Humankind's Basic Picture of the Universe

By Sean Carroll | November 5, 2006 11:45 pm

Scott Aaronson has thown down a gauntlet by claiming that theoretical computer science, “by any objective standard, has contributed at least as much over the last 30 years as (say) particle physics or cosmology to humankind’s basic picture of the universe.” Obviously the truth-value of such a statement will depend on what counts as our “basic picture of the universe,” but Scott was good enough to provide an explanation of the most important things that TCS has taught us, which is quite fascinating. (More here.) Apparently, if super-intelligent aliens landed and were able to pack boxes in our car trunks very efficiently, they could also prove the Riemann hypothesis. Although the car-packing might be more useful.

There are important issues of empiricism vs. idealism here. The kinds of questions addressed by “theoretical computer science” are in fact logical questions, addressable on the basis of pure mathematics. They are true of any conceivable world, not just the actual world in which we happen to live. What physics teaches us about, on the other hand, are empirical features of the contingent world in which we find ourselves — features that didn’t have to be true a priori. Spacetime didn’t have to be curved, after all; for that matter, the Earth didn’t have to go around the Sun (to the extent that it does). Those are just things that appear to be true of our universe, at least locally.

But let’s grant the hypothesis that our “picture of the universe” consists both of logical truths and empirical ones. Can we defend the honor of particle physics and cosmology here? What have we really contributed over the last 30 years to our basic picture of the universe? It’s not fair to include great insights that are part of some specific theory, but not yet established as true things about reality — so I wouldn’t include, for example, anomalies canceling in string theory, or the Strominger-Vafa explanation for microstates in black holes, or inflationary cosmology. And I wouldn’t include experimental findings that are important but not quite foundation-shaking — so neutrino masses don’t qualify.

With these very tough standards, I think there are two achievements that I would put up against anything in terms of contributions to our basic picture of the universe:

  1. An inventory of what the universe is made of. That’s pretty important, no? In units of energy density, it’s about 5% ordinary matter, 25% dark matter, 70% dark energy. We didn’t know that 30 years ago, and now we do. We can’t claim to fully understand it, but the evidence in favor of the basic picture is extremely strong. I’m including within this item things like “it’s been 14 billion years since the Big Bang,” which is pretty important in its own right. I thought of a separate item referring to the need for primordial scale-free perturbations and the growth of structure via gravitational instability — I think that one is arguably at the proper level of importance, but it’s a close call.
  2. The holographic principle. I’m using this as a catch-all for a number of insights, some of which are in the context of string theory, but they are robust enough to be pretty much guaranteed to be part of the final picture whether it involves string theory or not. The germ of the holographic principle is the idea that the number of degrees of freedom inside some region is not proportional to the volume of the region, but rather to the area of its boundary — an insight originally suggested by the behavior of Hawking radiation from black holes. But it goes way beyond that; for example, there can be dualities that establish the equivalence of two different theories defined in different numbers of dimensions (ala AdS/CFT). This establishes once and for all that spacetime is emergent — the underlying notion of a spacetime manifold is not a fundamental feature of reality, but just a good approximation in a certain part of parameter space. People have speculated about this for years, but now it’s actually been established in certain well-defined circumstances.

A short list, but we have every reason to be proud of it. These are insights, I would wager, that will still be part of our basic picture of reality two hundred years from now. Any other suggestions?


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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