The way we try to experiment on the weird ideas of particle physics is by means of some of the greatest machines ever built. Of course, I talk particle accelerators.
These are, basically, super-long tubes. We smash protons inside them at different speeds. In terms of energy, we do get rather close the Big Bang even. We were able to create the Higgs-boson, for example.
So, now you know that, too.
The problem is, we don’t get close enough. Thus, we can only test whether the weak and electromagnetic forces belong together. They do.
That’s about it. I’d be stupid not to think that we won’t find better ways in the future, but at the moment, that’s it. That’s what we can test.
Not to be deterred by this reality, there is a bunch of idealists pursuing the ultimate knowledge by means of pure mathematics. Make the maths work, and you’ll likely find out how nature works, is the reasoning. Thus, String Theory and humans being as flatlanders.
Not that I expect that you would have, but if you ever wondered how something can be both admirable and masturbatory at the same time, String Theory and its derivatives are it. Honestly, in a thousand years, String Theorists may be heralded like we do the likes of Einstein and Newton today, visionaries who lived well before the time was ripe for their ideas. Brian Greene sure seems to hope so.
As it is, we are so far away from testing any of the predictions of string theory, (and may any happily existing God know that those predictions need some testing!) that the term “Mathematical masturbation” does resonate in my mind. For one thing, 11 dimensions of spacetime are required, in case you were wondering what I meant above by the term “flatlander”.
Chew on that, as they say in Norway.
The truth is, that String Theory’s just the start. With time, many wonderfully weird ideas were developed, such as supersymmetry, which states—well, here’s the link to an explanation of it. I can’t even…
The point is this: Physics is weird. Then, it’s all weird. The NYC sewer system or the blueprints to a car engine are not exactly intuitive either. Nevertheless, they work to varying degrees of efficacy. The efficacy of physics in underpinning and constructing a foundation onto which we build and develop is not low. It starts with basic research of nature and ends in X-ray machines at your local dentist’s, if you will.
I, for one, revel in the wonders of nature per se, but for many of my students it’s what humans have been able to extract from the laws describing nature. Modern medicine prolongs life to a point which must seem incredible to people from even only a century ago. We are close enough to understanding the universe for many of the most well-trained scientists in the world to pursue what may very well end up being a pipe-dream in searching for The Theory of Everything.
Still, most of the actual work, you understand, is tedious, dull, and not in itself inspiring. Rather, it deals with running against the same walls repeatedly, not knowing whether a breakthrough awaits or not.
When the going gets tough, you need something to keep you going. I won’t speak for others, of course, but to me this is it: It ain’t intuitive. It’s weird. It’s impossible for me stop learning!
See, I’ve grown into and out of academia, but never out of curiosity and this childish glee for discovery.
So, yes, I suck at maths. I was told that I didn’t fit with physicists. Was it really any wonder that I got myself that science Ph.D.? Nope, I don’t think so either. If anything, science has, difficult, tedious, and yes, weird as it can be, opened my eyes to the joy of learning.