Artist's view of star formation in the early universe. By Adolf Schaller. Source: NASA.

I recently came across an article, by Ethan Zuckerman, on Murray Gell-Mann, a world renowned theoretical physicist (having worked on the atomic bomb, and discovering quarks to name a few). In the article, Gell-man briefly describes the trials and tribulations of forming theories and discovering the laws of the Universe. Here is a succinct snippet from the article:


[Murray] Gell-Mann tells us that in 1957, he and colleagues put forth a theory of the weak nuclear force that contradicted seven experiments. But it was very beautiful. And it turned out to be right - all seven experiments were proved wrong. What’s striking, he tells us, is that in fundamental physics, a beautiful or elegant theory is more likely to be right than an inelegant theory.

Gell-Mann points out that Einstein was famously indifferent to experiments that contracted his theories. “It’ll go away,” he’d dismiss an experiment that appeared to contradict his work.

What do we mean by beauty and elegance? It’s not a human role - these laws aren’t just the construct of the human mind, they’re really big. Newton believed that natural philosophy was about discovering these laws. A clue that you’re onto a law is that it “can be expressed concisely in terms of mathematics that we already have.” That’s Gell-Mann’s mathematical definition of beauty.

In trying to build laws of the universe, it’s a mistake to think of a “theory of everything”. Any theory that works will be a quantum theory, which means that it will be probabilistic, even if some of those probabilities are near certainty.

In discovering these laws, we’re “peeling the skin of the onion”, using higher levels of energy, getting deeper into particle structures and closer to the fundamental law. As we peel the onion, we see that each layer is similar to its neighbors - they require similar mathematics. “The manifestation of the law at different scales exhibit approximate self-similarity” - Netwon called this “Nature Conformable to Herself”

Gell-Mann clearly states a truth of truths: amongst chaos, beauty reigns king. I agree with most of what is said in the article. However, the thing that struck me as odd was the notion that the laws of the universe are contained at the smallest possible level. This theory is rather ignorant of the universe itself. Take for example: time. Time is the result of the laws of the Universe put into motion. Yet the driving force for this motion seems to have no laws except itself. Fundamentally creating a paradox for the Universe as a whole. However, every force is the result of a transfer of one form to another. What I propose is that this so called "peeling the skin of the onion," should not be limited in scope to an inward view of reality, but an outward one as well. Laws of the universe exist not only on a small scale, but a large one as well. I think that what we will find to be true in the future is that we are on a very small ring of a very large onion. Only time will tell, and even then, it will be a mystery.

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Ali Bajwa
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