The 2007 Gamow Lecture: String theory, hidden dimensions and the inevitable god question

I went to see the 2007 George Gamow Lecture at CU last night, where the speaker was Harvard physics wiz Lisa Randall. (BTW, how cool is it being in a place where a freakin’ physics lecture can draw 1,500 people?) Dr. Randall studies particle physics and cosmology, and as the link explains, her talk last night focused on some of the mind-bending implications of string theory.

In essence, the posit is that string theory helps explain the problem of why gravity is 16 orders of magnitude weaker than it ought to be. She and a collaborator demonstrated back in the 1990s that the apparent discrepancy is nicely explained by the theoretical existence of multiple dimensions, and that the force of gravity as we experience it results from the fact that its existence lies on a parallel “brane,” and at this point I’ll just point those of you interested in an informed explanation of the theory to stories in the NY Times, Discover, ScienceWatch and ESI Special Topics. Knock yourself out.

If I understood Dr. Randall more or less correctly, the upshot is that we inhabit a multi-dimensional universe – or one multi-dimensional universe out of possibly many – and that forces from beyond our universe act on our physical laws. They’re currently ramping up to some massive supercollider research in Europe in the next few years that may let them actually prove this and/or related theories.

At the end of her speech there was the predictable clot of people lined up at the microphones in each aisle to ask questions, and since I was sitting way in the back of beautiful Macky Auditorium, I never had a chance. But if I’d had the opportunity and inclination, here’s the question I’d love to have posed:

Dr. Randall, your research sure raises some intriguing theological issues, huh?

I suspect that might have gotten a chuckle, at which point I’d have been hauled out by security.

But think about it. All of a sudden you have physical demonstration of something like a five-dimensional black hole and evidence that extra-dimensional forces explain our odd gravity conundrum. This ought to really mess with the “Earth is 6000 years old” crowd. More interestingly, though – how long will it take some segment of the Intelligent Design camp to step up and claim that the reseach actually proves the existence of God?

It’s an annoying commentary on the state of things that even though nobody was talking about it last night, I walked out wondering why not, because it’s certainly only a matter of time. Science is theology. Science is politics.

I can’t wait, can I?




  1. This ought to really mess with the “Earth is 6000 years old” crowd.
    But, but…Satan did it! The Father of Lies, the Deceiver, the Adversary, HE made those extra dimensions and planted all of the clues to trick us into thinking they, or *anything*, existed before we were created from dust 6000 years ago. Any influence on God’s creation from *any* other “dimension” must clearly be diabolical, so funding should be cut for any new science before man in his hubris accidentally punches a hole straight through to hell and lets the demons in!

  2. i seem to remember hearing that mission planners for nasa already decided that they were not going to include any homosexuals on any mission to mars. they were worried about minimizing conflict on the way. the last thing they need is a pissed off type a personality closet homophobe on a spaceship a million miles from no where with an easy target.
    of course, being locked up in a tin can for three years with 4-6 people will more than likely do some strange things to your social/interpersonal belief system. i’d be surprised if they didn’t all come back at least bi…or, perhaps, give up sex all together…no matter HOW they started out.

  3. I believe that physics has a profound impact on philosophy, and will have more as time goes on.
    2003 was a very good year for physics. During that year, they found out that you can move something faster than the speed of light…..they also transported matter from one point to another….so, it was only a photon, nevertheless, photons have mass. I find string theory to be a fascinating subject, especially because I can do the math. A guy that I graduated with from NU is one of the leading physicists in the world. He has a contention that physics will make some very startling discoveries and innovations in the next few decades. We’ve discussed some of the supercollider research, and he has serious reservations about some of the proposed experiments.

  4. I wish I could do the math. I’ve been wishing that ever since I discovered Complexity, in fact.
    I value the contributions that science makes to philosophy and hope for more. I’m considerably less excited about the “contributions” that religious dogma make to science, though. In fact, my problems with so much of the “research” in my own field comes from the same place. Most “social theory” isn’t theory at all – it’s prefabricated political dogma, and when the answer is predetermined what you’re doing is of limited value….

