots in funda
mental physics seems so important that we might even guess that the
reason space has three dimensions is that it is the only number of
dimensions within which you can tie knots in strings. Such is the
extent to which mathematics is used in physics that physicists find
new theories by looking for beautiful mathematics rather than by
trying to fit functions to empirical data as you might expect. Dirac
explained that it was this way that he found his famous equation for
the electron. The laws of physics seem to share the mathematician‟s
taste for what is beautiful. It is a deep mystery as to why this should
be the case. It is what Wigner called “the unreasonable effectiveness
of mathematics in the natural sciences”.
It has also been noted by Feynman that physical law seems to
take on just such a form that it can be reformulated in several differ
ent ways. Quantum mechanics can be formulated in terms of
Heisenberg‟s matrix mechanics, Schrödinger‟s wave mechanics or
Feynman‟s path integrals. All three are mathematically equivalent
but very different. It is impossible to say that one is more correct
than the others.
Perhaps there is a unique principle which determines the laws of
physics and which explains why there is such a tight relationship
between mathematics and physics. Some people imagine that the
principle must be one of simplicity. The laws of physics are sup
posed to be the simplest possible in which intelligent life could exist.
I consider this a nonstarter. Simplicity is very subjective. You might
attempt to define simplicity objectively by measuring the minimum
length of a computer program designed to carry out a simulation of
the universe but I do not accept that this is workable. The simplest
complex universe might then be something like a cellular automaton
and the details would depend on the syntax of the computer language
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213
we choose. A principle of simplicity would suggest that there is an
optimal simplest form of the laws of physics whereas we have seen
that they want to be expressed in many equally valid mathematical
forms.
Furthermore, if the laws of physics were merely some isolated
piece of mathematics chosen for its simple beauty then there would
be no explanation why so much of mathematics is incorporated into
physics. There is no reason why one set of equations should “fly”.
The fundamental principle of physics must be something more gen
eral. Something which embraces all of mathematics. It is the
principle which explains the nature of nature. So what is it?
Can we ask why?
Perhaps we need to be more modest and first ask ourselves if we
have the right to ask questions about why we exist. Do why ques
tions make sense? Causality originally meant the principle that
everything has a cause. We have come to doubt this, especially in
the temporal form which says that everything has a cause in the past.
A neutron left on its own for a few minutes spontaneously decays.
Nothing came in from outside to make it happen and there is no
clock inside a neutron which counts down to the moment at which
the decay must be set off. It just happens without a cause. There are,
however, reasons why neutrons decay. It can be explained in terms
of the interactions to which its constituents are subject. Does every
thing have such an ontological cause?
First ask the question in mathematics where we think we under
stand the rules better. Let us take an example. Why is Pythagoras‟s
theorem true? It is easy to prove. Look at these pictures
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The two outer squares are the same size and shape and so are the
areas of the four right triangles inside. Therefore the remaining areas
inside must also be equal so the square on the hypotenuse is equal to
the sum of the squares on the other two sides. This proof makes the
theorem obviously true at a glance but is it the reason why it is true?
In an alternative proof a right triangle is divided in two by a line
perpendicular to the hypotenuse like this
The triangle is split into two smaller right triangles and examina
tion of the angles shows that they must both be the same shape as the
original but with different size and orientation. It is known that the
areas of such similar shapes are proportional to the square of the
length of a side such as the hypotenuse. Once the hypotenuse of each
the three triangles is identified it is then easy to see that Pythagoras‟s
theorem follows.
Now we have two alternative proofs and hence two alternative
reasons for why the theorem is true. There is no obvious relation
between them so they appear to be distinct reasons. We can at least
say then that there is no unique reason why something is true in
mathematics. Pythagoras theorem follows by such proofs from the
axioms of geometry chosen by Euclid, but modern mathematics is
often founded on a different set of axioms such as those of set the
ory. Using sets it is possible to construct a model of the natural
numbers, then the rational numbers and then the reals. Euclidean
space is then defined using Cartesian coordinates and the distance
between two pairs of coordinates is defined to be the answer given
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215
by Pythagoras theorem. In this approach Pythagoras is true (for some
triangles at least) by definition.
Certainly there are some theorems in mathematics which have
direct proofs which can be considered to be the unique reason that
they are true. In general, truth in mathematics is independent of
proof and “why” questions cannot be said to have absolute answers.
If this is true in mathematics then we should not expect it to be dif
ferent in physics. No such absolute causality can be guaranteed. We
may well find a reason “why” for many things that happen but they
might not be unique and may often not exist at all. The question
“why do we exist?” probably does not have a final answer but we
might at least hope to understand why the laws of physics take the
form that they do – as yet unknown – even if the answer is not
unique.
Many Anthropic Principles
The universe is populated by an impressive menagerie of objects
which exhibit organised complexity; a crystal, a flower, a planet, a
star, a galaxy. They exist on all length scales from the atomic to the
cosmological. Most impressive of all (that we know of) are living
beings like ourselves.
Examination of the way that chemistry, nuclear physics, astro
physics, cosmology and other sciences are dependent on the details
of the laws of physics suggests that the existence of so much com
plexity is no accident. The precise values of various constants of
nature, such as the fine structure constant, seem to be just right to
allow organised complexity to develop. Perhaps we might even say,
just right to allow life to develop. There are many famous examples
such as the nuclear resonance of carbon12 which was predicted by
Fred Hoyle in 1953. He realised that without it the higher weight
elements would not have formed and we would not exist.
This observation has inspired much faith among physicists and
philosophers in the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle
supposes that the laws of physics are indeed selected so that intelli
gent life has a maximum chance of developing in the universe.
Believers ask us to consider first why our planet Earth is so well
suited to the evolution of life while other planets in the solar system
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seem to be more hostile. The answer is that we would not be on this
planet to consider the question if it were not suitable for life to
evolve here. The same principle can then be extended to the whole
universe.
One way to understand the anthropic principle is to imagine that
all possible universes exist with a validity which is equal to our own.
When we say all possible universes we might mean any system
which can be described by mathematics. Each such system has a set
of physical laws which allow its structure to be determined in prin
ciple. Sometimes they will be simple and beautiful and often they
will be complex and ugly. Sometimes the phenomenology of such a
system will be dull or easily determined and nothing interesting will
happen. Sometimes it will be so complicated that nothing can be de
termined, even a hypothetical computer simulation would reveal
little of interest in the turmoil of those universes. Somewhere in be
tween would exist our universe which has just the right balance of
equations in its physical laws for intelligent life to exist and explore
the nature of its environment.
Another interpretation of the anthropic principle, developed by
Lee Smolin, is that there is one universe with a set of physical laws
much as we know them. Those laws may have a number of variables
which determine the physical constants but which can vary in certain
extreme situations such as the collapse of massive stars into black
holes. Universes governed by such laws might give birth to baby
universes with different physical constants. Through a process of
natural selection universes might evolve over many generations to
have constants which are conducive to further procreation. This
might mean that they are optimised for the production of black holes
and, from them, more baby universes. Within this population of
worlds there will be some with laws conducive to life, indeed, the
production of black holes may be linked to the existence of advanced
lifeforms which could have an interest in fabricating black holes as
energy sources. This scenario makes a number of demands on the
nature of physical laws. In particular, it is essential that some physi
cal parameters such as the fine structure constants should be able to
vary rather than being determined by some equation. Future theories
of quantum gravity may tell us if this is so. Smolin‟s explanation of
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217
the laws of physics calls on temporal causality so it is not in line
with the philosophy of this book.
Is the Anthropic Principle Enough?
The Anthropic Principle is compelling enough for us to wonder
if it can determine the laws of physics on its own. I know of no con
vincing argument that it can. There is nothing in the anthropic
principle which explains why so many of the most elegant discover
ies of mathematics are so important in physics. There is nothing to
explain why there is so much symmetry in physics, or why the ele
gant principle of least action is important or even why the laws of
physics should be the same in one place as they are in another.
You might try to argue that the laws of physics have to take a
certain form because otherwise they would be impossible to under
stand. I don‟t buy it! I am convinced that a suitable mathematical
system, perhaps even something as simple as a cellular automaton,
can include sufficient complexity that intelligent life would evolve
within it. There must be a huge variety of possible forms the laws of
physics could have taken and there must be many in which life
evolves. In the case of cellular automata, the cellular physicists liv
ing in it would probably be able to work out the rules of the
automata because its discrete nature and simple symmetry would be
clear and easily uncovered. They would not need to know so much
sophisticated mathematics as we do to explore the physics of our
universe.
The anthropic principle may well play a role in shaping our uni
verse. The arguments given by its proponents include lists of ways in
which the laws of physics are apparently tuned to suit life. It is hard
not to be swayed even taking into account that we cannot be sure
that life will not develop in different unknown ways in universes
with different laws. Whether or not the principle is valid as an ex
planation for some of the characteristics of nature and the values of
its parameters I believe that there must be some other principle
which explains those other aspects of physical law.
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Universality
For centuries mathematicians confined themselves to looking at
specific structures with simple definitions and interesting behaviour.
With the arrival of powerful computers they are now looking at gen
eral behaviour of complex systems. In 1975 Mitchell Feigenbaum
made the discovery that a large class of complex systems of chaotic
nonlinear equations exhibits a universal behaviour characterised by
the Feigenbaum constants. This type of universality has an inde
pendent existence which transcends details of the specific equations
which generate it. Other examples of universality can be identified
in physics and mathematics. Statistical physics looks at the behav
iour of systems with many degrees of freedom. Such systems exhibit
a universal behaviour near critical points which can be described by
the laws of thermodynamics. The microscopic details of the forces
between particles are reduced to just a few macroscopic parameters
which describe the thermodynamic characteristics. This discovery
was how Leo Kadanoff first introduced the concept of universality
in 1970 and since then it has been recognised and exploited in many
forms.
A more mathematical example is the notion of computability.
Computability of a sequence of integers can be defined in terms of a
hypothetical programming language such as a Turing machine or a
Minsky machine. Those languages and a large number of other pos
sibilities turn out to give an equivalent definition of computability
despite the fact that they look very different. There is no most natu
ral or most simple way to define computability but classical
computability itself is a natural and unambiguously defined concept.
If we made contact with an alien intelligence we would probably
find that they had an equivalent concept of computability but proba
bly not quite the same definitions. Computability, then, can be seen
as a universal characteristic of computing languages.
The message I wish to draw from this is that the laws of physics
may themselves be a universal behaviour of some general class of
systems. If this is the case then we should not expect the laws of
physics to be given by one most natural formulation. Like comput
ability there may be many ways to describe them. The universal
The Theory of Theories
219
behaviour of a class of complex systems would be likely to display
organised complexity itself. Furthermore, there is evidence that
thermodynamics runs deeper than just a behaviour of particle sys
tems. It is also found to be a useful description of black hole
dynamics. We can also remark that quantum mechanics and statisti
cal physics are closely related through an exchange of real and
imaginary time. All these things are intimately related and hint at the
importance of universality in nature at its most fundamental level.
The Theory of Theories
At last we come to the main hypothesis of this chapter. If the
laws of physics are to be seen as a universal behaviour of some class
of systems then it is necessary to ask what class to choose. We can
regard any possible mathematical system as a theory of physics. I
suggest that the laws of physics are a universal behaviour to be
found in the class of all possible mathematical systems. This is
known as The Theory of Theories.
To understand the Theory of Theories we start from the same
premise as we do with the anthropic principle, i.e. that all mathe
matically consistent models exist just as our own universe exists. We
can simply take this to be our definition of existence.
We know from Feynman‟s Path Integral formulation of quantum
mechanics that the evolution of the universe can be understood as a
supposition of all possible histories that it can follow classically.
The expectation values of observables are dominated by a small sub
set of possibilities whose contributions are reinforced by
constructive interference. The same principle is at work in statistical
physics where a vast state space is dominated by contributions at
maximum entropy leading to thermodynamic behaviour. We might
well ask if the same can be applied to mathematical systems in gen
eral to reveal the laws of physics as a universal behaviour which
dominates the space of all possible theories and which transcends
details of the construction of individual theories. If this was the case
then we would expect the most fundamental laws of physics to have
many independent formulations with no one of them standing out as
the simplest. This might be able to explain why such a large subset
of mathematics is so important in physics.
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Can we use the Theory of all Theories to explain why symmetry
is so important in physics? There is a partial answer to this question
which derives from an understanding of critical behaviour in statisti
cal physics. Consider a lattice approximation to a YangMills
quantum field theory in the Euclidean sector. The Wilson discretisa
tion preserves a discrete form of the gauge symmetry but destroys
the spacetime rotational symmetry. If we had more carelessly
picked a discretisation scheme we would expect to break all the
symmetry. We can imagine a space of discrete theories around the
YangMills theory for which symmetry is lost at almost all points.
The symmetric continuum theory exists at a critical point in this
space. As the critical point is approached correlation lengths grow
and details of the discretisation are lost. Symmetries are perfectly
restored in the limit, and details of all the different discretisations
are washed out.
If this is the case then it seems that the critical point is sur
rounded by a very high density of points in the space of theories.
This is exactly what we would expect if universal behaviour domi
nating in theory space was to exhibit high symmetry. It also suggests
that a dominant theory could be reformulated in many equivalent
ways without any one particular formulation being evidently more
fundamentally correct than another. Perhaps ultimately there is an
explanation for the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in
physics contained in this philosophy.
If physics springs in such a fashion from all of mathematics then
it seems likely that discovery of these laws will answer many old
mathematical puzzles. There is no a priori reason to believe that
mathematical theories should have some universal behaviour, but if
they did it might explain why there is so much crossreference in
mathematics. Perhaps mathematicians sense intuitively when they
are near the hot spots in the space of theories. They notice the
heightened beauty, the multitude of unexpected connections. Even
tually, left to their own devices mathematicians might be capable of
finding the central source of the heat, if physicists do not get there
first.
I am not alone in thinking along these lines. Physicist Holger
Nielsen has made a similar conjecture and Edward Fredkin has sug
The Theory of Theories
221
gested that the laws of physics may be found in a universality class
of cellular automata. The general philosophy is the storyteller‟s
paradigm. All stories are out there, told as mathematical possibili
ties. The rules of physics follow from a dominating universal
property of the ensemble of universes.
I think therefore I am...
So, is it really possible to derive the laws of physics from pure
mathematics without any reference to empirical observations as
Descartes thought? If the Theory of Theories is correct then the an
swer should be “yes”. At first it seems rather hard to make progress
with the theory of theories beyond the philosophical conception,
since it is necessary to define an appropriate topology and measure
in the space of all mathematical theories. Mathematics is just too
large for this, or is it?
Perhaps we could search for a universal behaviour in the set of
all possible computer programs. The set is sufficiently diverse to
cover all mathematics because, in principle, we can write a computer
program to explore any mathematical problem. John Wheeler pro
posed this as a place to start and called it It From Bit. Simple
computer programs can be very complex to understand, but we are
not interested in understanding the details of any one. We are con
cerned about the universal behaviour of very big programs randomly
written in some (any) computer language.
The variables of a large program would evolve in some kind of
statistical manner. Perhaps the details would fade into the back
ground and the whole could be understood using the methods of
statistical physics. Suppose one system (one theory, one universe)
had a number N of variables; its degrees of freedom.
a
1
, a
2
, ... a
N
In addition there must be an energy function,
E(a
1
, a
2
, ... a
N
)
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In the system, a possible set of values for these variables would
appear with a weight given by
Z = exp[ E(a
1
, a
2
, ... a
N
)]
I have not said much about the values of these variables. They
could be discrete variables or real numbers, or points on a higher
dimensional manifold. Somewhere in this complete set of systems
you could find something close to any mathematical universe you
thought of. For example, cellular automata would exist as limiting
cases where the energy function forced discrete variables to follow
rules.
What did I mean when I said “close”? Two different systems
would be isomorphic if there was a one to one mapping between
them which mapped the weight function of one onto the weight
function of the other. We could define a distance between two sys
tems by finding the function mapping one to the other which
minimised the correlations between them. This defines a metric
space with the minimum correlation as metric.
A powerful property of metric spaces is that they can be com
pleted by forming Cauchy sequences. Hence we can define a larger
set of theories as the completed metric space of statistical systems.
By means of this technique we include even renormalisable lattice
gauge theories into the theory space. The renormalisation process
can be defined as a Cauchy sequence of finite statistical systems. It
remains to define a natural measure on this space and determine if it
has a universal point where the total measure within any small radius
of this point is larger than the measure on the rest of the space.
Needless to say, this is quite a difficult mathematical problem
and I am not going to solve it. Perhaps I did not really get much fur
ther than Descartes!
Philip Gibbs
EVENTSYMMETRIC SPACETIME
WEBURBIA PUBLICATION Cyberspace
First published in 1998 by Weburbia Press 27 Stanley Mead Bradley Stoke Bristol BS32 0EF press@weburbia.com http://www.weburbia.com/press/
This address is supplied for legal reasons only. Please do not send book proposals as Weburbia does not have facilities for large scale publication.
© 1998 Philip Gibbs philip.gibbs@weburbia.com
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
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Printed copies are printed and bound in Great Britain by Weburbia.
Dedicated to Alice .
.
............................................................................................................................................. 45 Conservation Laws ........... 72 The Best Attempts ................................. 26 Feynman Meets Dirac ..................................................................................... 69 The Planck Scale .............................................................................................................................. 63 Quantum Gravity ........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ 48 Gauge Symmetry and Economics ............................ 23 The Principle of Least Action .............................................................................................................................................................................................. 58 Event symmetry .............................. 90 Lattice Quantum Field Theory .................................. 93 ...................... 79 Black Hole Thermodynamics .................................................................................................................. 80 Is There a Theory of Everything? .. 29 Feynman’s Sum Over Stories .............................................. 39 Natural Beauty ........................................... 46 Relativity................................... 61 Unification .................... 88 Lattice Theories ......................... 11 Between a story and the world .................................................................................................................................................................................................. 77 Canonical Quantum Gravity ........................ 78 NonCommutative Geometry ......... 57 Particle Permutations ...................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 59 IN A GRAIN OF SAND ............................................................................................................................ 44 Hidden Symmetry ..................................................... 84 IS SPACETIME DISCRETE? ... 11 Dreams of Rationalism ......................................................................................... 35 The Storyteller’s Paradigm ........................................................................... 54 Universal Symmetry.......Contents THE STORYTELLER .................................................................................... 61 Discrete Matter ....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 39 Symmetry in Physics .................................................................................... 69 Einstein’s Geometrodynamics ..................... 88 Seeking the ultimate indivisible ............... 51 Supersymmetry ................... 75 Supergravity .................................... 17 LightQuanta . 36 THE BEAUTY OF THE TIGER................................................. 30 Second Quantisation................................................... 14 Light on Light ........................................................................................................................................................................................
..Lattice Gauge Theories .... 107 Pregeometry ......................................... 95 Fading Motivations ......................................... 163 String Symmetry .............................................................................................................................................. 174 Identical Particles .......................................... 133 Matter and Antimatter.............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................. 125 Could the Universe be Gold? ................................................................................................. 149 Everything or Nothing? ..................................... 128 Antithermodynamic light from the future ................................... ............................................... 106 Lattice Quantum Gravity ............. 132 Mixing or Meeting .................................................................................................. 150 All Is String ............................................................. 167 Witten’s Puzzle ................................................... 147 THE SUPERSTRING SUPERMYSTERY ................................................................... 166 The Universal Lattice ............................................................................................... 134 Black Holes........................................................................................................................................................ 135 The Shape of Things to Come ........................................................................................................................................ 149 Why String Theory? .... 109 The Metaphysics of SpaceTime ....................................................... 130 A Crystal Ball .................. 164 THE PRINCIPLE OF EVENT SYMMETRY .. 172 More Symmetry .................................................. 114 WHAT ABOUT CAUSALITY? ......................................................... 100 Cellular Automata ...................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 117 A Block Universe ............................................. White Holes............................................................................................................................ 99 It from Bit ............... 110 So is it or isn't it? ....................................................................................................... 103 Discreteness in Quantum Gravity ................................... 116 Causality in the news................................................... 138 Wider Perspectives ............. 166 The Bucket of Dust .............................................................................................. 140 An Inhomogeneous Universe ........................................................................................ 168 SpaceTime and Soap Films ............. 178 .................................. 139 Occam’s Razor .... 143 Is The Big Bang a White Hole? ................................................................................................................................. 116 Causality in Physics ...................................................................................................................................................................................................... 157 Black Strings ................................................................................................................................................................................................................. 170 Permutation City ................................................................................. 121 The Second Law of Thermodynamics .................. 155 Duality ............................................ 145 Time Travel ............
........................................................................................................................................................................... 208 THE THEORY OF THEORIES ............... 190 Algebraic String Theory ........ 210 The Theory That Flies ........ 184 Discrete String Theory ............................................................ 204 The Supersymmetric ladder ............... 210 The Nature of Nature ................................................................ 218 The Theory of Theories ......................................... 215 Is the Anthropic Principle Enough? .................................................... 202 Penrose Spin Networks ...................................... 200 A String made of anyons? .................................... 206 The ladder of dimensions.......................................................................................................................................... 196 IS STRING THEORY IN KNOTS? ............................................................................................................................................................. 199 The Symmetric Group to the Braid Group ...................................................................... .......................................................................................................................................................................... 179 EventSymmetric Physics............................... 180 EVENTSYMMETRIC STRING THEORY. 203 What is Quantisation? ...................................................... 188 EventSymmetric Closed String Theory .............................................................................................................................................................................................. 182 Eight Reasons to Believe ....................................................................................................................................................... 221 ..... 211 Can we ask why? ...................................................................... 178 Back to Superstrings .......... 213 Many Anthropic Principles..............................................................................................Clifford’s Legacy .............................................................................................. 182 Leap Frog ..... 198 Strings and knots ... 200 Multiple Quantisation .......................................................................................................................... 217 Universality ........................................... 187 EventSymmetric Open String Theory ............................. 219 I think therefore I am............. 183 String Inspired Symmetry ...............................................................................................................
.
softly ended his tale. Does the universe depend on us to work? And what about consciousness? What.” “A child knows that a story can be as real as anything. “The world is real. tangible. science is searching for a new paradigm. but they are mistaken. “What is the difference between a story and the world?” The storyteller replied “There is no big difference. A story is not made up.” “That‟s nonsense!” The words came from a teacher listening from the back. if anything. A story is just made up fiction. As the second millennium draws to an end. does it mean to . surrounded by his enthralled audience. For centuries physical science has been based on a paradigm which considers the universe as real and material. The world is just a story told with too much irrelevant detail. “As people grow older they learn to separate a part they see as the real world from the rest. Many surprising discoveries have been made over the past century and causality has been cast into doubt. In our imagination anything goes. events are governed by the laws of physics and causality. Often physicists have remarked that the laws of physics seem to be designed so that life could evolve. Other things are held apart and regarded as part of the imagination. It is discovered!” The storyteller and the teacher might argue for many hours about what is real. concrete.” said the storyteller. Some continue to regard certain stories as real which others come to regard as fiction. Above all our own place in the universe is a great mystery.11 The Storyteller Between a story and the world The storyteller. After a few moments of silence a young voice from the front asked a question. But if the universe was designed just for us why was it necessary that we evolve? Why not just put us there? In quantum physics it seems to be impossible to separate the laws of physics from our role as observers. In the real world.
Many of the stories will be very imaginative when compared to our limited experience. so in the best storyteller‟s tradition. The universe is no different. I want to tell you about how space can evaporate and how time might change direction.” and there are some ladies. yet somewhere. . To him all stories already exist and are real. Our storyteller sees the world differently. Those elements might fit together in other ways. Can the phrases be put together uniquely? “Heehehhehhehheh. Just for your entertainment here is a story broken down into phrases and jumbled up. Some will tell stories which are sequels or prequels of others. Some people find such things hard to accept as a possible part of real experience. Mr. Try to imagine that there is a very large number of real or hypothetical storytellers all telling their favourite stories. present or future . If you can take his advice it will help you to come to terms with some of the unusual things in physics which I am going to describe in this book. Surely You‟re joking. perhaps with different details. It is a wellknown anecdote told by a famous physicist who himself has an important role to play in this chapter. but somewhere in the whole collection any possible story is being told. Stories can be broken down into components such as chapters. he asks you to suspend your disbelief. they may be very different from storytellers as we know them. He may not be able to persuade you to accept this immediately. or they may be telling stories which start the same but end differently. It does not really matter. We find them. We do not create them.12 EventSymmetric SpaceTime be aware of our own existence? In the past these questions were regarded as unscientific but now many scientists are trying to tackle them and the old paradigm is totally inadequate. sentences and words.or perhaps they are somewhere else. Sometimes one story will seem to be the story of what is going on next door to the location of another. Feynman. They may even make little sense to us. They may be in this universe . somewhen they may happen. There are so many possible storytellers in our imagination that this is not really a coincidence.past. So the stories fit together to create whole universes like random jigsaws. Some storytellers will be telling the same stories as others. It might be helpful to see it as a coherent collection of stories which unfold.
It‟s all very formal when suddenly I hear and how should I behave. may not be fully determined. you must imagine that the universe is built this way. There are many possible stories and where stories fit together in a selfconsistent way they combine to form many different universes. when I hear a voice behind me. To understand the physics of eventsymmetric spacetime which I am going to explain. Feynman? and I‟m thinking about where to sit down It‟s Mrs Eisenhart. If you are not very impressed. Putting together the vast number of stories which can be told would be the same. pouring tea. Each of us has a life which is a story somewhere in these universes. Even our pasts. or not. 13 You might solve this puzzle. If there were many more phrases. still looking for where I‟m going to sit. It is just an empty vessel within which you can place a theory.” I say. The storyteller‟s paradigm is much more flexible than other paradigms such as mechanism. and events happening elsewhere in our present. you could produce just about anything. and some girls. There would be no unique solution but you could make some order out of the chaos. “Would you like cream or lemon in your tea. The storyteller‟s arena of universes is called the multiverse and this is the storyteller‟s paradigm. yet we are guaranteed a consistent story in the end. materialism and causality.The Storyteller “I‟ll have both thank you. . We should not expect our future to be completely determined since what we have experienced up to now could fit into many stories with different endings. I go through the door. and should I sit next to this girl. remember that a paradigm is not a theory. Mr. If I gave you just a jumble of letters and punctuation marks. either exactly or with a slight variation which does not change the meaning. or if they were broken down into words you might end up with a story different from the original. too. It needs to be if new physics is to be comprehensible.
had fallen into an uneasy sleep in the stoveheated room. Galileo also judged that the same laws of physics which act on Earth must also rule the heavens. but the thunder was the Spirit of Truth coming for him. Just imagine the excitement of those times. a dictionary and a book of poems. A stranger appeared and showed him a poem. He was in pain. Descartes would pursue a reconstruction of knowledge based on physics and mathematics. showing him his past. He changed his ways. Just ten years before. From that time on. During that night he had three dreams. 23 years old. In front of him on a table he saw two books. He lay awake reflecting on these signs before having his third and most revealing dream. has one person announced a catalogue of so many unexpected discoveries all at once.14 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Dreams of Rationalism On the night of November 10th. a punishment. Never since in the history of our world. On that night in 1619 the time was certainly right for a new science. This was the turning point in his life. Outside it was bitterly cold and Descartes. With these observations Galileo had crushed the old worldview and physics of Aristotle. Much more could be seen and known than previously thought . René Descartes was serving in the army of the Duke of Bavaria. present and future. Galileo had looked to the sky with his telescope. the phases of Venus. Today we have not yet reached it but we seem closer than ever before. The realisation of that vision has been sought by generations of scientists throughout the centuries which followed. He came to believe that a unified system of truth was attainable. 1619. sunspots and millions of new stars not known before. Now it was clear that the Earth was just like another planet circling the Sun as Copernicus and Kepler had surmised. “Est et Non” by Pythagoras. moons of Jupiter. He had seen mountains on the moon. They were in the midst of the thirty years war which burned across the continent. In the second dream he heard thunder which brought home his present uncomfortable predicament. The first dream terrified him. Plainly it was the beginning of something big. A ghostly presence showed him a melon which he interpreted as a sign of solitude and human preoccupations.
in principle. He admitted the shortcomings of his method and resorted to experiments himself. There is temporal causality which means that if we know the positions and velocities of all particles at a given time. The Cartesian philosophy was a reaction to the scientific method which had been described by Francis Bacon just a few years before. be derived. A new physics would have to be worked out to fit the new facts and a new philosophy to go with it. He hoped that the right laws could be found by looking to mathematics and logic. and the laws which govern the forces between them. or that general relativity does not explain what spacetime or inertia is. Nothing comes from nothing. .The Storyteller 15 possible. then we can understand their motions at all future times. Descartes had heard of Galileo‟s discoveries as a 15 year old student at La Flèche. Descartes drew up a picture of the world as the workings of a complicated machine whose motion is governed by simple physical laws. What mattered to Bacon was experiment and observation. This is ontological causality. By knowing the equations and solving them. To Descartes. To Descartes. rationalism also meant that all things had a deeper explanation in terms of simpler causes. In response. The important thing is that the theory provides a successful means of predicting the result of experiments. This Cartesian rationalism can be understood as two elements of causality. People often criticise scientific theories. The scientific method requires that physical theories must be drawn up in response to observations and tested empirically. They say that Maxwell‟s electromagnetism does not explain what charge or magnetic fields are. He said that everything which happened must have a prior cause. What scientists do is often different from what they report. experimental results are just hints that we need because we are not clever enough to work things out from first principles. saying that they do not explain anything. humankind would understand the mechanism of the universe. Physicists will argue that explanation in this sense is not what counts. but Descartes put more weight on the use of rational logic and deduction to work out how things should be. Anything more is just metaphysical. Yet physicists are themselves always searching for deeper explanations and often express their wishes for an underlying theory from which all phenomena can.
16 EventSymmetric SpaceTime but he hoped to rectify the matter later. To Aristotle an acorn has a destiny to become a tree. Lead will become gold in the fullness of time. A child will become an adult. always developing towards perfection. When Newton spoke of “standing on the shoulders of giants” he meant Descartes as well as Galileo. The pillars of absolute space. but Newton had reservations and believed that final cause may yet play its part. Descartes had expelled Aristotle‟s final cause. Together those individuals. Then they crumbled. Newton used his prodigious mathematical skills to bring Descartes‟s dream to life. just a sea of interdependent possibilities. he defined absolute space and time as the arena for deterministic mechanical law. Before the mechanistic paradigm. This dichotomy between the scientific method and Cartesian rationalism has survived intact since the time of Descartes and Bacon and has become an ironic feature of scientific progress. We have come too far to return to teleology and mysticism. Kepler and Copernicus who had set in motion the scientific revolution during the previous century. established a new order which would last until the twentieth century. What can be said of temporal causality could also be said of ontological causality. He became the founder of analytic geometry as well as modern western philosophy. The last in order of discovery would be the first in order of knowledge. There may be no first cause. no final cause or highest cause. philosophers viewed change as part of becoming towards a purpose. Applying Cartesian geometry. and many others who joined them. no deepest cause. Descartes became a great mathematician. At least some of the cause was seen to lie in the future. a synthesis of consistent stories. it has telos and that is why it grows. but the notion that all cause comes from the past and from deeper laws has remained as the foundation stone of all science. Descartes himself predicted that the journey on the road to that ultimate discovery was to be a long one taking centuries to follow. . but we need to prepare for a wider view of causality. Causality is now firmly embedded in our thought but it was not always so. The reasons for existence may not all lie in the past or in the underlying laws of nature. time and determinism were the supporting structures of physics until the end of the nineteenth century.
Willebrod Von Roijen Snell who discovered it just prior to Descartes in 1625. The component of velocity of the particles tangent to the surface does not change while the normal component is reversed. as balls bounce from a wall. Glass x y Air The product of the refractive index and the sine of the angle of incidence of a ray in one medium is equal to the product of the refractive index and the sine of the angle of refraction in a successive medium. rglass sin x rair sin y Descartes provided a derivation of Snell‟s law which we now know to be incorrect. It was named after the Dutch mathematician. When light passes from air into . Snell died just a year after his discovery and did not publish. The law tells us how light bends when passing between two mediums such as air and glass and is crucial to our understanding of lenses and prisms.The Storyteller 17 Light on Light Among the many scientific discoveries made by Descartes is a contribution to optics which is commonly known as Snell‟s sine law of refraction. He could see that it is easy to explain light reflected from a mirror as a stream of particles which bounce off the smooth surface. so the law was not widely known until Descartes published it in 1637. In accordance with his general methods. even though it gave the right answer. He envisaged light as the motion of small spherical particles. Descartes wanted a similar mechanical description of refraction.
In 125 AD Heron of Alexandria had shown that the law of reflection from a mirror could be . The result is that they change direction. They will gain energy and speed up.18 EventSymmetric SpaceTime a denser medium such as glass. and if the initial velocity is fixed then the angles of deflection will mimic Snell‟s sine law. but only the normal component of velocity changes. Instead of seeking a mechanical analogy he fell back on the old idea of Aristotle that nature always takes the most economical way. He claimed that particles of light are attracted to denser mediums when they enter. Mersenne‟s role was the 17th century equivalent of today‟s electronic eprint archives on the internet. If the tangential component of velocity is to remain unchanged for refraction as it is for reflection. light must go faster in the denser medium. Some twenty years later Fermat decided to try and conclude the matter by finding a better explanation for refraction. he felt that some unjustified assumptions had been made. light should slow down in a denser medium. the French mathematician Marin Mersenne was acting as a clearing house for scientific information in Europe. At that time. not speed up. The ensuing argument between Descartes and Fermat petered out quickly without resolution. His philosophy was very different from that of Descartes. Pierre de Fermat was by profession a councillor of the French parliament. We can compare the situation with balls which roll across a flat surface until they descend a short downward slope onto another flat surface. and so gain momentum perpendicular to the surface. This is the essence of the CartesianNewtonian mechanistic explanation of refraction. When he read Descartes‟s derivation of the sine law of refraction he was not impressed. For one thing. When he received Descartes‟s manuscript on optics in 1637 he circulated copies to other scientists including Fermat. Newton later perfected Descartes derivation and agreed with his conclusion. if anything. He also felt that. but his passion was mathematics and his theorems in number theory are legendary. it turns towards the normal of the surface. Communication has always been of vital importance in the development of science. It is no accident that knowledge began to expand rapidly after Johann Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe in 1450.
The Storyteller
19
explained if rays of light were taking the shortest path from the source to destination via the surface of the mirror. This can be easily seen by looking through the mirror at the path of light before reflection. The ray traces a straight line from the apparent position of the object in the mirror to the destination. If the angle of incidence were not the same as the angle of reflection it would not be a straight line and would therefore be a longer path.
apparent source
mirror
destination
source of light
Fermat was interested in problems of finding maxima and minima before Newton and Leibniz developed the general methods of differential calculus. He considered the hypothesis that the path of the ray of light might give a minimum in the time taken for light to go from A to B. This would work equally well as minimum distance for reflection and could also explain refraction. Imagine that instead of a light ray passing into a block of glass, it is a life guard at the swimming pool. While standing at position A she sees a swimmer in distress at position B. She needs to get to him as quickly as possible but can run twice as fast as she can swim. To get from A to B in the shortest time she would have to follow the path shown.
20
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
It is not the path of shortest distance.
B
x
A
y
She must first get to a point at the side of the pool nearer to the swimmer. The optimum route is given by the equivalent of Snell‟s law,
2 sin x 1sin y
A ray of light going from a point A to a point B in a rectangular block of glass with a refractive index of two would take the same route. Thus, in 1657, Fermat showed that if light was being slowed down in a medium by a factor equal to its refractive index, then he could derive Snell‟s sine law from a principle of least time. He was astonished that he got the same refraction law as Descartes even though his alternative theory predicted a slowing down of light in dense media instead of a speeding up. It was not until 1850, almost 200 years later, that Jean Foucault was able to measure directly the speed of light in different media. He confirmed that light slowed down in water. Fermat was right and Descartes was wrong. The beauty of Fermat‟s principle of least time is its generality. The implication is that a ray of light passing through any complex setup of mirrors and lenses takes a route which gives at least a local minimum of time to go from start to finish. According to Descartes‟s notion of causality, Fermat‟s principle is a bizarre way to formulate a law of physics. What we expect are laws which allow us to begin with a starting point and direction for a ray of light, and then work out the route it takes and where it will end up. Of course, Fermat‟s principle can be used in this way via a derivation of Snell‟s law, but
The Storyteller
21
it seems to work as if the light was given a starting and end position and then worked out the optimum route between them. This is quite absurd in terms of temporal causality. By the mid 17th century the nature of light was a subject of hot debate. Important experiments by the Italian Francesco Grimaldi in 1648 were then becoming known. Grimaldi had observed diffraction of light and proposed that light had a wavelike nature. At this time a wave theory of sound was already well established. Galileo had studied a vibrating string and clarified the relationship between frequency and pitch in 1600. In 1636 Mersenne had made the first measurements of the speed of sound by timing the return of an echo and in 1660 Robert Boyle demonstrated that sound could not travel through a vacuum by placing a bell in a jar and pumping out the air. The conclusion was inescapable. Sound must be due to compression waves travelling through the air. Using this theory, Isaac Newton was able to calculate the speed of sound from first principles and obtain a result in agreement with Mersenne‟s measurement.
Glass Air
Newton‟s rival, Robert Hooke, was one of those who wanted an analogous theory of light but he failed to see that light must slow down in dense media rather than speed up. In 1673 Ignace Pardies corrected Hooke‟s oversight and provided a new explanation for Snell‟s law. If light propagated in a direction perpendicular to wave fronts and slowed down as it passed through a dense medium, then waves become closer together and would be deflected in accordance with the sine law. Christian Huygens agreed but wanted a deeper understanding. Why should the wave theory be in agreement with Fermat‟s princi
22
EventSymmetric SpaceTime
ple? Huygens was from Amsterdam so it is easy to imagine how he might have seen the effects of water waves on the many canals of the city as he walked home across the bridges. He developed an intuition for the behaviour of waves which enabled him to grasp a deep relation between the wave theory of light and the principle of least time. Newton and Huygens were both followers of Descartes‟s mechanistic philosophy, but they had very different views of the road ahead. Newton liked Descartes‟s theory of light and incorporated it into his corpuscular theory. Huygens started from a different observation made by Descartes, that crossed beams of light pass through each other without interacting. He must have noticed that water waves and sound waves pass through each other in a similar way. He could not see how this would be possible for light if it was composed of streams of particles. Huygens explained instead that light propagated from each point of a luminous source in spherical waves. These are analogous to the circular waves propagating from a disturbance on the surface of water, but with immense speed and short wavelength. The speed of light was deduced by Olaus Roemer in 1676 to account for a discrepancy in the timing of eclipses of Jupiter‟s moons. The short wavelength could be confirmed by an experiment which Newton performed, now known as Newton‟s rings. Huygens noticed that if water waves pass through a tiny hole smaller than their wavelength they again spread out from that point in spherical waves. He said that spherical secondary waves propagated from any point but are only seen clearly when a barrier shields the contributions from other points. At that time the mathematics needed to express the propagation of waves in the form of differential equations was not available, but by combining Huygens‟s principle of secondary waves with the effects of interference, it is possible to explain refraction and diffraction. It is even possible to see why Fermat‟s principle of least time applies: Constructive interference appears at points where light wave fronts passing by different routes from the source arrive after the same time of travel so that they are in phase. This corresponds to the paths of least time. This conveniently reduced Fermat‟s principle to a deeper wave principle which, to Huygens, had the greater merit of being explicitly causal and Cartesian.
This was the case in 1860 when Gustav Kirchhoff asked: “What is the electromagnetic spectrum from a blackbody?” He realised that the radiation inside a uniformly heated box must not depend on the characteristics of the walls. opinion swung the other way. There the matter rested without further progress during the whole of the eighteenth century. James Clerk Maxwell presented the unified theory of electromagnetism in 1864. Newton‟s corpuscular theory was no longer needed. Newton objected to the wave hypothesis because light casts a sharp shadow whereas sound and water waves can bend round an obstruction. rapid progress was made. This was his explanation for the experiment in which he was able to measure the wavelengths of light of different colours by observing the rings of light between two glass surfaces. In that case the energy in the radiation from an . History will give the greater glory to the one who finds the answer but often it is the person who posed the question who made the greater contribution to science. it seemed. With this. These corpuscles undulated with a frequency depending on their colour. In his theory. Thomas Young and Augustin Fresnel were first to revive the wave theory of light with new theory and experiments to study interference and diffraction. all aspects of light known at the time including colour and polarisation could be explained. Nine years later he had derived the speed of light by supposing it to be a form of electromagnetic wave. Newton‟s corpuscular theory and Huygens wave principle were seen as opposing theories. Because of the huge success of Newton‟s mechanics and theory of gravitation. LightQuanta Occasionally an important breakthrough in physics comes about because of someone asking an important question which others had not thought of. light was composed of particles or corpuscles. Faraday. In the nineteenth century. With the superior mathematical methods of Fourier and Laplace and the experimental basis of Ampere. he was the greater authority and his ideas were favoured. otherwise the second law of thermodynamics could be violated by letting radiation pass from box to another at a slightly higher temperature. Henry. Oersted and others.The Storyteller 23 Newton saw things very differently.
of photoelectric emission. However there was no theory at that time which could be used to derive the answer and experiment could give only a rough guide. He concluded. the quantum era began. To Einstein this was an unacceptable breakdown of causality which he hoped to fix later in a deeper theory. In 1915 after 10 years of experiment a sceptical Robert Millikan conceded that the formula was correct. For the first two decades of the twentieth century. It was not easy for physicists to accept the new idea. He applied the same idea to explain the photoelectric effect and successfully predicted the correct law.P. that the spectrum at high frequencies diminished because the radiation was emitted in discrete quanta. In fact there would be an infinite radiation of heat. Something was badly wrong with the theory. It was Einstein who in 1909 saw the need for a theory of particlewave duality.24 EventSymmetric SpaceTime ideal black body must be a function of wavelength and temperature which should be explainable solely in terms of fundamental physics. who in 1917 saw the first signs that determinism was threatened. and not as a property of light propagation. E = h . Finally it was Max Planck who wrote down the correct law which fitted the data. In Berlin at the world‟s best equipped physics laboratory of the time. Most theorists could do little better than guess equations which might fit the empirical curves. could not be determined from the initial state. At first it was thought that the quantisation may apply only to emission and perhaps absorption of light. two teams were painstakingly measuring blackbody radiation at temperatures from well below freezing up to as high as 1500 °C. It was he too. To other physicists . As the nineteenth century drew to a close Lord Rayleigh showed that Maxwell‟s equations and the laws of thermodynamics predicted a spectrum which worked well at low infrared frequencies but which would give a nonsensical increasing intensity of emission at higher ultraviolet frequencies. Then Planck went a step further than guesswork. In the decades that followed Maxwell‟s theory was to be found wanting when applied to Kirchhoff‟s simple question. He understood that in the phenomenon of stimulated light emission. reluctantly. the exact moment at which each light quantum would be emitted. Thus in 1900. Albert Einstein alone believed that light quanta were real.
