Physics is something that has always inspired me ever since I had any idea of what it was. When I was in high school, I wanted to become an astrophysicist, which obviously didn’t happen once I realized the number of math courses required beyond Calculus 3, partial differential calculus, integral calculus, etc (I got up to Calc 2 then I changed my career plans as it was getting too difficult). Advanced math is essential for any physics major; in order to truly understand complex concepts in physics and to expand on them, the language of math is the best way we know. Math is said to be the language of the universe. That is where theoretical physics comes into play, which I introduced last week.
In order to fulfill my amateur interest in physics, I watch many discussions and lectures. One of them I watched several months back was called Theory of Everything, and it was a physics discussion hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In that discussion, one of the physicists named Jim Gates mentioned something called ‘adinkras’ (more on it below). The story behind that literally blew my mind. Granted, I don’t have a physics background so perhaps to an actual theoretical physicist, it may not blow his/her mind.
First though, I have to mention a major physics issue and some of the things that theoretical physicists, including Einstein, have been stuck on since the 1940’s. That is necessary to understand where physics stands and how physicists are trying to overcome that. In the process, Jim Gates came across something mind-boggling.
Quantum Physics & Gravity
Quantum physics is the study of atoms and much smaller particles. These particles include protons, neutrons, electronics, neutrinos, photons, muons (sub-atomic particles), many others. Most of them cannot be represented or drawn relative to other atoms since they are simply much much smaller so the best and most practical way to represent them is through mathematical equations.
As far as the theoretical physics aspect goes.. Everything in nature, including virtual computer bits, can be represented using math. That is the work of a theoretical physicist, named Jim Gates from University of Maryland, in the Theory of Everything discussion.
Before I get more into the work that Gates does, it is important to first introduce the biggest question that physics currently faces as without understanding that, things become confusing. So, there are 4 forces total in physics that governs everything in nature – gravity, electromagnetism, strong nuclear force, and weak nuclear force (you learn that in High School physics class). The issue starts when you mix the forces together from a theoretical perspective.
On one hand, there is quantum theory that studies behavior of particles and energy at the atomic and sub-atomic level that takes into account electromagnetism, strong nuclear force, and weak nuclear force (everything but gravity). On the other hand, there is general relativity that studies behavior of things on larger scale with gravity in the mix (gravity alone). Both models/theories of physics act much differently at the two scales. Physics’ biggest issue is trying to reconcile them or at least figuring out why they act differently at the two scales. At one point, all of those forces were united and at some point after the Big Bang, they divided (we humans don’t know when exactly in time or why). If they were united once though, it means they share some common laws of physics that we have not yet figured out.
Albert Einstein spent last 20 years of his life trying to combine his theory of relativity with quantum physics, along with other modern day theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking and another lesser-known physicist Edward Witten. Einstein wasn’t able to do it in 20 years so perhaps it will take somebody smarter than Einstein to do it.
Physicists are in a pickle. Both theories cannot be right as they don’t work together BUT both cannot be wrong either as they both work like they should at their respective scales. All it means is there is a more fundamental puzzle piece we are still missing. Once we have that piece, our understanding of physics at the fundamental level snaps into place, and we can advance much further as a civilization with technology much beyond what we have today.
One of the ideas that attempt to solve that is something called ‘string theory’. The notion is that every particle is composed of extremely tiny subatomic particles called strings. These strings constantly vibrate – some vibrate more than others while some vibrate less so they would essentially have different frequencies (I’m not sure if physicists call it frequency or something else). From the differences in how they vibrate, you get differences in characteristics and behavior. At one of those frequencies you get a hypothesized subatomic particle called ‘Graviton’ that gives you gravity. Nobody yet knows if graviton exists. It makes sense for such a particle to exist because gravity always attracts and the more mass there is, the stronger the gravitational attraction becomes. Maybe it’s all governed by a particle like Graviton and more gravitons means stronger gravitational attraction?
That’s the issue of quantum gravity in a nutshell and the story of where string theory fits into all this. The goal of string theory is to solve that issue.
There are 2 types of particles in nature: fermions and bosons. The existence of both is essential to string theory.
Fermions cannot pass through each other (these includes matter), bosons can pass through each other (these include energy). There is an idea concerning that called supersymmetry, which argues that there must also be matter that are bosons (matter that can pass through each other), and energy that are fermions (energy that cannot pass through each other). The reason for that is because we find almost everything in nature in symmetry – i.e. matter & anti-matter. Why don’t other particles/energy also follow this pattern?
Jim Gates explains the difference in the following manner:
“…if you look at our world, it looks like its composed of basically two major parts. One of those parts is stuff like us. We’re made of, like, electrons, and protons, and neutrons. And all of these objects have a property which is kind of interesting, (…) namely that you can’t put your hand through a wall without busting it… On the other hand, if you take something like light, you find its very different, so lets go through some thought experiments. Lets take two flashlights, aim the two beams of the flashlights at each other and turn them on. What happens? Well, the two beams pass right through each other, nothing at all happens.
