Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Geometric Theory of Everything


    Modern physics began with a sweeping unification: in 1687 Isaac Newton showed that the existing jumble of disparate theories describing everything from planetary motion to tides to pendulums were all aspects of a universal law of gravitation. Unification has played a central role in physics ever since. In the middle of the 19th century James Clerk Maxwell found that electricity and magnetism were two facets of electromagnetism. One hundred years later electromagnetism was unified with the weak nuclear force governing radioactivity, in what physicists call the electroweak theory.

This quest for unification is driven by practical, philosophical and aesthetic considerations. When successful, merging theories clarifies our understanding of the universe and leads us to discover things we might otherwise never have suspected. Much of the activity in experimental particle physics today, at accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, involves a search for novel phenomena predicted by the unified electroweak theory. In addition to predicting new physical effects, a unified theory provides a more aesthetically satisfying picture of how our universe operates. Many physicists share an intuition that, at the deepest level, all physical phenomena match the patterns of some beautiful mathematical structure.