Dirac. Newton was wrong to think that light is faster in dense media. They wanted to believe that any form of matter could be transformed into another because they dreamt of becoming rich by transforming lead into gold. postponed by a semantic adjustment. Arthur Compton derived the relativistic expression for hard scattering of a quantum of light from an electron. but what did it mean? In 1923.The Storyteller 25 who followed it became an experimentally verified fact of life. Schrödinger. Cartesian temporal causality could live to see another century. It must also be admitted that everything Newton had observed was later consistent with the wave theory when it found its final form in Maxwell‟s equations. It was impossible to deny the particular side to their nature when the Compton effect was photographed in cloud chambers and energy and momentum conservation was verified. the rollcall is endless. History recounts that this was inspired by alchemist sympathies. Fermi. Huygens and Fermat were correct that it slows down. Heisenberg. Yet Newton‟s anticipation of the quantum theory was no fluke. Pauli. We now say that quantum mechanics is indeterministic rather than acausal. The breakdown of causality was. We mean that although we cannot determine the outcome of an experiment. No longer would the reality of photons be questioned. The almost fantastic story of those discoveries and the years that followed have filled many volumes on the history of science. The term “light quanta” was replaced by the word “photon” as if to celebrate its wider recognition as a particle. the result is still influenced only by the past state and not the future. It was Boyle who had christened them corpuscles. One can only marvel at the profound insight implied by this theory. In 1913 Niels Bohr used the theory of light quanta to explain the Balmer series of emission lines in the spectrum of hydrogen.. In that golden age of physics many great scientists rose to the challenge. Now is a good moment to turn the clock back to the time of Newton and his theory of undulatory corpuscles. To be sure. Following the chemist and philosopher Robert Boyle.. It grew out of a belief that the laws of physics were unified. however. he guessed that everything was built from elementary units. But their guess that such transformations might come about by rearrangements of the constituent corpuscles was founded on many observations of . .
set an especially tricky problem for his rival and older brother Jacques. will lead up to my thesis of the storyteller‟s paradigm. Explaining how. In 1690 he asked him to identify the curve of the brachistochrone. and we should not scoff just because the theory was not based purely on empirical induction from solid observations. . It was natural for Newton to suppose that light was produced by another transformation of this sort. using its kinetic energy. Fermat and Huygens.26 EventSymmetric SpaceTime other physical processes. Then. the curve traced out by a point on the rim of a rolling wheel. What would be the optimum shape of the track to minimise the travel time? Jean failed to trip up his brother with this problem and other mathematicians solved it too. We know now that he was right. European mathematicians liked to show off their prowess by posing and solving puzzles. the curve down which a particle will slide in the shortest time from one given point to another. The Principle of Least Action At the end of the seventeenth century. 259km to the southwest. By descending down a steep slope from Basle. Suppose the line was to go from the Bernoulli‟s home town of Basle to Geneva. it could pick up momentum to cover the distance on frictionless tracks. To get from Basle to Geneva the train would follow the sweep of a point on a circle as it did a full revolution. The solution is a cycloid. The Bernoulli brothers particularly enjoyed this game and Jean Bernoulli. Newton is reputed to have cracked the problem overnight when it was given to him. With hindsight we can see the modern theory of light as a synthesis of the principles of Newton. but first we must go back and trace the development of another principle. An interesting application of this problem would be to build an underground train between two towns powered only by gravity. the 10th child of Nicolaus Bernoulli. it would finish by climbing back up to Geneva where it would come perfectly to rest.
Later. Particles do not seem to be trying to get from A to B in the least time possible. Basle Geneva The brachistrochrone puzzle influenced other mathematicians to look for general methods of solving other similar optimisation problems which involved curves. Leibniz proposed that mechanics optimises the use of another quantity which he called action. a ray of light follows the line of shortest time through any system of mirrors and prisms. For the single particle subjected to no forces the action is energy multiplied by time which is also half momentum times distance integrated along the path. Since it grew out of a physical problem. Maupertuis attached great philosophical significance to this principle and was ridiculed by Voltaire for doing so. He did not like the Cartesian exclusion of final cause and saw Fermat‟s principle as an example that demonstrated his point. When a particle travels from A to B in a fixed time interval.4km where it would reach a speed of 4580 km per hour and it would complete its journey in only 6 minutes 47 seconds. otherwise they would accelerate towards their destinations. Yet it is hard for a . But applying Fermat‟s principle directly to mechanics does not work. but it would be better to have a principle which explains why it goes at constant speed too. in 1744.The Storyteller 27 It would descend to a maximum depth of 82. and so the calculus of variations was invented. A free particle goes in a straight line so its path has the minimum length. it does so with the least possible action. Pierre de Maupertuis discovered how to make this idea work. Could there be a more general principle to be found? Gottfried Leibniz was especially keen on the idea. Remember that according to Fermat‟s principle. physicists wondered how the new maths might be applied to Newton‟s laws of mechanics more widely.
They developed techniques now known as the HamiltonJacobi formalism which took them to the brink of discovering quantum mechanics in 1834. eighty years before its time. It is as if the evolution of the system is determined equally by the past and future. The principle of least action is a curious discovery from the point of view of causality in the same fashion as for Fermat‟s optical principle of least time. Euler and Lagrange showed how to derive the equations of motion of any system of particles from this principle. as we shall see. For any mechanical system moving in an energy potential. However. the principle of least action tells us how a system evolves given the initial and final positions of the particles and the equation for the action. apparently. The next in line to work on the action principle were William Hamilton and Carl Jacobi. Recall that Huygens had used his theory of secondary waves to provide an explanation for Fermat‟s principle which reconciled it with causality. given the initial positions and velocities of particles and the equations of force acting on them. it does so in a way which minimises the action. Recall that in classical mechanics (meaning deterministic motion without the quantum theory). you can in principle predict their subsequent motion. If Hamilton or Jacobi had considered a similar explanation of the principle of least action they could easily have found . our own psychological bias for prior cause. The calculus of variations and the principle of least action were further developed in the eighteenth century by mathematicians such as Leonhard Euler and Joseph Lagrange. Richard Feynman was one such student who heard about it from his high school physics teacher. When the system evolves from an initial state to a final state at given times. Causality is only found indirectly through the derivation of the equations of motion and. This energy difference in the integral is now called the Lagrangian and finding its form for more general situations is the key to any problem of theoretical physics.28 EventSymmetric SpaceTime student learning mechanics not to be struck by the beauty and generality of the principle of least action when he first encounters it. the action is defined as the kinetic energy minus the potential energy integrated with respect to time. The consequences for Feynman and for physics were profound. This is the principle of temporal causality.
It showed how to derive a quantum theory from any classical Hamiltonian mechanics by introducing . Descartes has to concede that we need those empirical signposts to keep us from straying onto false paths. Does it have to be that way or is it just a human weakness? In the real story it was 1923 that became the breakthrough year for quantum mechanics. Dirac was a quiet genius. Feynman Meets Dirac It is difficult to think of two twentieth century physicists less alike in character than Paul Dirac and Richard Feynman. His masterpiece was the systematic construction of the quantisation process described in his book. He was a master of imaginative speculation. and still is. but only when Louis de Broglie suggested that the same must apply to electrons did all become clear. He was only a student at the time but he realised immediately that the HamiltonJacobi theory pointed in that direction. It was the time of the greatest revelations in physics. of Bohr‟s model of the atom. “The Principles of Quantum Mechanics”. overtypically the reserved Englishman. he anticipated string theory. West of England. we only see this with the hindsight which came from eighty more years of experimentation. As it turned out. a man of few words. Later in life. exploiting mathematical beauty to invent new physics. Duality was. Within three short years the full theory of quantum mechanics was established and ten Nobel Laureates had earned their physics prizes in the process. Electron diffraction from metals was seen as the perfect confirmation of de Broglie‟s matter wave theory. It is amusing to consider that we could write a fictional but almost plausible sounding history in which mathematicians discovered all the fundamental principles of physics without ever doing an experiment! In practice. a hard lesson to learn.The Storyteller 29 quantum wave mechanics. membrane theory and magnetic monopoles thirty years in advance of their time. Many who would otherwise have doubted were swayed by convincing experiments. Born in Bristol. It had to be accepted because it made sense. He discovered the relativistic equation of the electron and founded quantum field theory. at last. Einstein had already suggested particlewave duality for light quanta in 1909.
In 1946 they met for the first time at a series of lectures which had been organised to celebrate the bicentennial of Princeton University. In 1926 Erwin Schrödinger came up with a more detailed wave theory in which the state of the particle at any time is actually described by a complex valued number assigned to each point in space. His approach to physics was practical and down to Earth. He wrote a series of lecture notes on theoretical physics which will remain standard texts for decades to come. He wanted to ask about an expression which Dirac had written in a paper in 1933. Dirac had found what he thought was an approximate relationship but Feynman saw that it was exact. Feynman found Dirac resting on the lawn outside by himself. He was brilliant at finding new ways to look at things more clearly and solving physical problems. Max . As a result.30 EventSymmetric SpaceTime a quantum state vector and replacing classical commuting quantities with noncommuting quantum operators. Suddenly he could see a very direct and intuitive relation between the classical action and quantum theory. overtypically American. Feynman was born in New York City. 16 years younger than Dirac. Feynman was a great admirer of Dirac‟s work. This was his opportunity to ask Dirac if he actually knew that. about the relation between quantum mechanics and the principle of least action. Soon after that. then other particles must also be considered to have wave properties. Feynman thought some more about it and had a marvellous flash of insight. He was a popular genius. After giving a talk. In fact Dirac had not known but said it was a very interesting observation. Feynman’s Sum Over Stories To understand what Feynman came up with let us first look at the simple case of a single particle. Despite these different styles. His masterpiece was an alternative formulation of the process of quantisation using path integrals. an outspoken character. He found the modern approach to quantum field theory and renormalisation. He explained superfluids and tackled quantum gravity directly. In 1923 Louis De Broglie suggested that if light waves behave as particles. and went out to talk to him. Almost immediately Davisson and Kunsman were able to verify De Broglie‟s conjecture by observing electron diffraction effects.
For each path from A to B there is a different position value. Suppose that initially the particle has a definite position at A so the wave function takes the value 1 there and zero everywhere else. As a path P from A to B is traced out. The probability density is given by the square of the wave amplitude.The Storyteller 31 Born interpreted Schrödinger‟s wave function as a description of the probability of finding a particle at any point in space. The square was completed. inspired by Dirac. Now Feynman. Fermat Huygens Maupertuis Feynman According to Feynman. Imagine that the hand of the clock turns as if clocking up action along the path until it gets to B so that it ends up at some other position on the clock face. the action can be calculated using the classical equations of Lagrange. To get the final amplitude of the wave function at B you have to sum up. in order to find the evolution of the wave function for a single particle between given starting and end times. The value of the wave function at the start time is a complex number which can be pictured as the position of the hand of a clock. realised that the evolution of the wave could also be described in terms of what he called “path integrals”. or integrate. we must consider all possible starting points A. all possible finishing points B and all paths P which the particle could take in going from A to B. We now want to know what the wave function will look like at some later finishing time. The wave evolves according to a wave equation which Schrödinger gave us and which was later generalised by many others. This path integral . The relationship between Feynman‟s path integral and Maupertuis‟s principle of least action is the same as that between Huygen‟s principle of secondary waves and Fermat‟s principle of least time. the values for all the paths.
In fact it is more complicated than that.32 EventSymmetric SpaceTime has a built in normalisation so that the final answer has a sensible value. Previously seen as rivals. When the dials read the same values they add together like constructive interference. at last. But quantum mechanics deals with much more than just light. When they point in opposite directions they cancel like destructive interference. The path integral incorporates Huygen‟s secondary waves and generalises his explanation of Fermat‟s principle. This explains why the principle of least action describes the motion of the particle in the classical limit. A B The evolution is wavelike since the turning hands of the clock are like the phase of a wave. Constructive interference is most pronounced when paths near to the minimum of the action are added together. Any system which has a classical principle of least action can be quantised using the methods of Dirac or Feynman. Classically we would describe such a multiparticle system by giving the positions of each particle in space. but it also describes light as particles with an undulatory nature as Newton wanted. they are now seen as complementary. An example is an atom consisting of a nucleus with its entourage of electrons. of the theories of light of both Huygens and Newton. A system of many particles interacting through forces which conserve energy can be dealt with in this way. The . The quantum wave function of one particle is a complex valued function on the 3 coordinates of space. so it might have been expected that the quantum wave function of n particles would involve n such functions. The path integral makes sense.
as already said. Another crucial distinction between particles and our group of friends is that particles do not have names. There is no way to tell photons apart. Firstly. Either they are like photons and do not mind being together. However. Also. Particles actually have just these two kinds of social behaviour. Electrons are a little different again.The Storyteller 33 wave function is a much bigger complex valued function of the 3n coordinates of the positions of all the particles. This is less than hn but it is still a large number. club and cinema. The situation for particles is similar except for a few important details. We only need to give a probability for the number of photons which can be found at each place. Electrons are like a group of antisocial friends who detest each other so much that each one avoids being found in the same haunt as any other. but it may be useful to suppose that space is discrete and finite with only a fixed number h of points. In the path integral of the system we cannot deal with the path of each point separately because they interact through electromagnetic forces. these probabilities alone would be a very poor description of the total behaviour because some friends like to stick together and are more likely to be found together. If there are h such haunts that they like to go to. that each friend will be there at 11 o‟clock. the wave function gives a complex number rather than a real number for each possibility. They are absolutely identical. It is nonlocal in the sense that it does not just give independent wave functions for each particle. If a group of n friends goes out to town for the evening you could give a probability for each bar. Particles which are like electrons are called bosons and those like electrons are called fermions. They are also indistinguishable like photons. . It also describes correlations between them. This means that we cannot distinguish the difference in circumstance if any two photons are swapped over. There are actually hn possible situations at 11 o‟clock and to account for all possible circumstances you must give the probability for each one. but they never appear together in the same place. there would be nh such probabilities. or they are like electrons which stay apart. We must consider all ways in which the system of many particles can evolve from a given classical starting state to a final one. there are an infinite number of places the particle can be at any given instant.
34 EventSymmetric SpaceTime The action for each such possible history contributes to the evolution of the wave function. Today physicists are looking at ways to harness the power which lies hidden in these functions. plus a field strength for the electromagnetic forces at each point of a closely spaced lattice over the entire galaxy. That might need h = 1080 points. If you are required to solve the problem with quantum mechanics you need to cover the full wave function. It may be possible to tame them in quantum computers which will do many simultaneous computations as if they are each happening as a separate story. Sceptics cannot accept it because it is hard to believe that so many things are going on in parallel. where they could be at each moment of time. Sometimes people talk about the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics and the multiverse of possible universes. Yet quantum mechanics is a theory of many things happening at once and the huge size of the wavefunction for all the particles of the universe is what makes quantum mechanics work. Even doing it classically. We are looking at stories of particles. We are just seeing the one which dominates through constructive interference. The story has a given beginning and a given ending and we must consider all possible stories which fit. like a story of a group of friends who go out on the town. but the full wave function requires more like (h/n)n = . The quantum theory is more general and more fundamental than any 10 10 71 . In the macroscopic world where physics appears classical. we see only one story but we know that in the microscopic world there are many stories. It is the most fundamental principle known in physics. you would require a high precision variable for each coordinate of some n = 1070 particles. If each particle was behaving independently you could get away with about hn = 10150 variables. If you were an engineer charged with the task of programming a computer to simulate a galaxy at a level of detail where each particle is described individually you would balk at the task. The Feynman sum over stories is a realisation of the storyteller‟s paradigm. It is worth taking a moment to contemplate the complexity of the system being described. I hope that the reason for calling it a sum over stories is now emerging. Even with today‟s powerful computers some further approximations will be necessary.
i. The interaction between the electromagnetic field and Dirac‟s equation for an electron is a nonlinear relativistic generalisation of the Schrödinger equation. now known as Feynman diagrams. Our real origins lie in the quantum principles which are held in the physics of all times and all places. The result of this second quantisation works out to be the same as the quantum theory of a manyparticle system. A single particle which is quantised becomes a field. The Schrödinger equation is linear but quantisation can be applied to field theories with nonlinear terms. values assigned to each point in space like the classical electromagnetic fields. Second Quantisation There is a twist in the tale of quantisation which was introduced by Pascual Jordan in 1925.The Storyteller 35 other theory because it must apply to all physics if it applies to any. Feynman was able to use his path integrals to understand the process better. Many physicists prefer to think that the first quantisation was a mistake and quantum field theory alone is correct.e. A field theory can also be derived from a principle of least action and can therefore also be quantised. The field theory of the single particle Schrödinger equation can be quantised in this way as if it were a classical field. This is still called second quantisation but not everyone likes the term used in this way. If we wish to understand why we exist we should not look to the big bang where we think the universe began because the temporal causality of Descartes is not what this paradigm is about. The quantum field theories always describe the quantum interactions of many particle systems. He found that the equations of quantum field theory could be written out as a sum over diagrams. which show the paths and interactions of particles .
we would think that it was either a fantastic coincidence or that there had been some communication between them. They will know about conservation of energy and will have a list of particles which matches ours once we have sorted out how to convert terms and units. What if there are different universes where the laws of physics are different? What would life in those universes have in common with us? We would expect them to know the same mathematics because mathematical logic is more abstract than physics. but there should be a correspondence between what they judge as true and what we do. Perhaps one day computers will be so powerful that we will be able to simulate creative thought in a computer. We expect different countries to have similar theories about biology for example. However. If we ever make contact with intelligent life on another planet we will be interested to hear about their biology because it is likely to be rather different from terrestrial biology. Pure mathematicians do not usually use ideas from physics to decide what is worth studying. but written in different languages. This would be true even if they had not shared their discoveries because their citizens are all the same form of life and must have the same biology. Then we will verify that the same mathematical concepts can develop without any influence from physics. Like the cliché of a novel about a writer. Science is different. Different peoples of the world have different traditional stories. Yet often mathematicians working independently discover the same theorems. They may choose different axioms as fundamental and will certainly have a different notation. . their laws of physics will surely be the same even though they express them differently. Quantising particles gives fields. and quantising fields gives particles. If we found that a tribe in the Amazon knew a story which was identical to one told by the Eskimos. There is a subtle duality between the fields and particles. The Storyteller’s Paradigm A story is a cultural thing. second quantisation is confusing and perhaps there is more to be understood about what the double process means.36 EventSymmetric SpaceTime The diagrams look just like the paths of particles which described the first quantisation of many particles except now there are nodes where particles can interact.
the Feynman diagrams are the words and sentences. No physicist can work without it. There is a positivist philosophy which takes the opposite extreme to Platonism saying that only the things we perceive directly are real. In the Platonic sense those diagrams are the forms which exist in the world of mathemat . the world of mathematics exists in its own right and knowledge is attainable through the study of logic. The role which mathematics plays in physics is certainly a curious one. But the same story can be told in many languages so how important is the language of physics? We still could not tell a story without words or something similar. It is this that Plato recognised so long ago. If our experiences are like stories then the laws of physics are the grammar of the language in which it is written. natural history over that and cultural knowledge at the top. but in our lives we have more direct experience of our culture and natural history. The stories of our experience are told in that way. Is there a larger realm beyond mathematics where different rules of logic can be tried out? Perhaps there is. Perhaps the truth is a mixture of both. All knowledge is dependent on what is below. There are symmetries and dualities which translate from one language to another. but it seems like it must contain itself. There is a hierarchy which puts maths at the foundation. It is hard to resist believing in an even greater significance of mathematics because we find that the most abstract concepts are applicable to the real world. Feynman remarked that if you modify the laws much you find that you can only write them in fewer ways. Ultimately we want to explain our own perceptions. This is a special characteristic of the laws of physics.The Storyteller 37 According to Plato‟s theory of forms. It is true that mathematics is the language of the universe. A theory which is expressed in words may have some meaning but it is impossible to verify its correctness unless it is backed up with a mathematical model which makes testable predictions. The laws of physics can also be written in many different equivalent ways and it is not clear that any one way is more fundamental. We could collect together many diagrams and connect them together in different ways just as we can put together sentences to make paragraphs and chapters. This is the scene of reductionism through Descartes‟ ontological causality. In one language of physics. physics above.
Feynman‟s sum over stories should be just part of a much larger sum over all possibilities. We do not need to look to some creation event where the universe was set in motion. Do they represent some especially rich language? If the storyteller‟s paradigm were taken to its logical conclusion there would be no fixed Feynman rules. All of these things remain mysterious and we do not yet know the full grammar and vocabulary of physics. Why do the Feynman diagrams obey the particular rules they do? Those rules determine which particles exist and how they interact. He himself is part of another story. He discovered it. the grammar. . There is no need for temporal causality in this language. Perhaps this is reflected in the rule of second quantisation. It is a part of our story but stories with less linear structure are also possible.38 EventSymmetric SpaceTime ics. permit. They join together in every possible way which the rules of logic. The illusion of temporal causality itself may emerge from such an event but it does not have to be fundamental. What about the storyteller? Remember that in his mind he did not invent the story.
Crystals also form symmetrical shapes such as octahedra and cubes. A few animals and many flowers have more than bilateral symmetry. it experiences a sequence of changes in temperature and humidity which cause it to grow at varying rates. A bird. A snowflake is a crystal of ice with 6fold radial symmetry and it is particularly elegant. Its history is recorded in the variations of thickness in its six petals as it grows. We call it symmetry. a forest or a galaxy has a form of beauty which is typical of complex organised systems in our universe. . this symmetry of a tiger is bilateral: Divide his face and body by a vertical line. When a snowflake is rotated through an angle of 60 degrees about its centre. and the left hand side is a mirror image of the right hand side.39 The Beauty of the Tiger Natural Beauty We do not have to examine nature very closely to admire its beauty. A daisy or a starfish has radial symmetry from its centre. It is invariance which characterises symmetry in mathematics. The shape of the snowflake is also invariant if it is rotated through 120 degrees. This process ensures that each petal is almost identical to any other and accounts for the snowflake‟s symmetry. It is invariant again if it is turned over. More specifically. A tiger has another element to its beauty which is also very common in nature but which is often only evident on close inspection. The tiger‟s shape and pattern are certainly well balanced but he has this mathematical symmetry too. The common meaning of symmetry is a wellbalanced shape or design but it also has a more specific mathematical meaning. During its passage from the clouds to the ground. it returns to a position where it looks the same as before. The origins of this structure lie in a lattice arrangement of the water molecules which form the ice. How does it acquire its shape? The snowflake begins its life as a minute hexagonal crystal forming in a cloud. Its shape is said to be invariant (meaning unchanged) under such a transformation. Many animals including us have bilateral symmetry but it is especially engaging on the tiger because it is seen in his striped patterns.
You can consider composition of transformations as a kind of multiplication. Mathematicians have provided precise definitions of what I meant by “not quite the same”. two isometries of the snowflake are a rotation of 60 degrees clockwise (call it a) and a reflection about the vertical axis (call it b). Two groups are . The snowflake has a transformation which must be repeated six times to restore it to its original position and the tetrahedron does not. For example. The invariance transformations or isometries of any shape form an algebraic structure called a group. The order of the symmetry is the number of elements in the group. as if it were a multiplication. The transformations are composed by doing one and then the other. But the symmetry of the tetrahedron is not quite the same as that of a snowflake. Consider now the symmetry of a regular tetrahedron. The shape of a regular tetrahedron is invariant when it is rotated 120 degrees about an axis passing through a vertex and the centre of the opposite face. It is also invariant when rotated 180 degrees about an axis passing through the midpoints of opposite edges. The result is a reflection about a different axis set at 30 degrees to vertical which is also an isometry (call it c). This composition is expressed algebraically as ab = c. We say that the order of the snowflake‟s symmetry is 12. a followed by b. That is a solid shape in the form of a pyramid with a triangular base for which all four faces are equilateral triangles. If you make a tetrahedron and experiment with it. The algebraic structure defined by these elements of symmetry is the group.40 EventSymmetric SpaceTime By combining rotations and turning over it is possible to find 12 different transformations which leave its shape invariant (including the identity transformation which does nothing). you will find that it also has a symmetry of order 12.
4. multiplication and square roots. That morning a young Frenchman named Évariste Galois died in a dual. 3. 2. It is the arrows which permute them. Many of them have symbolic names. Suppose. 6. A permutation is a way of rearranging or shuffling an ordered set of objects. (6! = 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6) different possible permutations of six objects. 5. Groups can be considered to be a mathematical abstraction of symmetry. for example. that there are six numbered objects in numerical order 1. 4.The Beauty of the Tiger 41 isomorphic if there is a onetoone mapping between them which respects the multiplication. 2. yet the night before he met his death he wrote a letter which brought about a revolution in abstract thought. . Galois developed a theory about which polynomial equations could be solved exactly using simple arithmetic operations such as addition. Polynomials up to degree four could be solved in this way but quintic equations had been proven insoluble by the Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel in 1823. The symmetry group of a snowflake is not isomorphic to that of a tetrahedron but it is isomorphic to that of a hexagon. 1. The symmetry group of the snowflake and hexagon is called D6 while that of the tetrahedron is called A4. A possible permutation would be 3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 3 4 1 6 5 2 It is not really the numbers which are important. At 21 years old his life was already a tale of rejection and failure as a mathematician. 5. Galois found that the answer lay in the group of permutations of the solutions of the equations. 6. There are 720. Two groups which are isomorphic are often regarded as essentially the same thing. The historical origins of group theory can be traced back to tragic events of May 30th 1832. It can be shown as a diagram.
42 EventSymmetric SpaceTime A rotation of a snowflake can be regarded as a permutation of its arms. To appreciate the algebraic structure of the group formed by the transformations we need to see how they can be combined. Number them clockwise and look at the 60 degree rotation. 6 5 1 6 2 3 5 4 4 3 1 2 This is a permutation of the arms 1 2 3 4 5 6 6 1 2 3 4 5 Likewise a reflection about the vertical axis is another permutation 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 6 5 4 3 2 Any of the twelve transformations which leave the shape of the snowflake invariant can be shown as a permutation. .
A permutation is just a onetoone mapping from some set to itself. Permutations. = 6 5 4 3 2 1 permutations Group Symmetry The geometric symmetries of the snowflake and tiger are just one type of symmetry which leaves the shape of an object invariant.The Beauty of the Tiger This is how it works for the rotation followed by the reflection 43 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1 So combining permutations by joining the arrows is equivalent to performing one isometry followed by another. Each element has an inverse. but unlike ordinary multiplication it is not always commutative (ab) (ba). i. . The algebraic structure of symmetries and the ways they combine is a group.e. There is always an identity which has the property. a1 = 1a = a. To complete the triangle any group can also be seen as a collection of permutations of its own elements because multiplication by any element of the group is a onetoone mapping onto itself. a(bc) = (ab)c for any three transformations a. This is the same as multiplication in the group of isometries. A symmetry is a subset of permutations which leaves something (like shape) invariant. aa1 = a1a = 1. Like ordinary multiplication of numbers this kind of multiplication is associative. These algebraic rules are taken as the definition of a group. b and c. symmetry and groups all go together.
There are also infinite order symmetries described by infinite groups and permutations of infinite numbers of objects. Another way to say the same thing is that the laws of physics are invariant under a translation transformation which would displace all objects by the same distance in the same direction. they commute (ab = ba). The infinite order group of translations is a symmetry of the laws of physics. The simplest example is the group of rotations in a plane about the origin. All these things are very important in physics but the theory of groups and symmetries also has its own intrinsic power and beauty which makes it interesting to mathematicians. This is a kind of symmetry of physics which is just like the symmetry of shapes. . We can detect no difference in the results of any self contained experiment which depends on where we do it. The next important example is rotation symmetry. This is true of translations but it is not true of rotations about different axis. we know that the laws of physics are the same everywhere. Permutations are not only applied to finite sets. Symmetry in Physics Symmetry is important in physics because there are all kinds of transformations which leave the laws of physics invariant. He saw moons going round Jupiter in the same way as our moon goes round the Earth.44 EventSymmetric SpaceTime The permutations on a set of n objects also form a group which is called the symmetric group of the set or Sn for short. An important difference between the translation symmetry and the rotation symmetry is that the former is abelian while the latter is nonabelian. He proposed that the laws of physics which describe the motions of the planets should be the same as those which govern the motion of objects here. For example. Galileo realised just how universal this principle is when he looked at the planets through his telescope in 1609. The laws of physics are invariant under rotations in space about any axis through some origin. It describes part of the symmetry of a circle and is known as U(1). This was very different from the way people had thought before. An Abelian group is one in which the order of multiplication does not matter.
As another example. vectors. The more symmetry they know about. In this way we can always combine any two symmetries to form a larger one. tensors and spinors. Such symmetry is important because we can use it to test new theories of physics. Mathematicians say that the invariance group of the snowflake is a subgroup of the rotation group. If they are not then they cannot form any part of the laws of physics. Mathematicians often go much further than this and work out all possible forms the laws of physics might take to respect the symmetry. Given translational and rotational symmetry we know that the equations can be expressed using scalars. With these rules they waste much less time dreaming up useless theories of physics than they would if there was no symmetry. the better physicists can do. The smaller symmetries are contained within the larger one. This is one of the secret of their success. When we are comfortably seated on the ground we notice a distinct difference between up and down. In such a case we could not say that the laws of physics were invariant under translations. quantities which can be combined in certain ways such as using vector and scalar multiplications. They are both subgroups of the full group of permutations of points of space which leave the distance between any two points invariant. and between the horizontal and the vertical. Hidden Symmetry Symmetry in physics is not always evident at first sight. many ancient philosophers thought that the Earth marked a special place at the centre of the universe.The Beauty of the Tiger 45 If the laws of physics are invariant under both rotations and translations then they must also be invariant under any combination of a rotation and a translation. If we describe the motion of falling objects in terms of physical laws which have the concept of vertical and horizontal built in then we do not find the full rotational symmetry in those laws. Nature has been kind to physicists. Note that the symmetry of a snowflake is already contained within rotation symmetry. In medieval times the symmetry of rotational and . Once we have accepted that certain symmetries are exactly observed in nature we can check that any set of equations looks the same after applying the transformations under which physics is supposed to be invariant.
46 EventSymmetric SpaceTime translational invariance in the laws of physics remained hidden to philosophers despite many centuries of observation and thought. Once the unifying power of symmetry is realised and combined with the observation that symmetry is hidden and not always recognised at first sight. If the moon was subject to Earthly forces why did it not fall down like objects do on Earth. the unique importance of symmetry is clear. discovered his law of gravity which could at the same time account for falling objects on Earth and the motion of the planets in the Solar system. Such mechanisms are thought to account for the apparent differences between the known forces of nature. Newton‟s answer was that the moon does fall. in response to Galileo. Whenever new symmetries of physics are discovered the laws of physics become more unified. Physicists have discovered that as well as the symmetries of space transformations. It was the Copernican revolution that changed all that. Conservation Laws During the centuries which followed Galileo and Newton. physicists and mathematicians came to realise that there is a deep relationship between symmetry and conservation laws in physics. This increases the hope that other symmetries remain to be found. but it moves horizontally fast enough to keep it from coming down. These symmetries are important in particle physics. The law of conservation of momentum is related to translation invariance. Conservation of energy is due to the invariance of the laws of physics with time. Nicolaus Copernicus described a cosmology in which the Earth had no special place and initiated a new freedom of thought taken up by Galileo. Newton‟s discovery meant that it was no longer necessary to have different theories about what was happening on Earth and what was happening in the heavens. there are also more subtle internal symmetries which exist as part of the forces of nature. It was a profound revelation. while angular momentum is related to rotation invariance. From that point on it could be seen that the laws of physics are invariant under rotations and translations. In recent times it has been discovered that symmetry can be hidden through mechanisms such as spontaneous symmetry breaking. . Newton.
It was quite a surprise to physicists when they discovered that parity is not conserved in the rare weak nuclear interactions.The Beauty of the Tiger 47 The relationship was finally established in a very general mathematical form known as Noether‟s theorem. Although Noether‟s work was based on classical Newtonian notions of physics. Mirror symmetry is the simplest symmetry of all since it has order two. Simple laws of mechanics involving the forces of gravity and electricity are invariant under time reversal as well as mirror reflection. gravity and the strong nuclear force. An important example of this is parity. This is known as CPT. In quantum mechanics we find that the relationship between symmetry and conservation is even stronger. like translations and rotations. Mathematicians had discovered that classical laws of physics could be derived from the philosophically pleasing principle of least action. If you could freeze every particle in the universe and then send them on their way with exactly reversed velocity. In 1918 Emmy Noether showed that any laws of this type which have a continuous symmetry. Because these interactions are not significant in our ordinary daytoday life. This is a little surprising because our everyday world does not appear to be symmetric in this way. the principle has survived the quantum revolution of the twentieth century. Again the universe does not appear to realise particleantiparticle symmetry macroscopically because there seems to be more matter than antimatter in the universe. If the laws of physics were indistinguishable from their mirror inverse then according to the rules of quantum mechanics parity would be conserved. Parity is a quantum number which is related to symmetry of the laws of physics when reflected in a mirror. they would retrace their history in reverse. However. as far as we know. This is the case for electromagnetism. In the primary laws of physics time reversal is also only broken by the weak interaction but not enough to account for the perceived difference. CPT is an exact symmetry of all interactions. time reversal and a third operation which exchanges a particle with its antiparticle image. There are even conservation principles related to discrete symmetries. we do not normally notice this asymmetry of space. There is a clear distinction between future and past. . would have a conserved quantity which could be derived from the action principle. There is an important combined operation of mirror inversion.
you could not notice this on the train. When you examine the laws of electrodynamics discovered by Maxwell you find that they are not invariant under a Galilean transformation. Maxwell believed that light must propagate through some medium which he called ether. a famous experiment was performed by Michelson and Morley. Minkowski later explained that relativity had unified space and time into one geometric structure which was thereafter known as spacetime. Because c is so fast compared with the speed of the TGV. They hoped to detect changes in the speed of light due to the changing direction of the motion of the Earth. Light is an electrodynamic wave which moves at a fixed speed c.48 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Relativity There is another symmetry which is found in ordinary mechanics. moving at constant speed on a long straight segment of track. In this case the symmetry involved an unexpected mixing of space and time coordinates. This can be accounted for in terms of an invariance of the laws of mechanics under a Galilean transformation which maps a stationary frame of reference onto one which is moving at constant speed. towards the end of the nineteenth century. is just an approximation to a Lorentz transformation which is a perfect symmetry of electrodynamics. you would not notice any effects due to the speed of the train until it turned a corner or slowed down. If you are travelling in a modern high speed train like the French TGV. they realised. The Galilean transformation. it is difficult to tell that you are moving without looking out of the window. However. Galileo used this symmetry to explain how the Earth could be moving without us noticing it but he used a ship at sea rather than a train to demonstrate the principle. Symmetry was again a unifying principle. The discrepancy was finally resolved by Einstein and Poincaré when they independently discovered special relativity in 1905. If you could play a game of billiards on the train. The MichelsonMorley experiment failed to detect the ether. To everyone‟s surprise they could not detect the difference. The correct symmetry was there in Maxwell‟s equations all along but symmetry is not always easy to see. .
Of course these principles are still based on observations and empiricism serves as a check on the correctness of the theory afterwards. Actually there was an observed discrepancy in the orbit of Mercury. This time there was no experimental result which could help him. and the force of gravity is a direct consequence of this curvature. It means that the laws of physics take the same form when written in any 4d co . it was known that inertial mass is equal to gravitational mass. This suggested to him that a larger symmetry which included acceleration might be present in the laws of physics. Then the results can be extrapolated to regions not yet tested by experiment in order to make predictions. Einstein knew that Newton‟s description of gravity was inconsistent with special relativity. theoretical physicists should spend their time fitting mathematical equations to empirical data. In modern terms the symmetry he discovered is known as diffeomorphism invariance. Einstein demonstrated the power of symmetry again with his dramatic discovery of general relativity. but this might just as easily have been corrected by some small modification to Newtonian gravity or even by some more mundane effect due to the shape of the sun. In reality physicists have had more success constructing theories from principles of mathematical beauty and consistency. Symmetry is an important part of this method of attack. Otherwise objects of different mass would fall at different rates even in the absence of air resistance. According to the scientific principle as spelt out by Francis Bacon. He knew that the equivalence principle implied that spacetime must be curved.The Beauty of the Tiger 49 It seems that Einstein was more strongly influenced by symmetry than he was by the MichelsonMorley experiment. Even if there were no observation which showed it up. yet by using symmetry it is possible to leap ahead of where you would get to using just simple induction. there had to be a more complete theory of gravity which complied with the principle of relativity. Since Galileo‟s experiments with weights dropped from the leaning tower of Pisa. Einstein realised that this would imply that an experiment performed in an accelerating frame of reference could not separate the apparent forces due to acceleration from those due to gravity. It took several years and many thought experiments before Einstein completed the work.
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ordinate system on spacetime. The form of the equations which express the laws of physics must be the same when transformed from one spacetime coordinate system to another no matter how curvilinear the transformation equations are. The symmetry of general relativity is a much larger one than any which had been observed in physics before Einstein. We can combine rotation invariance, translation invariance and Lorentz invariance to form the complete symmetry group of special relativity which is known as the Poincaré group. The Poincaré group can be parameterised by ten real numbers. We say it has dimension 10. Diffeomorphism invariance, on the other hand, cannot be parameterised by a finite number of parameters. It is an infinitedimensional symmetry. Already we have passed from finite order symmetries like that of the snowflake, to symmetries which are of infinite order but finite dimensional like translation symmetry. Now we have moved on to infinitedimensional symmetries and we still have a long way to go. Diffeomorphism invariance is another hidden symmetry. If the laws of physics were invariant under any change of coordinates in a way which could be clearly observed, then we would expect the world around us to behave as if everything could be deformed like rubber. Diffeomorphisms leave the physics invariant under any amount of stretching and bending of spacetime. The symmetry is hidden by the local form of gravity just as the constant vertical gravity seems to hide rotational symmetry in the laws of physics. On cosmological scales the laws of physics do show a more versatile form allowing spacetime to deform, but on smaller scales only the Poincaré invariance is readily observed. Einstein‟s field equations of general relativity which describe the evolution of gravitational fields, can be derived from a principle of least action. It follows from Noether‟s theorems that there are conservation laws which correspond to energy, momentum and angular momentum but it is not possible to distinguish between them. A special property of conservation equations derived from the field equations is that the total value of a conserved quantity integrated over the volume of the whole universe is zero, provided the universe is closed. This fact is useful when sceptics ask you where all the en
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ergy in the universe came from if there was nothing before the big bang! However, the universe might not be finite. A final remark about relativity is that the big bang breaks diffeomorphism invariance in quite a dramatic way. It singles out one moment of the universe as different from all the others. It is even possible to define absolute time as the proper time of the longest curve stretching back to the big bang. According to relativity there should be no absolute standard of time but we can define cosmological time since the big bang. This fact does not destroy relativity provided the big bang can be regarded as part of the solution rather than being built into the laws of physics. In fact we cannot be sure that the big bang is a unique event in our universe. Although the entire observable universe seems to have emerged from this event it is likely that the universe is much larger than what is observable. In that case we can say little about its structure on bigger scales than those which are observable.
Gauge Symmetry and Economics
What about electric charge? It is a conserved quantity so is there a symmetry which corresponds to charge according to Noether‟s theorem? The answer comes from a simple observation about electric voltage. It is possible to define an electrostatic potential at any point in space. The voltage of a battery is the difference in this potential between its terminals. In fact there is no way to measure the absolute value of the electrostatic potential. It is only possible to measure its difference between two different points. Voltage is relative. In the language of symmetry we would say that the laws of electrostatics are invariant under the addition of a value to the potential which is the same everywhere. This describes an internal symmetry which through Noether‟s theorem can be related to conservation of electric charge. The electric potential is just one component of the electromagnetic vector potential which can be taken as the dynamical variables of Maxwell‟s theory allowing it to be derived from an action principle. In this form the symmetry is much larger than the simple one parameter invariance I just described. It corresponds to a change in a scalar field of values defined at each event throughout spacetime.
