The Theory Of Everything

Last modified on November 16th, 2007

In 1905, a research paper was submitted that forever changed how science views the world. In it, the author postulated that the laws of physics, which were at the current time regarded as universal, actually depended on the relative motion between the object and that of the observer.

The consequences of that paper are far reaching, for it implies that even the passage of time itself depends on motion. That is, two clocks that are absolutely synchronized at rest will no longer be synchronized if the clocks are forced to travel at different speeds. That result, proven time and time again in many experiments, is woven into many current technologies, one of which is the GPS navigation system, where corrections must be made to the algorithm based on the relative speeds of the various satellites in orbit.

What’s extremely interesting about this discovery was that it was not made by a well known intellectual at that time, but instead was submitted by a relatively unknown Swiss patent clerk who had been dabbling in physics during his spare time.

That clerk was of course Albert Einstein.

After turning the world of science on its head with his theory of relativity, Einstein spent the rest of his life trying to devise a grand theory (known in science circles as the Unified Field Theory) that would unite all the branches of physics, and fully explain the observable world. Despite his best efforts, he was unfortunately unsuccessful.

Since that time, many researchers have struggled to complete what Einstein started nearly 100 years ago. And while many theories have been proposed (the most well known of those is now called String Theory), none of them have really come close.

Which is why I find it extremely interesting that recently a new paper, receiving rave reviews from some mainstream scientists, has emerged that provides not only a relatively simple theory of how everything ties together, but also depicts the fabric of the universe as a stunning geometrical shape.

The author of that paper? A 39 year old surfer in Hawaii.

And while I’m sure that the quest for that grand theory will continue for a while, it is a quest I have always believed is worth pursuing. For at the heart of that effort is quite simply the search for truth, a pursuit that has shown not only how large the universe is, but also how truly insignificant our role is in it. And once you come to accept that, many of the problems we face as inhabitants of this planet seem rather small and easily repairable by comparison.

Take for example this image, captured by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it passed out of our own solar system:

The late Dr. Carl Sagan, a well-known astronomer, once said these words about this photo:

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

No matter what religion you believe in or what colour your skin is, there is an undeniable truth in that last sentence — that we owe it to ourselves and each other to base our lives on kindness, compassion, understanding and respect, not only for each other, but for this place we call home.

18 responses to “The Theory Of Everything”

  1. A.J.Rowley says:

    Very thoughtful Duane.

    You know, I read an article on that ‘surfer dude’ the other day. It’s quite an interesting theory he’s proposed. Whether it has any application or not has yet to be seen, but it does seem to suggest a certain subtlety to the universe. We tend to associate large ideas with complexities, but this is not always the case. Something that, in light of Sagan’s words above, is quite intriguing.

  2. Becca Steps says:

    You know Duane…Thanks for that…
    You added a great perspective for me to think and refer to often. Especially when I’m getting frustrated at my corporate minimum wage job.
    Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.

  3. Swordfish says:

    Who is this new guy? Duane?


  4. RMD says:

    Quantum physics had shown us some fascinating things, and created even more fascinating questions. I would like to take Duane’s last comment one step further. At the most basic level, we are all essentially made of exactly the same stuff – energy. Once we break down materials into elements, then elements into their atomic structure, we are left with nothing more than a vibration of energy. It has been shown that electrons – what we learned orbit the nucleus – are not actually even things, they are mathematical ghosts, they are simply energy. A solid object is actually made up of nothing solid, it is simply energy arranged in a distinct fashion. We are all part of an intricate web of energy that connects everyone and every object. This starts to give rise to possible explanations for phenomenon like psychic abilities and extra sensory perception. Really, it’s just one more reason to love thy neighbor.

  5. Jon Dehm says:

    Awe. My profs had such faith in string theory 🙂

  6. fresh_eyes says:

    Thank goodness there are people on the planet with the brilliant brains to figure these things out!
    I liked the linked article’s comment, “• Click here to read a formal presentation of the theory, if you dare.”
    The man is a PhD physicist Them calling him a surfer dude is a little like calling Matthew Good a dog owner. 😉

    “…we owe it to ourselves and each other to base our lives on kindness, compassion, understanding and respect, not only for each other, but for this place we call home” Such a beautiful thought. If it were only so simple. It should be simple.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  7. Joseph S says:

    Very cool post. I enjoyed everything I read.