  5. Now, my memory ain’t great, and I did finish my PhD in physics and leave academia 9 years ago, but…
    During that year, they found out that you can move something faster than the speed of light
    Erm… that’s not what I remember. I seem to recall that they moved information about matter, not the matter itself, faster than “c”. (“c” is the physicist abbreviation for, “The speed of light travelling in complete vacuum.”) No change to Special Relativity needed.
    they also transported matter from one point to another….so, it was only a photon
    The “transported” matter was really transporting the state of one partcle to a QM-entangled partner. Interestingly, this phenomenon and the previous one (moving information faster than “c”) are both manifestations of the EPR Paradox and Bell’s Theorem.
    Sorry to disappoint, but no actual matter was transported. And, I’m guessing that whatever science-news article you read badly mangled the actual experiments beyond all recognition. Even the NY Times Tuesday Science section can be a bit of an information-cusinart when it comes to less-intuitive corners of physcs.
    nevertheless, photons have mass.
    Photons — quanta of electromagetic radiation, the carriers of the Electromagnetic Force — have 0 rest mass.
    (Now, there are “cousins” of the photon, the W-boson and Z-boson. They’re the carriers of the Weak Force, and differ from photons in only 2 ways: [1] They “feel” the Weak Force (I don’t recall if “plain” photons do or not); and [2] They have nonzero rest mass.)

  6. Okay, as I understand this stuff:
    Let’s assume, for sake of example, that a piece of paper is 2-dimensional. Let’s also say that any writing that may happen to be on the paper is also 2-D.
    Now, we’ll take our 2-D paper and do a bit of origami. We’ll fold it into a box. The box we’ve made is 3-dimensional. The writing on the paper is still 2-D, however. So’s the paper. Oh, we may have bent it so that it occupies 3 dimensions, but the paper itself is still 2-D.
    Now let’s suppose that someone comes along with a wet finger and smudges some of the ink on the paper box. We’ve now had something from “outside” of the 2-D sheet of paper affect the 2-D ink on the paper. Which, for all intents and purposes, is no different than “in” the paper. (Both are perfectly 2-D in this example, after all.)
    And that’s about as far as I can take the analogy.
    Let’s consider another analogy. We’ll still think play with 2-D paper. Only this time, we’ll have several sheets of it. We’ll start with a sheet and bend it, just slightly, just enough to crease it so that it no longer lies flat. Next, we take another sheet and try to crease it in more or less the same place, then stack it on the first sheet. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
    Since we weren’t being exact about our creasing, each sheet is similar to, but slightly different than, the one it’s stacked on, and the next sheet stacked on it.
    The whole “multiple-universe” angle is like this stack of papers: a lower-D “thingy” embedded in a higher-dimensional … erm … “shape”(?). Each neighboring universe is almost the same as, but not identical to, the one it’s “stacked on”. And the Gravitational Force acts on them all, and also is how they interact between each other.
    And again, my analogy starts to fall apart.

  7. I’m glad you explained photons. I was gonna have a heart attack. 🙂
    Ditto on the information transfer. Being the absolute dork that I am, I was actually thinking about that a few weeks ago. I couldn’t remember what it was except that it had to do with something being entangled. 🙂

  8. I’ve been ghost-writing a quantum physics book for the past few months. The physicist is debunking string theory entirely and has developed a very neat theory of gravity of his own.
    It is a wonderful area of research, though – like GM, it comes out of nowhere (for the uneducated) and abruptly demands that they reconsider their views of the world. A bit like the “world is round” catching the Catholics by surprise. Intellectuals certainly knew, but the general public didn’t.
    The weird contrasts in the world abound: Iran filled with hate and loathing, so far behind a general understanding of the universe (as an example) – technologically it is equivalent to the Aztecs meeting the Spanish with pointed sticks to flint-lock guns.

  9. Obviously, this was the hardest part of the lecture for Randall. As she noted, it’s awfully hard to illustrate 4D for creatures in a 3D world.
    Ultimately, the worst part of the lecture was the dumbing-down parts necessary for a more general audience. Even though I can’t follow the harder stuff, I still find it easier to track along when scientists take the level up a couple notches. My brain is able to accept the inability to grasp all the nuance so long as it can grasp the broader concepts.
    I’d have been a great scientist if only I were smarter….

  10. Hey, I got my PhD in Physical Chemistry 25 years ago, which is a whole lifetime….I’ve gotten sloppy in my advanced age.
    I meant relativistic mass, not the mass at resting.
    As for theQM entangled partner, at least it’s a start.
    Thanks for correcting me.

  11. Hmmm… PChem’s a different beast from physics. I’m guessing you had to do a goodly amount of basic QM, but didn’t dive too deeply into Special Relativity.
    At the graduate level in Physics, we pretty much give up on working with mass, velocity, and position by themselves when dealing with relativistic reference frames. Everything’s done using spacetime and energy-momentum invariants. Makes the math a hell of a lot easier. So, we use the term, “mass,” to exclusively refer to the rest-mass.
    Then there’s General Relativity, where the math is eeevilly heinous, and everyone measures mass in centimeters.

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