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Like the diffeomorphism invariance of general relativity this symmetry is infinitedimensional. Symmetries of this type are known as gauge symmetries. The principles of gauge theories were first recognised by Herman Weyl in 1918. He hoped that the similarities between the gravitational and electromagnetic forces would herald a unification of the two. It was many years before the full power of his ideas was appreciated. There is an analogy of gauge symmetry in the world of finance. Consider the money which circulates in an economy. If one day the government wants to announce a currency devaluation, it has to be implemented in such a way that nobody loses out. Every price can be adjusted to be one tenth of its previous value, but everybody‟s wage must be changed in the same way, as must their savings. If done correctly the effect would be cosmetic. The economy is invariant under a global change in the scale of currency. It is a symmetry of the system. What about the combined system of economies of the different countries of the world? Any one currency can revalue its currency but to avoid any economic effect the exchange rates with other currencies must also reflect the change. In this larger system there is a degree of symmetry for each currency of the world. This is analogous to a local gauge symmetry which allows a gauge transformation to take place independently anywhere in space. Prices and wages are analogous to the wave functions of matter. Exchange rates are like the gauge fields of gravity and electromagnetism. The purpose of these fields which propagate the forces of nature is to allow the gauge symmetry to change locally, just as varying exchange rates allow economies to adjust and interact. In both cases the variables change dynamically, evolving in response to market forces in the case of economy and evolving in response to natural forces in the case of physics. Both diffeomorphism invariance and the electromagnetic symmetry are local gauge symmetries because they correspond to transformation which can be parameterised as fields throughout spacetime. In fact there are marked similarities between the forms of the equations which describe gravity and those which describe electrodynamics, but there is an essential difference too. Diffeomor
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phism invariance describes a symmetry of spacetime while the symmetry of electromagnetism acts on some abstract internal space of the components of the field. The gauge transformation of electrodynamics acts on the matter fields of charged particles as well as on the electromagnetic fields. In 1927 Fritz London noted that to implement the gauge transformation the phase of the wave function of matter fields is multiplied by a phase factor, which is a complex number of modulus one. Such factors have no physical effects since only the modulus of the wave function is observable. Through this action the transformation is related to the group of complex numbers of modulus one which is isomorphic to the rotation symmetry group of the circle, U(1). In the 1960s physicists were looking for quantum field theories which could explain the weak and strong nuclear interactions as they had already done for the electromagnetic force. They realised that the U(1) gauge symmetry could be generalised to gauge symmetries based on other continuous groups. As I have already said, an important class of such symmetries has been classified by mathematicians. In the 1920s Elie Cartan proved that a subclass known as semisimple Lie groups can be described as matrix groups which fall into three families parameterised by an integer N and five other exceptional groups: The special orthogonal groups SO(N) The special unitary groups SU(N) The special symplectic groups Sp(N) Exceptional Groups G2 F4 E6 E7 E8 The internal gauge symmetry should be made up of combinations of these groups. They can be combined using a direct product denoted AB in which both groups are independent subgroups. The best thing about gauge symmetry is that once you have selected the right group the possible forms for the action of the field theory are extremely limited. Einstein found that for general relativity there is an almost unique most simple form with a curvature term and an optional cosmological term. For internal gauge symmetries the corresponding result is YangMills field theory developed by Chen Ning Yang and Robert Mills in 1954. Maxwell‟s equations for electromagnetism are a special case of YangMills theory corresponding to the gauge group U(1) but there is a generalisation for
For the weak interaction it turned out that the symmetry was SU(2)U(1) but that it was broken by a Higgs mechanism. experiments at the world‟s great particle accelerator laboratories have rigidly confirmed the correctness of the standard model. The infinite answers rendered the theory useless. From tables of particles. These divergences are also present in YangMills theory but a process of renormalisation can be used to cancel out the infinities leaving sensible consistent results. Of the four forces only gravity remains in a form which stubbornly refuses to be renormalised. particles which appear to be different in mass. charge. By these uses of symmetry theoretical physicists were able to construct the complete standard model of particle physics by 1972.54 EventSymmetric SpaceTime any other gauge group. The rapid acceptance of gauge theories at that time was due to the discovery by „t Hooft and Veltman that YangMills theories are renormalisable. In the years that followed this discovery. Supersymmetry Symmetry is proving to be a powerful unifying tool in particle physics because through symmetry and symmetry breaking. There is a Higgs boson whose vacuum state breaks the symmetry at low energies. physicists were able to conjecture that the strong nuclear interactions used the gauge group SU(3) which is metaphorically referred to as colour. etc. A possible catch to this hope is that fermions and bosons cannot be related by the action of a classical symmetry based on a group. This is an unlikely solu . Ideally we would like to have a completely unified theory in which all particles and forces of nature are related through a hierarchy of broken symmetries. even when the symmetry is broken. This symmetry is hidden by the mechanism of confinement which prevents quarks escaping from the proton and neutron to reveal the colour charge. can be understood as different states of a single unified field theory. Other theories of the nuclear interactions were plagued with divergences when calculations were attempted. One way out of this problem would be if all bosons were revealed to be bound states of fermions so that at some fundamental level only elementary fermions would be necessary.
In 1967 Coleman and Mandula proved a theorem which says that any group which contained both of these must separate in to a direct product of two parts each containing one of them. superstring theorist Ed Witten has found a mechanism which allows particles to have different masses even though they are supersymmetric partners and the symmetry is not spontaneously broken. or at least. If supersymmetry existed in nature we would expect to find that fermions and bosons came in pairs of equal mass. not with classical groups. A more favourable possibility is that fermions and bosons are related by supersymmetry. It is defined as a different but related algebraic structure which still has all the essential properties which make symmetry work. For example. Supersymmetry is an algebraic construction which is a generalisation of the Lie group symmetries already observed in particle physics. . Also.The Beauty of the Tiger 55 tion because gauge bosons such as photons appear to be fundamental. It is a new type of symmetry which cannot be described by a classical group. In other words. so supersymmetry provides a way out of the problem. they simply could not be properly unified. It is probably worth adding that there may be other ways in which supersymmetry is hidden. In other words there would be bosonic squarks and selectrons with the same masses as the quarks and electrons. as well as fermionic photinos and higgsinos with the same masses as photons and Higgs. The fact that no such partners have been observed implies that supersymmetry should be broken if it exists. The algebraic structure of supersymmetry is a supergroup which is a generalisation and a classical group and is not covered by the ColemanMandula theorem. If gravity is to be unified with the electromagnetic and nuclear forces there should be a larger symmetry which contains diffeomorphism invariance and internal gauge invariance. Supersymmetry unifies more than just fermions and bosons. There are still a limited number of ways of unifying gravity with internal gauge symmetry using supersymmetry and each one gives a theory of supergravity. If quarks are composite then the quark constituents could be supersymmetric partners of gauge particles. It also goes a long way towards unifying internal gauge symmetry with spacetime gauge symmetry.
All but four of them are compacted into a ball so small that we do not notice it. but the main reasons for believing in its existence are purely theoretical. To explain this discrepancy with nature. That event started many research projects which are a story for another chapter. but unfortunately it was not possible to get the leftright asymmetry in that way. with the addition of supersymmetry it became possible to consider them as a unified theory including gravity. Supergravity theories were popular around 1980 but it was found to be just not quite possible to have a version with the right structure to account for the particle physics we know about. Enthusiasm for superstring theories became widespread after John Schwarz and Michael Green discovered that a particular form of string theory was not only renormalisable. The big catch with supergravity theories is that they work best in ten or elevendimensional spacetime. YangMills theory emerges from spacetime curvature in the compacted dimensions so KaluzaKlein theory is an elegant way to unify internal gauge symmetry with the diffeomorphism invariance of general relativity. If we believe in supergravity then even fermions fall into this scheme. Supergravity was quickly superseded by superstring theory. The sovereign theory of supergravity lives in 11 dimensions and nearly manages to generate enough particles and forces when compactified down to 4 dimensions. This was one of the first breakthroughs of quantum gravity. According to this idea spacetime has more dimensions than are apparent.56 EventSymmetric SpaceTime There is now some indirect experimental evidence in favour of supersymmetry. it was even finite to all orders in perturbation theory. All I will say now is that . It was also realised eventually that these field theories could not be perfectly renormalisable. theorists revived an old idea called KaluzaKlein theory which was originally proposed as a way to unify electromagnetism with gravity geometrically. String theories had earlier been considered as a model for strong nuclear forces but. In fact. Particles are then supposed to be modes of vibration in the geometry of these extra dimensions. During the 1970s it was discovered that supergravity provides a perturbative quantum field theory which has better renormalisation behaviour than gravity on its own. supergravity is present in superstring theories.
The symmetry of the gravitational force is the group of diffeomorphisms on the manifold which is indicated by diff(M). such as the big bang. . They combine with what is known as a semidirect product indicated by AB. Symmetry is often broken or hidden so it is quite possible that there is more of it than we know about. There is the SU(3)SU(2) U(1) internal gauge symmetry of the of the strong. Let us look again at the symmetry we have seen so far. This group will be the residual subgroup of some larger one which is only manifest in circumstances where very high energies are involved. Universal Symmetry We have seen how symmetry in nature has helped physicists uncover the laws of physics. but its nature and full form are still a mystery. However. There is evidence within string theory that it contains a huge symmetry which has not yet been revealed. weak and electromagnetic forces. It has helped combine the forces of nature as well as joining space and time. perhaps a lot more. Both general relativity and quantum mechanics are full of symmetry so it would be natural to imagine that a unified theory of quantum gravity would combine those symmetries into a larger one.The Beauty of the Tiger 57 string theory is believed to have much more symmetry than is understood. the combination of the diffeomorphism group with the internal gauge groups is not a direct product because diffeomorphisms do not commute with internal gauge transformations. Since these groups are gauged there is actually one copy of the group acting at each event of spacetime so the group structure is symbolically raised to the power of the number of points in the spacetime manifold M. These include the symmetry between identical particles and the symmetry between electric and magnetic fields in Maxwell‟s equations of electrodynamics known as electromagnetic duality. The known symmetry of the forces of nature is therefore: G(M) = diff(M)( SU(3)MSU(2)MU(1)M ) There is plenty of good reason to think that this is not the full story. Symmetry is a unifying concept. String theory certainly seems to have many forms of symmetry which have been explored mathematically. There are other symmetries in nature which I have not yet mentioned.
What will the universal symmetry look like? The mathematical classification of groups is incomplete. These symmetries are algebraic constructions which preserve an abstract form of invariance. It will be a symmetry which includes the gauge symmetries and perhaps also others such as the symmetry of identical particles and electromagnetic duality. This can be done either through Dirac‟s canonical quantisation or Feynman‟s path integral. The symmetry between identical particles. It appears along with the parti . Particle Permutations The importance of the symmetry in a system of identical particles is often overlooked. There is an automatic scheme which allows a classical system of field equations derived from a principle of least action to be quantised. The existence of this symmetry is a big clue to the nature of the laws of physics and may provide the best hope of discovering them if experiments are not capable of supplying much more empirical data. The reason why this symmetry is not considered to be as important as gauge symmetry lies in the relationship between classical and quantum physics.58 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Whether or not string theory is the final answer. Furthermore. They turn up in several different approaches to quantum gravity including string theory so they are undoubtedly important. This may be because of their importance in understanding topology. In modern quantum field theory a classical field theory is quantised. The two are formally equivalent. however. it seems that there is some universal symmetry in nature that has yet to be found. At the moment we do not even know what should be regarded as the most general definition of symmetry let alone having a classification scheme. does not exist in the classical theory. Finite simple groups have been classified and so have semisimple Lie groups. Gauge symmetry is a symmetry of the classical field which is preserved in the process of quantisation. The symmetry group is the permutation group acting to exchange particles of the same type. Particles appear as a consequence of this process. but infinitedimensional groups appear in string theory and these are so far beyond classification. there are new types of symmetry such as supersymmetry and quantum groups which are generalisations of classical symmetries.
the symmetry group we have so far. When the right symmetry is known the laws of physics might be fully determined by the constraints imposed by invariance under the action of the symmetry. This claim is now supported by string theory which appears to have a mysterious duality between classical and quantum aspects. This is known as first quantisation because it was discovered before the second quantisation of the Schrödinger wave equation which became a part of quantum field theory. This poses quite a puzzle. Should we expect the topology of spacetime to be fixed by the laws of physics? There are many different topologies which spacetime could have and it would seem too arbitrary to make the choice at so fundamental a level. In a nonrelativistic approximation of atomic physics it is possible to understand the quantum mechanics of atoms by treating them first of all as a system of classical particles. The system is quantised in the usual way and the result is the Schrödinger wave equation for the atom. The first is the principle of event symmetry which is the central theme of this book. In the first quantisation we have gone from a classical particle picture to a field theory and the symmetry between particles existed as a classical symmetry. is dependent on the topology of the spacetime manifold M. This opens the door to a unification of particle permutation symmetry and gauge symmetry. A further clue may be that the algebra of fermionic creation and annihilation operators generate a supersymmetry which includes the permutation of identical particles. Event symmetry Even now we can make some guesses. but G(M). Hence it is a different sort of symmetry. The universal symmetry must be fundamental to the laws of physics. But the matter cannot simply be left there. This observation suggests that the relationship between classical and quantum systems is not so clear as it is often portrayed and that the permutation group could also be a part of the same universal symmetry as gauge invariance. Surely it should be some unique fundamental mathematical structure.The Beauty of the Tiger 59 cles during the process of quantisation. . There are two possible solutions that I know of.
60 EventSymmetric SpaceTime It says that we must simply forget the topology of spacetime at the most fundamental level and regard the spacetime manifold as just a set of discrete spacetime events. The internal gauge symmetries also fall into this pattern. The diffeomorphism group of any manifold is a subgroup of the symmetric group of permutations on the set of points in the manifold. The intriguing idea is that there is some special algebraic structure which will unify a whole host of subjects through symmetry. as well as being at the root of the fundamental laws of physics. A category can describe mappings between different topologies and a group is a special case of a category. How should we interpret these two solutions to a difficult problem when at first one solution seemed difficult to find? Is only one right. This solution to the puzzle generates many new puzzles and in later chapters I will describe them and start to resolve them. or are they both different aspects of the same thing? There seems little doubt that there is much to be learnt in both mathematics and physics from the hunt for better symmetry. . If the concept of symmetry is extended further to include more general categories it should be possible to incorporate different topologies in the same categorical structure. The second solution to this puzzle is to generalise symmetry using the mathematical theory of categories.
In the 1660s Robert Boyle. Only with the Islamic Caliphates who studied the earlier Greek philosophers. did the atomistic theory hold out during the middle ages. Democritus extended the atomic concept as far as it could go.61 In a Grain of Sand Discrete Matter At a seaport in the Aegean around the year 500BC the philosopher Democritus pondered the idea that matter was made of indivisible units separated by void. He saw creation as the natural consequence of the ceaseless whirling motion of atoms in space. forming larger aggregations of matter. These ideas were soon rivalled by the very different philosophies of Aristotle from the school of Plato. Earth. a careful chemist and philosopher proposed a corpuscular theory of matter to explain behaviour of . He had been handed the idea by his mentor Leucippus who had in turn heard about it from the Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras. There is no accounting for the similarity of these ideas to the modern view. Atoms would collide and spin. Fire and Water. These atoms were indivisible but had different shapes and could combine in a variety of ways to form the substances of the world. AlRazi of Persia is credited with an atomistic revival in the ninth century but Aristotle‟s physics remained the dominant doctrine in European philosophy until the seventeenth century. Perhaps they were inspired by the coarseness of natural materials like sand and stone. claiming that not just matter. Was it a remarkable piece of insight or just a lucky guess? At the time there was certainly no compelling evidence for such a hypothesis. According to Empedocles substance was composed of four continuous elements. Air. He was punished for his impiety and his books were burnt. but everything else from colour to the human soul must also consist of atoms. who believed that matter was infinitely divisible and that nature was constructed from perfect symmetry and geometry. With such bold claims Anaxagoras had become one of the first heretics. The insight of Anaxagoras went far beyond such observations and his theories of cosmological origins were just as uncanny.
Amedeo Avogadro developed the molecular theory and his law that all gases at the same temperature. positivists led by Ernst Mach remained sceptical about the kinetic theory. The theory was based as much on the alchemist‟s belief in the existence of a philosopher‟s stone which could turn lead into gold. a biologist Robert Brown had observed random motion of particles suspended in gases.62 EventSymmetric SpaceTime gases such as diffusion. In 1956 the field ion microscope made it possible to form images of individual atoms for the first time. In the early eighteenth century. . In 1808 the atomic theory was again resurrected by a school teacher and amateur scientist by the name of John Dalton. Newton built on the corpuscular theory. The atomic theory was having unprecedented success in explaining a wide variety of physical phenomena. Einstein explained that this Brownian motion could be seen as direct experimental evidence of molecules which were jostling the particles with their own movements. Despite this indirect evidence. They argued that since atoms could not be directly observed they are no more than metaphysical constructs with no basis in reality. all corpuscles would be identical. Different substances would be constructed by combining the corpuscles in different ways. He discovered a law of partial pressures of gases which revealed how gases of equal volume contribute pressures in nearly integer ratios. He concluded that these were ratios of atomic weights which were a characteristic of indivisible atoms. By the mid nineteenth century the number of molecules in a volume of gas could be measured. According to Boyle there was only one fundamental element. Ironically. as it is was on empirical evidence. Einstein had provided what would transpire to be the clinching evidence for atoms just the previous year. Maxwell and Boltzmann went on to explain the laws of thermodynamics through the statistical physics of molecular motion. pressure and volume contain the same number of molecules even though their weights are different. This would also explain chemical composition and the nature of the chemical elements. The pressure of such disputes was too much for Boltzmann who took his own life in 1906. He saw the corpuscles as units of mass and introduced the laws of mechanics to explain their motion.
The Greeks saw an atomistic theory of light as the explanation of light rays. and the final picture has not yet been seen. When a neutron is observed to decay spontaneously into a proton. The way we now describe the composition of matter is no longer so simple. the major leaps forward have come mostly in the form of unification of two or more previously unrelated concepts. Particles can transform and interact in a way which is not simply division and recombination of immutable parts. Newton took the first leap himself when he achieved the unification of celestial and terrestrial mechan . Physicists continue their journey into the heart of matter. some good sense. Newton extended Boyle‟s corpuscular theory to light even though such a supposition had no empirical foundation at that time. The atom was split and broken down into its constituent particles. In the Arabic world of the middle ages Alhazen used a ballistic theory of light to explain reflection. These phenomena could only be explained in terms of light quanta. Those who resisted the particle concepts had. This paradox is explained mathematically as a consequence of quantum field theory but the interpretation remains unintuitive and mysterious. it turns out. As it turned out. Unification Since Newton set the foundations of mechanics. and they were in turn further divided. nevertheless. neutron.In a Grain of Sand 63 How far has modern physics gone towards the ideal of Democritus that everything should be composed of discrete units? The story of light parallels that of matter. Everything he had observed and much more was later explained by Maxwell‟s theory of Electromagnetism in terms of waves in continuous fields. are both particle and wave at the same time. Today we can detect the impact of individual photons on CCD cameras even after they have travelled across most of the observable universe from the earliest moments of galaxy formation. the atomic theory of Dalton was a long way short of the end of the road for divisibility. Light and matter. It was Planck‟s Law and the photoelectric effect which later upset the continuous theory. electron and neutrino we do not suppose that those four particles were parts of the neutron which broke apart.
Above all it was Michael Faraday who appreciated the significance of these results and devised the experiments which would unveil the unity of nature. By the end of the nineteenth century most everyday observations could be accounted for in terms of wellknown physics. and some scientists thought that little remained to be understood. The Newtonian theory of gravity and dynamics could explain both the fall of an apple to Earth and the motion of moons around Jupiter which Galileo had seen in 1609. charge. chemistry. . Mass. space. Two hundred years after Newton.64 EventSymmetric SpaceTime ics demanded by Galileo. They failed to see the lack of unity which remained in their theories. electromagnetics. Other sciences such as biology and astronomy could have been regarded as reducible to these terms but the case for vitality in biology still held sway and astronomy was still a realm apart. Prior to 1808 chemistry was little more than a catalogue of chemicals and their reactions. gravity. The atomic theory was the other important unification step of the nineteenth century. James Clerk Maxwell unified electricity. time. although the distinction between elements and compounds had been recognised by Antoine Lavoisier in 1786. By 1869 Dmitri Mendeleyev had laid out the periodic table of the elements in order of atomic weights. electricity and thermodynamics. The molecular theory was also already part of the kinetic theory of gases when John Dalton proposed that molecules were composed of immutable atoms. This unification was the result of a series of experiments starting in 1820 when Hans Christian Oersted observed that an electric current deflected a compass and Andre Ampere measured the corresponding reaction force on a current in a magnetic field. magnetism and light into one theory of electromagnetism. Faraday is regarded as possibly the greatest experimental physicist who ever lived and he proposed the idea of force lines but he never used equations to describe his theories. It was only when Maxwell applied mathematics to the problem that the full power of electromagnetic unification was realised. the ether and atoms were the basic constituents whose behaviour followed the laws of mechanics. energy. He showed that a moving magnet could induce a current in a wire and also noticed that a magnetic field could change the polarisation of light passing through a medium.
Physicists had served their part. The revelation began with the special relativity of Poincaré and Einstein which Minkowski recognised as a unification of space and time into a single spacetime geometry. In the same decade the PlanckEinstein theory of light quanta brought together electromagnetics and thermodynamics. At the same time as all this unification. superfluidity. new particles. That is easy for us to see now. Many physicists were unprepared for what was to come. At the dawn of the new century Henri Poincaré wrote that there was a whole new world of which none had expected the existence but that further progress would show how these complete the general unity. Our greatest lesson of the twentieth century is what Poincaré foresaw. By the end of the first half of the century the theory of quantum electrodynamics was complete. Later. were all indications of future revolutions. Heisenberg. Xrays and nuclear radiation had been discovered. and quantum spin were being found but they were all part of the new physics. . by developing radar and the atomic bomb. Schrödinger and others. the anomalous perihelion shift of Mercury discovered by Le Verrier in 1859 and the photoelectric effect of Hertz in 1887. but not all. new things like the nuclear forces. Experiments had failed to detect the ether and electromagnetism and thermodynamics could not explain black body radiation. The quantum theory also produced an unexpected unification of particles and waves. Mass and energy were then also seen as equivalent. for better or for worse. Then Einstein unified spacetime and gravity into one theory of general relativity and the atomic theory was reduced to quantum mechanics by Bohr.In a Grain of Sand 65 Even then there were other new phenomena. or the hope of further military spinoffs. The world was then recovering from the second world war. or at least interchangeable. and unexplained enigmas were appearing: By 1900 the electron. The total number of fundamental concepts needed to account for nature had diminished drastically. that the universe is governed by a profound unity of physical law. No doubt it was by way of repayment. when Dirac brought together special relativity and quantum mechanics he predicted antimatter particles which were found shortly after. The spectral lines in light already seen by Fraunhofer in 1814. but at the turn of the century these things might just have easily been accounted for by making small adjustments to known physics.
Should we expect to discover that quarks and electrons are made of smaller particles? This is . According to conventional wisdom among physicists. There is no a priori reason to be so sure that this must happen. Suddenly there was a new wealth of particles and properties to explain. quantum chromodynamics and the electroweak force were part of a standard model of particle physics. without ever arriving at a final theory. By the midseventies the quark theory. They were impotent in their search for new phenomena and could do no more than verify the standard model in ever greater detail. It can explain just about every fundamental observation that we have been capable of making up to now. In 1960 physics was a messy catalogue of particle properties. the process of unification will continue until all physics is unified into one neat and tidy theory. But the main impetus which has been pushing forward the front of physics over the last twenty years has come from a belief in complete unity. then that the nucleus was composed of protons and neutrons. they went on to discover that it was composed of electrons and a nucleus. the lesson of the twentieth century. or finding new layers of structure in particles. YangMills gauge theories were the key to understanding the forces. then that the protons and neutrons were composed of quarks. that inspires the belief that we are getting closer to that end. many new theories which were advanced have been ruled out through negative results.66 EventSymmetric SpaceTime that they were granted funds to build the large accelerators which were to dominate the discoveries in physics of the following decades. It is quite simply the unified nature of the laws of physics as we currently know them. That is not to say that experiments made no contribution to knowledge since the midseventies. The last quarter of the century has been a tough time for experimenters. It is quite possible that physicists will always be discovering new forces. After physicists discovered the atom. At the end of the twentieth century physics is able to explain much more than everyday observations. allowing the theorists to concentrate their efforts on those which remain. While the standard model has been verified. but the lesson had already been learnt and the search for unity prevailed again. from the laboratory to the cosmos.
Suppose you have a cannon ball about 10 centimetres in diameter in your hand. If you could now stop one of the electrons or quarks in the atom and look at it closely with the naked eye. Composite interactions. Such resolution is impressive given that atoms have a typical size of 1010 metres and nucleons have structure on the scale of 1015 metres. Physicists construct particle accelerators which are like giant microscopes. in which all particles are just different vibration modes of very small loops of string. The higher the energy they can produce. It would now be about the size of Pluto. As you walked over the surface you could look down at the ground and would see that it is made of atoms scaled up to the size of marbles 1 or 2 centimetres across. The bumps and scratches on the surface would have become mountain ranges and great ravines. These reasons in themselves are not quite enough to rule out the possibility that quarks. electrons and gauge bosons are composite but they reduce the number of ways such a theory could be constructed. Imagine you scale it up until it is as big as the Earth (a factor of 108). Each atom would be a hazy cloud of electrons around the tiny nucleus which appears as just a point in the centre Now scale one of those atoms again by the same factor. such as pion exchange. physicists can see the quarks inside protons. each the size of a house but appearing as a fuzz of quarks. In fact all viable theories of this type which have been proposed are now all but ruled out by experiment. not through direct pictures but through scattering data. The most popular candidate for the ultimate theory of this type is superstring theory. The nucleus will have expanded to a huge jumble of nucleons. you would be .In a Grain of Sand 67 possible but there are reasons to suppose not. They have already examined quarks at a scale of 1019 metres and they still look pointlike. Secondly. the smaller the wavelength of the colliding particles and the smaller the distance scale they probe. do not take such a tidy form. There may be a further layer of structure but it is likely to be different. Firstly there are far fewer particles in the standard model than there ever were at higher levels. It is more common now for theorists to look for ways that different elementary particles can be seen as different states of the same type of object. In this way. their interactions are described by a clean set of gauge bosons through renormalisable field theories.
That will require a unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics. and there is an alternative high road which the theorists can take while the lower remains blocked. Perhaps there should be unification of the gauge bosons of the force fields and the fermionic matter fields. now scaled up by a factor of 1032. By searching through the . In the first decade of the 21st century new accelerator experiments at CERN will probe beyond the electroweak scale. Even with such luck there is a long way to go before reaching the scale of grand unification. They still have separate coupling strengths in the standard model. Progress may come from the mathematical search for greater unity. it will be necessary to scale them up twice again by the same factor before they become visible as little loops of string. It could then be produced in quantity and accelerated to much higher energy. Above all gravity must be brought together with the other forces. so we know that it would still look like a point. experimental particle physics may become more difficult. but ingenuity and the unexpected should never by underestimated in experimental physics. Despite this impressive achievement we have only gone half way towards the smallest scale. even with many nations clubbing together. Perhaps experimenters will get lucky and find a better way to accelerate particles. If they could have a wish granted it might be the discovery of a stable charged elementary particle with a 1000 times the mass of the proton. There are also three generations of quarklepton matter quadruplets and that need to be explained. If the superstring theory is right and electrons and quarks have no structure until you see them on the string scale. The scale of inner space is as impressive as the scale of outer space. that empirical route is just the low road.68 EventSymmetric SpaceTime seeing it on the scale which today‟s biggest accelerators have probed. Perhaps other observational clues will come from cosmic rays and big bang cosmology. In any case. Alternatively they might ask for a new form of stable matter which can be built into superdense substances. The electromagnetic and nuclear forces are now only partially unified. There is a limit to how much funding for larger accelerators can be found. There is some optimism that new physics will be found but nothing is certain. would then be about a million light years across. After that. The atom.
physicists may be able to bypass the huge gap in energy between current day experiments and the higher unification scales. seen differently from each side. It will probably require all four forces and the matter fields to be brought together. If this is true.In a Grain of Sand 69 mathematical possibilities for new forms of unity. The problem which they face is to put together general relativity and quantum mechanics into one self consistent theory. In practical terms it is probably of no direct relevance in our lives and may even be impossible to verify by experiment. which present the fundamental differences. leads to a meaningless quantum field theory with unmanageable divergences. It may enable them to complete the unification of all fundamental laws of physics. been many attempts to create a theory of quantum gravity. It was partially anticipated by the mathematician Bernhard Riemann who developed a large part of the mathematics of curved surfaces. as a result of such endeavours. But to physicists it is their holy grail. while ignoring conceptual differences. a complete theory of quantum gravity will then be the realisation of Descartes‟s visionary dream. Ironically. It will be the final step on the long road of unification which he foresaw. The difficulty is that the two parts seem to be incompatible. There have. in fact. it is the nature of space and time. Conceptually. attempting to combine general relativity and quantum mechanics. In . Quantum Gravity The search for a theory of quantum gravity is reputed to be one of the most difficult puzzles of science. both in concept and in practice. A direct approach. From some of these it appears that the combination of general relativity and the quantum theory will also be a unification of much more. It may also require a deeper unification of spacetime and matter. we may already know more about physics at distance scales of 1036 metres than we do at scales of 1024 metres. Einstein’s Geometrodynamics General relativity is Einstein‟s monumental theory of gravity and it is rightly seen as the most elegant physical theory we know.
however. His genius is demonstrated by the way in which he was able to perceive the correct principles which were needed and follow their consequences to the right conclusion. General relativity is based on two fundamental principles: The principle of relativity which states that all basic laws of physics should take a form which is independent of any reference frame. He had already recognised the value of the equivalence principle in 1907. Mechanics and electrodynamics were placed in a new kinematic framework in which space and time were no longer absolute. Einstein struggled with the consequences of these principles for several years. When Minkowski described a geometric formulation of special relativity in which space and time were combined into a single spacetime continuum.70 EventSymmetric SpaceTime 1854 he gave a lecture “on the hypothesis which underlie geometry” and speculated that physical objects may be a consequence of nonEuclidean structures in space on both large and small length scales. constructing many thought experiments to try to understand what they meant. He wanted to extend relativity to include gravity. Einstein was not significantly influenced by any experimental result which was at odds with the Newtonian theory of gravity. He knew of the anomalous precession of the perihelion of Mercury and hoped that a new theory might explain it but there is no route to develop general relativity directly from such an observation. Einstein‟s special relativity was the culmination in 1905 of the work of many physicists such as Lorentz and Poincaré. that Newtonian gravity was inconsistent with his theory of special relativity and he . at first Einstein did not like it. In constructing that theory. Soon he changed his mind as he recognised that this geometric way to understand relativity was more easy to generalise than his original mechanical approach. Finally he learnt about Riemann‟s mathematics of curved geometry and in 1912 realised that a new theory could be constructed in which the force of gravity was a consequence of the curvature of spacetime. He also knew. and The principle of equivalence which states that it is impossible to distinguish (locally) the effects of gravity from the effects of being in an accelerated frame of reference.
no alternative theories with the force of elegance found in general relativity. and geometrodynamics has become the cornerstone of cosmology. When he announced to the world that the result agreed with the prediction of general relativity. The equations for the gravitational field are complicated but are an almost unique consequence of the relativity principles which require that they must be independent of any coordinate system. There are. Einstein became a household name synonymous with “genius”. There still remains a possibility that it may not be accurate on very large scales. Such collapsed objects were designated “black holes” by John Wheeler in 1967 and the picturesque term has stuck. He then predicted that starlight passing the sun would be deflected by twice the Newtonian amount. A similar inconsistency now exists between quantum mechanics and general relativity and. even though no experimental result is known to violate either theory. By 1915 Einstein‟s work was complete. a number of other experimental confirmations of general relativity have been found. physicists now seek a more complete theory in the same spirit. the theory is sure to break down finally under the conditions which are believed to have existed at the big bang where quantum gravity effects were important. The fortuitous discovery by Hulse and Taylor of a binary pulsar in 1974. Einstein calculated the motion of Mercury in his theory and found that the relativistic corrections to the Newtonian prediction correctly accounted for its anomalous motion. The force of gravity was now a consequence of geometrodynamics. Still.In a Grain of Sand 71 knew there must be a more complete self consistent theory. Arthur Eddington measured this deflection on a South American expedition to observe a solar eclipse in 1919. Astronomers now have a growing list of celestial objects which they believe are black holes because of their apparent high density and . made it possible to test and verify general relativistic effects to very high precision. however. In the decades that have followed Einstein‟s discovery. One of the most spectacular predictions of general relativity is that a dying star of sufficient mass will collapse under its gravitational weight into an object so compressed that not even light can escape its pull. or under very strong gravitational forces. the dynamic geometry of spacetime.
the quantum theory is still criticised by some physicists who feel that its indeterministic nature and its dependency on the role of observer suggest an incompleteness. the quantum theory required major contributions from Bohr. in addition. Heisenberg. theorists have already demonstrated a remarkable facility for doing just that. The answers lie in the realms of ultrahigh energy physics. before a complete theory of quantum electrodynamics was formulated. confirmed in ever more detail in high energy accelerator experiments. However. The Planck Scale The Quantum theory was founded before Einstein began his theory of relativity but it took much longer to be completed and understood. For others the major task is to combine general relativity and quantum mechanics. The accuracy of Einstein‟s theory may be stringently tested again in the near future when gravitational wave observatories such as LIGO come online to observe such catastrophic events as the collisions between black holes. Einstein. Schrödinger. Perhaps quantum mechanics is more fundamental than general relativity or perhaps it is the other way round. This leaves us with theory as the only means of moving ahead for the time being at least. The standard model of parti . Applications such as transistors and lasers are now an integral part of our lives and. Despite such spectacular success. Dirac and many others. the consequences of the theory are more far reaching than those of general relativity. In practical terms.72 EventSymmetric SpaceTime because of evidence of matter apparently falling silently through the eventhorizon. Opinions differ as to how much revision of quantum mechanics is required to achieve it. Max Planck‟s observations of quanta in the spectrum of black body radiation first produced signs that the classical theories of mechanics were due for major revisions. well beyond what can be attained experimentally with known techniques. Unlike general relativity which was essentially the work of one man. the quantum theory allowed us to understand chemical reactions and many other phenomena. At first thought it might seem ridiculous to suppose that we can invent valid theories about physics at high energies before doing experiments.
about 35 10 metres. but we will have to wait and see. in particular it is hoped that supersymmetry may be observed. Experimentalists have spent the last three decades verifying it. otherwise his choice might have been more difficult. In 1899 he wrote that it is possible to give units for length. To build an accelerator which could see down to such . Experimentalists are about to enter a new scale of energies and theorists do not have a single unique theory about what can be expected there. k and G. masses. temperature and time. length and time would be determined. When Planck initiated the quantum theory he recognised the significance of fundamental constants in physics. especially the speed of light (known as c). The most fundamental constants. By combining c. The situation now is a little different. Planck defined a system of units now known as the Planck scale. It described the physics of energies several orders of magnitude beyond what had been observed before. but they are entirely arbitrary and must be agreed by international convention. then the units for measuring mass. Scientists and engineers have invented a number of systems of units for measuring lengths. They do have some ideas. Planck decided that Newton‟s gravitational constant (known as G) would be a good choice. such as particle masses known at that time. Planck realised that there should be a natural set of units in which the laws of physics take a simpler form. time and temperature which retain their meaning for all time and all cultures. even extraterrestrial ones. k and h would simply be equal to one unit in that system. The reason for this success is that physicists recognised the importance of certain types of symmetry and selfconsistency conditions in quantum field theory which led to an almost unique model for physics up to the electroweak unification energy scale. Boltzmann‟s constant (known as k) and Planck constant (known as h). Despite these unknowns there are other more general arguments which tell us things about what to expect at higher energies.In a Grain of Sand 73 cle physics was devised in the 1960s by theoretical physicists. such as c. Actually there were not many other constants. with only a few parameters such as particle masses to be determined. h. If one other suitable fundamental constant could be selected. He calculated that the Planck unit of length is very small. mass.
It is at the Planck scale that they expect to find the final and completely unified theory of the fundamental laws of physics. We could compare general relativity with the equations of fluid dynamics for water. For that we will need the theory of quantum gravity. The Planck scale is not very good for practical engineering. Physicists who specialise in general relativity have a different idea. are unified. . They describe a continuous fluid with smooth flows in a way which agrees very well with experiment. He computed that these fluctuations would become significant if you could look at spacetime on length scales as small as the Planck length. h. However. It seems clear that to understand quantum gravity we must understand the structure of spacetime at the Planck length scale. partly because the units are mostly either too small or too big compared with everyday quantities. it is not possible to make accurate enough measurements using Planck units because it would be necessary to measure the mass of an object by measuring its gravitational pull on other objects. k and G are equal to one and can be left out of the equations. including gravity. physicists guess that at the Planck scale all forces of nature are unified and quantum gravity is significant. Yet we know that at atomic scales. In the theory of general relativity spacetime is described as a smooth continuous manifold but we cannot be sure that this is correct for very small lengths and times. In 1955 John Wheeler argued that when you combine general relativity and quantum mechanics you will have a theory in which the geometry of spacetime is subject to quantum fluctuations. Sometimes physicists talk about a spacetime foam at this scale but we do not yet know what it really means. Without really knowing too much for certain. One possibility is that at the Planck scale all the four forces of nature. Planck units are very convenient for physicists studying quantum gravity because the values of the constants c. More importantly. Physicists have since sought to understand what the Planck scale of units signifies. water is something very different and must be understood in terms of forces between molecules whose nature is completely hidden in the ordinary world.74 EventSymmetric SpaceTime lengths would require energies about 1016 times larger than those currently available.
The same might be true of quantum gravity in which case there would be little hope of finding out how it worked without further empirical information. A messy renormalisation must be applied to make the answers finite. particles are a consequence of the field quantisation and are seen as less fundamental than the field waves out of which they appear. spin a half or . The particles carry spin in integer or halfinteger multiples of Planck‟s constant. Although it cannot be said for sure that this defines a mathematically rigorous theory. limited only by the imagination of the mathematicians. It is rather fortuitous that this works. It is time now to look at some of those ideas. The Best Attempts The physics of the electromagnetic and nuclear forces is successfully described by quantum field theories which are constructed by applying a quantisation process to the classical field equations. This is not a straight forward matter. Only a small class of field theories can be renormalised in this way and the ones which describe the known particles are the right sort.In a Grain of Sand 75 If spacetime also has a complicated structure at the tiny Planck length. then they would probably succeed in devising a whole host of mathematical models which work. without them knowing anything about atoms and chemistry. It is quite possible that all the ideas are partially correct and are aspects of one underlying theory which is within our grasp. In this scheme. They may be spin zero. All those models would probably be very different. can we possibly hope to discover what it is? If you asked a group of mathematicians to look for theories which could explain the fluid dynamics of water. the task of putting together general relativity and quantum mechanics together into one self consistent theory has not produced a whole host of different and incompatible theories. way beyond the reach of any conceivable accelerator. The clever ideas which have been developed have things in common. Nevertheless. it does at least provide an apparently consistent means of calculation and prediction. Troublesome infinite quantities appear in the calculation of physical quantities. None of them would correspond to the correct description of water molecules and their interactions.
. On the other hand. particle physicists say that if a field theory is nonrenormalisable then it is because it is incomplete. The clearest form of this is a diagrammatic system which was worked out by Richard Feynman. there are two distinct groups of physicists involved. The resulting quantum field theory is incapable of giving any useful result. Perturbation theory requires that you define a fixed approximate background and treat the full physics as if it was a perturbative deviation from there. but for gravity this simply cannot be done in the way that works for the YangMills gauge fields. These hypothetical gravitons must be massless particles carrying spin two. The theory must be modified and new fields might have to be added to cancel divergences. It is necessary to first construct a system of noninteracting graviton particles which represent a zero order approximation to quantised gravitational waves in flat spacetime. or it may be that the observed fields are approximate composite structure of more fundamental constituent fields. The relativists say that it is because gravity cannot be treated perturbatively. The interactions between these particles can be most easily worked out using a perturbation theory. Because quantum gravity is an attempt to combine two different fields of physics. Feynman himself spent a significant amount of time trying to get it to work. The calculations are plagued by infinite quantities which cannot be renormalised. These two groups form a different interpretation of the failure of the direct attack. The fixed background breaks the relativistic symmetry of general covariance. It is. To try to do so destroys the basic principles on which relativity was founded. In principle it should be possible to apply the same quantisation methods to the gravitational field. The next step is to describe the interactions of these gravitons using the perturbation theory.76 EventSymmetric SpaceTime spin one according to the type of field which is quantised. There are also thought to be Higgs particles which have spin zero but they have not yet been found in experiments. no surprise that this should not work. for them. because of the form of the gravitational field in general relativity. The gauge bosons which mediate the electromagnetic and nuclear forces are spin one. All the known fundamental fermions such as quarks and electrons are spin half.
The extra dimensions are not apparent because they are curled up into a small sphere with a circumference as small as the Planck length. This was exactly what they were looking for. This has to be more than coincidence. This was the new beginning of string theory. They discovered that a new kind of symmetry called supersymmetry was very important.In a Grain of Sand 77 Supergravity The first significant progress in the problem of quantum gravity was made by particle physicists. Supersymmetry allows the two types to intermix. This theory provides a means to unify the gauge symmetry of general relativity with the internal gauge symmetries of particle physics. and bosons such as photons and Higgs particles. Miraculously these fields led to cancellations of many of the divergences in perturbative quantum gravity. Combining string theory and supergravity to form superstring theory quickly led to some remarkable discoveries. The problem now was that there is a huge number of ways to apply KaluzaKlein theory to the . then it is necessary to supplement the metric field of gravity with other matter fields. Particle physicists discovered that if the symmetry of spacetime is extended to include supersymmetry. The next big step taken by particle physicists came along shortly after. Two physicists Michael Green and John Schwarz were looking at a theory which had originally been studied as a theory of the strong nuclear force but which was actually more interesting as a theory of gravity because it included spintwo particles. fermions such as quarks and electrons. but nature does not give up its secrets so easily. This inspired the revival of an old theory from the 1920s called KaluzaKlein theory. At first it was thought that such theories of supergravity might be completely renormalisable. particles can be classed into two types. which suggests that spacetime has more dimensions than the four obvious ones. A few string theories in ten dimensions were perfectly renormalisable and finite. With supersymmetry we have some hope to unify the matter fields with radiation fields. After many long calculations this hope faded. A strange thing about supergravity was that it works best in ten or elevendimensional spacetime. It seemed once again that the solution was near at hand.