  8. Dale Mugford says:

    It has always been funny to me that we still have not socially and culturally understood relativity. We still rely on antiquated views of “the way things work” to maintain the ways in which we’ve constructed our societies.

  9. Mwillson says:

    Thanks for posting this Duane. This is a very promising theory, if it is capable of predicting some established results perhaps it will finally solve man’s little gravity problem. I really want my starship enterprise in orbit and Stargate in my basement.

  10. fourdegrees says:

    I am so excited about this. I’m almost done my degree in Physics and wish that someday I will make a long-lasting contribution to our understanding of the universe.

  11. Stormer_8 says:

    The world needs this shift in consciousness where we perceive life as more that what our 5 senses interpret. I have always been intrigued by questions that cannot be explained by traditional means, meaning you have to ‘see it to believe it’. You cannot argue with science – all knowledge is not yet known and I look forward to more discoveries that become accepted in the mainstream.

    As individuals, it is certainly humbling to realize how small we are – life is energy and energy cannot be destroyed, therefore life never ends. I think about that on the bad days where I start questioning life and my surroundings. There was so much more than this ‘physical’ experience we so easily get trapped in.

    Science is actually quite exciting.

  12. fuse says:

    This is still a very new theory and has yet to be put through its paces. It could be very promising indeed. And I’m hoping it turns out to be, at the very least, one step closer to a Unified Theory. But I’ll hold off on getting too excited until the theory produces testable predictions and/or some of Lisi’s 20 theorized particles are observed in the Large Hadron Collider.

    As for Sagan’s words about the Voyager 1 photo. It reminds me of something I heard about the first astronauts returning from orbital flights in the Mercury program. They came back and remarked how, from orbit, there are no borders. It also reminded me of Earthrise

  13. Duane Storey says:

    I wasn’t actually trying to say that the theory is going to be the ultimate Unified Field Theory. I just thought it was interesting that a relatively unknown person has managed to take the whole field in an entirely new direction. It may turn out he’s completely wrong, something even he has conceded, but at least he was open to new ideas and willing to share them with the research community.

  14. mmaw says:

    Anything would be preferable to string theory … I always suspected the final theory would have to be simpler and less dependent on unprovable concepts. It will be interesting to see this “young” theory evolve … I’m hoping my next issue of Discover will explain it in terms I can understand 😉

  15. BB says:

    ” Imagination is more important than knowledge.
    Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

    Albert Einstein….my ” Idol “…
    Physics is and always has been one of my great Passions…
    even as a Kid I would spend Hours and Days on the great Theory of Things…

    Good Post Duane…

  16. Antidentite says:

    Just yesterday I read and interesting quote related to this. G.K. Chesterton said, “[Herbert Spencer] popularized this contempible notion that the size of the solar system ought to overawe the spiritual dogma of man. But why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that a man is not made in the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image; what one might call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.”

    The way I see it, if we look at the human race as though we’re all just some electrons, as RMD suggested above, doesn’t that actually de-value the human experience and give us one more reason not to love thy neighbour? I think that line of thinking is what has lead to countless atrocities over the years. I think we would all do well to remember that God knows and loves each and every one of us more than we love and know ourselves. It’s quite a beautiful thing if you think about it. Thanks for the interesting post, Mr. Storey.

  17. lenova says:

    Hi Duane,

    The media is focusing too much on portraying Lisi as a ‘surfer dude’ that came up with a new physics model. The man’s hardly a just a surfer. His resume:

    9/91-5/99 University of California, San Diego
    5/99 Ph.D. in Physics
    G.P.A. – 3.9

    Honors Fellowships – UC Regents fellowship, ARCS Foundation fellowship.

    9/86-6/91 University of California, Los Angeles
    6/91 B.S. in Physics and B.S. in Mathematics
    G.P.A. – 3.9 (4.0 in Physics and 4.0 in Mathematics)
    Academic Honors – Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Pi Sigma, Golden Key.

    Graduation Honors – College Honors, Highest Honors in Physics, Highest Honors in Mathematics, Summa Cum Laude, Kinsey Prize for The Outstanding Graduating Senior in Physics.

  18. Monkey says:

    When I get rich, I am going to buy a particle accelerator. That would be an awesome (truly) toy to have.

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