Why physicists are rethinking the route to a theory of everything

WHAT if there were a perfect board game? Some combination of boards and pieces and rules – maybe with a few yet-to-be invented additions – that would create an unsurpassable experience, the only board game anyone ever wants to play?

That’s how physicists feel about the theory of everything, a putative “final” framework that would explain all reality in one fell swoop. This is the ultimate goal for physics, with Stephen Hawking once memorably writing that to find it would be to know “the mind of God”.

It is an audacious mission, so much so that some people consider it quixotic. At this stage, there can be no doubt that breaking reality down into ever more fundamental pieces hasn’t quite worked. But the potential payoff of a final theory is so huge that some physicists doggedly refuse to give up, and now they are pivoting towards a radical new approach.

Since a theory of everything has to explain all the constituent parts of reality, including space and time, the idea is that we must start from an even more basic premise. That is why a spate of new would-be final theories aren’t grounded in physics at all, but in a wild landscape of abstract geometry. Perhaps the ultimate scientific truth lies within the mathematics of a metaphysical jewel that computes the universe, or a shimmering tapestry of triangles and tetrahedrons?

That might strike you as outlandish, but it makes sense to Peter Woit, a mathematician at Columbia University in New York. “Our best theories are already very deeply geometrical,”…


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