The results from the canonical approach seem very different from those of string theory. On the other hand. Soon afterwards a way was discovered to find solutions to the equations. There is no need for higher dimensions or extra fields to cancel divergences. Many of them take the view that to do quantum gravity properly you must respect its diffeomorphism symmetry or general covariance. This is now known as the loop representation of quantum gravity. For a long time there seemed little hope of finding any solutions to the WheelerDeWitt equation. Relativists point to the fact that a number of field theories which appear to be unrenormalisable have now been quantised exactly. Indeed there is now a successful formulation of quantum gravity in threedimensional spacetime which can be re . It seems quite plausible that they are both aspects of one underlying theory. the two approaches have some striking similarities. such as knot theory and topology. relativists have been quietly trying to do things differently. Canonical Quantum Gravity While particle physicists were making much noise about superstring theory. Other mathematical topics are common features of both. the canonical approach still has some technical problems to resolve.78 EventSymmetric SpaceTime superstring theories. The perturbative formulation of string theory makes it impossible to determine the correct way. Starting from the old quantisation methods of Dirac it is possible to formally derive the WheelerDeWitt equation together with a Hamiltonian constraint equation. Hence there seem to be a huge number of possible unified theories of physics. It could yet turn out that the theory can only be made fully consistent by including supersymmetry. In both cases they are trying to be understood in terms of symmetries based on loop like structures. Then in 1986 Abhay Ashtekar found a way to reformulate Einstein‟s equations of gravity in terms of new variables. which describe the way in which the quantum state vector should evolve according to this canonical approach. As well as their differences. There is no need to insist on a renormalisable theory of quantum gravity. Mathematicians were surprised to learn that knot theory was an important part of the concept.
such as Leibniz rule for products. Fields are any kind of mathematical structure which can be multiplied together and which can be operated on by some operators which obey rules analogous to those of differentiation. If enough algebraic rules are applied the new type of fields will be equivalent to the old traditional definition for a spacetime with some kind of topology. NonCommutative Geometry A technique which introduces such a minimum length into physics by quantising spacetime was attempted by Hartland Snyder in 1947. This is analogous to the step taken in going from classical to quantum physics where observables are replaced by . Snyder introduced noncommutative operators for spacetime coordinates. The equations of evolution for the fields are specified using these operations which ensure their causal and local nature. The rule which is the most likely candidate for change is that fields should multiply together commutatively. If the rules are allowed to differ then a more general structure than spacetime is defined. now reexamined in the light of quantum groups and noncommutative geometry. Differential operators which act on the fields are defined using the continuous nature of the spacetime coordinates. The model was Lorentz invariant but failed to preserve translation invariance so no sensible physical theory came of it. The traditional definition of a field in physics is a function from the coordinates of spacetime events to field variables which may be real.In a Grain of Sand 79 garded as either a loop representation or a string theory. In analogy to the noncommuting operators of position and momentum in quantum mechanics. In the new approach fields are defined by their algebraic properties and spacetime coordinates are ignored. complex or whatever. These operators have a discrete spectrum and so lead to a discrete interpretation of spacetime. A small number of physicists such as Lee Smolin are looking for a more general common theory uniting the two approaches. Fields can be multiplied together event by event. Similar methods have been tried by others since and although no complete theory has come of these ideas there has been a recent upsurge of renewed interest in quantised spacetime.
This is suggestively similar to the law that entropy must increase. physicists hope to accomplish unification by working on the requirement that there must exist a mathematically self consistent theory which accounts for both general relativity and quantum mechanics as they are separately confirmed experimentally. Because of the stringent constraints that self consistency enforces. If just one theory could be constructed then it would have a good chance of being correct. Black Hole Thermodynamics Although there is no direct empirical input into quantum gravity. The result is various forms of quantum spacetime. and in 1972 it led Jacob Bekenstein to conjecture that the area of the event horizon of a black . Black holes have the classical property that the surface area of their event horizons must always increase.80 EventSymmetric SpaceTime noncommuting observables. The technique can also be applied successfully to groups by generalising the algebraic properties of a function from the group to the real numbers. It is important to stress the point that no complete theory satisfying this requirement has yet been found. Likewise. Spacetime structure can be derived from its group of symmetries in a way which can be generalised to quantum groups. it is possible to construct thought experiments which provide strong hints about the properties a theory of quantum gravity has to have. Now the same idea is used to define noncommutative geometry. There are two physical regimes in which quantum gravity is likely to have significant effects. a small black hole whose mass corresponds to the Planck unit of mass also provides a thought laboratory for quantum gravity. In the conditions which existed during the first Planck unit of time in our universe. The hope of this program is that general relativity and quantum field theories can also be generalised and that the results will not suffer from the infinite divergences which are the primary obstacle to a theory of quantum gravity. The result in this case is the discovery of quantum groups which have all the important algebraic properties of functions on a group except commutivity. matter was so dense and hot that unification of gravity and other forces would have been reached.
The entropy of a system can be related to the amount of information required to describe it.In a Grain of Sand 81 hole is in fact proportional to its entropy. The second case is not quite so bad but it does seem to imply that small black holes must have an . The main ones are: The lost information escapes to another universe The final stage of black hole evaporation halts leaving a remnant particle which holds the information. but for small black holes the temperature increases until they explode in one final blast. A number of ways on which this paradox could be resolved have been proposed. This is known as the black hole information loss paradox. Now if the black hole evaporates. Stephen Hawking investigated the effects of quantum mechanics near a black hole using semiclassical approximations to quantum gravity. Something else happens which is so strange we cannot bring ourselves to think of it. this information will be lost in contradiction to the laws of thermodynamics. We would have to completely change the laws of quantum mechanics to cope with this situation. If this is the case then a black hole would have to have a temperature and obey the laws of thermodynamics. There are strict limits on the amount of information held within any region of space to ensure that the information which enters a black hole cannot exceed the amount represented by its entropy. For astronomical sized black holes the temperature of the radiation is minuscule and certainly beyond detection. Against his own expectations he discovered that black holes must emit thermal radiation in a way consistent with the black hole entropy law of Bekenstein. When objects are thrown into a black hole the information they contain is hidden from outside view because no message can return from inside. This forces us to conclude that black holes can emit particles and eventually evaporate. The first solution would imply a breakdown of quantum coherence. Hawking realised that this creates a difficult paradox which would surely tell us a great deal about the nature of quantum gravity if we could understand it.
Gravitational time dilation ensures that she will watch Mr. X. Gerard 't Hooft. which is a big assumption. To an outside observer. Assuming that something has not been missed out. Miss Y.82 EventSymmetric SpaceTime infinite number of quantum numbers which would mean their rate of production during the big bang would have been divergent. Any knowledge and information he carries will stay with him till the end. Mr. If Miss Y waits long enough the black hole will evaporate and the information will be returned in the radiation. this solution to the information loss problem may have even stranger consequences. Inspired by this observation. This is false because any attempt to do that would eventually cause a black hole to form. They liken the way this might work to that of a hologram which holds a threedimensional image within its twodimensional surface. X slow down so much as he approaches the event horizon that he will never cross it. At least it should be in principle even if it is too jumbled to be read in practice. This is certainly counterintuitive because you would imagine that you could write information on bits of paper and the amount you could cram in would be limited by the volume only. who falls into a black hole. If Susskind is right. If the amount of information is limited then the number of physical degrees of freedom in a field theory of quantum gravity must also be limited. Note that this rule does not force us to conclude that the universe must be finite because there is a hidden assumption that the region of space is static. this theory has been recognised by many other physicists as being consistent with other ideas in quantum gravity. especially string theory. What happens in the case of an observer. From his point of view he will pass through the event horizon without incident and continue to his gruesome fate at the blackhole singularity. Eventually he will fade from her view but the information he carries must still be accessible. the situation must be different. . we must conclude that the amount of entropy which can be held within a region of space is limited by the area of a surface surrounding it. Leonard Susskind and others have proposed that the laws of physics should be described in terms of a discrete field theory defined on a spacetime surface rather than throughout spacetime. Rather than being rejected as a crazy idea.
Presumably this must even be true if the black hole harboured a wormhole through to another universe through which Mr. This paradox is resolved by the simple fact that the two witnesses never can be brought back together. Although there has been considerable progress on the problem of quantising gravity. To face the quantum gravity challenge we need new insights and more new principles like those which guided Einstein to the correct theory of gravity. so too there is no conflict between the contrary observations of Mr. X and Miss Y. X could escape his fate. Mr X will claim he carried it to his cosmic grave where time ended for him but Miss Y will say that it never got past the event horizon and was brought back into the outside universe as the hole evaporated.In a Grain of Sand 83 There is a conceptual difficulty which accompanies this situation. The full implications may only be understood when we have a complete consistent theory which embraces the new complementarity. The course of events as witnessed by Mr. The judge and jury will be forced to conclude that one of them was lying. X is very different from that seen by Miss Y. if one plans to take a swan dive into a black hole he may not agree on the most likely future events with his partner who plans to rest outside. However. . This removes physics further from the conventional causal paradigms. Just as there is no conflict between the dual properties of matter as both particle and wave because no observation brings them into contradiction. Susskind has called this the black hole complementarity principle in deference to Niels Bohr‟s complementarity principle of quantum mechanics. The implications of Susskind‟s principle may be even harder to contemplate than Bohr‟s. In ordinary quantum mechanics observers who can communicate freely should be able to agree what the probability of future events is. it seems likely that it will not be possible to complete the solution without some fundamental change in the way we think about spacetime. If they are ever brought together in a court of law and asked to account for what happened to the information their stories will not be consistent.
There were other difficulties such as the problem of fitting in the distinction between left and right which we find in the weak force. The final step may lead to a unification of matter and spacetime. mass and energy. Even though I made a point of turning up early I found only standing room at the back of the auditorium. We have also seen how space and time. He cautiously predicted that the end of theoretical physics was in sight. then how far can that unification go? It seems likely that it will continue until all fundamental physical laws are unified. It came up in articles written for science . It was an exciting talk at which Hawking made some of his most quotable comments.84 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Is There a Theory of Everything? This is a good moment to take a pause and look at where we are. Faraday thought a unification of gravity and electromagnetism would lead to a complete theory but he could not detect any effect linking the two as he had with electricity and magnetism. The goal might be achieved in the nottoodistant future. There is more than unification of the four fundamental forces. Einstein. After the rapid progress in the foundations of quantum mechanics in the 1920s Max Born told a meeting of scientists that physics would be over in six months. also thought that a unified theory was within reach. In 1985 The phrase “Theory of Everything” entered the minds of theoretical physicists. At the time I was a student at Cambridge University where Stephen Hawking was taking up his position as the new Lucasian professor of mathematics. thermodynamics and gravity and much more have become unified. in his later years. Will that be the end of physics? At one point supergravity looked very promising as a theory which might unify all physics. Hawking pointed out himself that he was joining a list of physicists who had thought they were near the end. Those hopes were premature. There was great anticipation of his inaugural lecture to take place on 29th April 1980. If the physics lesson of the twentieth century is that progress comes through unification. perhaps by the end of the century. But early hopes faded as the perturbative calculations in supergravity became difficult and it seemed less likely that it defined a renormalisable field theory.
In principle any set of welldefined equations can be solved numerically given enough computer power. Many things in science are determined by historical accident. The implications would be enormous. The whole of nuclear physics and chemistry ought to be possible to calculate from the laws we now have. The foundations of biology fall . “Physicists on the verge of finding theory of everything. Physicists usually try to avoid it but the media apparently cannot help themselves. No doubt many problems in particle physics could be solved from first principles. For one thing. even though we believe we have an accurate theory of strong interactions. They were quite right. there would certainly be limits to the solvability of the equations. started to question the validity of the claim that superstring theory was a theory of everything. For one thing it did not really make any testable predictions. then that would be a fantastic discovery. perhaps it would be possible to derive the complete spectrum of elementary particles including their relative masses and the coupling constants of the forces which bind them. In other words it provided potentially a unified theory of all the known underlying laws of physics. The term Theory of Everything is a desperately misleading one. it is not even possible to derive everything in principle from the basic laws of physics. It was not long before scientists from other disciplines and physicists too. More to the point. However. they questioned whether any theory of physics could rightly be called a theory of everything. it would be necessary to solve the equations to understand anything.In a Grain of Sand 85 magazines such as New Scientist and Science and later appeared in the title of a number of books. If physicists find a complete unified set of equations for the laws of physics. We already find that it is almost impossible to derive the spectrum of hadrons composed of quarks. Furthermore. leading some to retort that it was more like a theory of nothing. In practice computers are limited and experiments will never be obsolete. The discovery that set things going was that the heterotic superstring theory is finite in all orders of perturbation theory and has the potential to encompass all the known theories of particle physics and gravity too. but to call it a theory of everything would be nonsense.” It makes too good a headline.
Approaching the final theory of physics seems to be a very similar experience. in principle. Those steps could lead us towards one “Final Theory” in which all the underlying laws of physics are unified. astronomy or medicine. Again.86 EventSymmetric SpaceTime into this category. it is likely that it would still have the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. Sometimes there are several of them before you reach the true summit and at last take in the panoramic view. Steven Weinberg tried to clarify what it was all about in his 1988 book “Dreams of a Final Theory”. Can physicists know that their summit is there too? Hawking . it would be possible to derive a list of all possible forms of life from the basic laws of physics. he argued. and beyond that there are many matters of philosophy and metaphysics which might not be resolved. Physicists. A mountaineer always knows that there is a final summit and it can be reached if he has the courage to continue. In my youth I found time to explore the mountains of Scotland where I lived. This would mean that no argument could finally lay to rest questions about paranormal. Such justification is weak. It is a special place from where you can see far. It suggests. destiny or other such things. are seeking to take the last step of unification on a climb which started as least as far back as Newton. that the theory will mark the end of science and there will be no new theories after. But string theorists never claimed that their work was applicable to any of these things. There have already been many false summits and again we see another ahead. not to mention an infinite number of mathematical problems. biology. Weinberg‟s term “Final Theory” is actually not much better than “Theory of Everything”. Finding the final laws of physics will be like arriving at the summit of the highest mountain. Finally it must be said that even given a convincing unified theory of physics. The final theory of physics will not tell us how life on Earth originated. The most ardent reductionist would retort that. chemistry. Often as you climb one of those rounded peaks. but getting there does not mean you have been everywhere. No theory of physics is likely to answer all the unsolved problems of mathematics. religion. to some. you see ahead what appears to be the top. As you get closer you realise that it is a false summit with a further climb beyond. if the mist and rain have cleared. this is not what is meant.
Hawking must have felt that he had been vindicated in his prediction that supergravity was near the end. After Cambridge the next time I had the opportunity to hear Hawking lecture was 17 years on at a conference for string theorists. His liking for strings appeared to have improved when it was discovered in 1995 that string theories can be unified under a mysterious form of supergravity in 11 dimensions.” There are a few who are not so certain. I too think we really are near the summit. John Taylor in his book “When the clock struck zero” argued that there could be an infinite structure of levels of physical law to find. Noone thinks that there will be a final theory of mathematics and if mathematics is so strongly reflected in physics why should there be a limit to its application? For what my opinion is worth. Hawking had never moved on from supergravity to string theory as other physicists had. That is still my estimate today but the 20 years start now. until then. . “twenty years ago. With a characteristic touch of humour he told us.In a Grain of Sand 87 feels that it is. I said there was a 50/50 chance that we would have a complete picture of the universe in the next twenty years.
88 Is SpaceTime Discrete? Seeking the ultimate indivisible We have seen how atomic physics and quantum mechanics have reduced matter and light to discrete components. It will not make many conversions. Structure becomes simpler at smaller distances. The idea that space or time could be discrete has been a recurring one in the scientific literature of the twentieth century and its origins go back much further. If we look under a powerful microscope at a grain of dust we do not expect to see minuscule universes supporting the complexity of life seen at larger scales. the modern formalism of axiomatic mathematics leaves no room for Zeno‟s paradox. After all. Riemann himself remarked on this disparity even as he constructed the formalism which would be used to describe the spacetime continuum for the next century of physics in 1876. As we shall see. In the fifth century BC the philosopher . When you measure a distance or time interval you cannot declare the result to be a rational or irrational number no matter how accurate you manage to be. Furthermore it appears that there is a limit to the amount of detail contained in a volume of space. A survey of just a few examples reveals that discrete spacetime can actually mean many things and is motivated by a variety of philosophical or theoretical influences. Surely there must be some minimum length at which the simplest elements of natural structure are found and surely this must mean spacetime is discrete rather than continuous? This style of argument tends to be persuasive only to those who already believe the hypothesis. In mathematics numbers have unphysical properties like being an exact ratio of two integers. Today history is repeating itself for a third time and now it is spacetime which is threatened to be reduced to discrete events. it is only recently that theories of quantum gravity have suggested the true scale at which the structure of spacetime breaks up. It has been apparent since early times that there is something different about the mathematical properties of the real numbers and the quantities of measurement in physics at small scales.
It is possible to talk about limits and infinity without reaching any mathematical contradiction and it can be proven that the sum of an infinite number of halving intervals is finite. and a more complete philosophy of atomic space and time was developed by the Kalam of Bahgdad from the 9th century. In 1936 Einstein expressed the general feeling that the success of the quantum theory points to a purely algebraic method of description of nature and the elimination of continuous function and spacetime continuum from physics. However. No matter how many times he halves the distance he will not have caught the tortoise. the tortoise was given a head start. Heisenberg himself noted that the laws of physics must have a fundamental length in addition to Planck‟s constant and the speed of light. to set the scale of particle masses. then half the remaining distance again. The belief in some new spacetime structure at small length scales was reinforced with the discovery of ultraviolet divergences in Quantum Field Theory. Although some philosophers such as Bertrand Russell persisted with such arguments and developed a detailed and general philosophy of atomism.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 89 Parmedies and his disciple Zeno of Elea tried to discredit the senses by posing paradoxes about the divisibility of spacetime. To catch him up Archiles must first half the distance between them. Such thoughts influenced the atomists of ancient Greece. Searches for nonlocal effects in high energy particle collisions have now given negative results for scales down to about 1019m and today the consensus is that it must correspond to the much smaller Planck length at 1035m. In a race between the Archiles and the tortoise. experimental facts are a different matter and the discovery of quantum theory with its discrete energy levels and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle led physicists to speculate that spacetime itself may be discrete as early as the 1930s. At the time it was thought that this length scale would be around 1015m corresponding to the masses of the heaviest elementary particles known at the time. there are few physicists who would agree that logic and philosophy alone can tell us whether or not space and time are discrete. But axiomatic mathematics has dispelled Zeno‟s paradox. From 1929 it was found that infinite an . If space and time are infinitely divisible Archiles cannot pass the tortoise according to Zeno.
Even after it was found possible to perform accurate calculations by a process of renormalisation in 1948 many physicists felt that the method was incomplete and would break down at smaller length scales unless a natural cutoff was introduced. In 1930 Viktor Ambarzunmian and Mitrij Dmitrevich Iwanenko were the first of many physicists to propose that space should be treated as discrete to resolve the problems. For example. Another aspect of the quantum theory which caused disquiet was its inherent indeterminacy and the essential role of the observer in measurements. Lattice Theories One way to provide a small distance cutoff in field theory is to formulate it on a discrete lattice with spacetime events placed in a regular array like the molecules of a crystal. It was felt that quantum mechanics would be a statistical consequence of a more profound discrete deterministic theory in the same sense that thermodynamics is a consequence of the kinetic gas theory. . so if spacetime is really a discrete lattice the equations will have to be replaced by some alternative which avoids the derivatives and approximates the original equations at large scales. This has been used since at least the eighteenth century and the possibility of applying such techniques to a discrete geometry of space was investigated by Oswald Veblen and William Bussey as early as 1906 but only later was it studied in any depth. electromagnetism has an electric field and a magnetic field each of which is described by three real numbers for each event of spacetime. The equations which determine how they evolve are Maxwell‟s equations. The equations have derivatives in them which only make sense on continuous space and time. Classical field theories are described in terms of quantities which vary continuously over space and time according to certain wave equations. The numerical method for solving differential equations is to replace continuous space or time by discrete intervals as an approximation.90 EventSymmetric SpaceTime swers appear when you sum up contributions to a physical quantity from waves of ever smaller wavelength. The Copenhagen interpretation seemed inadequate and alternative hidden variable theories were sought.
In discrete spacetime the values of are only defined on the sites of a lattice which are spaced regularly at a distance d apart in the space dimensions and also in the time dimension. The equation is as follows: 2 2 2 m2 0 2 t x This has solutions which describe localised wave packets of energy like particles of mass m moving at less than a speed of 1 unit which is the speed of light. Usually it is denoted by (x. .t). The value will be a complex number since the KleinGordon equation was first proposed as a relativistic generalisation of the single particle Schrödinger equation. x t The derivatives which appeared in the wave equation can no longer be defined exactly but they can be approximated using finite differences.g. E.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 91 To make things simpler we will look at how this could be done for a simpler wave equation. The massless KleinGordon equation in two dimensions has just one field value at each event.
t d ) ( x. t d ) ( x d . In practice the difference would be too small to find and it is impossible to rule out the lattice theory directly. t ) m2 ( x. t ) x 2 d2 If this and a similar approximation for the time derivative is substituted into the KleinGordon equation we get an equation which is well defined on the lattice. At least we should in principle. There is no contradiction in this. t ) ( x d . The lattice solution is not exact but in the limit as d becomes very small it gives a better and better approximation to continuum solutions. A sceptic might ask about what happens between the discrete time steps or what lies in the space between the . yet it appears to flow continuously. after all. t ) ( x d . If we believe in discrete spacetime we might guess that the equation could be exact for some fixed value of d such as the Planck length. It describes a simple numerical relation between the field values at a the site and the four nearest neighbour sites. It would mean that time is advancing in small discrete steps yet we experience time as a continuous flow. ( x. t ) 0 2 d This equation must now hold true for each value of x and t on the lattice. A similar illusion could apply to real life but on a much smaller scale. If it is correct we should be able to do experiments which detect the differences from continuum physics that the theory predicts. when we watch television we see only a sequence of discrete pictures made up of discrete pixels on the screen.92 EventSymmetric SpaceTime 2 ( x. Philosophically such a hypothesis seems a little strange. Equations like this can be used to numerically solve wave equations on a computer. It also has wave packet solutions which look like particles of mass m moving through space. t ) 2 ( x ) ( x d . but close up they are revealed as discrete fields at fixed sites.
Continuum field theories are expressed in terms of differential equations while lattice theories are written with simple arithmetic operations such as subtraction. In contrast. Quantum field theory as expressed by Richard Feynman starts from the Lagrangian formalism. lattice quantum field theories are quite simple.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 93 sites of the lattice. and so long as we do not concern ourselves with the continuum limit. The sites are the only events of spacetime which exist and the fields interact directly with their neighbours. The action is given by S ( ) L( )d 3 xdt By the principle of least action for the classical filed theory. Even with these things understood quantum field theory is not as complete and rigorously defined as a mathematician would want. Quantum field theory is notoriously difficult to learn because it requires many mathematical concepts to describe. The answer is simply that there is nothing between. According to Feynman the quantum theory . Lattice Quantum Field Theory Part of the beauty of lattice theories is their simplicity. they are usually well defined. this must be minimised subject to boundary conditions which fix the value of at any given start and end times. Particles are formed as wave packets which are spread over many sites of the lattice so we never need to think of them as travelling between sites. In the case of the KleinGordon equation a Lagrangian density is defined as follows: 2 L m2 x t 2 2 The modulus squared of the complex numbers is used so that the Lagrangian is always real. By an application of the calculus of variations the KleinGordon field equations can be derived from this principle. This economy of concepts is even more striking when we move on from the classical theory to the quantum.
t ) d 2 ( x. Ordinary integration has been around since Newton and Leibniz and was rigorously defined by Riemann in the eighteenth century. t ) ( x. t ) x . Path integrals only appeared in the latter half of the twentieth century and are still not well defined accept in restricted cases. t d ) ( x. t ) 2 The action is a sum over the lattice sites. S d 2 L( x. Not only does this sound complicated. it is not even possible to define rigorously except when the field equations are linear. t ) d 2 m2 ( x. L ( x d . Informally the path integral is a sum over all possible ways the field can vary over space and time but defining exactly what such an infiniteintegral means is less simple to do. The lattice Lagrangian is just a discretised version of the continuum Lagrangian.t The classical lattice field equations already given above can be derived from the action relatively easily by just requiring that the action is minimised with respect to variation of each field variable (x. P e i S ( ) 2h D The path integral must be taken over all possible evolutions of the field between the start and end.94 EventSymmetric SpaceTime replaces the principle of least action with a path integral which defines a transition amplitude for going from each initial field configuration to a final one.t). By comparison the lattice version of the same thing is much easier to grasp. The lattice quantum field theory is then specified in a similar way as for the continuum field except that now the integral is a .
Lattice Gauge Theories It is instructive to see how lattice theories work in more complicated cases. The obvious thing to do would be to take the continuum Lagrangian for YangMills theory and replace all the derivatives with finite differences as we did for the KleinGordon equation. t d ) ( x. Such convenience does not make them right. If we believed that spacetime was a lattice we would never have to worry about problems like renormalisation because the lattice spacing sets a cutoff scale which turns the divergences of field theory into welldefined finite answers. t )] 2 2 L m ( x. Actually the square terms from the difference terms cancel in the sum and we are left with a sum over an alternative Lagrangian.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 95 multivariable integral over each field variable. of course.t ) ( x. t ) . We know that the standard model of particle physics is built around gauge theories so it would certainly be worth while to look at gauge theories on the lattice. This may still sound complicated but at least multivariable integrals are well defined (when they converge) which is a big improvement over path integrals. t ) e i ( x . t )] 2 Re[ * ( x d . ( x. 2 Re[ * ( x. I have not described the YangMills equations here so instead we shall see how lattice gauge theories can be formulated directly from the symmetry principles of gauge theory applied to the lattice KleinGordon Lagrangian. but it might count for something. The action for twodimensional KleinGordon theory can be written differently by expanding the squares and collecting together the square terms in the sum over lattice sites. t ) ( x. t ) d d Recall the gauge symmetry for the electromagnetic field is invariance of the wave equation when the wave function is multiplied by a complex phase.
t) (x.t+d). just as exchange rates must be modified by a factor if the values of currencies change.t) (x+d. the gauge field must also be adjusted.t) is a global constant. An exchange rate must be used.t+d) U2(x. Notice that the mass term does not suffer this problem and is already invariant. In the gauge theory the exchange rate is a phase factor U which is a unit complex number. We will use Ui(x. As it stands the Lagrangian is not invariant because the field values at (x.t) and (x. When a local gauge transformation changes the matter field variables by a phase which can vary from one site to another.t) and (x.t) are directly multiplied by field values at (x+d. Remember the analogy between gauge fields and economics.96 EventSymmetric SpaceTime The Lagrangian for the lattice Klein Gordon equation is already invariant under this transformation when the phase (x. They represent the electromagnetic force on the lattice.t) to (x+d. Since the Lagrangian has products extending between any site and its nearest neighbours we must introduce such a factor on each link between sites of the lattice in both space and time directions.t) These phases are the field values of the gauge field.t) for the variables linking site (x.t) U1(x. (x. independent of x and t. The principles of gauge theory require us to introduce a gauge field in such a way that the Lagrangian is an invariant even when the phase is not a constant. .t+d). Multiplying field values together at different places is like trying to exchange money between different countries with different currencies.
t d ) ( x. 97 ( x.Is SpaceTime Discrete? The gauge transformation is as follows. it must be gauge invariant and real. In 1974 Ken Wilson discovered this elegant Lagrangian and generalised it to a form which even gives a discrete lattice ap . t d ) With these fields the Lagrangian can be modified to be gauge invariant. t ) ei ( x . t ) ei ( x . the Lagrangian is still incomplete because the gauge field itself must have some dynamics. t )U1 ( x . The Lagrangian should include a term made purely from gauge fields and. t )U 2 ( x . It turns out that a suitable form for this term is a product of four gauge fields round a square of links on the lattice (known as a plaquette). t ) U1 ( x. t ) ( x. t )U2 ( x d. t ) ei ( x . t )e i ( x d . t d )U2 ( x. t ) ( x. t )] is just a coupling constant parameter which controls the strength of the electromagnetic force. t )] d This term and all others in the Lagrangian are then invariant under the local gauge transformation. It suffices to introduce the appropriate gauge field in between the product of matter field terms. t )] d becomes 2 Re[ * ( x. For example 2 Re[ * ( x. of course. t ) U 2 ( x . When this term is added to the matter field it gives a lattice version of electromagnetics in two dimensions. t )U1* ( x. t d )U 2 ( x. t )e i ( x . However. * LGauge Re[U1 ( x.
Lorentz invariance would also be lost so relativity would be violated in a way which is hard for theorists to accept. Only ninety degree rotations are a symmetry of the theory. If spacetime was such a lattice there would be a preferred set of space axis and a preferred reference frame but such things contradict relativity and have never been observed. A spacetime constructed as a discrete lattice is analogous to a crystal whose atoms are arranged on a regular array. The same applies in the time direction. Using Wilson‟s formulation of lattice QCD has been an important part of a method for performing numerical calculations to study theoretically the structure of particles composed of quarks and held together by the strong nuclear force of quantum chromodynamics. The greater difficulty lies with rotational and Lorentz invariance or more generally with coordinate transformations. The fact is that lattice theories of spacetime cannot easily be ruled out but they are just too plain ugly to be right! The laws of physics seem to be based on elegant principles such as symmetry . At first sight the internal structure of a crystal solid appears isotropic but there its mechanical properties can be carefully measured to determine the directions in which the atoms are aligned. If spacetime was a regular lattice its loss of rotational invariance would also be present even though it might not be detectable with present technology. If the continuum limit is not to be restored by taking the limit where the lattice spacing goes to zero then the issue of the loss of rotational invariance must be addressed.98 EventSymmetric SpaceTime proximation to YangMills theory with other gauge groups in any number of dimensions. The simple form of the theory and its elegant discrete version of gauge invariance are points in its favour but what about spacetime symmetry? Lattice theories on a regular lattice have discrete translational invariance because the equations can be displaced by any multiple of the lattice spacing along any of the spatial axis. Lattice gauge theory is an approximation to YangMills theory which may become exact when the lattice spacing tends to zero if the fields and coupling constants can be suitably renormalised. Here we are more interested in the possibility that lattice theories could be an exact description of physics at very small length scales.
How would we know which is right if experiment can never probe at sufficiently small length scales? This arbitrariness is the price you pay whenever you abandon a principle of symmetry. This gives a complete model of symmetries but how could such a structureless model be anything to do with physics? Fading Motivations Over the years many of the problems which surrounded the development of the quantum theory have diminished. In the continuum limit there are an infinite number of degrees of freedom in any volume no matter how small. The perturbation series itself may not be convergent but YangMills theories can be regularised nonperturbatively on a discrete lattice using the prescription introduced by Ken Wilson. Nevertheless.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 99 which help determine the correct form the laws of physics must take. Lattice theories are arbitrary in their form. If we abandon those principles we have little hope of making progress. . There is good reason to believe that consistent quantum field theory can be defined on continuous spacetime at least for nonabelian gauge theories which are asymptotically free. The lattice structure is discarded. If we could represent diffeomorphism invariance in such a clean discrete form too. the fact that we can accommodate gauge invariance on the lattice may be telling us something. The eventsymmetric analogue of a lattice gauge theory is a gauge glass with events each linked to each other using gauge fields. This would be a counterexample to any claim that physical theories must be discrete. Renormalisation itself has become acceptable and is proven to be a consistent procedure in perturbation theory of YangMills gauge field physics. Permutations are onetoone mappings of a discrete set of events to itself. there would be some hope. There is an infinity of ways to approximate any field theory on a lattice. We call this event symmetry. The discrete version of diffeomorphism invariance is permutation invariance. Diffeomorphisms are onetoone mappings of the set of spacetime events to itself which preserve its continuum properties. In lattice QCD the lattice spacing can be taken to zero while the coupling constant is systematically rescaled.
100 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Quantum indeterminacy. If the positions and orientations of molecules can be specified to any degree of precision then . Without the physical motivation discrete spacetime has been disfavoured by many physicists but others have found reason to persist with the idea. Each bit can just have a value 0 or 1 but many bits can record vast amounts of information in the form of numbers or binary coded characters. In 1964 John Bell showed that most ideas for local hidden variable theories would violate an important inequality of quantum mechanics. There are still those who try to get round this with new forms of quantum mechanics such as that of David Bohm. It from Bit In the late 1970s the increasing power of computers seems to have been the inspiration behind some new discrete thinking in physics. Others are simply content with the fact that quantum mechanics provides the same way of doing calculations no matter what interpretation is used. Their newly found close contact with computers seems to have led some physicists to wonder if the universe is itself some sort of giant computer. It seems that the entropy of a system may be a measure of the amount of information it contains but it is difficult to make sense of such an idea unless the amount of information in a physical system is finite. The smallest unit of information used in computers is the binary digit or bit. Shannon‟s information theory turned out to be important in physics as well as computers. which was another motivation for looking to discrete spacetime. but now they are a minority pushed to the fringe of established physics. Hugh Everett‟s thesis which leads us to interpret quantum mechanics as the dynamics of a multiverse has been seen as a resolution of the measurement problem for much of the physics community. has also become an acceptable aspect of continuum physics. Monte Carlo simulations of lattice field theories were found to give useful numerical results with surprisingly few degrees of freedom where analytic methods had made only limited progress. This inequality was directly verified in a careful experiment by Alain Aspect in 1982. In 1947 Claude Shannon laid the foundations of information theory.
There are many different instruction sets which have been used to control computers. In the theory of computers. E.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 101 there is no limit to the number of bits needed to describe the state of a gas in a box so entropy from information may only make sense if there is some minimum distance which can be measured. All would be the consequence of complex interactions based on very simple basic elements. Such things would only appear as emergent properties in the spacetime idealisation. Spacetime itself. without the practical constraints of efficiency. John Wheeler has sought to extend this idea so that every physical quantity derives its ultimate significance from bits. but he goes further than just making spacetime discrete. The computer obeys two fundamental instructions: (1) increment a variable by adding one. c. In 1979 while I was a student I attended an extracircular course on logic given by the mathematics professor John Conway. he argues. In the pregeometry there would be no direct concepts of dimension or causality. In RISC processors the number of different instructions is kept to a minimum. Such reasoning has created a school of thought about the role of information processing in the fundamental laws of physics. … etc. Such a machine is called a universal computer.g. the instruction to increment variable a can be written schematically like this a+ . He calls this idea “It from Bit. The computer can store an unlimited number of nonnegative integer values which are given variable names a.” For Wheeler and his followers the continuum is a myth. must be understood in terms of a more fundamental pregeometry. b. He introduced the class to a hypothetical computer called a Minsky machine which had been devised by computer science theorist Marvin Minsky. it is possible to reduce the instruction set to very few elements indeed and still be able to use it to do any computation which is theoretically possible. just as a complex piece of computer software is built from a simple set of instructions.
. In one lecture of the course. When you arrive at the end p will be the nth prime number. Start with all variables set to zero except n. the instruction to decrement variable b or branch is shown as follows b The branch with the double arrow is taken if b is zero on entering the circle. start here a end here b+ If you want an interesting puzzle to solve try and work out what is the largest number which a Minsky machine can generate in a variable when it stops if it is only allowed to have k instructions where k is some small number of your choice. This Minsky machine program illustrates how the simplest of rules can be used to generate nontrivial systems. Perhaps some equally simple set of rules will account for physics.g. It had only 16 instructions and he challenged us to do better. Conway showed us a program he had written for a Minsky machine which could calculate the nth prime number. Can you do better still? Here is the program. Here is an example of a simple program to add a to b.102 EventSymmetric SpaceTime (2) decrement a variable by subtracting one. unless it is zero in which case branch E. The next week I showed him how to do it with only 14 instructions. A program for a Minsky machine is a diagram made up of these two instructions.
If a living cell at one moment is isolated or it is accompanied by no more than one other living cell in the nearest neighbouring 8 cells. The game of life is played on a twodimensional array of square cells. a cell which is dead will be revived if it is surrounded by exactly three living cells. The state of the game at the next time step is determined by rules which are meant to mimic the life and death of living cells. A computer can readily be made to simulate the game and display the progress. Its simple rules made it q+ pf+ e+ popular with people who liked recreational mathematics and was partly responsible for Conway‟s popularity as a lecturer. or which repeat such as a line of three cells. Typically regions of cells will die out or stabilise into patterns which do not change such as an isolated square of four cells. These are called gliders.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 103 end here start here p+ d+ n e d q e fe+ Cellular Automata d A similar idea which seems closer to the real world is the cellular automata. the system evolves and patterns emerge. When these rules are applied iteratively to an initial picture of living and dead cells. From time to time a group of living cells will appear to separate from the activity and move away on its own. Each cell at any given time step is either alive or dead. The most common variety reflects about a diagonal axis after each second step and moves diagonally. Otherwise it remains dead. On the other hand. it will be dead the next moment through lack of support. Cellular automata became popular in the 1970s with Conway‟s invention of the Game of Life. . If it is surrounded by two or three living cells in its neighbourhood it will continue to live but if there are more it will die from over competition.
. but a small perturbation such as a glider wandering in from outside can set the thing off again like a spark lighting a fire. Recall that the smallest scales in physics seem to be around 1035 m. Despite its simple rules the game of life has sufficient complexity that we cannot imagine how an array that big would behave. Little is known about how cellular automata might behave on very large arrays and over very large numbers of time steps. To correspond in size to our universe. This means that the system stops evolving leaving steady or cyclic configurations of cells. It is plausible that some cellular automata specified in 3dimensions may be sufficiently interesting places for life to develop inside them. At present we have no idea if such things are likely.104 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Despite its simple rules defined on a discrete lattice of cells the game has some features in common with the laws of physics. On large scales some kind of physical laws may emerge from the statistical behaviour of the system. There is a maximum speed for causal propagation which plays a role similar to the speed of light in special relativity. Numerical simulations suggest that stable regions develop but some activity can continue for a long time. Even the continuous values of the field variables have been replaced with discrete quantities. a cellular automaton would have to have an array of something like 10240 cells. It seems that self organised criticality is established. Even more intriguing is the comparison of gliders with elementary particles. A great deal of research has been done to find out how cellular automata like this one behave on very large arrays. Cellular automata go a step further than lattice field theories. It is quite possible that complex organised structures would evolve.
Other speakers at the conference included Wheeler. by time Feynman arrived to give his talk he had changed his mind and gave a talk about computational models of physics. but Bell‟s inequality and the experiments of Aspect and others strongly suggest that quantum reality is not local in such a strong sense. There has been some progress towards using cellular automata to study hydrodynamics and turbulence but there seems to be an impassable hurdle when we attempt to apply the automata to quantum physics. However. and it implies that there are computational models of physics. . He and many other speakers spoke about cellular automata which were very topical by then. then I am not coming. Edward Fredkin is one of those people who suggests that the universe really does operate like a gigantic computer. In 1981 Fredkin was one of the organisers of a conference at MIT which he wanted to be called something like “On computational models of physics. some interesting things may yet be learnt from such research.” Fredkin managed to persuade Richard Feynman to be the keynote speaker at the meeting.” The title was changed to “Physics and computing” and so Feynman went. Minsky and Fredkin himself. Fredkin is a computer specialist with an interest in physics who has managed to influence a number of respected physicists to take the idea seriously. Another notable physicist who has been influenced by Fredkin is Gerard 't Hooft. but when Feynman heard the title he said “Well if you have that as a name.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 105 For those seeking to reduce physics to simple deterministic laws this was an inspiration to look for cellular automata as toy models of particle physics despite the obvious flaw that they broke spacetime symmetries. This conference and especially the presence of Feynman was very influential on the subject. He is not put off by locality arguments and suggests that the states of a cellular automaton could be seen as the basis of a Hilbert space on which quantum mechanics is formed. The evolution of automata is always based on what happens locally to any cell in the array. Although the idea is not popular.
however. The black hole information loss paradox which arises from semiclassical treatments of quantum gravity is the nearest thing physicists have to an experimental result in quantum gravity. At smaller distances the quantum fluctuations of the metric become more significant until. but recently new evidence has come in to take their place. at the scale of the Planck length. When gravity is included. These are akin to the discrete quantum numbers of the quantum mechanics of an atom which still also has a continuum description so the answer may be that space and time have a dual discrete and continuous nature. With quantisation of gravity all the old renormalisation issues return and many new problems arise. The far reaching work of Bekenstein and Hawking on black hole thermodynamics has led to some of the most compelling evidence for discreteness at the Planck scale.106 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Discreteness in Quantum Gravity We have seen how some of the early motivations behind theories of discrete spacetime have faded with time. Whichever approach to quantum gravity is taken the conclusion seems to be that the Planck length is a minimum size beyond which the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle prevents measurement if applied to the metric field of Einstein Gravity. Does this mean that spacetime is discrete at such scales with only a finite number of degrees of freedom per unit volume? Recent theoretical results from string theories and the looprepresentation of gravity do suggest that spacetime has some discrete aspects at the Planck scale. . the metric itself becomes uncertain. In ordinary quantum field theory the ability to measure small distances is limited only by the energy of the particles available and according to relativity there should be no theoretical limit to energy. it is impossible to do any reliable measurements. It is only when we try to include gravity in quantum theory that we find solid reason to believe in discrete spacetime. There are several proposed ways in which the paradox may be resolved most of which imply some problematical breakdown of quantum mechanics while others lead to seemingly bizarre conclusions. Its resolution is likely to say something useful about a more complete quantum gravity theory.
It may seem that there is very little hope of any experimental input into quantum gravity research because the Planck energy is so far beyond reach. We now have theories extending to energies way beyond current accelerator technology but it should not be forgotten that limits set by experiment have helped to narrow down the possibilities and will presumably continue to do so. would have significant consequences for theoretical research on spacetime structure. Lattice Quantum Gravity If discrete spacetime is a feature of quantum gravity then the early ideas of lattices and cellular automata were just not inventive enough. it is suggested that physics must be formulated with degrees of freedom distributed on a twodimensional surface with the third spatial dimension being dynamically generated. General relativity is about invariance of the form of laws . In fact the number of degrees of freedom must be given by the area in Planck units of a surface surrounding the region of space.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 107 One approach is to suppose that no more information goes in than can be displayed on the event horizon and that it comes back out as the black hole evaporates by Hawking radiation. However. Bekenstein has shown that if this is the case then very strict and counterintuitive limits must be placed on the maximum amount of information held in a region of space. It has been argued by 't Hooft that this finiteness of entropy and information in a blackhole is also evidence for the discreteness of spacetime. The discovery of supersymmetry.e. This has led to some speculative ideas about how quantum gravity theories might work through a holographic mechanism. experimental high energy physics has mostly served to verify the correctness of the standard model of particle physics as established theoretically between 1967 and 1973. for example. At this point it may be appropriate to discuss the prospects for experimental results in quantum gravity and small scale spacetime structure. a theory of quantum gravity would almost certainly have low energy consequences which may be in reach of future experiments. Over the past twenty years or more. i. A lattice is surely too rigid a structure to model curved spacetime.
