the problem with theories of everything

Stephen Wolfram joins a long line of theoreticians who believe they uncovered how the universe really works. He, like all of them, is almost certainly wrong.
pi number diagram

There’s something innately appealing about the idea that something as vast and complex as our universe works on discrete, well-defined, predictable laws we can model and follow. It happens to also be true, at least to an extent. We can model and calculate the movements of galaxies, as well as predict the motions and lifecycles of particles that combine to create matter as we know it with formulas we’ve refined over the last century. Unfortunately, what we can’t seem to do is reconcile both realms at the same time. At a macro scale, the universe seems stable and easy to follow. At the quantum scale, it’s just a cacophony of virtual particles and decoherence which sometimes seem to disobey their own rules.

Uniting the two worlds is a challenge an awful lot of people decided to take on, with mixed, but usually abysmal results. Enter the founder of the Mathematica software juggernaut, Stephen Wolfram. As a prodigy with a unique talent for mathematics and physics, he seems like a man more than qualified for the job, and he thinks he’s done it with a monstrous 448 page paper in which he claims that our reality is a set of computational nodes and the connections between them define the phenomena we see. Basically, it’s a mishmash of graph theory and quantum computing, and physicists are very much unimpressed because it does exactly nothing new or make any predictions they can test.

Unfortunately, while pop sci publications are busy crowning Wolfram the king of physics who solved the problem that befuddled Einstein, Heisenberg, and everyone who tried to follow in their footsteps, the reality is that he’s just repeating history, albeit while being more careful with his claims. In math, a mindboggling number of problems can have the same solution, so Wolfram and other theorists of everything have no shortage of ways to make complex math come up with predictions similar to existing frameworks. And because at that point, they’re limited only by their imaginations, they can come up with grandiose attempts to unite all the disparate formulas in question that seem to work on paper.

So while Wolfram is taking a victory lap, the truth of the matter is that he found that 6 – 2 = 4, noted that it’s the same as result as 2 + 2 = 4, and now says that he won math and the solution to Fermat’s last theorem is somewhere in π because 4 is the third number in the irrational constant, which comes between the two in his equation and the four in the solution. Is it any wonder that physicists’ response to this is “why are you doing this?” and confused shrugging? General relativity wasn’t accepted because it replicated what was already there and Einstein threw the paper down on a desk very triumphantly. It was accepted because it predicted new phenomena that we’ve confirmed time and time again.

Until Wolfram’s model offers legitimately new insights, like predicting which particles may be missing from the Standard Model and how they behave to explain relevant observations, his work will be quickly forgotten after the initial furor created by his preprint settles down. We love the idea of a genius outsider who doesn’t follow the rules tinkering in his garage to come up with world-changing inventions and profound insights that gray-bearded nerds can’t even understand from their ivory towers. It makes us think we can do it too. But the reality is that while there are eureka moments and breakthroughs, science is a marathon, not a sprint, and behind each revolution is decades of hard work and failed attempts.

# science // physics / scientific theories / universe

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