String Quest

© Fernando Caracena, 2015

Not a Theory, but Really a Quest

Not Even Wrong is the name of a blog, which takes it name from Lee Smolin's book, which severely criticised string theories. A real theory can be proved or disproved. Since there are not any good tests for string theory, it can neither be proved nor disproved. So perhaps the best description of string theory is that it is really a quest for the best mathematical framework for arriving at a theory of everything. But, we are not there yet. Nevertheless, string theory does give us a conceptual framework that clarifies several philosophical issues.

Energy and Information as Substance and Form

At the most fundamental  level, physics involves the flow of information and energy. Basic to quantum mechanics is the idea that information is conserved; and of course, energy is also conserved. Philosophically, we can associate energy with substance and information with the form that that substance takes, or can take. Energy is the substance of physical reality, and information is the collection of all the forms that are available for it to take.

String theory does make some predictions regarding information that physicists like, but which cannot be proved to be correct by presently known experimental means. Stephen Hawking once said something shocking to quantum physicists: not only matter is lost from our universe when it disappears into a black hole, but its information content disappears as well. For many years, Leonard Susskind and Hawking openly debate this idea at various gatherings of physicists. This controversy and its solution is described in "The Black Hole War", a book written by the former. Susskind took the position that information is conserved and cannot just disappear into a black hole.

The black hole war was finally settled in favor of the conservation of information by arguments about what happens at the event horizon of a black hole. Hawking had decided that virtual particle-antiparticle pairs that form at the event horizon could be split apart by the intense gravitational field, which would allow on of the pairs of particles to be emitted by the black hole. In this way, energy could leak out of a black hole by what was called Hawking radiation. In time an isolated black hole could radiate away all  of its trapped energy, the process happening more rapidly as the mass of the black hole became smaller. This means that microscopic black holes are very unstable and disappear rapidly.

The arguments that enforce the conservation of information in black hole physics depend on string theory, which is currently not provable by experimental means. The consequences of the idea and its proof are earth shattering: the universe is a two-dimensional hologram, its apparent three dimensionality is a construct that emerges from the way we perceive physical reality, whatever it actually is. And if one does not like the idea that the physical world is composed of strings in a space of at least ten dimensions plus another for time, then one has to invent a theory that explains how a more straightforward descriptions can look like a lot of vibrating strings.

Darwinian Evolution

The ideas presented above force us to reframe the arguments between those who believe the theory of evolution in all areas including philosophical ones and the "creationists", although the creationists rejecting conventional scientific explanations would probably not recognize the constraints imposed on the argument.

Philosophical evolution recognizes no constraints on the probability of anything happening. The principle of the conservation of information speaks loud about the ground rules for the mechanism of evolution. Evolving life form organisms are explorations into low probabilistic states of matter that are fostered by non-equilibrium thermodynamics. The properties that emerge in systems of matter that grow up as "dissipative structures"  are systems of organization that were already possible in our universe. The necessary conditions for those organisms to emerge select out the particular set of possible states. The whole system of interlocking possibilities are what we call Gaia on our own planet.

Who knows what emergent life forms and planetary systems of interdependent life forms are possible? We have one occurrence of such a system on our own planet, but it may take trans-galactic travels to encounter other possible type systems. There is a lot out there that remains to be discovered. There is a bright future for science, if humanity does not blow itself up or implode into a new dark age. Let us hope for the best.


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