Instead of varying the lengths of the links joining sites the links are all the same length and the way spacetime is divided into simplexes is varied. These are simplexes of dimension 1 to 4. If spacetime was a Regge skeleton we would have to find some rules about how it should be split into simplexes. To us it could also be a pregeometric model of spacetime. Then the size and shape of all the simplexes can be determined. It is sufficient to specify how the sites are connected and the lengths of all the links. triangles. Spacetime curvature varies with the number of simplexes which meet at each site. Loss of spacetime symmetry is also a problem just as it was with a regular lattice. Just as the curving vaults of a modern building can be approximated by a surface of flat triangles. tetrahedrons and pentahedroids. so too can curved spacetime by approximated to any desired accuracy with the simplicial structure of the Regge skeleton.108 EventSymmetric SpaceTime of physics under coordinate transformations but the spacetime coordinates are really artificial constructs without any direct physical basis. It is possible to work out the equations which express the dynamics of the structure and which reduce to Einstein‟s field equations of general relativity in the limit where the size of the simplices becomes very small. An alternative scheme which has proved to work better in numerical studies of quantum gravity is random triangulation. Instead of varying field values on sites the length of the links between the sites is allowed to be variable. He imagined spacetime as a network of points joined together by links. In 1961 Tulio Regge came up with a way of doing relativity without any coordinates. Useful numerical simulations of either the classical or quantum dynamics can be done on a fast computer. valid even while discrete. To Regge this discrete spacetime was just an approximation scheme which would give ordinary general relativity in the fine limit. The Regge calculus is therefore a discrete version of general relativity. The curvature of the spacetime surface can be derived from the angles of the simplexes around any site. The path integral of quantum gravity is then effec . The concept is very much like a lattice except that it is not rigid. The structure is analogous to the faceted surface of a geodesic dome.
Discrete effects are averaged out so that rotational symmetry is exact in the quantum version. a metric or even information might be thrown in just to see what it led to. In short it is difficult to imagine what spacetime may be like at all. We know that spacetime is fourdimensional on scales at least as large 1019 m which have been probed with particle accelerators. topology. Some physicists have played the game of building toy models which throw out all but a few of these concepts. He demanded a pregeometry much more basic than the spacetime manifold or any discrete approximation to it. We cannot be sure that spacetime events have a precise meaning or that quantum mechanics works the same way. dimension may not be a fundamental quantity. events. locality or causality. Before about 1980 only a rare few physicists had made any serious attempts at this sort of thing. Other features which spacetime physics may lose along with continuity include its metric. lattice models discard continuity and symmetry but keep dimension. The best examples were Hartland . because they think these things are of primary significance and must be part of the laws of physics at the most fundamental level. metric. the ones which they feel might be the most fundamental. Pregeometry For John Wheeler simplicial spacetime was not radical enough. Cellular automata also discard quantum mechanics. For example. locality and quantum mechanics for example. etc. They might try to keep causality. Another feature like topology.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 109 tively a sum over all the ways of triangulating a fourdimensional surface. but at the Planck scale the number of dimensions may change. It may even become a vague concept with no definite meaning. The action can be given in terms of just the numbers of simplexes in the lattice. This is an interesting pregeometric model though it would be surprising if it was anything like reality. A true description of the structure of spacetime at the smallest scales may require us to discard some other properties which it appears to have at larger scales. Any pregeometric model can be characterised according to which of the highlighted properties in the previous paragraph it throws out and which it keeps. For example. symmetry.
110 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Snyder with quantum spacetime. Happily there are still a hand full of physicists and one or two journals which keep it alive. How can space be infinite? If it is not infinite what would lie beyond the end? Can the universe have a beginning and an end? What is the smallest thing and what can it be made of? What is time? Do time and space really exist? How have modern physicists learnt to deal with these questions? The simplest answer is that they use mathematics to construct mod . Is there really any hope that such methods can tell us something about the real world? Physicists have succeeded before with theories they devised with little more than mathematics and insight. Carl von Weizsäcker with Urtheory and Roger Penrose with spin networks and twisters. Then in the 1980s and early 1990s there was a flurry of new speculative ideas. but if clues from superstring theory and canonical quantum gravity are also considered there may be some hope. The Metaphysics of SpaceTime Space and time have been favourite subjects of debate for philosophers since at least the ancient Greeks. Chris Isham and others looked at the quantum mechanics of spaces with just a distance metric between scattered points. Better theories can then be produced by combining things from different models which might work well together. Dirac was a strong advocate of the power of mathematical beauty as an indicator of truth and successfully predicted the positron on such a basis. David Finkelstein with his quantum net dynamics. you can also look for features which seem promising. or topologies of sets or even just random networks of links between spacetime events. If you examine the pregeometries which have been studied up till now it is easy to dismiss them because none is complete. rather than discarding each one because of some feature which does not correspond to reality. It seems improbable that someone is going to have complete success by such methods alone. Sadly. The time seemed right for bold ideas. The paradoxes of the infinite and the infinitesimal are reinvented each day by children with inquisitive minds. there is little encouragement or funding for such speculative research. However.
but nobody yet has an exact model of the whole universe. with or without a boundary. In this way there are no paradoxes of the infinite or infinitesimal. This does not make it correct. With the system of real numbers they can go on to define many different types of geometry. The self consistency of general relativity can be proven mathematically from the fundamental axioms within known limitations. So long as there is no complete theory of physics we know that any model of spacetime is likely to be only an approximation to reality which applies in a certain restricted domain. There is no need to answer questions about what happened before the beginning of the universe because we can construct a selfconsistent mathematical model of spacetime in which time has a beginning with no before. Using reason alone they consider what space and time might be be . continuous. So long as we have a consistent mathematical model we know there is no paradox. Philosophers sometimes try to go beyond what physicists can do. but it does make it a viable model whose accuracy can be tested against observation. Newton used a very simple model of space and time described by Euclidean geometry. A more accurate model may be found later and although the difference in predicted measurement may be small. This is consistent with what we observe in ordinary experience. The universe could be infinite or finite. It can be measured approximately with clocks but never directly. the new and old model may be very different in nature.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 111 els of the universe from basic axioms. It as if there were some universal absolute standard of time which flows constantly. Clocks measure time and normally they can be made to keep the same time within the accuracy of their working mechanisms. In this way it was possible to discover nonEuclidean geometries in the nineteenth century which were used to build the theory of general relativity in the twentieth. This means that our current models of space and time may be very unrealistic descriptions of what they really are even though they give very accurate predictions in any experiment we can perform. In that model space and time are separate. Mathematicians can define the system of real numbers from set theory and prove all the necessary theorems of calculus that physicists need. infinite and absolute.
The mathematical models used by physicists turn this insideout. The inertia of objects should be seen as being a result of their relation with other objects rather than their relation with space and time. ripples in the fabric of spacetime itself. the Bishop Berkeley and Ernst Mach is that space and time should be seen as formed from the relationships between objects. Not only could spacetime exist independent of matter but it even had interesting behaviour on its own. then they predict our experiences as a result of how the objects interact. In the theory of special relativity he found that space and time do not exist as independent absolute entities but Minkowski showed that spacetime exists as a combination of the two. we must recognise that our intuitive notions of space. If we start from the point of view of our experiences. In General Relativity Einstein found. then they place objects in it. that there should exist gravitational waves. have argued that space and time do not exist in an absolute form as described by Newton. may soon be directly confirmed by detection in gravitational wave observatories. Einstein was greatly influenced by Mach‟s principle and hoped that it would follow from his own postulates of relativity. One of the most startling predictions of general relativity. time and motion are just models in our minds which correspond to what our senses find. ironically. Instead of confirming Mach‟s principle he found that spacetime can have a dynamic structure in its own right. He. The philosophical point of view developed by Gottfried Leibniz. In that case there is no assurance that space and time really exist in any absolute sense. Even at the time of Newton there was opposition to the notion of absolute space and time from his German rival Leibniz. that the correct description of his theory must use the mathematics of Riemannian geometry. We experience objects through their relationships with our senses and infer space and time more indirectly. relativity succeeded in showing .112 EventSymmetric SpaceTime yond what can be observed. and many other philosophers who came after. This is a model which exists like a computer program in our head. It is one which has been created by evolution because it works. Mach believed that space and time do not exist in the absence of matter. They start with space and time. In short.
Examples include the KaluzaKlein models in which spacetime is supposed to have more than four dimensions with all but four compacted into an undetectably small geometry. The fundamental problem which faces them is the combination of general relativity and quantum theory into a consistent model. Discrete elements of spacetime can be put on a par with particles of matter suggesting the final unification of spacetime and matter. As a result they have themselves started to sound more philosophical and are slowly reviewing old ideas. Surely such an idea would have been a complete anathema to Mach. In string theory. This is the opposite of what the philosophers prescribed. These could be packets of energy or more abstract entities. The theory could be turned on its head with spacetime being a result of the interactions between gravitons. Thus physicists and philosophers have become alienated over the subject of space and time during the twentieth century. It is a sea of virtual particles. Einstein‟s use of geometry was so elegant and compelling that physicists thereafter have always sought to extend the theory to a unified description of matter through geometry. But suppose gravitons could be placed on a par with other matter. the most promising hope for a complete unified theory of physics. This is very different from the way that space and time were envisioned in the days of Mach. A discrete spacetime would fit in well with the idea. Even black holes. All particles are believed to be different modes of vibration in loops of string. In a theory of quantum gravity there would be gravitons. we find that gravitons are indeed on an equal footing with other particles. Leibniz might also have been satisfied with such an answer. In his philosophy everything is constructed from monads. According to quantum theory a vacuum is not empty. one of the ultimate manifestations of the geometry of spacetime are thought to .Is SpaceTime Discrete? 113 that all motion is relative but it failed to construct a complete relational model of physics. Recent theories of particle physics have been so successful that it is now very difficult to find an experimental result which can help physicists go beyond their present theories. Perhaps then Mach would be happy with gravitons after all. particles of pure geometry.
In canonical quantisation of gravity. To complete our understanding of string theory we must formulate it independently of spacetime. to a point from where all of our universe can be seen as a consequence of our possible experiences just as the old philosophers wanted us to see it. Topological structures such as . There is no qualitative distinction between black holes and particles. And yet.114 EventSymmetric SpaceTime be examples of single loops of string in a very highly energised mode. So is it or isn't it? There do seem to be good reasons to suppose that spacetime is discrete in some sense at the Planck scale. The situation seems to be analogous to the status of electrodynamics at the end of the 19th century. The problem is that there is as yet no mathematical model which makes this identity evident. The result will be a model in which spacetime is recovered as a result of the relationship between interacting strings. Theories of quantum gravity suggest that there is a minimum length beyond which measurement cannot go. The equations we do have for strings are somewhat conventional. and also a finite number of significant degrees of freedom. Just as Einstein banished the ether as a medium for electromagnetism we must now complete his work by banishing spacetime as a medium for string theory. The MichelsonMorley experiments failed to detect the hypothetical ether and signalled the start of a scientific revolution. volume and area operators are found to have discrete spectra. At the same time. or between matter and spacetime. They describe strings moving in a background spacetime. It will be the first step towards a reconciliation of physics and philosophy. while topological quantum field theories in 2+1 dimensions have exact lattice formulations. the mathematics of continuous manifolds seems to be increasingly important. What other ways will we have to modify our understanding to accommodate such a theory? Not all can be foreseen. Perhaps it will be quickly followed by a change of view. Maxwell‟s equations were described as vibrations in some ether pervading space. the mathematics holds strange symmetries which suggest that string theories in different background spacetimes and even different dimensions are really equivalent.
The riddle may be resolved through a dual theory of spacetime which has both discrete and continuous aspects. The philosopher Immanuel Kant may have had some insight into this question. Can such things be formulated on a discrete space? Hawking says that he sees no reason to abandon the continuum theories that have been so successful. One such question is whether the world is made of elementary parts. The answer can be both yes and no.Is SpaceTime Discrete? 115 instantons and magnetic monopoles appear to play their part in field theory and string theory. It is a valid point but it may be possible to satisfy everyone by invoking a discrete structure of spacetime without abandoning the continuum theories if the discretecontinuum duality can be resolved as it was for light and matter. The human mind can pose questions about nature which have contradictory but perfectly logical answers. .
The results were then compared statistically with the circumstances of their parents. The difference between the possible conclusions from the survey is not just one of semantics. Fine so far. but can we conclude that the conflict caused children to be smaller? Would it not have been equally valid to conclude that having small children leads to divorce? The scientist in charge speculated that stress may reduce the amount of growth hormone that young children produce. According to the team who conducted the study this is scientific evidence of how conditions in childhood can have lifelong consequences. In fact the real reason behind the correlation may have been one or more third factors such as wealth. But how right were they? To conduct the survey someone visited schools and measured the height of many children with the same age.116 What About Causality? Causality in the news I read a news article recently which reported that family conflict can stunt the growth of young children. Presumably they found a statistically significant negative correlation between height and indicators of family conflict such as divorce. In fact he applied his prejudices and drew a conclusion which sounds reasonable without realising that the converse was also a possible explanation of the survey results. thus proving the link. Such effects are equally likely to show up as a correlation in the survey but the news article said nothing about such possibilities. It is not difficult to believe his theory but there was nothing from the survey which proved it. and lack of money might also lead to higher divorce rates. A survey had shown that parents who divorce or separate tend to have smaller children. Children of poorer families may have worse standards of nutrition resulting in slower growth. Another cause may have been a genetic trait which shows up in both the growth and temperament of family individuals. People reading the article could blame .
smashing into pieces on the floor. If one has happened the other probably has too. Is it just our prejudices which have made us favour a causal link or is it justified by physics? . but why would you not conclude that the vase falling off the table caused her to bump. The difference between this example and the survey is that the choice of who got the drug and who did not was controlled. Both groups are then monitored for possible effects. In the survey which claimed to link height and family strife there was no control over whose parents were divorced which were not so it was impossible to distinguish cause from effect or rule out other factors with certainty.What About Causality? 117 their frequent family rows for having a small child. for one thing. The effect is known to be real if it is significantly more noticeable amongst those who took the drug than those who took the placebo. This reflects the modern concept of causality: Cause precedes effect. It is then certain that taking the drug really caused the effect. When responsible scientists wish to establish causal links between different effects they are more careful. the vase was broken after her collision with the table so the direction of the causal link is incontestable. For example. Surveys such as this are common and are often reported in the media by people who do not appreciate the traps that statistics can lead us into. The group is divided in two at random and one half is given the drug. Yet the logical relation between the two events. are symmetrically related. The other half is given a placebo pill which is known to have no effect. To do this a group of volunteers is selected for trials. into the table? Your response might be that. Nobody taking part knows which group they are in. Causality in Physics Suppose your child bumped into a table and an expensive vase fell off. They may have been right but I suspect they would have been wrong. her bumping into the table and the vase falling off. Would you conclude that her carelessness caused the vase to be broken? Probably you would. when a new drug is tested it is necessary to know how effective it is and what side effects it may produce. Such feelings of guilt are unlikely to help the situation. quite innocently.
How would you respond? Just suppose that you are rather philosophical in your ways and you respond according to which types of causality you believe in. Which does it more closely resemble? You might argue that it is more like the medical trials because a person has control over whether or not they do something like bump into a table. The conversation might continue as follows: “They grew because of biological processes such as photosynthesis. Aristotle taught that there were four types of cause: the material. The efficient cause is the initial set of conditions and the final cause is the final set of conditions. the labour you put into it and what you wanted to do with it. the plans you drew up. the boat would not be made. Likewise we can regard the material and formal causes as two opposite views of ontological causality.” . What it really implies is a rejection of free will. the efficient and the final. The vase breaking is a response to an action of free will. that is causality related to the way in which something is formed. at the Lyceum in Athens. In 1740 Hume questioned the basic idea of causation. even if it was an accident. You are very proud because you have successfully grown a good crop of potatoes in your back garden. In ancient Greece. as children do. Compare the case of the broken vase with the survey and the medical trials. You bring a handful in to show your daughter saying “Look. In terms of modern physics we would regard the efficient and final cause as the two extremes of temporal causality. Causality was not always characterised so simply as it is today. It is sometimes thought that his rejection of causation implies a rejection of scientific laws but it does not. the formal. that is.118 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Philosophers such as David Hume have been sceptical about these notions of causality. If any of these four things were not there. I grew some potatoes!” “Why did they grow?” she inquires. If you build a boat he would have said that the causes were the materials you used. causality related to time. Let us imagine another example. If we accept the contention of Hume we deny any distinction between cause and effect so we must also deny our free will. If an action is controlled then it must be the cause rather than the effect. They have free will.
life on Earth and cosmology until you explain that everything is a result of what happened at the big bang.. Of course we are stuck again because we cannot say what caused the big bang. This time the conversation might continue through the history of humanity. Aristotle would have called it the efficient cause. This may be a strange way to explain why potatoes grow but it is exactly how conventional wisdom describes causality in physics... and so on.What About Causality? 119 “Why are there biological processes like photosynthesis?” “because of atoms and the laws of chemistry which make biological processes work” “Why are there atoms and laws of chemistry?” “because of nuclear physics and electromagnetic forces which make atoms out of protons.. In another mood you might answer differently: “They grew because I planted them” “Why did you plant them?” “because I knew they would be good to eat when they were ready” “Why did you know?” “because I learnt such things in school” “Why did you go to school?” “because a long time ago people realised that having an education was useful” . and electrons?” “why.?” “because of more elementary particles and laws of physics which we don‟t know everything about yet!” These answers characterise a reductionist or atomist who believes that all explanation can be reduced to underlying laws of physics which may one day be explained through some deep principle of mathematics. . Aristotle would say that you had invoked the material cause.
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Since the 17th century scientists have replaced Aristotle‟s four causes with just those two: The efficient or prior cause and the material cause, or physical laws. The final and formal cause is gone. Descartes‟s mechanistic causality is the most widely accepted today. We would say that a cause of an event is any preceding event without which it would not have happened. In addition to this temporal causality many physicists believe that there are fundamental laws of physics to which are other phenomena can be reduced. This reductionism is the material cause and it is what is left of the ontological causality. If your mind is opened a little by my story of the survey in the news article, then you may also be ready to reconsider your notions of causality in physics. How would you explain the growth of your potatoes if you believed in a final cause? “They grew to become potatoes” “Why did they become potatoes?” “So that we could eat them and grow ourselves” “Why do we grow?” “So that we can become strong enough to do our jobs” Eventually it seems that this will lead towards some ultimate unknown destiny of humanity. These days most scientists do not believe in destiny but Aristotle would defend the final cause. A seed grows because it is destined to become a plant and produce more seeds. His error is easily exposed if we tear up the plant before it matures. It grew just the same to begin with even though the final cause was taken away. The same would not be true if we intervened before the seeds grew. Prior cause seems to be more right than final cause but notice that we have invoked our free will again to prove it. It could be harder to explain growth in terms of the formal cause. We would have to suppose that the potatoes grew because it had a design purpose. You might say: “They grew because if they didn‟t we would have nothing to eat. Then we would not be here to ask such questions!”
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This may sound like an invalid explanation at first. Yet it is an explanation which might be given by someone who advocates the anthropic principle. Such people claim that the laws of physics and other aspects of our world are the way they are because they must be that way for us to be here. Reductionism and the anthropic principle are opposing philosophies of ontological causality. They correspond to Aristotle‟s material and formal cause respectively. Aristotle accepted both types of explanation but most people prefer one or the other. Let us put ontological causality aside for now and consider temporal causality in more detail. Do the laws of physics justify Descartes who threw out final cause in favour of prior cause? To keep things simple, let us start by considering just classical Newtonian mechanics. The form which the laws of physics take is crucial to our understanding of causality. Newton‟s laws take the form of a set of differential equations describing the motion of particles under forces that act between them. If we know the initial positions and velocities of all the particles at an initial time then their positions are determined at any future time. So does this form for the laws of physics allow us to justify our concept of temporal causality, that cause comes always from the past and precedes its effect? It would seem so because the initial conditions seem to be causing all that happens in the future. There is a catch. The laws of physics in this form can be made to work identically in reverse. If we know the final state of a system we can just as easily determine its past. Furthermore, the classical laws of mechanics do not allow any room for free will. All actions are predetermined by any complete past state. They are also postdetermined by any future state. Newton‟s laws do not explain why past events are the cause of future events.
A Block Universe
It is difficult to think clearly and rationally about causality because it is bound up with our experience. It is sometimes difficult to separate logical deduction from intuition. We are so used to the flow of time that it is almost impossible to detach ourselves from it and appreciate time as part of physics. Time flows past while space re
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mains, yet since the debut of the theory of relativity we have known that the distinction between space and time is not so profound. To appreciate the physics without being misled by intuition we must imagine ourselves separated from space and time. We need to imagine spacetime as a single entity which does not evolve. Like a block of existence, the universe just is. Our lives are worldlines through the block stretching between birth and death. We might equally well say that they stretch between death and birth. On close examination we can tell which way our lives went from past to future because we recognise the symptoms of ageing but there are no time stamps built in to spacetime. The block universe has no past, present or future. It is just a collection of events. If the universe is finite and closed with a beginning at the big bang and an end at the big crunch you can think of it as a kind of rugby ball shaped surface which narrows at either end. Spacetime is fourdimensional and has nothing outside or inside but we have to visualise it as a twodimensional surface sitting in space. This limitation of our minds does not matter. We do not have to visualise something to understand it.
Big Bang
worldline
Big Crunch
People often discuss what came before the big bang. Some think that there must have been something. Others say there was nothing. When we think about the block universe we see that there was no “before”. The surface of the sausage is all that there is to the universe and time is part of it. We should not think of an empty space
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around it since that space does not exist. Of course we do not know that the universe is really rugby ball shaped and there could have been something before the big bang, but it is not necessarily so. We should not let our experience influence our reasoning since our experience is limited to a small part of the universe and prejudices our judgement. It is not easy to imagine a universe which is curved but which has no outside, no before and no after, but we can describe the shape of spacetime mathematically without referring to anything outside, so an outside is not necessary. Asking about what came before the big bang is like asking what comes before the letter A in the alphabet. Asking about what is outside the universe or where it is, is like asking what is outside the alphabet or where it is. It is nowhere or everywhere. It just is. Nevertheless, we can imagine that we are examining the universe from outside as a psychological crutch to support out thoughts. We look closely to see if there are signs of causality but if we are outside we have no control over events. We are in the place of someone who does a survey and tries to establish causal relationships between things we observe. Without control any judgement about causality is subjective. We may be able to measure a correlation between certain sets of events but we have no definitive way of knowing which is cause and which is effect unless we could draw from our experience of how we think past influences future. Does such a view of a block universe from outside make sense? It is a classical view which ignores the quantum nature of the world. In quantum mechanics it is impossible to separate observer from observed. It is difficult to know what is the significant of quantum theory to causality. There are many different interpretations of quantum mechanics and some would suggest a different answer to others. Time is an infamous problem when applied to quantum mechanics and general relativity. Without a theory of quantum gravity we cannot be sure of any response to the question. I will adopt a position on quantum mechanics which extends the block universe metaphor. Our spacetime can be cut like a sliced sausage. Each thin slice represents the universe at one moment in time and records the state of everything classically at that instant. According to physicist Julian Barbour, the quantum multiverse is a heap of slices. The heap contains all possible slices from all possible
a trick of our psychology which has a need . should be part of the universal symmetry of nature. A universe can be sliced up in different ways just as a sausage could be sliced at different angles. Our experience of the universe is like a showing of the film. A different analogy of the same notion has been described by David Deutsch. Einstein and Minkowski taught us that space and time cannot be separated. this is the film version of the storyteller‟s paradigm. Indeed. It could be no other time than “now”. The rules which tell us how they can be put back together are the Feynman rules of quantum gravity. It should follow that event symmetry. whatever they may be. the symmetric group acting to permute spacetime events. but even when the film lies in the can the universe still exists without any frame singled out as the present moment. Of course this is nonsense. Each slice is a snapshot of the universe. Time and change have no absolute meaning and just represent the different ways that the slices can be put back together to make histories of the universes. They can be put together as frames in a sequence of film which tells the story of a universe. the smaller is the heap. A natural development of the time slice analogies is to break each slice down further into small morsels. The unordered heap of all possible frames is the multiverse. There before us are all the moments when we asked “why now?” It becomes a stupid question. The heap is unordered and shuffling its contents has no consequence to the multiverse. Such a view of the universe seems to demand event symmetry. Our passage through the quantum world is just one of many possible sequences which can follow from each instant. there are fewer components each time.124 EventSymmetric SpaceTime universes and is not ordered. When we view the block universe we see all moments at a glance. The finer the universe is chopped. Where does this leave the present? At some time we all ask ourselves “why now?” What distinguishes this moment from others? Given that the universe lasts many billions of years it seems a fantastic coincidence that the present even falls within our lifetime. Just like a story broken down into sentences and then words and then letters. but each bit can be used many times and combined in an infinity of different permutations. If spacetime is minced up finely enough the multiverse is reduced to a heap of events.
When we know only some statistical information about them they obey laws which seem not to be reversible. are reversible. Within the universe it is a hotly debated subject. The Second Law of Thermodynamics It is all very well to say that temporal causality is not absolute. but then we must explain why it is such a good illusion. The second law of thermodynamics is inexplicable in terms of the underlying laws of physics which. as far as we know. Could this be linked to causality? Indeed. There is. a catch again. The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy must always increase.What About Causality? 125 to know something it calls consciousness. This is enshrined in a theorem of relativistic quantum field theory which proves the necessity of CPT conservation. When the system comes back into equilibrium the entropy of the final state can be shown theoretically to be higher than the combined entropies in the two original systems. and allow them to mix by connecting the two systems without allowing any energy to escape or enter. the continual increase of entropy is intimately linked to our perception of causality. We are victims of our prejudices about causality again and have devised an argument with circular reasoning to support it. but theory would tell us that they tend towards equilibrium in the past as well as the future. but we must not be misled. It is fortunate that we do not need to apply our philosophy of physics to our everyday lives otherwise we would lose all sense of purpose. The increase of entropy can be understood in certain idealised experiments. however. How about the laws of thermodynamics? If we have a system of many particles then we cannot determine all their positions and velocities exactly. take two closed containers filled with gases which are each in thermal and chemical equilibrium. Entropy is a measure of disorder in a system and defines a thermodynamic arrow of time which can be linked to the psychological arrow of time. For example. The assumption that prepared systems tend towards equilibrium has been justified. . This seems to be theoretical evidence for increasing entropy and it is confirmed by experiment. From outside the question loses its meaning and we judge it differently.
We can understand it as a measure of disorder in a closed system. More gen . Here are a few possibilities: CPT symmetry exchanges matter for antimatter so perhaps entropy would decrease for antimatter. CPT symmetry does not apply to the collapse of the wavefunction in quantum mechanics which is a time asymmetric process. Such a feat can never be achieved because the laws of physics are time symmetric and it is impossible to derive a time asymmetric result from time symmetric assumptions. This could be true but can the laws of thermodynamics be a result of quantum gravity whose effects are normally thought to be irrelevant except in the most extreme physical regimes? Entropy increases as a result of the fact that it started very low at the beginning of time. Boltzmann slipped in some timeasymmetric assumptions in order to derive the result. One of the difficulties is that we do not really have an ideal definition of entropy for systems which are not in equilibrium. and yet it obeys the second law of thermodynamics. Some have produced arguments based on any or all of the above possibilities. trying to get round the problem of CPT symmetry. Thus it is due to the initial conditions being set in a special way. But then why were initial conditions set rather than final or mixed boundary conditions? When I was an undergraduate student I naively thought that physicists understood entropy.126 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Such attempts to prove the second law of dynamics originated in the 19th century with the work of physicists such as Ludwig Boltzmann. Fault: Electromagnetic radiation cannot be distinguished from its antimatter image. and from then on it could only increase. Physicists have devised many other arguments for why entropy always increases. Query: Does this mean that the third law of thermodynamics is not valid for classical statistical mechanics? CPT conservation is violated by quantum gravity. In retrospect I think now that I should be no more convinced by any of those arguments than I should if I heard someone arguing that family strife stunts the growth of children based on the correlation reported in the survey.
Entropy might be better understood in terms of information. Far less information is needed for the low entropy system. This shows that classical understanding of thermodynamics is indeed incomplete and perhaps only a complete theory of quantum gravity can explain the laws fully. or grains. The amount of information needed to track the decayed atoms increases.What About Causality? 127 erally we have to resort to some kind of coarse graining process in which we imagine that a nonequilibrium system can be seen as made of small subsystems. Perhaps it is because of some huge unknown symmetry which was valid at the high temperatures of the big bang and broken later. The entropy is given by the area of the black hole but its temperature can only be understood through quantum mechanical effects. If physicists used to think they understood entropy then their faith was deeply shaken when Stephen Hawking and Jacob Bekenstein discovered that the laws of thermodynamics could be extended to the quantum mechanics of black holes. It can be linked to the number of bits which are needed to describe a system accurately. even if it is admitted that we do not understand why it started low. If we make a perfect crystal with an unstable isotope. while a cold lattice can be described in terms of its lattice shape. it really is quantum mechanics and the collapse of the wave function which is responsible. In a hot disordered system you need to specify the individual state of each particle. then. In a completely deterministic system the evolution of the system is equally well determined by its final state as by its initial so we could argue that the amount of information in the system must be constant. as time passes some of the atoms will decay. In any case. size and orientation. Perhaps. The difficulty there is that we are assuming an exact knowledge of state which is impossible. The claim that entropy increases because it started low in the big bang is perhaps the one which has fallen into conventional wisdom. which are in equilibrium themselves but not in equilibrium with each other. This is also my opinion but I think that if the universe were closed we would have to apply the argument in reverse at the big crunch too. quantum mechanics is not deterministic. .
There would be no initial or final conditions to worry about. Hogarth suggested the possibility that this cosmological arrow could be linked to the thermodynamic arrow of time. It would be a complete reversal of causality with events being determined by the future instead of the past. Thomas Gold proposed that when the universe starts to contract the increase of entropy might reach a turning point. He published a paper demonstrating that a time reversal was to be expected because the physics of the final crunch must be the same as the physics of the big bang. Gold‟s model of the universe is quite controversial.128 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Could the Universe be Gold? In the mid 1960s there was a widely held belief that the universe should be closed. In 1962 J. We might try to understand the quantum state of the entire universe by using Feynman‟s path integral formulation of quantum mechanics. Needless to say. Time would start at the big bang from where it expands for many billions of years. Intuition suggests that the arrow of time cannot change direction. At present the universe is certainly expanding. As the universe collapses history would run in reverse. finite in both time and space but with no boundary. We must form a sum over all possible spacetime manifolds allowed in general relativity. E. as demonstrated by Hubble in 1929 when he started measuring the redshifts of far away galaxies and correlating them to their distance. and both the end and start of the universe would be a consequence of the same laws of physics which are obeyed at all times. Eventually. Stephen Hawking unexpectedly came out in support of Gold. curving gradually so that it eventually joins back on itself like the surface of a sphere. This defines a cosmological arrow of time which distinguishes past from future. according to the equations of general relativity. In 1985. Hawking has argued that we can understand entropy in this way if the universe is an entirely closed system. The simple homogeneous cosmological models can describe a space which is finite in size. If the laws of physics . gravity must arrest the expansion and it will contract again like a ball falling back to Earth towards its final crunch.
Hawking‟s method uses an incomplete semiclassical description of quantum gravity. Their past would be our future. The only consistent picture is one in which it is low at one end and high at the other hence temporal symmetry is broken. If we succeeded they would cease to exist in their own past.What About Causality? 129 are time reversal invariant we should then expect the end to be like a reversed playback of the beginning. There remain very few scientists who have argued in favour of a Gold universe and stuck to it. However. Often time asymmetric conclusions are drawn from time symmetric assumptions. The path integral formulation avoids problems of time since it is a sum over all possible universes rather than an evolution with separate boundary conditions. As the philosopher Huw Price has shown. many paradoxes would present themselves. Before Hawking‟s paper had passed through the publishing process he was already under pressure to change his mind. His colleagues Laflamme and Page set out to convince him that he had made an error. What would there be to prevent them from telling us about events in our future? Suppose we decided they were a threat and decided to destroy them. If this argument could be made solid then it would be a powerful one. The argument could only be made complete when we understand quantum gravity better. One has low entropy the other high. Intuition suggests that the arrow of time could never reverse. What is to prevent us from bringing about such a paradoxical situation? The only reasonable answer must be that the arrow of time will only reverse when we are long gone and other timereversed life . Until then it is an open question whether or not a closed cosmological model will have a time reversal at half time or not. He now claims that there are two possible ways a universe could start or end. This is just about impossible unless there is some spontaneous symmetry breaking such as that proposed by Hawking. most of those arguments are based on double standards of reasoning. If we could meet other intelligent lifeforms who are evolving in reverse. Before the paper went to press they succeeded and he added a note to the paper admitting his mistake. Most cosmologists have sought reasons to rule it out and have often claimed success.
a photon which heads out into space has only a small probability of being lost no matter how long the universe lasts before it arrives in the collapsing universe. In other words. Conversely. using the least power possible to steer away from black holes and other places where it would be destroyed? If so it would be able to take a message of our past into the future? In the collapsing universe it might revive and deliver a message to the antithermodynamic inhabitants of the other half of spacetime. Those photons should be around now. Physicists such as Murray GellMann have asked about the fate of starlight. Some people already find it hard to accept that the human race must be extinguished at the big crunch.130 EventSymmetric SpaceTime forms are not there either. We know that starlight can cross the universe for billions for years without being absorbed. As the universe expands the matter becomes more thinly spread. Could we see them? . Each photon loses energy as it is redshifted by the expanding universe but still it can continue with only a very small chance of hitting another particle. the epoch in which the universe will reverse its collapse must be lifeless. but unless we can explain what would stop it we must give up the possibility of a Gold universe. Sadly the answer must be no since it would create unresolvable paradoxes. If that is so then most of the light being emitted by stars now will be present in the collapse. The chance of a collision grows smaller. Could we not at least hope to build a powerful computerised automaton which could be programmed to hibernate through the aeons. the timereversed stars of the future will absorb photons because they are time reversed. The universe will be a cold place. To suggest that we cannot even survive for half as long even when there is no such catastrophe to wipe us out seems almost unthinkable. After many trillions of years the stars will have faded. According to a calculation by Jason Twamley and Paul Davies in 1995. Antithermodynamic light from the future Although such reasoning may be what motivates disbelief in reversal of time‟s arrow. most attempts to rule out the Gold universe have concentrated on arguments which may be simpler and more certain. hard to live in with so few sources of energy.
Above all an antithermodynamic cosmic background radiation destined for the big crunch would be similar in energy and temperature to the cosmic background radiation from the big bang. The net effect of both the big bang and big crunch radiation would be no heating. If the light is not there a Gold universe might be ruled out. It is not absolutely clear whether or not observation can already rule this out but I think they can. If you block their passage with any kind of detector such as a photographic film they will simply not be there because they would not then be around in the future. These photons would be heading for a time reversed star in the future. It is actually quite difficult to predict what would really happen because the photons are acausal and the paper is not. According to Price they would be invisible by ordinary means. Light drawn off a surface like this would not register in the ordinary way. The light from future stars cannot be detected simply by looking at the night sky with a telescope. but you must suspend your disbelief until a contradiction with either logic or observation has been reached. This means that energy will be drawn off the paper. Their behaviour is distinctly acausal. Yet the heat of the cosmic background was detected by Andrew Mckellar in cosmic cyanogen as long ago as 1941 even before its significance was recognised. You are probably thinking that all this is already just too absurd to be possible anyway. If you hold up a piece of paper in space. It should be detectable in principle. Photons of future starlight would not be absorbed. Huw Price pointed out that it is not so simple. Instead of imparting heat to a detector it would take it away. The antithermodynamic radiation would be present at many wavelengths. . Light photons may be difficult to detect in this way but radio waves would be likely to affect radio telescopes and gamma rays would also surely leave their mark. Instead they would be emitted as if they were being drawn out of the paper by a future cause. Would the effect of the photons be detected before or after they are emitted? Despite such logical difficulties we know that energy must be conserved what ever happens.What About Causality? 131 GellMann believes that if they are there they could be detected. He says that they would add to the background light of the universe which could be measured.
It is not difficult to see that it must move ahead of the hand. By detecting the antishadow you could see what your hand is about to do. If you move your hand in front of a lamp. You could literally use hand signals to send messages into the past. When you hold up your hand to light it casts a shadow behind it. it should be detectable. This is simply because light in front of your hand is blocked in its passage towards its destiny. This effect could be used in principle to send messages back in time. The antishadow cast by antithermodynamic light behaves differently. the shadow moves with it. anticipating every move by the instant of time it would take the light to travel from the shadow to the hand. Even faint starlight casts such a shadow. Because of the finite speed of light there is always a slight delay and the movement of the shadow lags behind the movement of your hand by an imperceptible amount. but as I have already argued.132 EventSymmetric SpaceTime A Crystal Ball There is another reason why we should suspect that antithermodynamic radiation is not present in the universe today: If it was. . Radiation would surround your hand but instead of casting a shadow behind the direction the light is travelling. Either antithermodynamic light is not available to us or we will have to face up to these paradoxes. we would be able to use it to send messages back in time. there would be a kind of antishadow in front of it from the direction the radiation is coming. It is difficult to see how the paradoxes presented by such a phenomenon could be avoided unless antithermodynamic light is invisible. To do it effectively the distance from the hand to where the shadow was cast would have to be made large. What about our antithermodynamic light from the future? If you could expose your hand to antithermodynamic radiation you expect it to have photons drawn off it destined for some antithermodynamic star in the distant future as the universe collapses. A mirror could be used to reflect the shadow from a long distance away back to a point near where the hand is moving.
It was assumed that this radiation would be randomly dispersed so that it would strike any objects that are around during the collapse. On reflection this is not what would be most probable. Thermodynamic and antithermodynamic matter might coexist in the present universe. Instead they might meet in the middle of time when thermodynamic matter may slowly transform into antithermodynamic matter. Remember it was argued that light left over from the stars in the expanding universe and the cosmic background radiation would survive into the collapsing half. However. There would be no inconsistency. this assumes that each photon is causally influenced only by its dim and distant past. There is an alternative way in which a Gold universe might work. but the whole point is that a low entropy phase of the universe already appears as a fantastic statisti . never the future.What About Causality? 133 Mixing or Meeting The arguments I have presented so far have made the assumption that a Gold universe would contain a mix of what we have been calling antithermodynamic matter (or radiation) with ordinary thermodynamic matter. It could be that thermodynamic and antithermodynamic matter and radiation never mix. It is more likely that the radiation would fall under the influence of its destiny if the collapse is antithermodynamic. In that case the photons which are radiated from stars now and pass into the collapsing phase of the universe will be the same photons which are antithermodynamically absorbed by the antithermodynamic stars in the collapse. Thermodynamic matter would only be present in the expanding half of the universe and antithermodynamic matter would only be present in the collapsing half . This is the opposite of the more familiar thermodynamic matter for which cause precedes effect. If this were to be the case then there would likewise be no antithermodynamic radiation from the future around now and we would not be able to send paradoxical messages back in time. Think again about the electromagnetic radiation. You might think that a huge coincidence would be required for all the photons emitted by stars now to conspire to fall onto antithermodynamic stars in the future. For antithermodynamic matter the arrow of time is reversed and its behaviour is affected by future causes.
so unless the universe is set to live much longer than that there is a problem. But the half life of this process is at least 1032 years. It is due to the slight CP violating effects in the nuclear forces. It is going to be more difficult to explain how thermodynamic matter can transform into antithermodynamic antimatter somewhere around the middle of time because CP violating effects are improbable at low temperatures. If this is correct then a similar effect must apply in reverse at the big crunch which we are assuming is antithermodynamic.134 EventSymmetric SpaceTime cal fluke. Substance made out of protons. Andrei Sakharov found a way to account for why the universe is dominated by matter with very little antimatter. electrons and neutrons is a different matter. Time reversal (T) alone is not an exact symmetry of nature but if we combine it with charge conjugation (C) and parity inversion (P) we do get an exact symmetry called CPT. In 1967. Matter and Antimatter I have been saying a lot about antithermodynamic matter and radiation and you might have been wondering if it is related to antimatter. It drives evolution and other acts of the universe which would otherwise seem highly improbable. They are certainly not the same thing because there is no distinction between photons and antiphotons yet we can talk about thermodynamic radiation and antithermodynamic radiation in terms of whether they are causally effected by the past or future. The alarming consequence is that the collapsing phase shall be dominated by antimatter. Proton decay could be forced to happen as the statistically least costly way . A fluke such as photons travelling through the aeons and hitting an antithermodynamic star must be weighed against the equally unlikely events which must happen if it hits a cold antithermodynamic surface. This operation effectively exchanges matter and antimatter. This comes about because the initial and final state force it to happen and the rest of time has to cope with it. If the universe lasts long enough the problem will be resolved because protons can decay to produce positrons and then the electrons can antidecay to make antiprotons. In the heat of the big bang these would have been significant enough to account for the imbalance left over from the first instants.
there are other particles such as neutrinos which may never reach an equilibrium state with an equal mix of particles and antiparticles. . Only photons and other particles which are their own antiparticles can be guaranteed to carry over from the expanding phase to the collapsing phase without spoiling the time symmetry. can the black holes which form from collapsed stars and galaxies in the expanding universe be reconciled with an antithermodynamic collapsing universe? The gravitational field equations of classical general relativity are symmetric under time reversal just as for all the other forces. Experiments which try to detect proton decay say otherwise. Where are the white holes? Unless the universe is going to go on long enough for all the protons to decay we will need them. Even if it is going to go on long enough for the protons to decay. White Holes. Just as black holes swallow matter. How then. If black holes can solve the matter to antimatter problem. This is the second law of black hole thermodynamics. always get bigger and can never be destroyed. they themselves may present a greater problem. then a Gold universe must likewise contain white holes which are their time reversal. They can only get bigger and bigger. A second possibility is that all the matter falls into black holes where matter is indistinguishable from antimatter. white holes can release matter. It is a fundamental property of black holes in classical general relativity that they swallow up matter which can never escape again. even though the true cause of their creation is in the future.What About Causality? 135 of making the transformation but if so it would probably be happening already. If black holes survive after the first half of the history of the universe as the classical theory says they must. The antimatter would then have to emerge from white holes in the reverse fashion. To complement black holes there can also be white holes which are the time reversal of black holes. This brings us to the next problem. Black Holes. Those white holes would have to be out there now and must have been already there at the big bang. always get smaller and can never be created.
galaxies or even dust. especially if we could locate them. White holes must attract ordinary matter yet it is not supposed to be able to fall in. The black holes which are being discovered all over the universe now. We do see gravitational lenses but they appear to be due to ordinary galaxies and it already seems unlikely that we can account for so many white holes in the universe. According to Hawking. Astronomers are increasingly finding that black holes are common and that they range in size from a few solar masses up to billions of solar masses. The transformation of black holes into white holes is not easy to understand. There seem to be some probable inconsistencies in this scenario. but once again we have only considered the mixing solution for black and white holes. The white holes would have to be at least as common and as big. A black hole would become quiet when all the matter around it had been pulled in. Then there would be no need to account for white holes in the universe now. We should be able to detect those white holes because they will act as gravitational lenses even if they are alone in deep intergalactic space. What if they were to collide with ordinary stars. It begins to look like we have finally found a likely contradiction which would rule out a Gold universe. In classical physics it simply cannot happen. waiting for the distant future when their destiny will be to release all the antithermodynamic antimatter which makes up the antistars of the collapsing universe. Could there be a better meeting solution as there seems to be for radiation and matter? The only way out would be if black holes could somehow transform gently into white holes. black holes radiate and can lose mass.136 EventSymmetric SpaceTime The white holes would be dormant. would transform into the complementary white holes which will have to be around in the collapsing universe. The difficulties would be even greater in the early universe where they would inevitably have had a significant influence. There are other conceptual problems if white holes are around. When Hawking considered the possibility of a Gold universe he considered whether it would be possible for the transformation to happen. Dormant white holes would be very paradoxical objects. It could gently radiate but any black hole of the size we have found them to . In quantum mechanics the situation is a little different.