So our worlds composed of these two major pieces. And the thing thats really weird about our world is… stuff like us seems mostly to be fermions. The other half – energy, light, gravity… are all bosons. So why does our universe have this strange dichotomy, where stuff cannot pass through each other, but light and energy can? In fact, wouldn’t the world be sort of more balanced, more symmetrical, or even supersymmetrical, if there were some forms of energy that would scatter each other just the way that stuff, matter, does, and if there were some forms of matter that could pass right through each other just the way energy does?
Well thats the basic idea of supersymmetry — to say that matter can either be fermion or boson, and that energy can either be fermion or boson. So the idea of supersymmetry actually breaks an interesting stereotype. And let me argue by analogy here. All Republicans are supposed to be conservatives, and all Democrats are supposed to be liberals. At least thats the stereotype. But, in fact, some Democrats are conservative. And some Republicans, are, well, moderate. So, you can break the stereotype also in the world of particles, and thats the idea of supersymmetry. Its purely hypothetical, but we sure hope its there, because it will be very interesting for the next millennium.” (Gates, n.a)
According to string theory, supersymmetry may exist (I do not know if the math requires it). Of course, it may not be REQUIRED for string theory to work, but it is thought to have existed at one point when the universe was much hotter. Physicists are searching for supersymmetry particles through powerful Large Hadron Collisions collisions but no success yet.
Anyways, as Gates and his research team at University of Maryland was going through the supersymmetry equations, they noticed a pattern in something called adinkras.
Math Patterns & Adinkras
What are adinkras? Adinkras are visual representations of complex mathematical equations in physics.
Gates looked closer and closer and realized that certain codes are present everywhere. These codes are almost exactly like those found in computers. The example that Gates uses was internet browser – programs that have error correcting code.
The way error-correcting code works in computer programming is pretty simple (I will use internet example). If you’re trying to send packets of data over the internet and lets say a few packets drop or get lost along the route. If the system has error-correcting code in there, it will detect that certain packets were lost along the route and attempt to re-create them to original state based on the metadata (information of the data packets). That is what they found when analyzing the supersymmetry equations.
It was almost as if our reality is embedded using computer code like in the movie ‘The Matrix’. Gates says to imagine for a moment that you’re a scientist in a massive virtual computer. How would YOU figure out that your reality is not the actual reality? The only way to do it is from within by figuring out that your reality is embedded within a code. To find the code, you look for patterns within the physics. Finding patterns is what Gates and his research team is doing at University of Maryland, and they found something that resembles such a code.
What does it all mean? Does it mean that our entire reality is virtual if there is such a code in our laws of physics? Perhaps our universe works like a natural computer or perhaps our reality is virtual (try to wrap your mind around that!)? Gates cautions us to be careful with jumping to conclusions. He says, “Just because you found code in supersymmetry like in internet browser does not necessarily mean that the code is related to reality.”
When I was googling this up, I came across several conspiracy theory bloggers trying to show that this proves the existence of extraterrestrials or that it proves existence of god or quite a few other things I saw (funniest were some youtube comments I read of paranoid things such as government trying to control us through virtual reality). Some extremely insane but hilarious things – I guess Einstein did say “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former” haha! Remember, one of the most central crux to science is not to jump to conclusions without complete data. We don’t have any kind of evidence that shows any of this being true. It’s simply something to think about.
Keep in mind that we don’t even know if string theory is correct or whether supersymmetry particles exist in reality. We cannot test this until we find such particles. We don’t know whether string theory NEEDS supersymmetry particles to work. Another thing to keep in mind that was mentioned in Theory of Everything is something similar to chicken-or-the-egg issue: is our reality actual math or is math descriptive of our reality? (paraphrasing). I do not know and neither do physicists.
As you may notice, there is a lot that we simply don’t know. String theory was first thought of in the 1980’s almost 30 years ago. Hundreds of some of the smartest scientists have been working on it ever since, and we are just scratching the surface. It is perhaps the greatest puzzle of our time with complexity beyond what even Einstein was working with in early 1900’s when he wrote his ground-breaking paper on General Relativity. As I mentioned, even Einstein spent 20 years of his life trying to solve this issue of making general relativity compatible with Quantum physics but no success. For now, this simply stays is in the realm of theoretical physics since it is not quite experimental.
Here’s the actual video of the discussion from 2011 forwarded to the point where Gates talks about his findings.. Gates is the dude with long Einstein-like hair – he is an awesome nerdy dude haha.
If you’re interested further, more on it here in a podcast I listened to concerning this: http://www.onbeing.org/program/uncovering-codes-reality/1457