Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Big Bang Theory

I was just watching my recording of the latest Big Bang Theory.  I couldn't help being amused by the ongoing conflict between Sheldon and Leslie Winkle.  As demonstrated in an earlier program, the key source of contention is loop quantum gravity versus string theory as a method of reconciling quantum physics with Einsteinian physics.  The reason this is so amusing is because in reality there is exactly such a sharp and often bitter conflict between the two groups. 

It actually is not unusual for scientists who hold conflicting opinions to get emotional over the issues involved.  This particular area, however, is especially hot. The reason is that for very long time those adhering to string theory got all the attention and all the research grants (that's money to us nonscientists) and were  insistent that loop quantum gravity believers were inherently wrong, largely because they insisted on there being 11 spatial dimensions in our universe. Obviously, insisted the string theory believers, there were only 10!  Okay, I admit this sounds pretty abstruse and uninteresting, but to those involved in the argument it wasn't just important; it was personal.

In more graphic terms, string theory was and is sexy.  Loop quantum gravity is your grandmother kissing you goodnight. When string theorists attacked loop quantum gravity theorists over the correct number of dimensions, it was like the first string football team teasing the chess club.

And then things got really fun.  After years of this ongoing series of Sheldon versus Leslie Winkle style confrontations between highly intelligent and superbly educated scientists, an announcement was made. It seems that there had been a problem with string theory--there were too many string theories. Depending on how you did the math, a variety of different outcomes were possible, each contradicting the others. They all seemed appealing, but when it comes mathematics you don't want a long line of competing outcomes. You want an answer. You want the answer.  

It seemed that string theory was hopelessly mired in a mass of uncertainty. But then a string theorist had a brilliant insight! He discovered that all these apparently contradictory results were actually different facets of one bigger result which brought everything together, resolved the conflicts, and saved string theory.  All you had to do to make everything work, he said, was to add an 11th dimension!

At this point you must remember that the string theorists had spent years and years sneering at the loop quantum gravity theorists because they insisted on 11 dimensions when there were obviously, absolutely, and totally undeniably only 10.

Loop quantum gravity theorists were not amused.

The resentments on both sides continue to this day.

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