Hawking argued that if a black hole comes into thermal equilibrium with the radiation that surrounds it. What would happen internally? A black hole has an internal singularity which lies in the future of anyone who falls in. The black hole singularity would never form. The curvature at the event horizon of a large black hole is slight and quantum effects should be small. It is interesting that Stephen Hawking still believes that black holes and white holes are identical when they are very small. It would be extraordinary if large black holes could also be identified with white holes. H. so that it radiates the same as it takes in.What About Causality? 137 be would be too large to radiate significantly. They would have to have both a future and past singularity. whereas a white hole must have one in the past from which any outgoing matter originates. then it should be in a time symmetric state.Dieter Zeh is one physicist who has continued to study this possibility. The gravitational field around them is the same. Unfortunately it is difficult to envisage how the dynamics could work. From outside the black hole Hawking radiation would just appear to get stronger until what was a black hole is behaving just like a white hole. They would be more like elementary particles and may even turn out to be the same thing as particles when we understand quantum gravity. Only internally are they different. From the point of view of what we are trying to imagine here there is an even worse problem. We were going to claim that the matter which fell into the black hole would later reemerge as antimatter from the white hole. As it happens. This leaves open the possibility that the transformation could take place. Matter which fell into the black hole would seem to be frozen on the event horizon from the point of view of someone who stays outside. Zeh has suggested that quantum effects could simply cause it to turn round and come back out again. the classic static model of a black hole found by Schwarzschild does have a future . Such virtual quantum black/white holes must be part of the vacuum but they are very different from the macroscopic ones which form from collapsed stars. but if it is the same matter which turns round and heads back out it cannot change from matter to antimatter. a dormant black hole would be virtually indistinguishable from a dormant white hole from an external point of view. How could it switch to throwing out matter like a white hole? As a matter of fact.
the possibility cannot be ruled out. It is as if the event horizon were a crossroads in time. Galaxies. Entropy follows its natural statistical tendency to increase away from those origins where some unknown principle of quantum gravity must be responsible for the extraordinary low entropy. The sources of low entropy are both the initial and the final singularity of the universe. intelligent life in the collapsing phase will have experi . despite the strangeness of the idea. Yet. The Shape of Things to Come I have put together a picture of a Gold universe in which a closed universe expands from a big bang then collapses towards a big crunch. but a more realistic model of a black hole which formed from a collapsing star cannot have such time symmetry in classical general relativity. Thus it has two origins. The collapsing phase will be like the expanding phase only in reverse. If this is true then we should also accept that there is no inconsistency if there is a third observer who emerges from the event horizon as if it were a white hole too. Although life evolves backwards. If it is possible for it to happen when quantum gravity effects are taken into account it will be very different from what we expect classically. Life would also evolve backwards driven by a decreasing entropy unlike the increasing entropy of the expanding phase. The closest description of what it would be like in the language of physics we understand would be that the inside of a black hole would be a quantum supposition of the wave functions of a black hole and a white hole. stars and planets will be made of antimatter and will absorb light and other radiation rather than emitting it and will run their history in reverse. The principle asserts that there is no inconsistency between the point of view of an observer who falls past the event horizon of a black hole towards its singularity and another observer outside who sees him stop at the horizon and eventually return as thermal Hawking radiation. The black hole complementarity principle proposed by physicists considering the information loss problem gives further hope to the possibility that a black hole can transform into a white hole.138 EventSymmetric SpaceTime and past singularity.
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ences similar to ours. Their future is our past and they can find no record of it. The light radiation from our thermodynamic stars, as well as the cosmic background radiation which fills space today, will survive into the collapsing phase. It will gradually transform from being thermodynamic to being antithermodynamic. All matter made of particles with mass is most likely to fall into the black holes which are the dead remnants of stars and galaxies. Even neutrinos must follow such a fate, which may only be possible for them if they have a small mass. The black holes themselves will slowly transform to white holes from which the antithermodynamic matter of the collapsing phase emerges. Perhaps the most difficult part of this vision for us is the fate of ourselves and other life. It cannot survive until the collapse or even leave any reminder of its past. Otherwise there might be a paradoxical mixing of thermodynamic and antithermodynamic life. The universe will see to it that this does not happen and its job will certainly be made easier if the universe grows to a very old age before the expansion stops.
Wider Perspectives
The universe can only be as Gold proposed if it is finite and closed. This used to be the preferred model of theoretical cosmology. Cosmologists favoured a universe which is finite in space and time mostly for philosophical reasons. These days they are generally more open minded. Still it is most common to read about the standard homogeneous cosmologies which were first worked out by Alexsandr Friedmann in 1922. These can be either open or closed. The closed case corresponds to the geometry of the Gold universe but the open one is asymmetric in time. There is a single big bang from which the entire universe emerges and then expands forever. Space is infinite and time is indefinite into the future. There would be no need for any time reversal in such a universe. The question of homogeneity has always been a controversial one in cosmology. In 1933 just a few years after Hubble had shown that the universe is expanding, Arthur Milne proposed homogeneity as a cosmological principle. It is certainly a convenient principle
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because homogeneous models of the universe are much easier to analyse, but why should we believe it is true? Even in the 1930s Fritz Zwicky was arguing for the presence of galactic clusters in the cosmos, evidence for less homogeneity than others wanted. In 1953 Gérard de Vaucouleurs also produced evidence for large scale structure but still most were sceptics. In the 1980s when detailed maps of the distribution of galaxies were produced the doubters had to concede. There are huge voids and walls on scales which extend to a significant fraction of the size of the observable universe. Our measurements of the cosmic microwave backgrounds show a high degree of isotropy and this is taken as proof that the universe is homogeneous on larger scales. Our observation is limited by a horizon defined by the age of the universe and the speed of light. Thus we cannot observe anything beyond about 15 billion light years distance. Why should we imagine that the size of the universe is a similar order of magnitude to its current age? We have been unable to measure the extent to which space is curved and cannot place limits on its size. Martin Rees has compared our view of the universe with a seascape as seen from a ship in the middle of the ocean. As far as the eye can see it seems unchanging except for the waves which we see at close range. The view is limited to the horizon and beyond who knows what there is. It seems to be only an application of Occam‟s razor which justifies the assumption that space is homogenous on scales hundreds of orders of magnitude larger than the observable horizon.
Occam’s Razor
Occam‟s (or Ockham‟s) razor is a principle attributed to the 14th century logician and Franciscan friar; William of Occam. Ockham was the village in the English county of Surrey where he was born. The principle states that "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily." Sometimes it is quoted in one of its original Latin forms to give it an air of authenticity. "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate" "Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora" "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem"
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In fact, only the first two of these forms appear in his surviving works and the third was written by a later scholar. Many scientists have adopted or reinvented Occam‟s Razor. Isaac Newton stated the rule: "We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances." The most useful statement of the principle for scientists is, "When you have two competing theories which make exactly the same predictions, the one that is simpler is the better." In physics we use the razor to cut away metaphysical concepts. The canonical example is Einstein‟s theory of special relativity compared with Lorentz‟s theory that ruler‟s contract and clocks slow down when in motion through the Ether. Einstein‟s equations for transforming spacetime are the same as Lorentz‟s equations for transforming rulers and clocks, but Einstein and Poincaré recognised that the Ether could not be detected according to the equations of Lorentz and Maxwell. By Occam‟s razor it had to be eliminated. But the nonexistence of the ether cannot be deduced from Occam‟s Razor alone. It can separate two theories which make the same predictions but does not rule out other theories which might make a different prediction. Empirical evidence is also required and Occam himself argued for empiricism, not against it. Ernst Mach advocated a version of Occam‟s razor which he called the Principle of Economy, stating that "Scientists must use the simplest means of arriving at their results and exclude everything not perceived by the senses." Taken to its logical conclusion this philosophy becomes positivism; the belief that what cannot be observed does not exist. Mach influenced Einstein when he argued that space and time are not absolute but he also applied positivism to molecules. Mach and his followers claimed that molecules were metaphysical because they were too small to detect directly. This was despite the success the molecular theory had in explaining chemical reactions and thermodynamics. It is ironic that while applying the principle of economy to throw out the concept of the ether and an absolute rest frame, Einstein published almost simultaneously a paper on Brownian motion which confirmed the reality of molecules and thus dealt a blow against the use of positivism. The moral of this story is that Occam‟s razor should not be wielded blindly. As Einstein put it in his autobiographical notes:
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"This is an interesting example of the fact that even scholars of audacious spirit and fine instinct can be obstructed in the interpretation of facts by philosophical prejudices." Occam‟s razor is often cited in stronger forms than Occam intended, as in the following statements... "If you have two theories which both explain the observed facts then you should use the simplest until more evidence comes along" "The simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations." "If you have two equally likely solutions to a problem, pick the simplest." "The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct." ... or in the only form which takes its own advice... "Keep things simple!" Notice how the principle has strengthened in these forms which should be more correctly called the law of parsimony, or the rule of simplicity. To begin with we used Occam‟s razor to separate theories which would predict the same result for all experiments. Now we are trying to choose between theories which make different predictions. This is not what Occam intended. Should we not test those predictions instead? Obviously we should eventually, but suppose we are at an early stage and are not yet ready to do the experiments. We are just looking for guidance in developing a theory. This principle goes back at least as far as Aristotle who wrote "Nature operates in the shortest way possible." Aristotle went too far in believing that experiment and observation were unnecessary. The principle of simplicity works as a heuristic ruleofthumb but some people quote it as if it is an axiom of physics. It is not. It can work well in philosophy or particle physics, but less often so in cosmology or psychology, where things usually turn out to be more complicated than you ever expected. Simplicity is subjective and the universe does not always have the same ideas about simplicity as we do. Successful theorists often speak of symmetry and beauty as well as simplicity. Paul Dirac said
In the diagram below. It should never be relied upon to make or defend a conclusion. If the best observational data we have is taken at face value there is not enough matter and the universe will continue to expand. Unless further corrections change the situation again we must now assume that the universe is not the simple closed cosmology. But he was not suggesting that physics should be based on mathematical beauty alone. Eventually it will stop and start to recollapse. As arbiters of correctness only logical consistency and empirical evidence are absolute. Time starts at a big bang singularity and space is infinite from that moment onwards. The law of parsimony is no substitute for insight. Now cosmologists are turning to the open homogeneous cosmologies as the most likely model of our universe. the size of the observable universe appears bigger near the singularity but this is not an isometric diagram. He fully appreciated the need for experimental verification. The final word falls to Einstein. He constructed the relativistic field equation for the electron and used it to predict the positron." An Inhomogeneous Universe If there is enough matter in the expanding universe space will have a positive curvature and the expansion will be slowing down. It used to be thought that there would be sufficient unseen dark matter to place the universe near the critical point between eventual collapse and continued expansion but a series of indirect observations now seems to indicate otherwise. In fact the universe is expanding as illustrated by the sequence of fixed length rulers which get smaller with time just as a scale gets smaller on a flat map of the world with increasing distance from the poles.What About Causality? 143 that if requirements for simplicity and beauty clash we should strive for mathematical beauty first and simplicity second. Dirac was very successful with his method. . logic and the scientific method. "Everything should be made as simple as possible. himself a master of the quotable one liner. but not simpler. The observable universe is a small finite part of the whole universe which lies inside the light cone traced back to the big bang. He warned.
In a finite closed universe the horizon problem can be explained away by invoking inflationary theories. One possible way to explain this homogeneity would be Penrose‟s Weyl curvature hypothesis. space observable universe observer Big Bang time fixed length rulers This model of the universe poses some paradoxes. The singularity appears as a region of infinite extent yet it is everywhere uniform and flat. There is nothing mathematically inconsistent about such a universe and it does not come into contradiction with any known laws of physics. but is it a reasonable model of the universe? The uniformity suggests a difficult horizon problem: How is it coordinated over the infinite extent of the universe just an instant after the big bang.144 EventSymmetric SpaceTime The net result is that the size of the observable universe shrinks to zero near the horizon even though the whole universe remains infinite. This suggests that there is some physical law which applies to singularities and ensures that the Weyl part of the curvature tensor must be zero there. That would be sufficient to resolve the problem and it is quite possible that it could be a . but no matter how rapidly the universe may have expanded in the first instants you cannot explain correlations over unlimited distances.
A future unified theory may be able to tell us what the universe is like on very large scales. It does not have to be so clearly symmetrical in shape as the Gold universe. I would like the universe to be symmetrical in time. What is the solution to this puzzle? In truth there are several acceptable resolutions. Is The Big Bang a White Hole? When people hear about the big bang theory they often ask “Where is its centre?” The standard answer is that it has no centre because it is expanding uniformly everywhere. or we can discard the homogeneous universe. In giving this answer cosmologists are forgetting about alternative models which Georges Lemaître first discovered in 1927 when he developed Friedmann‟s original work into the big bang theory. the singularities which form in black holes cannot be subject to the same law since black holes are finite in size. A law which applies to one and not the other would have to break CPT invariance. Lemaître found solutions to . The only known distinction between black hole singularities and the big bang is that the former always sits in the future light cone of all observers while the latter is in the past. or we can break CPT. but it might equally well remain an unanswerable question. Penrose has conjectured this possibility but the favourite theories of quantum gravity like superstring theory are all CPT invariant. All this must be happening far beyond our currently observable horizon.What About Causality? 145 consequence of the unknown theory of quantum gravity which is significant at the singularity. It may have a random distribution of regions where time‟s arrow points in different directions and others where the absence of matter or thermal equilibrium makes the direction of flow indeterminate. This description of reality fits best the storyteller‟s paradigm since it means the universe is more diverse. In my opinion the last of these is the preferred but this is just my philosophical prejudice. but which is the most reasonable? How should Occam‟s razor be applied here? We could postulate two physically different types of singularity for the big bang and black holes to keep the simplest homogeneous model alive. However. Of course the universe has no obligation to satisfy anyone‟s philosophical preferences but it is at least worth while exploring this possibility.
Now I am suggesting that the big bang could be a similarly isolated object on a much larger scale. Once it was thought that the universe consisted of just our galaxy which had a centre and no stars outside a certain limit. so too may the big bang. Indeed. but they are rarely considered as plausible cosmological models on very large scales. A sphere of dust is uniform in density with empty space outside. The density of the dust could vary gradually away from the centre. One reason is that classically white holes cannot form. that the big bang is actually just a huge white hole which formed in a larger universe. In other words. A particular case of this was studied by Oppenheimer and Snyder in 1939. Since I have discounted causality I can accept the possibility of a white hole as easily as I can a black hole. It looks identical to the standard homogeneous big bang within a region which might cover the whole observable universe. It is quite possible. Perhaps on some huge scale there is a population of black and white . but so long as the variation was gradual this could describe the universe with our observable universe being one small region well within the event horizon. The time reversal of Lemaître‟s models can also describe the formation of a black hole from a pressureless.146 EventSymmetric SpaceTime the equations of general relativity which are centred on a point in space. The dust sphere collapses to form a black hole. They are inhomogeneous spherically symmetric models of the universe which have been rediscovered many times since. Lemaître‟s solutions were more general than this. the white hole could also be a black hole in accordance with Hawking‟s complementarity. nonrotating cloud of dust. Just as our galaxy turned out to be one of many. the big bang could be a white hole which is indistinguishable from the standard cosmological models for restricted observers such as us. The idea that the big bang may be a white hole is not popular with many serious cosmologists. The interesting thing about this solution of the equations of gravity is that the geometry inside the sphere is identical to the standard homogenous cosmology of Friedmann except that it runs in reverse. as far as we can tell. spherically symmetrical. The lesson to be learnt from this is that the same model in reverse is a possible model of the big bang.
The big bang is represented by a large object which is both a black hole and a white hole with time flowing outwards in both directions which we would call past and future. Occam‟s razor does not have a very good track record in cosmology. The full explanation will have to await a more unified theory of physics. not the past. If such things . For example. The arrow of time must be most strongly influenced by the largest singularity in the past light cone. The effects of quantum gravity near a singularity must determine the extent of its homogeneity and low entropy. Time Travel Apart from entropy there are other aspects of causality. What does that say about the laws of thermodynamics? We can expect that inside a very large white hole time‟s arrow is flowing away from the singularity as we observe in our neighbourhood of the universe. There might be many such objects in the universe. In the shorter term. It will be billions of years before we are able to see beyond the current horizon defined by the speed of light.What About Causality? 147 holes of vastly different sizes. Within them there are smaller black holes which form from collapsing stars. theory is our only hope to know what the structure of spacetime is like on very large scales. Over all the universe is not governed by temporal causality. We know that in general relativity causal effects are limited by the light cones which are part of the geometry of spacetime. This is not inconsistent. But the geometry is itself dynamic. while for large ones it always flows out. For small black and white holes the arrow of time always flows in. These will eventually emerge from the large white hole and may subsequently fall into another large black hole. In general relativity it is possible to construct spacetime models which have closed timelike paths. Usually space turns out to contain more complexity than we imagined before we looked. The opposite can be expected in a very large black hole. Time flows in both directions. Then their arrow of time will reverse as they become white holes. the near flatness of the universe near the big bang is due to influence from the future. According to this model black holes always become white holes as the arrow of time reverses yet there are two distinct possibilities.
Recently some physicists have started to question this assumption. .148 EventSymmetric SpaceTime really exist in the universe we would be able to travel back to our past. There is perhaps little that we can conclude reliably about causality from our current understanding of physics. We may be prevented from finding that theory if we hold fast to our prejudices. The contradictions which were thought to be a consequence of time travel do not stand up to close examination. It seems possible that quantum mechanics may allow closed time like curves through spacetime wormholes to be constructed. Perhaps it would be possible to travel back to the past and see our parents but some chance event would prevent us from being able to change their lives in ways which we know never happened. at least in principle. Traditionally physicists have simply said that such universes must be ruled out because if we could travel back to our past we could change our history. If that is a correct interpretation then it attacks our faith in our own free will. Only when we have found and understood the correct theory for quantum gravity will we be able to know the truth. which seems to raise contradictions.
Following the media reports about string theory there was an immediate backlash. They called superstrings a Theory Of Everything. People naturally asked what this Theory Of Everything had to tell us. In the physics of point particles it is possible to do this at least formally. It exists only as a perturbation series with an infinite number of terms. yet. To understand string theory properly it is necessary to define the action principle for a nonperturbative quantum field theory. but one of the original selling points of string theory was its uniqueness. The perturbation theory simply breaks down at the Planck scale where stringy effects should be interesting. The answer was that it could not yet tell us anything. This was a breakthrough because the superstring theory had the potential to include all the particles and forces in nature. Articles appeared in Science and New Scientist.149 The Superstring Supermystery Everything or Nothing? In 1984 Michael Green and John Schwarz made a discovery which might turn out to be the greatest advance in physics of all time. It could be a completely unified theory of physics. to produce a . By 1985 the press had got hold of it. They found that a particular quantum field theory of supersymmetric strings in 10 dimensions gives finite answers at all orders in perturbation theory. even about physics. If you count the various open and closed string theories with all possible chirality modes and gauge groups which have no anomalies. On closer examination it was revealed that the theory is not even complete. To get any useful predictions out of string theory it will be necessary to find nonperturbative results. More bad news was to come. Worse still. This is not bad when compared to the infinite number of renormalisable theories of point particles. the sum of the series will diverge. but in string theory success has evaded all attempts. if it is right. Systematic analysis showed that there were really several different tendimensional superstring theories which are well defined in perturbation theory. there are five in all. Although each term is well defined and finite.
You cannot just replace linear quantum mechanics with some nonlinear version and expect it to make sense. nor can you break the symmetries of relativity without invalidating the whole thing. At the moment there are just too many possibilities and the problem is made more difficult because we do not know how the supersymmetry is broken. There is more sense in thinking about how physical theories can be generalised within these principles and that is what Dirac was doing. His motto was that “mathematics can lead us in a direction we would not take if we only followed up physical ideas by themselves.150 EventSymmetric SpaceTime fourdimensional string theory it is necessary to compactify six dimensions into a small curled up space. With the Heterotic string it is possible to get tantalisingly closed to the right number of particles and gauge groups. . but many theoretical physicists now practice the same technique. These impose very tight mathematical constraints on the kind of theories you can build. Yet a large number of physicists have persisted.” The whole idea of it will seem crazy to most people who have not seen this principle at work. Why String Theory? The most commonly asked question from the public about string theory is Why? To understand why physicists study string theory rather than theories of surfaces or other objects we have to go back to its origins. There is something about superstring theory which is very persuasive. Each one predicts different particle physics. The first person to consider string theories was Paul Dirac in 1950. Dirac had a way of doing physics which few others managed so well. In 1950 it was known that physics holds fast to solid principles including the principle of relativity. All this makes string theory look less promising. There are estimated to be many thousands of ways to do this. Some critics called it a theory of nothing and advocated a more conservative approach to particle physics tied more closely to experimental results. causality and the quantum version of the principle of least action. One day those principles may be superseded but it is not easy to modify them without destroying the successes of the past.
like an electron and positron exchanging a photon. 0branes are just particles. the Smatrix. When two particles come together. It could be that they exchanged an intermediate particle. interact and scatter off each other they could have done one of two things. It may seem like a wild idea but actually there is not much else you can do without revising our concepts of spacetime or quantum mechanics.The Superstring Supermystery 151 At the time particle physics was understood in terms of quantum field theory derived from quantised interaction of point particles. Instead of trying to derive it from some underlying field theory it could be considered fundamental. An extra principle which would help was a form of duality. 1branes are strings and 2branes are membranes. which describes how hadronic particles interact. known as pbranes moving in Ddimensional space. Even the quark hypothesis was not universally accepted although experiments were just beginning to see signs of their effects. it could be that they join to form a new . In 1968 physicists were trying to understand the nature of the strong nuclear interactions which held the quarks together in nucleons. Or. One way to tackle the problem was to work directly with the matrix of scattering amplitudes. The rules of quantum mechanics and relativity restrict the Smatrix to satisfy a set of equations. The final step would be to see which of the remaining possibilities matches the real world. As it turned out Dirac‟s ideas about strings and membranes were forgotten and history delivered string theory by a less direct route. It was hoped that a few more additional principles might pin it down to some unique form. It is an ambitious program which is far from easy to complete. We now know that YangMills theory with spin half and spin zero particles with a few possible interaction terms is all that is permitted. You can work out all the ways these objects might interact which are consistent with relativity and then try to work out which of those can be consistently quantised and which are consistent with causality. Dirac considered the possibility that more general theories might start from stringlike and membranelike objects rather than point particles. As a mathematical problem in its own right you can study the full class of possible theories of pdimensional surfaces. It was by no means clear that quantum field theory was adequate to solve the problem. There is very limited scope for relativistic theories of this type which are renormalisable.
The quarks were always attached to the end of strings which resisted them being pulled apart. Could there be an underlying interaction which possessed such duality exactly? tchannel schannel No sooner had the idea been thought of when Gabriele Veneziano came up with a simple formula for the scattering amplitude which did indeed possess this duality. Holger Nielsen of the Niels Bohr institute in Copenhagen called his paper “An almost physical interpretation of the dual N point function” while Yoichiro Nambu in Chicago produced “Quark model and the factorisation of the Veneziano amplitude”. but nobody could understand why they were never seen on their own.152 EventSymmetric SpaceTime particle which then reverts back to the original two. According to string theory “bound” was just the right word. like an electron and positron which annihilate briefly and are then recreated from a photon. For strong interactions it was found experimentally that these two amplitudes were approximately the same. They seemed to be bound together inside the hadrons. By that time the evidence in favour of quarks as constituents of the proton and neutron was becoming more convincing. He gave no model of what it was going on during the scattering process. These two scattering modes are known as the tchannel and schannel respectively. There might be a principle which meant that the two channels were somehow really the same thing. When stretched too far it would break but a new quark antiquark . It was 1970 and string theory had been reborn. It was not long before the answer emerged suddenly from three different people. then at Yeshiva University published his “Dualsymmetric theory of hadrons”. just a formula which satisfied the constraints on the Smatrix. Lenny Susskind.
The same picture can be interpreted as either a tchannel or schannel scattering mode. In spacetime the strings sweep out a surface or world sheet. The scattering of two mesons would now be described by a process in which two strings joined momentarily and then broke. It looked like string theory was about to be lost for a second time. string theory may have sounded good for mesons made of two quarks but protons have three. Eventually this theory gave way to another theory called Quantum Chromo Dynamics which explained the strong nuclear interaction in terms of colour charge on gluons. Tachyons could reek havoc with causality and would destabilise the vacuum. In any case. Pierre .The Superstring Supermystery 153 pair formed from the energy released would take hold of the lose ends. particles with imaginary mass which must travel faster than light. It also had tachyons. String theory was considered as a theory of strong interactions for some time but it had problems. When the world sheet is drawn the explanation for duality suddenly becomes clear. not a very physical feature. A string cannot have three ends. It only worked correctly in 26dimensional spacetime. String theory suffered from certain inconsistencies apart from its dependence on 26 dimensions of spacetime. The process could also reverse when strings join together. but string theory had already cast its spell on a small group of physicists who felt there must be something more to it.
Better still. To come back to the original question. the spin two modes would behave like gravitons. The lowest modes could correspond to all the known particles. The fact is that string theorists are now turning to other pbrane theories. even if they do not have a perturbative form. the tachyon modes vanished. why string theory? The answer is simply that it has the right mathematical properties to be able to reduce to theories of point particles at low energies. The fact is that there are only a certain number of possibilities to try and only the known string theories work out right in perturbation theory. Harvey. . What then was the interpretation of this new model? Schwarz teamed up with Joel Scherk and found that at low energies the strings would appear as particles. Andre Neveu and John Schwarz looked for other forms of string theory and found one with fermions in place of bosons. The theory was necessarily a unified theory of all interactions including quantum gravity.154 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Ramond. The strings could vibrate in an infinite tower of quantised modes in an ever increasing range of mass. Of course it is possible that there are other completely different selfconsistent theories but they would lack the important perturbative form of string theories. Of course physicists have now studied the mathematics of vibrating membranes in any number of dimensions. Only at very high energies would these particles be revealed as bits of string. magically. spin and charge. Almost instantly superstrings took over as the hottest topic of research. while being a perturbatively finite theory which includes gravity. Then came the historic 1984 paper of Green and Schwarz and their discovery of almost miraculous anomaly cancellations in one particular theory. Despite early hopes. The new theory in 10 dimensions was supersymmetric and. Duff and others have found equations for certain pbranes which suggest that selfconsistent field theories of this type might exist. The simple fact is that there are no other known theories which accomplish so much. supergravity was not quite renormalisable and it just failed to have the right properties to explain the leftright asymmetry of particle physics. In 1978 the leading candidate for a super unified theory was elevendimensional supergravity and superstrings were largely ignored.
quantum particles of gravity. In 1985 the family of string theories was enlarged by the arrival of the heterotic string. There are modes which can have as high a mass and spin as you may demand. and the other with E8E8. It is wrong to say they are made of energy because energy is actually just one of the properties they carry. The strings can be open ended or they can be closed loops. Now they were replacing quantum field theory. Emil Martinec and Ryan Rohm. They are best thought of as strands of pure substance with length but no thickness. They also found that Type II theory worked with the same group and that it had two versions Type IIa and Type IIb. The other known as Type II has only closed strings. The different harmonics correspond to different particles with different mass. The strings are not made of anything in particular. One of the strengths of string theory is that it also included massless spin two bosons in its repertoire. Jeffrey Harvey. In experiments physicists will only have seen the first few modes of vibration among the particles we know since most of them will have relatively high mass. also had two versions which were finite. By 1981 Green and Schwarz had identified two separate types of superstring theory.The Superstring Supermystery 155 All Is String In 1985 string theory developed rapidly. The total number of possibilities was therefore . It was discovered to have a rich and compelling mathematical structure which persuaded a growing band of physicists that it must be the next step forward. Type I is the theory of open strings but it must include closed strings as well to be complete. but the breakthrough of 1984 was the discovery that the quantisation of Type I is only free of infinities when the gauge group is SO(32) . which could not include gravity. There is a version of either type for each gauge group. One with gauge group SO(32) again. In the Type II theories the bosons and fermions appear as wave modes which circle round the strings in opposite directions. This version discovered at Princeton by David Gross. These were identified as gravitons. All particles were imagined to be tiny threads vibrating like resonating guitar strings. with string theory which must include it. Physicists had thought before then that they could see how to fit together the electromagnetic and nuclear forces but the gravitational force had been a big problem. spin. charge etc.
then we would not be aware of it. He did not like the fact that . Through supersymmetry. If it vibrates one way it can be a quark. the string. matter is united with force. change its mode again and it becomes a force carrying photon or even a graviton. String theory is a superb example of unification. parity violation. These are topologically distinct and for any given choice of compactification for each string theory a different theory of the universe with different particles is found. If they have anything to do with real physics then six of the space dimensions must be rolled up or compactified just as a twodimensional sheet of paper can be rolled into a narrow tube which becomes a onedimensional line. String theorists would like to have a unique theory so five is an embarrassment of choice. While there is only one way to roll up one dimension giving a tubular crosssection which is a circle. No other theories with the same good behaviour can be found. With two dimensions there is already the choice of a sphere. more dimensions can be rolled up in many different ways. On the other hand it is much better than the situation regarding quantum field theory which works with any gauge group and a whole variety of possible matter fields. relativity. Such had been the case with atoms. 9 space dimensions plus 1 time dimension. There is only one type of object. But by 1988 string theory was in trouble. perhaps the Planck length. another way it is an electron. If the distance around the compact dimension is very small.156 EventSymmetric SpaceTime five. torus or other surfaces with more than one hole. quark theory and electroweak unification. IIb. All five superstring theories only work in 10 dimensions. Richard Feynman was one of those who spoke against his mostly younger colleagues who supported string theory. sometimes denoted I. Past history shows that breakthroughs in physics are at first largely ignored until experiment forces the community of physicists to accept them. IIa. yet cannot unify all the forces. HO and HE. The number of ways you can go about reducing string theory to four dimensions in this fashion is just mind boggling. It is too difficult to find the one which should correspond to our universe. By contrast string theory was immediately taken up by a huge proportion of physicists and then it failed to make any experimental predictions which could be tested.
The simplest case is where one of the space dimensions is rolled up round a circle of radius R. The two different heterotic theories in 10 dimensions. HE is recovered as the limit of the ninedimensional string theory as RE is made large and HO is the limit as RO is made large.The Superstring Supermystery 157 string theorists were not calculating anything which would allow them to check their ideas empirically. Duality In 1986 one of the niggling problems in superstring theory was the fact that there were 5 different versions. short for target space duality. The five principal superstring theories are most at home in flat tendimensional spacetime infinite in all directions. The same magic can be ap . reduce to the same ninedimensional theory. you would expect there to be five superstring theories in 9 dimensions too. The compactification radii RE for HE and RO for HO heterotic string appear as a parameter in this theory but they are related inversely RE = /RO . Which one would correspond to our world and what is the point of the other four? Then there was a sequence of big discoveries which brought new hope. A string theory in such a spacetime appears like a ninedimensional theory of strings. In actual fact there are only three. The target space of a string theory is just the spacetime in which it is placed. explaining that the critics do not seem to have fully grasped the scope and richness of the structure involved in string theory. The rolled up dimension becomes invisible and the compactification radius R becomes just one of many arbitrary parameters. They are said to be Tdual. The acknowledged leader in the fight to understand string theory is Ed Witten. A fine example of the rich and beautiful structure of string theory is Tduality. HE and HO. Yet they carried on. So the two heterotic string theories are really two aspects of the same theory. They are too impatient for quick answers. but they can also be placed in spacetimes where some of the dimensions have been compactified. He speaks in a very different tone. String theory was still young and rather than letting its critics stop them they would rise to the challenge. Since there are five superstring theories in 10 dimensions and only one way to compactify to 9 dimensions.
This procedure cannot be done in a way which is symmetric between the electric and magnetic fields. Forty years ago Paul Dirac was not convinced that this ruled out the existence of magnetic monopoles.158 EventSymmetric SpaceTime plied to the two Type II theories. IIa is Tdual to IIb. This leaves us with just three separate superstring theories Type I. he tried to formulate a theory in which the gauge potential could be singular along a string joining two magnetic charges in such a way that the singularity could be displaced through gauge transformations and must therefore be considered physically inconsequential. Despite some quite careful experiments only dipole magnetic fields which are generated by circulating electric charges have ever been seen. If you take the equations and switch the electric and magnetic fields. That is how the situation stood in 1993 but then another kind of duality was found. Again motivated by mathematical beauty in physics. Type II and Heterotic. In classical electrodynamics there is no inconsistency in a theory which places both magnetic and electric monopoles together. The equations are the same in each case. . It provided a tidy explanation for why electric charges must be quantised as multiples of a unit of electric charge. A changing magnetic field generates an electric field and a changing magnetic field generates an electric one. it is an experimental observation that there are no magnetic monopole charges in nature which mirror the electric charge of electrons and other particles. while changing the sign of one of them. The free fields without charges are invariant but if electric charges are included there must also be magnetic charges to complete the symmetry. apart from a sign change. However. It concerns a relation between electric charges and magnetic monopoles. Maxwell‟s equations for electromagnetic waves in free space are symmetric between electric and magnetic fields. To quantise Maxwell‟s equations it is necessary to introduce a vector potential field from which the electric and magnetic fields are derived by differentiation. The theory was not quite complete but it did have one saving grace. In quantum electrodynamics this is not so easy. you arrive back at the same form.
In fact these theories would predict the existence of magnetic monopoles. It is a pun on the KleinGordon equation which is the correct linear equation for a scalar field and which is the first order approximation to the sineGordon equation for small amplitude waves. There is a simple model which gives an intuitive idea of what a topological soliton is. The interesting behaviour of this system appears when some of the pegs are swung through a large angle of 360 degrees over the top of the line. These twists are quite stable and can be made to travel up and down the line. Imagine first a straight wire pulled tight like a washing line with many clothes pegs strung along it. Even their classical formulation could contain these particles which would form out of the matter fields as topological solitons. If you turn up one peg it will pull those nearby up with it. If you grab one peg and swing it over in this way you would create two twists in the opposite sense around the line. The angles of the pegs approximate a field along the onedimensional line. If the sineGordon equation is quantised it will be found to be a description of interacting scalar fields in one dimension. A twist can only be made to disappear in a collision with a twist in the opposite direction.The Superstring Supermystery 159 In the 1970s it was realised by 't Hooft and Polyakov that grand unified theories which might unify the strong and electroweak forces would get around the problem of the singular gauge potential because they had a more general gauge structure. The equation for the dynamics of this field is known as the sineGordon equation. When it is let go it will swing back like a pendulum but the energy will be carried away by waves which travel down the line. Imagine that the clothes pegs are free to rotate about the axis of the line but that each one is attached to its neighbours by elastic bands on the free ends. .
though the configuration in threedimensional space is more difficult to visualise than for the one dimension of the clothesline. It would not be quite a perfect symmetry because we know that magnetic monopoles must be very heavy if they exist. but the mathematics of field theories in 3 space dimensions is much more difficult than that of one dimension and it seems beyond hope that such a duality transformation can be constructed. Then Nathan Seiberg and Ed Witten made a break . But they made one step further forward. The relevance of this is that the magnetic monopoles predicted in GUT‟s are also topological solitons. It would be nice if there was a similar duality between electric and magnetic charges as the one discovered for the sineGordon and Thirring equations. This is quite tantalising given the increasing interest in supersymmetric GUT‟s which are now considered more promising than the ordinary variety of GUT‟s for a whole host of reasons. so the two types of particle are not so different after all. They showed that the duality could only exist in a supersymmetric version of a GUT. They can be regarded as being like particles and antiparticles but they exist in the classical physics system and are apparently quite different from the scalar particles of the quantum theory. So the quantised sineGordon equation has two types of particle which are quite different. In fact the solitons also exist in the quantum theory but they can only be understood nonperturbatively. They have different equations but they are really the same because there is a transformation which takes one to the other. In 1977 Olive and Montenen conjectured that this kind of duality could exists. the sineGordon and the Thirring. We say that there is a duality between the two models. What makes this equation so remarkable is that there is a nonlocal transformation of the field which turns it into another onedimensional equation known as the Thirring model. If there was then a duality between electric and magnetic fields would be demonstrated. Until 1994 most physicists thought that there was no good reason to believe that there was anything to the OliveMontenen conjecture.160 EventSymmetric SpaceTime These twists are examples of topological solitons. The transformation maps the soliton particles of the sineGordon equation onto the ordinary quantum excitations of the Thirring model.
It now seems that any string theory with sufficient supersymmetry must have an Sdual waiting to be found. The last of the five IIb is self dual. the same . i.The Superstring Supermystery 161 through which rocked the worlds of physics and mathematics. is that they are all derived from something called Mtheory in 11 dimensions.4. Conjectures have been made and tested. The duality exchanges strong coupling with weak coupling. What makes this discovery so useful is that the dualities are a nonperturbative feature of string theory. By means of a special set of equations they demonstrated that a certain supersymmetric field theory did indeed exhibit electromagnetic duality. Using Tduality we made reduced the five superstring theories to three. 0branes. If these five theories are all part of the same thing then what is that thing? The answer. All five string theories are special points in the parameter space of this one theory. Now with Sduality we can make further links which leave them all connected. It also has an Sduality between its 2branes and solitonic 5branes. In the last year physicists have discovered how to apply tests of duality to different string and pbrane theories in various dimensions. but so is elevendimensional supergravity theory. This kind of duality is now known as Sduality to distinguish it from Tduality. This is very significant for theories like QCD where the strong coupling limit is not understood. There is a general rule about the dimensions of dual objects. In string theory Sduality is very natural. Type I is Sdual to HO while HE is Sdual to IIa (but only when compactified to six dimensions). Mtheory is like string theory except that it is a theory of membranes (2branes) rather than strings (1branes). In the familiar case the electric and magnetic charges in D=4 are particles. In D=10 string theory the strings are 1branes so their duals must be (1041)dimensional 5branes. This does not prove that the duality is correct but each time a test has had the potential to show an inconsistency it has failed to destroy the conjectures. Now many physicists see that pbrane theories can be as interesting as string theories in a nonperturbative setting. it seems.e. An “electric” p1brane which is a fundamental construct of a theory in D dimensions can have a p2brane “magnetic” soliton when p1 + p2 = D . As a bonus their method can be used to solve many unsolved problems in topology and physics. That was not quite the end of the story.
membranes. The best way to formulate that theory is not yet known. Each of the string theories appears in some corner of Mtheory where particular states become weakly coupled and can be described using perturbation theory. . It would be wrong to say that very much of this is understood yet. pbranes etc. There is still nothing like a correct formulation of Mtheory or pbrane theories in their full quantum form. but there is new hope because now it is seen that all the different theories can be seen as part of one unique theory.162 EventSymmetric SpaceTime theory that string theory ousted as the most popular superunified theory in 1984. Supgravity Mtheory IIb T I S IIa S HE T HO This may be too simple a picture of Mtheory which really includes open and closed strings.
To make such an idea concrete requires a full theory of quantum gravity and since string theory claims to be just that.The Superstring Supermystery 163 Black Strings As if one major conceptual breakthrough was not enough. It is therefore quite plausible that there is a complementarity between string states and black hole states. according to the no hair conjecture is also characterised only by its spin. mass and charge. and in fact this hypothesis is quite consistent with all mathematical tests which have been applied. A stronger gravitational force can reduce it to a quark star which is like a neutron. string theorists had to come to terms with a whole wave of new finds which started around 1994. If the analogy continues to hold. A more massive star will collapse further to a neutron star which is like a stable nucleus. We know that strings can have an infinite number of states of ever increasing spin. With magnetic duality we can add magnetic charge to the list. it seems a natural step to compare string states and black holes. mass and charge. If a black hole were to radiate long enough it would eventually lose so much energy that its mass would reduce to the Planck scale. Just as physicists have been quietly speculating about electromagnetic duality for decades. the black hole should be like a quark or other elementary particle. Likewise a black hole. A white dwarf star is like an atom in that it resists collapse due to the Pauli exclusion principle. a few have also speculated that somehow elementary particles could be the same things as black holes so that matter could be regarded as a feature of the geometry of spacetime. It is curious that various stellar objects under the influence of strong gravity parallel various entities from particle physics. The process could be likened to a very massive particle decaying. The final stage of gravitational collapse reduces the star to a black hole. It is not something which can be established with certainty simply be . This is still much heavier than any elementary particle we know but quantum effects would be so overwhelming on such a black hole that it would be difficult to see how it might be distinguished from an extremely unstable and massive particle in its final explosion. The theory started to look a little less ridiculous when Hawking postulated that black holes actually radiate particles.
Nevertheless. But superstring theory is supposed to be a unified theory which should mean that its symmetries are unified. The problem then is to understand what this symmetry is. then it might be possible to work out what string theory is really all about and answer all the puzzling questions it poses. covariance. If it was known. such temperatures would only have existed during the first 1043 seconds of the universe existence. . This is the superstring mystery. This symmetry would be broken or hidden at lower temperatures. conformal symmetries and many more. if indeed it is meaningful to talk about time in such situations at all. It was discovered that if you consider Planck mass black holes in the context of string theory then it is possible for spacetime to undergo a smooth transition from one topology to another. but it was in the 1980s that physicists such as Witten and Gross explored the significance of this for string theory. In the perturbative formulation of string theory that we have. The implication seems to be that a huge symmetry is restored. many physicists now consider it reasonable to regard black holes as being single string states which are continually decaying to lower states through Hawking radiation. Calculations suggest that certain features of string theory simplify above this temperature. One thing about string theory which was discovered very early on was that at high temperatures it would undergo a phase transition. The temperature at which this happens is known as the Hagedorn temperature after a paper written by Hagedorn back in 1968. the symmetries are not unified.164 EventSymmetric SpaceTime cause there is not a suitable definition of string theory to prove the identity. dualities. There are gauge symmetries. This means that many of the possible topologies of the curled up dimensions are connected and may pave a way to a solution of the selection of vacuum states in string theory. String Symmetry Superstring theory is full of symmetries. supersymmetries. presumably leaving the known symmetries as residuals. The Hagedorn temperature of superstring theory is very high.
Quantum gravity in (2+1)dimensional spacetime is a TQFT and is sufficiently simple to solve.The Superstring Supermystery 165 A favourite theory is that superstring theory is described by a topological quantum field theory above the Hagedorn temperature. Even the relation between quantum mechanics and classical theory seems to need revision. In string theory as we understand it now. They believe that it is essential to stay faithful to the principles of diffeomorphism invariance from general relativity rather than working relative to a fixed background metric as string theorists do. String theory may explain why quantum mechanics works according to some string theorists. or so it would seem. It is a theory of loops. If spacetime topology change is a reality then there must be more to it than that. tantalisingly similar in certain ways to string theory. A fundamental minimum length scale is introduced. below which all measurement is possible. To solve string theory it may be necessary to dissolve spacetime altogether. But TQFT in itself is not enough to solve the superstring mystery. yet different. At the moment we seem to be faced with the same kind of strange contradictions that physicists faced exactly 100 years ago over electromagnetism. Those who work at quantum gravity coming from the side of relativity rather than particle physics see things differently. That mystery was finally resolved by Einstein and Poincaré when they dissolved the ether. Working from this direction they have developed the canonical theory of quantum gravity which is also incomplete. Most physicists working in string theory believe that a radical change of viewpoint is needed to understand it. consequently it is possible to transform away all field variables except those which depend on the topology of spacetime. spacetime curls up and changes dimension. It will probably be necessary to revise our understanding of spacetime to appreciate what this means. but in the real world of (3+1)dimensional Einstein Gravity this is not the case. All together there seem to be rather a lot of radical steps to be made and they may need to be put together into one leap in the dark. They do not regard renormalisability as an essential feature of quantum gravity. Relativists such as Lee Smolin hope that there is a way to bridge the gap and develop a unified method . TQFT is a special sort of quantum field theory which has the same number of degrees of gauge symmetry as it has fields.
166 EventSymmetric SpaceTime The Principle of Event Symmetry The Bucket of Dust Many theoretical physicists. As we rise higher spacetime is fading from our grasp and we have even less to hold on to. All else must emerge further down the levels of thought. He was left behind as others climbed on. but to a physicist an event is also a point of spacetime. Thus some remnant of quantum mechanics should be valid on at least the final slopes. As we climb the mountain of scientific truth our experience is similar. if indeed there is a top. Events are also what the physicist sees in his experiments when particles come together and . According to a dictionary an event is anything which happens. Most people will give an answer tainted by what they are familiar with. According to the storyteller‟s paradigm the universe is no more than the sum total of all possible experiences which can be perceived. through alpine forest. What will remain of our familiar surroundings when we reach the top. up rocky cliffs till beyond the snow line we find the summit. A philosopher would tell you that the only thing which remains at the top is the realm of our perceptions. a place and a moment where something could happen. When we passed from the land of classical certainty to the indeterminism of quantum mechanics Einstein said it was like the ground had been pulled out from under us leaving nothing to stand on. We may pass from grassy pastures to harsher slopes. This is realised in the multiverse of quantum mechanics described by Feynman‟s path integral. Today we might think of quantum mechanics instead. and other people besides. Descartes thought the answer would be mechanical and causal because that was what was familiar at the time. As we ascend a mountain the scenery changes. Indirectly we apprehend events and the relations between them. will ask themselves at some time “What could the most fundamental laws of physics be like?” It is next to impossible to find the answer but it is still a useful question to think about.
A physics based on events is sometimes called Whiteheadian but the origins of such philosophy can be traced back through the monadology of Leibniz to the atomistic doctrine of space and time in the Kalám of tenth century Baghdad. With heavy irony John Archibald Wheeler described a universe constructed out of events as “a bucket of dust”. and perhaps beyond to the ancient Greeks. A deeper guiding principle must be found. The continuum is supposed to be regained from the cubic array of the lattice in the limit when the distance between lattice points goes to zero. so long as they make some kind of fourdimensional lattice. It is just an approximation trick for doing calculations. In fact the sites can be linked in other ways. The continuum limit should be the same in all cases. Spacetime is made of events but events are more fundamental than their when and where. asked us to regard events as primordial. the path integral of quantum mechanics becomes a sum over different configurations of the field variables weighted by a factor related to . He sought a pregeometry for spacetime but felt that starting from the set of events is premature. When doing lattice gauge theory calculations. The Universal Lattice After I had finished my doctorate in 1985 I also wondered what the fundamental laws of physics might be like. Particle physics. philosopher of science. It could be made dynamic allowing any site to link to any other nearby site at random. I imagined what might happen if the fixed linkage structure of the lattice was discarded. My thesis had been about lattice gauge theories so I was used to thinking about spacetime as made up of discrete events (or lattice sites) with links joining nearest neighbours together. Spacetime is constructed by us from the prehension of events. Why not even allowing linkage to any site no matter how far away? For maximum simplicity each site should have no preferences for which other sites it likes to link to. both theoretical and experimental is the pursuit of the most basic events and the rules which join them. In 1925 Alfred North Whitehead.The Principle of Event Symmetry 167 interact. Fields are represented by numbers attached to events and links. Spacetime forms out of the relationships between events.
The dynamics would be determined by the form chosen for the action as a function of the way the events were linked up. It might take into account the number of links meeting at each event. If it could be done it would show how the laws of physics. This paints a rather strange image of the universe. the number of triangles which form and other similar quantities which depend on the network of connections. Dynamic links changing at random fit into the sum quite naturally. which is why Wheeler likened such models to a bucket of dust. For the right choice of action. In general relativity gravity . To go further it would be necessary to think more carefully about how spacetime is expected to behave. lattices with a fourdimensional structure might be favoured and the structure of spacetime could be determined dynamically. Events and links between events would be fundamental objects but there would be no built in structure to spacetime. just random links between events. If we could look down to such distances we would see space changing wildly. Such speculations are often naive and unlikely to work out right. It now includes a sum over all the ways of linking up the lattice sites as well as a sum over the values of the field variables. Nevertheless you have to try these things out because if you do not make a few mistakes you never learn anything. Witten’s Puzzle Back in 1958 John Wheeler suggested that when general relativity and quantum theory were put together there would be astonishing things going on at the very small length scale known as the Planck length (about 1035 metres). including the nature of spacetime. The results I got were not overly encouraging. You can even look for interesting physics in models where there are no field variables. no dimension. The attractive thing about the idea for me was that you could simulate such systems on a computer and watch what happened. In some appropriate limit a continuum might emerge. unless you build in some preference for which sites want to join up.168 EventSymmetric SpaceTime the action. There is no simple and natural way to specify the dynamics of the lattice so that it tends to form structures like spacetime. no continuity. could be derived from much simpler equations than those normally used to specify them.
The structure of this spacetime foam has been a mysterious area of research ever since. When they try to understand together the concepts of topology change and universal symmetry they come up against a strange enigma known as Witten‟s Puzzle after the much cited string theorist. As it happens there is one unreasonable but simple solution to Witten‟s puzzle. Consider diffeomorphisms to begin with. so again string theorists seem to be on the right track. The same applies to internal gauge groups. A diffeomorphism is a suitably smooth one to one mapping of a space onto itself. in some fashion. who first described it. The diffeomorphism group of smooth mappings on a sphere is not isomorphic to the diffeomorphism group on a torus. Unlike the diffeomorphism groups. An old maxim of theoretical physics says that once you have ruled out reasonable solutions you must resort to unreasonable ones. This group is the symmetric group on the manifold. Ed Witten. This implies a simple permutation symmetry on events.The Principle of Event Symmetry 169 results from spacetime curvature. Topology change is found to be an important feature of superstring theory. A group is an algebraic realisation of symmetry. The set of all such mappings form a group under composition which is the diffeomorphism group of the space. contain the symmetry structures for all allowable topologies at the same time. It can already be identified as a property of the universal lattice where any event has no preference for which other events it connects to. Different topologies lead to nonequivalent symmetries. Wheelers rough calculations showed that at the Planck scale the fluctuations would be so wild that space would be likely to tare open forming microscopic wormholes and other topological variations. If gravity is quantised the curvature should fluctuate. Witten admitted he could think of no reasonable solution to this problem. One group which contains all possible diffeomorphism groups as a subgroup is the group of all onetoone mappings irrespective of how smooth or continuous they are. the symmetric groups on two topologically different space . The difficulty is that both diffeomorphism invariance and internal gauge symmetry are strictly dependent on the topology of the space. If topology change is permitted then it follows that the universal symmetry must.
A solution of Witten‟s puzzle would therefore be for the universal group to contain the symmetric group acting on spacetime events. but it is more general. This is called a homomorphism. event symmetry is realised in a heap of discrete events. This is called The Principle of Event Symmetry which states that: The universal symmetry of the laws of physics includes the symmetric group acting on spacetime events. The universal lattice is a naive model of spacetime whereas event symmetry is a deep principle which solves the puzzle of combining symmetry and topology change. SpaceTime and Soap Films There are a number of reasons why this principle of event symmetry may seem unreasonable. Theorists working on quantum gravity . The principle of event symmetry is realised by the universal lattice.170 EventSymmetric SpaceTime times are algebraically identical. The events are taken from a heap within which they are not ordered. They can be permuted without consequence. But the symmetric group can be a subgroup of a larger group allowing the individuality of events to be blurred. In its simplest form. There are other ways of including event symmetry within larger symmetries. the multiverse describes all ways of putting together events. According to the storyteller‟s paradigm. The universal lattice is a good example. For one thing it suggests that we must treat spacetime at some level as a discrete set of events. as I have already explained. there are plenty of reasons to believe in discrete spacetime. You can also deform symmetries by introducing a more general symmetry structure with a deformation parameter which reduces to something containing the symmetric group for one special case of that parameter. I will describe examples of all of these. In fact. The symmetric group is a symmetry of the heap. You can have a mapping from a larger symmetry onto a smaller one which preserves its structure. There are also philosophical reasons for holding to the principle of event symmetry. The beauty of event symmetry is revealed in the ways it can become part of the full universal symmetry. If something is not ordered then it does not matter how its contents are mixed up.
In addition. A more direct reason to doubt the principle would be that there is no visible or experimental evidence of such a symmetry.The Principle of Event Symmetry 171 in various forms agree that the Planck scale defines a minimum length beyond which the Heisenberg uncertainty principle makes measurement impossible. it is worth noting that the diffeomorphism invariance is not all that evident either. when in fact. The principle suggests that the world should look the same after permutations of spacetime events. The analogy is not perfect since it suggests that curved spacetime is embedded in some higherdimensional flat space. It should even be possible to swap events from the past with those of the future without consequence. Everything around us would behave like it is made of liquid rubber. If spacetime is eventsymmetric then we must account for spacetime topology as it is observed. To solve this problem is the greatest challenge for the eventsymmetric theory. Nevertheless. Instead we find that only a small part of the symmetry which includes rigid translations and rotations is directly observed on human scales. If it were then we would expect to be able to distort spacetime in ways reminiscent of the most bizarre hall of mirrors without consequence. Anyone who has read popular articles on the Big Bang and the expanding universe will be familiar with the analogy in which spacetime is compared to the surface of an expanding balloon. the mathematical formulation of curvature avoids the need for such a thing. Theories of magnetic monopoles. To get a more intuitive idea of how the event symmetry of spacetime can be hidden we use an analogy. . are heavily dependent on the topological structure of spacetime. Topology is becoming more and more important in fundamental physics. for example. This does not seem to accord with experience. The rubbery nature of spacetime is more noticeable on cosmological scales where spacetime can be distorted in quite counterintuitive ways. Since the symmetric group acting on spacetime can be regarded as a discrete extension of the diffeomorphism group in general relativity. Event symmetry cannot be a principle of nature unless it is well hidden. arguments based on black hole thermodynamics suggest that there must be a finite number of physical degrees of freedom in a region of space. the analogy is useful so long as you are aware of its limitations.
just like the formation of a soap bubble. At that time I was working as a contract software engineer and was isolated from front line research in theoretical physics. Permutation City In 1991 I had worked out the basic ideas behind the principle of event symmetry. If the forces between molecules are just right then a liquid can form thin films or bubbles. The same idea works in higher dimensions so it is possible that fourdimensional spacetime may condense out of something like a gas of events. A soap film takes a form very similar to the balloon which served as our analogy of spacetime for the expanding universe. This is familiar to us whenever we see soap suds. Given this analogy we can use what we know about the behaviour of gases and liquids to gain a heuristic understanding of eventsymmetric spacetime.172 EventSymmetric SpaceTime We can extend the balloon analogy by imagining that spacetime events are like a discrete set of particles populating some higherdimensional space. Another less common form of matter gives an even better picture. In any gas model with just one type of molecule the forces between any two molecules will take the same form dependent on the distance between them and their relative orientations. I did not take my physics very seriously and I imagined that such a simple and obvious notion as event symmetry would have . the molecules stay fixed relative to their neighbours and form rigid objects. The permutation symmetry of the molecular forces is hidden and all that remains is a surface. For one thing we know that gases can condense into liquids and liquids can freeze into solids. except that it applies to molecules rather than events. In a solid the symmetry among the forces still exists but because the molecules are held within a small place the symmetry is hidden. In other words. it has the same symmetric group invariance as that postulated in the principle of eventsymmetric spacetime. Curvature of spacetime is similar to the curvature of the surface of the soap film. The particles might float around like a gas of molecules interacting through some kind of forces. Once frozen. Such a system is therefore invariant under permutations of molecules.
A couple of years later a contact on the internet told me about a book which discussed ideas similar to mine. There were. Paul Durham. I had used it myself as a research student in 1984 when I used to control computers in Germany from my base in the University of Glasgow. I could download the latest papers in physics which appeared as electronic preprints each day. Some of what I found was more mathematically sophisticated. It is another . yet not one example expressing the principle of event symmetry came to light. I thought. just a few examples of such work which dared to speculate about the small scale structure of spacetime with models not unlike my universal lattice. have already extracted any useful consequences there might be. Best of all. I decided that it would be prudent to find out who else had done similar work in the past.The Principle of Event Symmetry 173 been considered already by physicists. I could write my own papers and circulate them on the internet. the story line continues from the point of view of the copy. But in 1993 the internet came out of academic institutes into the wider world. They would. Using online databases I searched the literature for papers with titles that had anything to do with discrete spacetime and then followed their hyperlinked references and citations to find other relevant papers. It was „Permutation City‟. in fact. I discovered the work on Wheeler. programs a simulation of himself into a computer. but it was a science fiction novel with more interesting things to say about the philosophy of physics than many physicists or philosophers. I was wrong. I continued my work. Two years later the world went through a new revolution in information technology: the internet. I could search databases of papers compiled over the previous twenty years. Finkelstein and others which I had not heard of before. In April 1994 my first tentative paper about eventsymmetric spacetime emerged and drew no response. In 2045 the protagonist. Its impact on science rivals the introduction of the printing press into Europe in the fifteenth century. I gained access to usenet and the world wide web and I regained access to what was happening in physics. It was not a physics book. where I was then working as a programmer in France. Applying the strong AI hypothesis. The internet had already existed for some time. a science fiction novel by Greg Egan.
This was the powerful symmetry which we now call diffeomorphism invariance. The mapping between the events of Paul‟s existence and the events of spacetime outside the computer were discontinuous. but only observers whose reference frames can be related by continuous coordinate transformations. Einstein persisted and succeeded against short odds in formulating a relativistic theory of gravity because he recognised the importance of the principle of equivalence. July 1992. A computer simulation can be regarded as a sophisticated way of recounting a story. It was sufficiently stringent as a requirement that Einstein was able to deduce the essential form of the field equations for gravity leaving only Newton‟s . then causal structure would fall apart. More Symmetry When Einstein decided to try to revise Newton‟s gravity he was advised not to waste his time. there is no need to distinguish between the story and reality. Paul tries to understand what is happening to him in terms of the theory of general relativity. The problem was regarded as too difficult. In relativity influences have to be localised travelling from point to point at a finite velocity. He deduced that the principle required curved spacetime and reduced it to a need for generally covariant equations. Relativity declares that points of view of different observers are equally valid. now referred to as Paul. Durham performs some experiments with his copy. Relativity threw out absolute space and time but it did not go far enough. It would be a new principle of equivalence.174 EventSymmetric SpaceTime invocation of the storyteller‟s paradigm. the dust theory. Paul thought that if you chop up spacetime and rearrange it. He divides the program up and changes the order in which states are computed. Finally Paul appreciates the principle of event symmetry. As the storyteller told us. Permutation City was first published in 1994 and parts were adapted from a story called „Dust‟ which was first published in Isaac Asimov‟s Science Fiction Magazine. in the simulation. or as Egan calls it. The events of Paul‟s simulated life are permuted but he does not experience anything different from normal. Absolute cause and effect must go too. a new symmetry between observers.
Beyond that we would like to find a way to incorporate internal gauge symmetry into the picture too. So far we have seen how the principle of eventsymmetric spacetime allows us to retain spacetime symmetry in the face of topology change. To go further the symmetry must be extended. in a sense. matrix models are already studied as simple models of string theory. The field variables form a column vector and the gauge . This is interesting because. String theorists do not normally interpret them as models on eventsymmetric spacetime but it would be reasonable to do so in the light of what has been said here. To put a model of a gauge theory on this lattice. but it also allows for more general models of spacetime as discrete sets. This could be represented by a matrix of variables aij each of which is zero or one.The Principle of Event Symmetry 175 gravitational constant and the possibility of a cosmological constant to be determined empirically. and zero indicates that they are not linked. The principle of event symmetry is stronger. j) there may or may not be a link joining them in the lattice. aij a ji aii 0 So the state of the random lattice is specified by a symmetric square matrix with zero diagonal other entries may be zero or one. Einstein was able to assume that spacetime was a continuous manifold with one temporal and three spatial dimensions. field variables i can be associated with each event and gauge variables Uij with each link. For each pair of events (i. as it happens. Event symmetry on its own is not very powerful. We no longer have such a restriction and consequently there are too many possible ways to devise eventsymmetric theories. than diffeomorphism symmetry because it is larger. Each event could be labelled with an index i. It turns out that there is an easy way to embed the symmetric group into matrix groups. One indicates that events i and j are linked. To see how eventsymmetry leads naturally to matrices consider how the universal random lattice may be represented.
Columns and rows of the matrix and vector are permuted. T has a single element equal to 1 in each row and column and all other elements equal to zero.e. I. the elements of the matrix are now always zero or plus or minus one.g. . 1 0 0 T 0 1 0 0 0 1 All of this generalises easily to other gauge groups. Gauge invariant quantities which could be used in an action for this model can be expressed in matrix notation e. If it is a Z2 gauge theory. T A T 1 AT For the Z2 gauge transformation T is a diagonal matrix with 1 and 1 down the diagonal. For example. That is.176 EventSymmetric SpaceTime variables can again be collected together in a matrix A. The matrix A can be symmetric but it may be more convenient to make it antisymmetric since the diagonal elements are then necessarily zero without imposing an extra condition. For example. For an SO(N) gauge transformation T is a block diagonal matrix with blocks of N by N orthogonal matrices down the diagonal. This can also be effected by a similarity transformation T which is a permutation matrix. S mT T A tr[ A4 ] A gauge transformation can be effected as a similarity transformation on the matrix and vector. What about event symmetry? A permutation of events is also a symmetry of an action expressed in matrix notation as above.
the number of spacetime events. The same can be done with other gauge groups using orthogonal or unitary matrix models. If the elements of and A are allowed to be any real numbers the matrix action has a full symmetry of orthogonal matrix transformations which includes the gauge transformations and event permutations as special cases. . The true universal symmetry may well be some much more elaborate structure which is not yet known to mathematicians. For example. Permutations of events now correspond to rotations in this space which swap over the axes. With the matrix model there is a degree of symmetry for each independent element of the matrix so the symmetry is of dimension N2. The number of dimensions corresponds to the total number of spacetime events in the universe. In both cases the similarity transformations are orthogonal matrices. orthogonal groups do not include supersymmetry which is important in superstring theories. which may be infinite. So does this mean that the universal symmetry of physics is an infinitedimensional orthogonal matrix? The answer is probably no since an orthogonal matrix is too simple to account for the structure of the laws of physics. In these models the total symmetry of the system is a group of rotation matrices in some highdimensional space.The Principle of Event Symmetry 177 0 1 0 T 0 0 1 1 0 0 Now that we have put internal gauge symmetry and eventsymmetry into similar forms it is tempting to unify them. In conventional gauge theory there are a few degrees of symmetry for each event so the symmetry is of dimension N. This is just the first step towards the much larger symmetries which may be present in the universe. Before moving on it is worth taking note of how the amount of symmetry has increased in going over to matrix models.
It turns out that such a model can be constructed using Clifford algebras. These algebras are very simple in principle but have a remarkable number of applications in theoretical physics. For example. There are. the principle of eventsymmetric spacetime is not very fruitful. Obviously we should ask ourselves whether or not there is any connection between the two. then that would suggest a deep relation between spacetime and matter. however. just like eventsymmetric spacetime. Could the symmetric group acting to exchange identical particles be part of the symmetric group acting on spacetime events? If it were. What is needed is a mathematical model which incorporates the principle and which gives body to some of the speculative ideas outlined above. It would take the process of unification beyond the forces of nature towards a more complete unification of matter and spacetime. As we shall see it is natural to combine the permutation symmetry of particles and eventsymmetry and it will imply a unification of particle statistics and gauge symmetries which has now become apparent in superstring theories. they all have the same charge. Clifford’s Legacy On its own. If we swap one electron in the universe with another the universe will carry on as before. These symmetries take the form of an invariance under exchange of identical particles. They first appeared to physicists in Dirac‟s relativistic equation of the electron.178 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Identical Particles Theorists often talk about unifying the gauge symmetries which are important to our understanding of the four natural forces. They also turn out to be a useful way to represent the algebra of fermionic annihilation and creation operators. The symmetry involved here is described by the symmetric groups. every electron in the universe is the same. other symmetries in nature which are rarely mentioned in the context of unification. mass etc. If we regard a Clifford algebra as an algebra which can create and annihilate fermions at spacetime events then we find we have .
Many physicists did not accept the validity of the theory at that time. The definition of Clifford Algebras is very simple. but they are probably missing the key to understanding its most natural formulation. . If there is one generator for each of N spacetime events then the algebra has 2N independent terms. The situation seems to parallel Maxwell‟s theory of electromagnetism as it was seen at the end of the 19th century. Back to Superstrings Superstring theory was an important part of the motivation for proposing the principle of eventsymmetric spacetime in the first place. This is too simple to provide a good model of spacetime but there is more. This was largely because of the apparent need for a medium of propagation for light known as the ether. In comparison with the matrix model which had a field variable for each event and each pair of linked events. a model using Clifford algebras will have these plus a variable for each triplet of events. String theorists seem to believe that the subject they are studying is already the correct theory of physics. It can be regarded as an algebraic description of a quantum gas of fermions. To each of these we can assign a field variable.The Principle of Event Symmetry 179 defined a system which is eventsymmetric. Clifford algebras also turn out to be important in construction of supersymmetries and if we take advantage of this observation we might be able to find a more interesting supersymmetric model. Einstein‟s theory of special relativity showed why the ether was not needed. It is an algebra generated by a set of elements i such that i j j i 2 ij A general element of the algebra can be expressed as sums of products of these elements. Since they square to one each need appear only once in any product. Each one is the coefficient of k different i with k < N and can be interpreted as a field variable for a ksimplex with the k events as vertices. He did not have to change the equations to correct the theory. but experiment had failed to detect it. each quadraplet etc.
We might try to generalise the fermion model described by Clifford algebras to something which was like a gas of strings. although they are not as well formed as Maxwell‟s were. To complete the theory it is again necessary to revise our concept of spacetime and remove some of its unnecessary structure just as Einstein removed the ether. It is known that in string theory there is a high temperature phase transition in which the full symmetry is realised. A string could be just a sequence of spacetime events connected in a loop. Physicists have found that new ideas about knot theory and deformed algebras are important in string theory and also in the canonical approach to quantisation of gravity. At such high temperature spacetime . This has inspired some physicists to seek deeper connections between them.180 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Instead he introduced a radical change in the way space and time were viewed. If the principle of eventsymmetric spacetime is correct then that is a much larger symmetry than people have previously imagined. In the first jiffy of existence the temperature was so high that the structure of spacetime would have been disrupted. The result is not sophisticated enough to explain all the rich mathematical structures in string theory but it may be a step towards that goal. This suggests that there is a generalisation of those algebras which represents strings of anyonic partons. Through a turn of fate it appears that certain knot relations have a clear resemblance to the relations which define the discrete eventsymmetric string algebras. The one place where a theory of quantum gravity would have most significance would be at the big bang. that is to say. It is likely that the equations we have for string theory are also correct. EventSymmetric Physics What can this theory tell us about the universe? Since it is incomplete it is limited. The most significant outcome of the eventsymmetric program so far is the discovery of an algebra which does just that. particles with fractional statistics. It is an algebraic model which can be interpreted as an algebra of strings made of closed loops of fermionic partons. It would be natural to search for an eventsymmetric string model.
. then spacetime condensed and the rest is history. and only a gas of interacting strings would be left. A reasonable interpretation of this state of affairs would be to say that spacetime has evaporated. The universe started from such a state.The Principle of Event Symmetry 181 would cease to exist in the form we would know it.
but there are still some deep conceptual problems concerning the way it is formulated. the principle of event symmetry would be a mere curiosity if it were not for string theories. Although they appear conceptually similar to quantum field theories with particles replaced by strings and higherdimensional pbranes. There are versions which are Lorentz covariant but that is a long way short of the general covariance under all coordinate transformations. The best part of its trick is to fool us into thinking that spacetime is real.182 EventSymmetric SpaceTime EventSymmetric String Theory Leap Frog In my mind. The principle of eventsymmetric spacetime is the solution which I propose as a resolution of the superstring mystery. String theory seems to understand the small scale structure of spacetime better than we do. We know that superstring theory has gravitons and supergravity is therefore a component of the effective theory of strings at low energy. it has become clear that string theories are really an altogether different and much stranger animal. but the formulations we know are not generally covariant. We should not be fooled into taking this for anything other than the clever illusion which it must surely be. For quantum field theories spacetime is just a static arena within which the action is played out. There have been many amazing discoveries about superstring theory. It is a little surprising and frustrating that this is the case and it may well be a key part of why we do not fully understand string theory. If we can formulate string theory in a way which is eventsymmetric we can leap frog over the conceptual hurdles. flat and continuous. Event symmetry is a step beyond the diffeomorphism invariance of general covariance. The most profound of these is that string theory does not directly account for the equivalence principle. but in string theory spacetime is part of the show. Supergravity is generally covariant and so incorporates ordinary general relativity with its equivalence principle. Thus string theory seems to include the equivalence principle. .
But string theory also has instantons. Then there are the new Sdualities which reverse the roles of solitons and particles. or more generally. No mere gauge symmetry can achieve this but event symmetry is much larger than any gauge theory in quantum field theory. Another reason which I already covered is the solution to Witten’s puzzle. After that comes matrix models. Next I cite the important idea that strings can be considered as composites of discrete partons. String theory may ultimately be described by something like a model of random matrices whose rows and columns may index particles. Topology change and the universal symmetry put together are difficult to reconcile without event symmetry. event symmetry is easily imagined. particles bound together like beads on a necklace. The third reason is the presence of a very large symmetry of string theory beyond its Hagedorn temperature. Models on eventsymmetric spacetime also drive physics towards the dynamics of matrices. In that case it is easy to picture strings as loops connecting discrete points of space. The first is the problem of general covariance I just described. solitonic pbranes with fundamental pbranes. yet it can explain many mysteries especially in the context of black holes. and with such discreteness. This picture may seem opposed to the usual formulation of strings as cords of continuous substance. Spacetime too seems to have a discrete character. The matrix model which seems to contain the essence of Mtheory can be interpreted in any of these ways. It is likely that there must be one dimension of symmetry to match each degree of freedom of the string. colours of gauge symmetry or spacetime events. some .EventSymmetric String Theory 183 Eight Reasons to Believe Why should anyone believe that string theory is eventsymmetric? I cannot prove it to you but I can give seven good reasons why I think it is right. A unification of gauge symmetry and particle statistics was a prediction of the principle of event symmetry which soon after appeared as a feature of this matrix model. If string theory cannot be made covariant it seems hopeful that it may be eventsymmetric instead. bringing event symmetry a step clearer. It is not known what this symmetry is but it seems to reduce the effective number of degrees of freedom enormously.
These symmetries can be made much more explicit by reformulating them in a different but equivalent way. Their importance in nonabelian gauge theories such as QCD has been known for many years and now they are playing a starring role in string theories too. of course. as well as almost all others which have ever been studied but never yet seen. a symmetry over their permutations. String theory is meant to be a unified theory of everything so its symmetries should also be unified but apparently they are not. Later they were found to be invariant under the Poincaré group of special relativity and then they were found to have an internal gauge symmetry. they include event symmetry. Instantons are excitations of a field which exist for an instant. These supersymmetries are especially elegant and. They also have other symmetry which comes in various forms and includes all the types of symmetry which have been observed in nature. event symmetry. but it is hidden because we are . Some of them are more convincing than others. None of them are absolutely conclusive. In passing through a duality transformation the instanton must reverse its role with a fundamental (1)brane and what other character can that be than a spacetime event? Like particles and any other pbrane instantons have statistics. but I can describe some string inspired supersymmetries which appear to lead the way. String Inspired Symmetry Superstrings are. It is likely that string theories also have much more symmetry than we now recognise. full of supersymmetry. This symmetry must be dual to a corresponding symmetry of spacetime events. Maxwell‟s equations for electromagnetism at first only appeared to have rotational and translational invariance. For example. of course. The final proof would be a version of string theory which explicitly exhibited event symmetry and which was equivalent to the familiar string theories. When a set of physical equations is found their symmetry does not always jump out at you from the start. I cannot offer that yet. I have now given seven bits of evidence that event symmetry is a feature of string theory.184 EventSymmetric SpaceTime times called (1)branes because they have one less dimension than particles which are 0branes and two fewer than strings which are 1branes.
cancelling out the part where they join. passes back through X and ends at Z. Take one string A starting at a point W passing through point X and ending at point Y and multiply it by another string B which starts at Y. It was the string inspired symmetries of Michio Kaku. B follows the same path in reverse as A took from X to Y. Think of open strings as continuous paths through space starting at one point and ending at another. (AB)C = A(BC) but it fails miserably to make a group. no inverses and it only defines multiplication for strings which join together at their ends. but there is one which I found particularly inspirational. It has no unit. The group elements of ordinary local gauge theories are described by a field. Y A B X W C=AB Z There have been many discoveries or near discoveries of new symmetry in string theory. We will multiply them together by joining them together if the end of the first coincides with the start of the second. What we are looking for is the stringy generalisation of gauge symmetry. i.e. This product of strings is nicely associative. The product C=AB is then the path from W to Z passing through X and following the same path as A between W and X and the same path as B between X and Z. Symmetry is about groups so to discover a new symmetry all you really need is a way of defining an associative product with an inverse and a unit on whatever objects come to mind.EventSymmetric String Theory 185 forcing ourselves to write the equations in terms of concepts which we are accustomed to. So how might open ended strings be multiplied? Strings can interact by joining together at their ends so we could think about multiplying them in a similar way. that is an element of the base group at each .
if we are talking about the U(1) gauge symmetry of the electromagnetic field there is an element of U(1) (i. Now we can also see that this multiplication has a grouplike iden . The stringy generalisation of a gauge transformation would be specified by a function f(A) from all possible string paths A to the complex numbers. Gauge transformations are multiplied together by on a simple event by event basis. think of events in spacetime as possible points that a particle worldline can pass through. then the product h(X) is just.186 EventSymmetric SpaceTime event in spacetime. So what we are really looking for is a group of objects with a complex number assigned to each string. This definition of string gauge fields actually includes ordinary particle field gauge transformations if a particle at X is identified with a zero length string which starts and ends at the same point X. h( C ) f ( A) g( B) : C AB The sum is over all pairs of strings A and B whose product according to the previous definition is C. but we will not worry about this detail just yet. h( X ) f ( X ) g( X ) For strings we do things a little differently like this. A little thought will show that string fields which are nonzero only for such strings will multiply together in the same way as particle fields. The charged matter fields are gauge transformed by multiplying by this phase factor at each event with the accompanying gauge transformation of the electromagnetic field. a complex number of modulus one) at each event. A string path is just one of the path segments through spacetime which we have already thought about. In other words the gauge transformation is specified by a function f(X) from spacetime events X to the complex numbers. For example. For a complete field there would be an infinite number of such strings and the sum becomes a difficult to define integral. If f(X) is one gauge transformation and g(X) is another.e. To generalise this.
That is what Kaku tried to do with some success. Are strings discrete? In string theory as we currently know it there is not much indication that string theory is discrete. They must live on the string world sheet. formed from closed loops. These open strings. It is the string field which is equal to one for every zero length string and zero for all others. Discrete String Theory Now I will turn to another question. Not all string fields have inverses for this multiplication but some do. there has been some interesting work by Susskind and others which does seem to suggest that string theory could be discrete. Strings are described as continuous loops in space. If the partons can be subdivided then they must be permitted to have fractional statistics. Indeed open string theory is incomplete without closed strings along side. Of course we would need to define some model of string dynamics which was invariant under the action of this group. or at least he almost solved it. They are points on the string which describe the topology of its interactions. and the set of those that do forms a group. The symmetry was flawed and sadly it never proved useful as a way to understand string gauge symmetry. but if you multiply loops together by joining them in this way you do not get an associative algebra like we did by joining open strings at their ends. However. Kaku tried to work out a version of gauge symmetry which also works for closed strings. It is not so easy. however. These partons would not exist as hard objects but can be conceptually subdivided and rejoined. In fact there were cases which did not quite work out. are less interesting than closed strings. The statistics of a whole loop of string would be the sum of the frac .EventSymmetric String Theory 187 tity. It is essentially the symmetry which Kaku defined in 1988. Kaku solved the problem by looking at the commutators of the product and defining a supersymmetry in a clever way. This group is then what we will consider as the general gauge group for continuous open strings. Closed strings can interact by coming together and joining where they touch to form a single loop. It may be possible to describe strings as objects made of small partons strung together.
In analogy to continuous strings.. The partons of the string can be tied to the events through which the string passes.188 EventSymmetric SpaceTime tional statistics of its partons and would be an integer or half integer so that the string can live in threedimensional space. The process could continue ad infinitum. It will be permitted to pass through spacetime events in any order it likes. String theory seemed to be crying out for a new type of symmetry and I thought that event symmetry could be a part of it. An example would be A = 15213 A general string of length 4 might be written . or 2branes. EventSymmetric Open String Theory In 1994 I decided that if I was to do anything serious with the principle of event symmetry I would have to apply it to string theory. If spacetime is eventsymmetric and we wish to consider eventsymmetric string field theory.. N. The obvious place to begin was from was Kaku‟s string gauge symmetry. If strings can be made of partons then surfaces. They can be reconstructed for discrete strings with interesting results. an open ended string will be defined simply by the sequence of events it passes through. Imagine spacetime as a large number N of discrete events which are arbitrarily numbered 1. . There may be structures of all dimensions in physics. then a discrete string approach is essential. 2. String theorists are now also turning to higherdimensional pbrane theories. Spacetime itself might be viewed as a membrane built in this way. . In this way strings can tie together the events of spacetime and provide an origin of topology in an otherwise unstructured eventsymmetric universe. The twodimensional string world sheets and threedimensional spacetime are more visible only because they stand out as a consequence of some as yet unknown quirk in the maths. can be made from strings. If strings are formed from loops of partons with fractional statistics then it seems natural to allow them to be knotted. We should look for ways of describing this algebraically in an eventsymmetric string theory.
This is just a way of saying that we are going to look at fields defined over these strings as we did for continuous fields. The shortest permissible strings have length 2 because they must have at least start and end points. It defines not a product for the strings. so also the unit for this algebra is the sum.. e.EventSymmetric String Theory 189 B = abcd a. subtracted and multiplied by complex number constants like vectors. Strings can be any finite length from the 2 upwards. even if these coincide at the same event.. Those fields can be added. If they do not meet it is convenient to define the product to be zero. b.g. The field is a function from the set of all strings to the complex numbers. so we call the collection of fields over strings a vector space. using a dot for the product 5431. +NN . I define multiplication of strings where the end of one coincides with the start of the other by joining them together and summing over all possibilities where identical events are cancelled. c and d are variables for the events the string passes through. It also has a unit.346 = 0 The multiplication is associative.. These strings are taken as the defining basis of a vector space. I = 11 + 22 + 33 + . Just as the unit for continuous strings came from the shortest strings with just the same start and end point. but a product for the vector space.4351 = 123351 + 1251 637.12 = 5432 1234.
what I have defined is really just an extension of matrix algebra since the subalgebra formed of strings of length two multiplies in the same way as N by N matrices. For example a loop which went through the events numbered 2. This is a disappointing failure which means that string gauge symmetry and general covariance are not yet unified for open strings. . This group could be the algebra of a symmetry of discrete open strings. This is signified by equations such as this. Of course we would need to define some model of string dynamics which was invariant under the action of this group. so long as it went round in the same cyclic order. 5. In fact. This can be done in the same way as it is done for random matrix models. but if they are closed strings the starting point should not matter. A benefit of the discrete string version is that it is easy to go from the bosonic discrete open string to the supersymmetric version. 4 and 1 returning back to 2 can also start and return at any other of the five events. It actually took me quite a lot of investigation before I discovered the correct way to do this. I started by writing down strings of events just like for open strings. This describes a rather simple sort of string theory which does not do very much except have supersymmetry. Strings of even length are taken to be bosonic and strings of odd length are taken to be fermionic. The model is eventsymmetric in the sense that the order in which the events are numbered is irrelevant. but the transformations of event symmetry which would permute the numbering of events are not a part of the symmetry algebra. 3. is an infinitedimensional unital associative algebra. The interpretation is that these are open strings made of discrete fermionic or bosonic partons at spacetime events. EventSymmetric Closed String Theory Can we do the same thing with discrete closed strings? Kaku had attempted this with his formulation of string gauge theory so why not? What is needed is a Lie superalgebra defined on a basis of closed discrete cycles.190 EventSymmetric SpaceTime What I have defined then. From any such algebra a group can be formed simply by taking the subset of everything which has an inverse.
The commutators for fermionic variables must be replaced with anticommutators where the minus sign is changed to a plus sign. This was a very satisfying result. B] = AB . were they to be excluded? The answer was not difficult to guess as with open strings the odd length loops could be considered as fermionic. B].EventSymmetric String Theory 191 25341 = 53412 = 34125 = 41253 = 12534 I found that if the number of events in a loop is even it is better to use. I experimented endlessly to work out which rules about sign factors could fit in with the Jacobi equations. 7134 = 1347 = 3471 = 4713 You cannot do that for strings of odd length because you would go round the cycle and arrive back at the beginning and find that the string was minus itself.e.BA Commutators satisfy a special equation known as the Jacobi relation [[A. [A. The cancellation of common bits of string must only be done when there is an odd number of them in a row. B] = 0 Since closed strings are meant to interact by joining together I tried defining commutators by cancelling out bits of strings wherever they went through the same events. A] + [[C. C]. In short there was only one way to make it work and it seemed lucky that it worked at all. It is not easy to define a product directly for two closed strings and make it associative but to construct groups all you really need to define is a commutator in the algebra. but only for even length strings. i. C] + [[B. What about odd length strings. A]. I discovered that I could get it to work. I had found myself forced to use supersymmetry for closed . These define a supersymmetry algebra in place of a classical symmetry.
or it had been necessary to cancel out even length bits of string instead of odd length bits. in other words. I had become aquatinted with Richard Borcherds at high school when we used to participate in mathematics competitions. There was one other satisfying result. This seemed to happen only by chance. if the signs had needed to be different. In 1995 a strange coincidence helped me out. It was a sign that I was doing something right. He had found a . Usually when you find something like this there turns out to be some deeper explanation of why it exists. It meant that if I built a model of strings with this supersymmetry algebra. whereas I was becoming interested in mathematical physics. The way the relations worked out was rather mysterious. it would have spacetime symmetries unified with internal gauge symmetry. The way the strings of length two commuted with all other strings was exactly what was required to define a rotation matrix acting on the vector space where events correspond to axis. we had very different tastes in what kind of maths we liked. Yet I had had no choice in the matter. In fact Richard and I had been the joint winners of the 1978 British Mathematical Olympiad. Borcherds was a name I recognised. A rotation can be used to permute axis. but he had approached the subject as a pure mathematician to study its symmetry. this would simply not have worked. However. I saw a paper about the role of Borcherds algebras in superstring theory. Richard was definite that he wanted to do pure maths. Anything I could turn up might help me understand what to do next. It was a bit of a surprise to discover 15 years later that Richard had made his name from a discovery about string theory. event symmetry must be part of the symmetry algebra I had discovered. or anomalies or any of the things which were usually used to justify supersymmetry in string theory. The algebras had been discovered by an old friend of mine. something that had never been achieved with string theories in continuum spacetime.192 EventSymmetric SpaceTime strings even before I had begun to think about any dynamics. I wanted to know if the supersymmetry algebra I had discovered was already known to mathematicians. We had both been in the same British team for the International Mathematical Olympiads two years running and then we knew each other at Cambridge University.
a b c d e f The permutation is composed of cycles.EventSymmetric String Theory 193 rigorous way to define an infinitedimensional supersymmetry algebra of string theory which was of interest to mathematicians. I was a little surprised when Richard quickly replied to tell me that my algebra did not quite work. An example would look like this. one of length 2 and one of length 4. In fact he too had already looked at Kaku‟s definitions of superstring gauge theory and had found that they were flawed. the flaw itself gave the clue to how it should be repaired. I knew that they were not the same thing but perhaps there would be a relation between them.. He had found a particular case which failed to satisfy the Jacobi identity. as so often happens. E To introduce closed loops we define permutations on these sequences. I had to extend my algebra to include more than one loop at a time. . a. He easily found a similar fault in my discrete string versions. Start with a set E of N events. Fortunately. and I had to allow them to interact by touching at more than one point of contact so that two loops which could come together and split into two others. I sent an email to Richard with an explanation of my supersymmetry algebra. At first it seemed like this was going to be even harder to define but I found that actually there was a conceptually simpler way to do it. This new way would give further clues about what the algebra meant. In the example there are two cycles. b. The permutation can be shown as arrows going from each event to another (or itself). Write sequences of events in the same way as for the open strings A = abcdef. But the order of the events across the page is also important. .
194 EventSymmetric SpaceTime As before these objects form the basis of a vector space. To get a complete relation the ends of the string in these diagrams must be connected to something. The empty sequence is a unit for this algebra. If they are just joined together the following two equations can be formed. The sign is reversed and if the two events are the same an extra reduced term must be included. a b + b a = 2ab a b + b a = 2 ab . a b + b a 2ab = This says that the order of two events can be interchanged keeping the loop connections intact. An associative algebra is defined on these objects by simply taking multiplication to be concatenation of two of these objects together. A more interesting algebra is now formed by factoring out a set of relationships among these elements. The relations are defined in the following diagram.
. .. (a bc) = a b . As far as I know this infinitedimensional supersymmetry has never been studied by mathematicians. This is important because the algebra of creation and annihilation operators for fermions is also isomorphic to a Clifford algebra.EventSymmetric String Theory 195 The first shows the cyclic relationships for a loop of two events. but now the cyclic relations mean that they must be interpreted as closed loops. The algebra is associative and it is consistent to consider combinations of loops with an odd total number of events as fermionic. c This notation allows the relations to be written in a way similar to those of the open strings. A more convenient notation without the connections shown is then introduced. It also has a homomorphism onto a Clifford algebra which is defined by stripping out the string connections. the algebra contains a subalgebra isomorphic to a Clifford algebra. and with an even number of events as bosonic. The second is the anticommutation relation for two loops of single events. It is possible that it can be reduced to something well known but until this is demonstrated I will assume that it is original and interesting. This is important because it can be interpreted to mean that strings only interact when they touch. it is possible to reduce every thing to a canonical basis which is a product of ordered loops. Since the relationship can be used to order the events as we wish. closed strings which do not have any events in common commute or anticommute. This justifies the interpretation of this algebra as a model of discrete closed strings made from fermionic partons. Here are a few important properties of the discrete closed string algebra which did not apply to the open string algebra. So again this generates a supersymmetry using the appropriate commutator and anticommutators.
The symmetric group on events trivially contains the diffeomorphism group over any topology. Spacetime is regarded as a discrete set of events with the permutation group on the events being contained in the universal symmetry of physics. The dual theory origins of string theory hide a clue to an underlying algebraic nature. Algebraic String Theory Although great strides have been taken towards an understanding of nonperturbative string theory. In previous work I have tackled the issue by employing the principle of eventsymmetry as a means of incorporating topology change. topology and algebra. It follows that the symmetry of eventsymmetric spacetime is included in this supersymmetry. At tree level. In that case a unification between particle statistics and gauge symmetry follows on naturally from the principle of eventsymmetry. It is encouraging that this unification also appears in the matrix model of MTheory. Another interpretation of the eventsymmetric approach which embodies this is that instantons are fundamental. The symmetric group permuting events exists as a subgroup of this. B C B C = A D A D . In dual theories the schannel and tchannel amplitudes are supposed to be equal. The final string theory may be founded on a mixture of geometry. there is still little progress towards a formulation which shows manifest general covariance. Just as solitons may be dual to fundamental particles instantons may be dual to spacetime events. Eventsymmetry is then dual to instanton statistics. in terms of Feynman diagrams this means that.196 EventSymmetric SpaceTime The length two strings generate an orthogonal group acting on the vector space spanning events. It may be that string theory has to be formulated in the absence of spacetime which will then emerge as a derived property of the dynamics.
EventSymmetric String Theory This diagram could also be distorted to look like this. . D = (A B) C = A (B C) In developing an algebraic string theory the first step would be to define creation and annihilation operators for strings analogous to Dirac‟s operators for bosonic and fermionic particles. It might be possible to do this if strings are described as composites of particles like a string of beads. The creation and annihilation operators can then be strings of ordinary bosonic or fermionic operators. The algebras I have just defined are symmetry algebras for superstrings but they are also isomorphic to algebras of string creation and annihilation operators so they represent the first steps towards an algebraic theory of strings. 197 A B C A B C = D D This figure is familiar to many mathematicians who recognise it as a diagrammatic representation of the associative law.
The Conway Polynomial was quite a powerful tool to distinguish some knots from others. I remember going to one of John Conway‟s popular lectures which he gave to the mathematics clubs. he told us.198 Is String Theory in Knots? When I was a mathematics student at Cambridge back in 1980. This one was about knot theory. I will list just a few points of interest here: Knot theory is important in understanding the physics of particles with fractional statistics: anyons or parafermions. It is possible to tie up closed loops of string into complicated tangles which can nevertheless be untied without cutting the string. How could you determine if it could be untied? Conway showed us a clever trick with groups which enabled him to determine that some knotted loops could not be untied. To summarise. Louis Kauffman had even written a substantial book called Knots and Physics (World Scientific). but there were others which were not classified in this way. Conway had generalised a polynomial invariant of knots first discovered by Alexandria many years ago. perhaps. is to discover an algorithm which can tell when a loop of string is a knot or not. Knot theory now looked like it was going to have applications to solving quantum gravity and probably other problems in condensed matter theory. Mathematicians delight in this kind of problems. Conway performed a series of tricks with bits of rope to demonstrate various properties of knots. A fundamental unsolved problem in knot theory. Conway‟s Knot Polynomial had been generalised and the problem of classifying knots seemed all but solved. But suppose I gave you a tangled loop of string. I remember thinking at the time that this was a piece of pure maths which would never have any useful applications apart from providing a way of proving that your boat cannot slip its moorings. The symmetric group is the symmetry . which can exist in one or two dimensions have properties between fermions and bosons. Ten years later a dramatic change had taken place. These particles. but it could not separate all.
of course. It would be nice to think that the two are related. These are a generalisation (or deformation) of classical Lie groups and are important in condensed matter theory. Knot theory is important in canonically quantised quantum gravity. On . in the early days of string theory. most string theorists hold the opinion that there is probably no connection between the loops of the loop representation of quantum gravity and the strings of string theory. From this point on things are going to get more technical and I am going to assume that the reader knows some maths. Where knotted loop states provide a basis of solutions to the quantum gravity equations. They are very different. they discovered that spacetime symmetry must be generalised to something they also called “superspace” . Likewise. This is described in the important loop representation of quantum gravity. Knot theory seems to be very closely related to symmetry. while the braid group from knot theory plays the same role for anyons. the other important approach to quantum gravity.Is String Theory in Knots? 199 of fermions and bosons. it was just a coincidence. surely it is not a coincidence. The knot which the loops make in space cannot pass through each other without changing the quantum state discontinuously. Quantum groups are also used to construct Topological Quantum Field theories which can be used to find invariants of manifolds. Similarly. Knot theory is closely related to quantum groups. Wheeler‟s superspace has nothing to do with the new superspace of superstring theories. By way of illustration consider the following: When Wheeler took some of the first steps in the development of canonical gravity he used the term “superspace” to refer to the threedimensional geometry of space which describes the states of the theory. Strings and knots Knotted loops have turned out to be important in the canonical approach to quantum gravity and it is natural to wonder if these loops are the same stuff as the strings of string theory. but we must not become carried away. Are these two types of superspace related? Surely it is not a coincidence! But. string theory and other physics.
Despite this there is a small group of people such as John Baez and Lee Smolin who have suggested that there might be a connection all the same. The strings and loops both have a common origin in gauge theories and they share some mathematics such as quantum groups in their description.. They must have some continuous form. superstrings can pass through each other and themselves without consequence. this means that the braid group describes a symmetry where it does not matter in which order you exchange things but if you exchange two things then exchange them again you do not necessarily get back to where you were before. a ia ja i = a ja ia j a ia i = 1 The braid group is defined in the same way but with only the former relation. In that case spacetime events would behave like particles with fractional statistics. This means that the braid group is also a candidate for part of the universal symmetry according to the principle of eventsymmetric spacetime. A String made of anyons? It is almost certainly incorrect to model strings as loops of fermions.200 EventSymmetric SpaceTime the other hand. There is a homomorphism from the braid group onto the symmetric group generated by the second relation. Put into words. Now the symmetric group can be defined by the following relations among the transposition generators a1.. The Symmetric Group to the Braid Group The principle of eventsymmetric spacetime states that the universal symmetry of physics must have a homomorphism onto the symmetric group acting on spacetime events. a2. To achieve this in an eventsymmetric framework it will be necessary to replace the fer .. a3.
but does this define a consistent algebra? It is not easy to say without some interpretation of what these symbols mean. Various schemes have been proposed but none seem ideal. q a b  q1 b a = zab . The statistics and symmetries of anyons must be described by knot theory. Defining creation and annihilation operators for anyons is not a simple matter. q . This is what we have for the strings which join the fermions. This suggests a generalisation may be possible if the string connections are replaced by knotted cords which can be tied.Is String Theory in Knots? 201 mions with partons having fractional statistics which can be divided. The commutation relations used to generate the closed string algebra will remind anyone who knows about knot polynomials of Skein relations. are there generalisations of the parton commutation relations which are consistent with the general Skein relation? One way to do it is as follows. anyons. These could be subject to the familiar Skein relations which define the HOMFLY polynomial. A deeper understanding could guide us towards the right solution.e.q 1 = z In the special case where q=1 and z=0 this relation says that string can pass through itself. The crucial question is. here we have the advantage that our anyons are strung together. However. i.
Just as bits can be combined to make volumes of information. but the centre of research in physics had then shifted to America and working in Germany at that time must have seemed like being cut off from the main action. the spin of an electron which can take to values. A binary digit or bit can take the value zero or one. This defines a more structured object which includes the symmetries of spacetime. The universe is quantised. spinup or spindown. just as when a harmonic oscillator is quantised. so he called them urs and the theory was urtheory. the group of rotations in threedimensional space. Weizsäcker wrote the two components as ur where r = 1 or 2. After the war he became a director of a department in the Max Planck Institute of Physics in Göttingen. In 1938 he had made an important contribution to the theory of the „carbon cycle‟ of nuclear fusion in stars.is also a prefix meaning „original‟ or „primitive‟ in German so there is a double meaning. Then in 1939 war broke out and Weizsäcker became a key scientist under Heisenberg in the team which failed to build the atomic bomb for Nazi Germany. urs can be combined by tensor products to define higherdimensional state spaces. so quantise the bit. This group is also a double covering of SO(3). You could think of a bit as about the simplest universe possible. Perhaps that is why Weizsäcker came up with a fundamental idea which seemed completely out of touch with what anybody else was doing at the time. Just as quantisation of a field generates a multiparticle theory. He proposed a bold theory of a way that spacetime and physics might be constructed from a single bit of information by repeatedly applying the process of quantisation. Any amount of information can be coded using a sufficient number of bits. each ur of the quantum bit is replaced with a creation and annihilation operator.202 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Multiple Quantisation Baron Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker had an inauspicious beginning to his career as a physicist. This third quantisation generates a primitive . The spin state is a unit length vector with two complex components which rotates under the action of SU(2) matrices. but ur. It is also possible to quantise a second time. the urs can be quantised again. Now you have the quantum of spin1/2.
Roger Penrose initiated an inspired attempt to derive the properties of spacetime from combinatorics. a theory of spacetime combining general relativity and quantum mechanics. This achieved the same end as Weizsäcker but in a mathematically more powerful form. he recognised the importance of spinhalf and the way spins can be combined to make higher spins. But spinnetworks turned out to be significant for fourdimensional quantum gravity too. Perhaps further quantisation can produce more of the structures of physics but the work remains incomplete. . Penrose Spin Networks In 1971. There has already been much progress towards a fourdimensional theory of spin foams. Penrose was able to define discrete networks of spins which possessed geometric properties of threedimensional space. is a remarkable parallel between the spinnetwork program started by Penrose and the urtheory of Weizsäcker. An interesting aspect to this story which makes it relevant here. relativists discovered that spinnetworks should define a base of states for quantum gravity. gravity in three dimensions is much simpler than in four dimensions. and are then quantised twice more. an algebraic deformation of the original group which was discovered in the 1980s. Like Weizsäcker. Then in 1992 Boulatov showed how you could define a quantisation of functions on quantum groups which formed spin networks. Later a connection was found between the spin networks and Regge‟s discrete lattice approach to quantum gravity. Both are based in properties of SU(2) spinors. However. It was discovered that spin networks solved quantum gravity in three dimensions. but in rather different ways. In urtheory these spinors are regarded as the first quantisation of a bit. There are no gravitational waves in a universe with one less space dimension than ours. If only this could be extended to four dimensions we would have found the holy grail of physics. SU(2) is first quantised to give the quantum group SUq(2).Is String Theory in Knots? 203 form of field theory. Spin networks are also derived by quantising SU(2) twice. If only they could discover the correct dynamics the breakthrough would be complete. Using the canonical quantisation methods which had led to the loop representation.
which is what happens in classical mechanics. You just have to systematically find the momenta pi corresponding to each position variable xi in the system and then substitute operators for each position and momentum such that they satisfy a commutator relation. p j ] ij The operators act on a state wavefunction which evolves according to a general form of the Schrödinger equation. Quantum mechanics is said to be a deformation because it reduces to classical mechanics as a special case. We now think of classical mechanics as just an approximation to the real quantum mechanics. [ xi . It is rather curious that this process of quantisation exists. The fact that it is possible to derive the quantum mechanics from the classical approximation through a process of quantisation is just a handy trick of nature to which we should . The first quantisation is often seen as a mistake of little significance.204 EventSymmetric SpaceTime What all this suggests is that multiple quantisation is of some fundamental importance to physics. It had been known since nearly the beginning of quantum theory that second quantisation was the way to construct quantum field theory. Some physicists even want to get rid of the term second quantisation because they dislike that interpretation so much. If Planck‟s constant h were zero this would merely mean that all operators commute like real numbers. It is possible that they will turn out to be utterly wrong and Weizsäcker‟s multiple quantisation will be seen as a great insight many years ahead of its time when he first wrote about it in 1955. What is Quantisation? Quantisation as a formal process was introduced by Dirac as a generalisation of Heisenberg‟s mechanics of noncommuting matrices. but this has always been regarded as a quirk rather than a fundamental feature. Dirac showed that in principle you can take any classical system based on a principle of least action and turn it into a quantum theory.
In the real world the Schrödinger equation must be modified to make it relativistic and gauged to introduce forces between the first and second quantisation. q is a complex number parameter and in the special case where q = 1 the quantum group reduces to the classical one. Quantising a system which has different states seems to have something about all the different ways of going from A to B which are two different states of the system. . In quantum mechanics these ways are the possible time evolutions of the system between the two states but it may be possible to generalise the concept further. Again you could in principle take any classical system with an action and quantise it using the path integral to define how the wave function evolves. or should we? The fact that we have to do a second quantisation to get field theory is also just a curiosity. Here quantisation is another type of deformation. after all. A symmetry from a classical matrix group like SU(N) can be quantised to give a quantum group SUq(N). it is very curious that things should work that way at all. other equivalent ways to quantise a classical system were found. The suggestion is that there is some much more general algebraic process of quantisation of which both these things are a special case. Mathematicians have found ways in which quantum groups can arise through path integration too. There is a real sense in which quantising a group with q=exp(ih) is very similar to quantising a system of mechanics. Path integrals may give a clearer picture of what quantisation really is. Could multiple quantisation as we now understand it nevertheless be an echo of some deep feature of the final theory which just happens to become messed up as that theory is reduced to the approximation we know of it? In modern times the term quantisation has been used to mean things other than what Dirac and Feynman meant. it only works exactly for a simple nonrelativistic system of noninteracting electrons. Then again. We do not yet know what that general process is. but it is less direct. This is not quite the same process as Dirac‟s quantisation but the analogy goes further than just borrowing the terminology. The most revealing of those was Feynman‟s path integral.Is String Theory in Knots? 205 attach no great significance. This certainly mucks up the procedure. Since Dirac‟s first formulation.
The fermionic operators which are strung together in the discrete string model form a Heisenberg Lie superalgebra when the strings are removed.B] .206 EventSymmetric SpaceTime In quantum field theory multiple particle systems are a derived consequence of quantising a classical field theory. A B  B A = [A. There could be no clearer signal that the role of quantisation in physics is more special than it has often been given credit for. A special kind of soliton was discovered to be a solution of classical nonabelian gauge theories and they are interpreted as magnetic monopoles. This construction may explain why structures of so many different dimensions are important in string theory. Strangely. They are called solitary waves or just solitons. It may also provide some clues about what multiple quantisation is. there are other types of particle which appear as solutions of some classical systems. the elements of the Liealgebra can be strung together on strings but this time the commutation relations will look like this. The duality mixes up classical and quantum. The Supersymmetric ladder I shall now demonstrate a supersymmetric ladder construction which generalises the discrete fermion string symmetry. The universal enveloping algebra of this is then a Clifford algebra. What makes these especially strange is that they exist in the classical system and yet there may be a duality between monopoles and the electrically charged particles which only appear in the quantum field theory. I would like to repeat the string construction starting from a general Lie superalgebra. As before. To keep things simple I will begin with just an ordinary Lie algebra A.
The process can be generalised to a Lie superalgebra. The algebra formed by applying the ladder operator an infinite number of times will have the property that it is isomorphic to the algebra formed by applying the ladder operator to itself. In the case where A is a Heisenberg superalgebra there is a homomorphism from L(A) onto the discrete string algebra which I defined previously. The ladder operator can be applied as many times as desired to generate higherdimensional symmetry algebras. It is certainly of interest to ask whether this situation actually arises after just a finite number of steps of the ladder. The interpretation is that we generate a supersymmetry algebra as string world sheets. The interesting thing to do now is look at what happens if we apply the L ladder operator to the string algebra. = and also the similar coassociativity relationship upside down. So this process can be regarded as a generalisation. This last observation raises some interesting mathematical puzzles. This can be visualised by circling the discrete strings around the network so that they are replaced with tubes. This makes it impossible to apply the ladder operator an infinite number of times to generate a single algebra which contains all the previous ones. There is always a homomorphism from L(A) back onto A. Would it be too daring to conjecture that the algebra becomes complete after only 26 steps in the ordinary Lie algebra case and 10 steps in the supersymmetric case? To progress further it will be necessary to study more general categories like those defined by Skein relations.Is String Theory in Knots? 207 The commutation relations can be shown to be consistent with the Jacobi relations provided the functors satisfy the following associativity relationship. Mathematical . Furthermore. In this way we can take out Lie algebra A and generate a new Lie algebra L(A).
The hope is that a full theory of quantum gravity and string theory can be constructed algebraically in such a fashion. Some may be seen as composites in one manifestation but in a dual theory the roles may be reversed. This is supported in string theory by the observation that second quantised string theory in 10 dimensions is first quantised Mtheory in 11 dimensions. Quantisation raises the dimensions of objects as well. Invariance under quantisation may be a fundamental principle which explains pbrane democracy.208 EventSymmetric SpaceTime physicists such as Louis Crane have looked at ways to construct ncategories by stepping up a ladder of dimensions. quantisation acts as a symmetry on the theory. According to a principle of pbrane democracy we should not regard any particular objects as more fundamental than others. To construct such theories from first principles it may be necessary to go the other way and open up hidden dimensions but what is the process which performs this operation? The suggestion of this chapter is that it is quantisation which allows us to go back up the dimensional ladder. The ladder of dimensions In string theory there is evidence that membranes and spacetimes of various different dimensions play important roles. The ultimate theory may have the property that it is equivalent to itself under quantisation. In general we should expect a ktimes quantised Ddimensional theory to correspond to a (k1)times quantised theory in (D+1) dimensions. The symmetries I have described here could be a related to such structures. Quantisation of a pbrane generates a (p+1)brane. From Mtheory in 11 dimensions or Ftheory in 12 dimensions it is possible to construct the important critical string theories in 10 dimensions. This is consistent with the observation of classical/quantum dualities in compactified string theories. The strings themselves arise by winding membranes round the compactified dimensions so embedded objects can also be reduced in dimension. Everything is ultimately . It is possible to go down the scale of dimensions by compactifying spacetimes. What simple explanation can account for such a diversity of fundamental objects. In other words.
The best candidate for a mathematical discipline in which such a definition may be possible is category theory and its generalisation to ncategory theory. ncategories permit higherdimensional processes which map between morphisms. It is known that ncategories are related to ndimensional topological quantum field theories but there is still much about them which is not understood. This dream of a structured theory of pbranes invariant under quantisation will only be realised if a suitable definition of quantisation can be found. If the process of quantisation could be defined as a constructive mapping from an ncategory to an (n+1)category the link between dimension and quantisation would be established. . Category theory is a way to describe objects and morphisms between them. Mathematical physicists such as John Baez have been studying their properties which relate beautifully to quantum theory and geometry. A complete theory may be defined as the category which is equivalent to itself under quantisation. It must be an algebraic definition which can be applied recursively. but instantons too can be regarded as higherdimensional objects which have been compactified so the process has no bottom as well as no top.Is String Theory in Knots? 209 built out of instantons and the process of composition is multiple quantisation.
the convergence of principles in modern physics seems to suggest that it does.210 The Theory of Theories The Theory That Flies As everybody knows. as Steven Weinberg argues in “Dreams of a Final Theory”. There remain many puzzles but those will probably be solved once a unified theory of quantum gravity and the other forces is found. Such a theory would be the final fundamental theory. What could be so unique about them that . although it will not be the end of physics. “Why do we exist?” Physicists can be justly proud of the fact that almost everything in physics can be accounted for with just a small number of basic equations embracing general relativity and the standard model of particle physics. How many physicists have not wondered what principle of simplicity and beauty underlies that final theory? Could we not take an intellectual leap and work it out from what we already know? Surely the equations which describe the evolution of the universe at its most fundamental level must possess some magical properties to distinguish them all the other equations which merely describe hypothetical universes. The equations may be cast in other forms but they would always be exactly equivalent. One day he hopes to understand the most basic laws of physics and he hopes that they will provide an answer to the most difficult question of all. When pressed the physicist will probably admit that he does physics because he too seeks deeper explanations of what things are and why things are the way they are in the universe. There is no a priory reason why such a theory should exist but. the job of a theoretical physicist is to invent theories of the universe. A nonprofessional might ask a physicist “What is charge?” or “What is time?” or “What is gravity?” He will be disappointed when the physicist replies that his theories do not even try to explain what these things are. Theories are just mathematical models which make predictions about how they will behave in experiments.
Such was the case when Heisenberg formulated a theory of quantum mechanics which . would have mathematicians who discover the same theorems with just different notation. They would usually say that they discovered new mathematics rather than invented it. In early history there was little distinction between a mathematician and a physicist but in modern times pure mathematicians have explored their subject independently of any potential application. If this were not the case.The Theory of Theories 211 they take on a life of their own? As John Wheeler put it: What makes them fly? Some people imagine that some reason for existence was present at the moment of creation. The Nature of Nature If there is really a unique principle on which the laws of physics are founded then to understand it we should look for clues in the nature of nature. if nature was governed instead by a committee of demons who made nature follow their whims. What becomes so surprising is the extent to which mathematical structures are applicable to physics. One thing is clear: Nature uses mathematics. Scientists would be replaced by sorcerers. Sometimes a physicist will discover a useful mathematical concept only to be told by mathematicians that they have been studying it for some time and can help out with a long list of useful theorems. Those pure mathematicians have constructed a huge web of logical structures which have a remarkable inner beauty only apparent to those who take the time to learn and explore it. It is almost certain that another intelligence on another planet. they say. the character of physical law. then there would be little hope for us to understand physics and predict the outcome of experiments or invent new technology. or even in a different universe. I have already argued against such temporal causality in all forms and I also see no reason to believe that the Big Bang is not a unique event in the cosmos. Mathematics has an existence of its own. Some cause must have brought the universe into being in a “big bang” and the laws of physics were set there and then. That leaves ontological causality which is what I am discussing here. or as Feynman called it. The relationship between physics and mathematics seems to be much deeper than we yet understand.
It has also been noted by Feynman that physical law seems to take on just such a form that it can be reformulated in several different ways. Dirac explained that it was this way that he found his famous equation for the electron. Simplicity is very subjective. Other examples abound. Recently the mathematical theory of knots has found a place in theories of quantum gravity.212 EventSymmetric SpaceTime used matrix operations previously unfamiliar to physicists. All three are mathematically equivalent but very different. You might attempt to define simplicity objectively by measuring the minimum length of a computer program designed to carry out a simulation of the universe but I do not accept that this is workable. Such is the extent to which mathematics is used in physics that physicists find new theories by looking for beautiful mathematics rather than by trying to fit functions to empirical data as you might expect. Quantum mechanics can be formulated in terms of Heisenberg‟s matrix mechanics. I consider this a nonstarter. the extensive use of the classification of Lie groups. in particle physics. Perhaps there is a unique principle which determines the laws of physics and which explains why there is such a tight relationship between mathematics and physics. Before that. The laws of physics seem to share the mathematician‟s taste for what is beautiful. Einstein‟s application of nonEuclidean geometry to gravitation and. It is what Wigner called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences”. It is a deep mystery as to why this should be the case. mathematicians had considered it an area of pure mathematics without application (except to tying up boats of course). Now the role played by knots in fundamental physics seems so important that we might even guess that the reason space has three dimensions is that it is the only number of dimensions within which you can tie knots in strings. The simplest complex universe might then be something like a cellular automaton and the details would depend on the syntax of the computer language . It is impossible to say that one is more correct than the others. The laws of physics are supposed to be the simplest possible in which intelligent life could exist. Schrödinger‟s wave mechanics or Feynman‟s path integrals. Some people imagine that the principle must be one of simplicity.
Something which embraces all of mathematics. especially in the temporal form which says that everything has a cause in the past. So what is it? Can we ask why? Perhaps we need to be more modest and first ask ourselves if we have the right to ask questions about why we exist.The Theory of Theories 213 we choose. There are. however. Look at these pictures . The fundamental principle of physics must be something more general. Nothing came in from outside to make it happen and there is no clock inside a neutron which counts down to the moment at which the decay must be set off. Why is Pythagoras‟s theorem true? It is easy to prove. It is the principle which explains the nature of nature. It just happens without a cause. A neutron left on its own for a few minutes spontaneously decays. We have come to doubt this. reasons why neutrons decay. There is no reason why one set of equations should “fly”. Let us take an example. Does everything have such an ontological cause? First ask the question in mathematics where we think we understand the rules better. It can be explained in terms of the interactions to which its constituents are subject. Furthermore. Do why questions make sense? Causality originally meant the principle that everything has a cause. if the laws of physics were merely some isolated piece of mathematics chosen for its simple beauty then there would be no explanation why so much of mathematics is incorporated into physics. A principle of simplicity would suggest that there is an optimal simplest form of the laws of physics whereas we have seen that they want to be expressed in many equally valid mathematical forms.
then the rational numbers and then the reals. Pythagoras theorem follows by such proofs from the axioms of geometry chosen by Euclid. Euclidean space is then defined using Cartesian coordinates and the distance between two pairs of coordinates is defined to be the answer given . Now we have two alternative proofs and hence two alternative reasons for why the theorem is true. It is known that the areas of such similar shapes are proportional to the square of the length of a side such as the hypotenuse. There is no obvious relation between them so they appear to be distinct reasons. This proof makes the theorem obviously true at a glance but is it the reason why it is true? In an alternative proof a right triangle is divided in two by a line perpendicular to the hypotenuse like this The triangle is split into two smaller right triangles and examination of the angles shows that they must both be the same shape as the original but with different size and orientation. We can at least say then that there is no unique reason why something is true in mathematics.214 EventSymmetric SpaceTime The two outer squares are the same size and shape and so are the areas of the four right triangles inside. Using sets it is possible to construct a model of the natural numbers. but modern mathematics is often founded on a different set of axioms such as those of set theory. Once the hypotenuse of each the three triangles is identified it is then easy to see that Pythagoras‟s theorem follows. Therefore the remaining areas inside must also be equal so the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.
We may well find a reason “why” for many things that happen but they might not be unique and may often not exist at all. This observation has inspired much faith among physicists and philosophers in the anthropic principle. seem to be just right to allow organised complexity to develop.The Theory of Theories 215 by Pythagoras theorem. just right to allow life to develop. such as the fine structure constant. a flower. Perhaps we might even say. a planet. The anthropic principle supposes that the laws of physics are indeed selected so that intelligent life has a maximum chance of developing in the universe. Certainly there are some theorems in mathematics which have direct proofs which can be considered to be the unique reason that they are true. In general. nuclear physics. Most impressive of all (that we know of) are living beings like ourselves. He realised that without it the higher weight elements would not have formed and we would not exist. cosmology and other sciences are dependent on the details of the laws of physics suggests that the existence of so much complexity is no accident. The question “why do we exist?” probably does not have a final answer but we might at least hope to understand why the laws of physics take the form that they do – as yet unknown – even if the answer is not unique. a crystal. There are many famous examples such as the nuclear resonance of carbon12 which was predicted by Fred Hoyle in 1953. No such absolute causality can be guaranteed. Examination of the way that chemistry. The precise values of various constants of nature. In this approach Pythagoras is true (for some triangles at least) by definition. a star. truth in mathematics is independent of proof and “why” questions cannot be said to have absolute answers. Believers ask us to consider first why our planet Earth is so well suited to the evolution of life while other planets in the solar system . If this is true in mathematics then we should not expect it to be different in physics. astrophysics. a galaxy. Many Anthropic Principles The universe is populated by an impressive menagerie of objects which exhibit organised complexity. They exist on all length scales from the atomic to the cosmological.
even a hypothetical computer simulation would reveal little of interest in the turmoil of those universes. Another interpretation of the anthropic principle. Sometimes the phenomenology of such a system will be dull or easily determined and nothing interesting will happen. developed by Lee Smolin. Somewhere in between would exist our universe which has just the right balance of equations in its physical laws for intelligent life to exist and explore the nature of its environment. it is essential that some physical parameters such as the fine structure constants should be able to vary rather than being determined by some equation. This scenario makes a number of demands on the nature of physical laws.216 EventSymmetric SpaceTime seem to be more hostile. Each such system has a set of physical laws which allow its structure to be determined in principle. In particular. The same principle can then be extended to the whole universe. Future theories of quantum gravity may tell us if this is so. Smolin‟s explanation of . Within this population of worlds there will be some with laws conducive to life. more baby universes. Through a process of natural selection universes might evolve over many generations to have constants which are conducive to further procreation. This might mean that they are optimised for the production of black holes and. is that there is one universe with a set of physical laws much as we know them. Universes governed by such laws might give birth to baby universes with different physical constants. Those laws may have a number of variables which determine the physical constants but which can vary in certain extreme situations such as the collapse of massive stars into black holes. The answer is that we would not be on this planet to consider the question if it were not suitable for life to evolve here. Sometimes it will be so complicated that nothing can be determined. indeed. Sometimes they will be simple and beautiful and often they will be complex and ugly. the production of black holes may be linked to the existence of advanced lifeforms which could have an interest in fabricating black holes as energy sources. One way to understand the anthropic principle is to imagine that all possible universes exist with a validity which is equal to our own. from them. When we say all possible universes we might mean any system which can be described by mathematics.
You might try to argue that the laws of physics have to take a certain form because otherwise they would be impossible to understand. Is the Anthropic Principle Enough? The Anthropic Principle is compelling enough for us to wonder if it can determine the laws of physics on its own. I don‟t buy it! I am convinced that a suitable mathematical system. I know of no convincing argument that it can. Whether or not the principle is valid as an explanation for some of the characteristics of nature and the values of its parameters I believe that there must be some other principle which explains those other aspects of physical law. It is hard not to be swayed even taking into account that we cannot be sure that life will not develop in different unknown ways in universes with different laws. can include sufficient complexity that intelligent life would evolve within it. They would not need to know so much sophisticated mathematics as we do to explore the physics of our universe. In the case of cellular automata. perhaps even something as simple as a cellular automaton. . There is nothing in the anthropic principle which explains why so many of the most elegant discoveries of mathematics are so important in physics.The Theory of Theories 217 the laws of physics calls on temporal causality so it is not in line with the philosophy of this book. The anthropic principle may well play a role in shaping our universe. There is nothing to explain why there is so much symmetry in physics. The arguments given by its proponents include lists of ways in which the laws of physics are apparently tuned to suit life. the cellular physicists living in it would probably be able to work out the rules of the automata because its discrete nature and simple symmetry would be clear and easily uncovered. There must be a huge variety of possible forms the laws of physics could have taken and there must be many in which life evolves. or why the elegant principle of least action is important or even why the laws of physics should be the same in one place as they are in another.
This type of universality has an independent existence which transcends details of the specific equations which generate it. Those languages and a large number of other possibilities turn out to give an equivalent definition of computability despite the fact that they look very different. The universal . Computability of a sequence of integers can be defined in terms of a hypothetical programming language such as a Turing machine or a Minsky machine.218 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Universality For centuries mathematicians confined themselves to looking at specific structures with simple definitions and interesting behaviour. There is no most natural or most simple way to define computability but classical computability itself is a natural and unambiguously defined concept. Computability. The message I wish to draw from this is that the laws of physics may themselves be a universal behaviour of some general class of systems. can be seen as a universal characteristic of computing languages. If this is the case then we should not expect the laws of physics to be given by one most natural formulation. The microscopic details of the forces between particles are reduced to just a few macroscopic parameters which describe the thermodynamic characteristics. If we made contact with an alien intelligence we would probably find that they had an equivalent concept of computability but probably not quite the same definitions. This discovery was how Leo Kadanoff first introduced the concept of universality in 1970 and since then it has been recognised and exploited in many forms. then. A more mathematical example is the notion of computability. Statistical physics looks at the behaviour of systems with many degrees of freedom. Like computability there may be many ways to describe them. In 1975 Mitchell Feigenbaum made the discovery that a large class of complex systems of chaotic nonlinear equations exhibits a universal behaviour characterised by the Feigenbaum constants. Such systems exhibit a universal behaviour near critical points which can be described by the laws of thermodynamics. With the arrival of powerful computers they are now looking at general behaviour of complex systems. Other examples of universality can be identified in physics and mathematics.
We might well ask if the same can be applied to mathematical systems in general to reveal the laws of physics as a universal behaviour which dominates the space of all possible theories and which transcends details of the construction of individual theories. To understand the Theory of Theories we start from the same premise as we do with the anthropic principle. We can also remark that quantum mechanics and statistical physics are closely related through an exchange of real and imaginary time. The Theory of Theories At last we come to the main hypothesis of this chapter. We know from Feynman‟s Path Integral formulation of quantum mechanics that the evolution of the universe can be understood as a supposition of all possible histories that it can follow classically. I suggest that the laws of physics are a universal behaviour to be found in the class of all possible mathematical systems. there is evidence that thermodynamics runs deeper than just a behaviour of particle systems. If this was the case then we would expect the most fundamental laws of physics to have many independent formulations with no one of them standing out as the simplest. Furthermore. This might be able to explain why such a large subset of mathematics is so important in physics. We can simply take this to be our definition of existence. The same principle is at work in statistical physics where a vast state space is dominated by contributions at maximum entropy leading to thermodynamic behaviour. that all mathematically consistent models exist just as our own universe exists. It is also found to be a useful description of black hole dynamics.e. If the laws of physics are to be seen as a universal behaviour of some class of systems then it is necessary to ask what class to choose.The Theory of Theories 219 behaviour of a class of complex systems would be likely to display organised complexity itself. The expectation values of observables are dominated by a small subset of possibilities whose contributions are reinforced by constructive interference. This is known as The Theory of Theories. i. All these things are intimately related and hint at the importance of universality in nature at its most fundamental level. We can regard any possible mathematical system as a theory of physics. .
left to their own devices mathematicians might be capable of finding the central source of the heat. It also suggests that a dominant theory could be reformulated in many equivalent ways without any one particular formulation being evidently more fundamentally correct than another. Symmetries are perfectly restored in the limit. The Wilson discretisation preserves a discrete form of the gauge symmetry but destroys the spacetime rotational symmetry. If this is the case then it seems that the critical point is surrounded by a very high density of points in the space of theories. Perhaps mathematicians sense intuitively when they are near the hot spots in the space of theories. This is exactly what we would expect if universal behaviour dominating in theory space was to exhibit high symmetry. There is no a priori reason to believe that mathematical theories should have some universal behaviour. We can imagine a space of discrete theories around the YangMills theory for which symmetry is lost at almost all points. If physics springs in such a fashion from all of mathematics then it seems likely that discovery of these laws will answer many old mathematical puzzles. As the critical point is approached correlation lengths grow and details of the discretisation are lost. Eventually. if physicists do not get there first. Perhaps ultimately there is an explanation for the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in physics contained in this philosophy. I am not alone in thinking along these lines. Consider a lattice approximation to a YangMills quantum field theory in the Euclidean sector. but if they did it might explain why there is so much crossreference in mathematics.220 EventSymmetric SpaceTime Can we use the Theory of all Theories to explain why symmetry is so important in physics? There is a partial answer to this question which derives from an understanding of critical behaviour in statistical physics. They notice the heightened beauty. the multitude of unexpected connections. and details of all the different discretisations are washed out. Physicist Holger Nielsen has made a similar conjecture and Edward Fredkin has sug . The symmetric continuum theory exists at a critical point in this space. If we had more carelessly picked a discretisation scheme we would expect to break all the symmetry.
a2.... a2. . So. a1. The set is sufficiently diverse to cover all mathematics because. or is it? Perhaps we could search for a universal behaviour in the set of all possible computer programs. At first it seems rather hard to make progress with the theory of theories beyond the philosophical conception. since it is necessary to define an appropriate topology and measure in the space of all mathematical theories. we can write a computer program to explore any mathematical problem.. All stories are out there. The rules of physics follow from a dominating universal property of the ensemble of universes. one universe) had a number N of variables. John Wheeler proposed this as a place to start and called it It From Bit. but we are not interested in understanding the details of any one. aN) . Suppose one system (one theory. The general philosophy is the storyteller‟s paradigm. told as mathematical possibilities. in principle. We are concerned about the universal behaviour of very big programs randomly written in some (any) computer language.. its degrees of freedom.The Theory of Theories 221 gested that the laws of physics may be found in a universality class of cellular automata. Mathematics is just too large for this. Perhaps the details would fade into the background and the whole could be understood using the methods of statistical physics. I think therefore I am. Simple computer programs can be very complex to understand. E(a1. is it really possible to derive the laws of physics from pure mathematics without any reference to empirical observations as Descartes thought? If the Theory of Theories is correct then the answer should be “yes”. .. The variables of a large program would evolve in some kind of statistical manner. aN In addition there must be an energy function.
this is quite a difficult mathematical problem and I am not going to solve it. Somewhere in this complete set of systems you could find something close to any mathematical universe you thought of. or points on a higherdimensional manifold.. . a2. Hence we can define a larger set of theories as the completed metric space of statistical systems. For example. By means of this technique we include even renormalisable lattice gauge theories into the theory space.222 EventSymmetric SpaceTime In the system. What did I mean when I said “close”? Two different systems would be isomorphic if there was a one to one mapping between them which mapped the weight function of one onto the weight function of the other. This defines a metric space with the minimum correlation as metric.. They could be discrete variables or real numbers. The renormalisation process can be defined as a Cauchy sequence of finite statistical systems. Perhaps I did not really get much further than Descartes! .E(a1. We could define a distance between two systems by finding the function mapping one to the other which minimised the correlations between them. A powerful property of metric spaces is that they can be completed by forming Cauchy sequences. cellular automata would exist as limiting cases where the energy function forced discrete variables to follow rules. It remains to define a natural measure on this space and determine if it has a universal point where the total measure within any small radius of this point is larger than the measure on the rest of the space. Needless to say. a possible set of values for these variables would appear with a weight given by Z = exp[. aN)] I have not said much about the values of these variables.