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Articles > Science May, 13, 2020

Did Stephen Wolfram just solve physics?

Lyra Jannetta
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Physics is the branch of science that focuses on the properties of matter and energy. But despite centuries of study, we still cannot answer the fundamental theory of physics – how does the universe work?

Enter Stephen Wolfram.

A few weeks ago, mathematician and programmer Stephen Wolfram released a long and not uncontroversial post on his website, entitled Finally We May Have a Path to the Fundamental Theory of Physics…and It’s Beautiful, which means that all of us out here studying physics at college or uni can just go home now. Good job, guys.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Wolfram, for those of you who don’t know, made a name in the scientific community in 2009 when he launched his brainchild Wolfram Alpha, a website that solves science problems for you by using algorithms to sort through a database of information (don’t tell your physics teacher I told you about it).

Before that, he ruffled more than a few feathers in 2002 with a book called “A New Kind of Science”, which expounded some of his ideas on the role of computing in the search for an overarching theory about how physics works in our universe (known as a ‘grand unified theory’).

But many of Wolfram’s big, and often controversial, theories are self-published. His net worth is estimated between $2-3 billion, which gives him the financial backing that many of his scientific peers do not have. Instead, less wealthy (and less famous) scientists humbly undergo a rigorous peer review process – no matter how ‘groundbreaking’ their research may be.

Still, the discoveries of Wolfram and his team are not necessarily to be scoffed at. If anyone’s wondering what the big deal is about finding a ‘grand unified theory’ for physics, it’s probably time somebody gave you a disclaimer about this particular field of study…

If you’re trying to learn French, you might begin with the core grammatical rules and build up your vocab and understanding from there. Physics students will tell you that, for us, it’s not quite so simple. Many fundamental concepts in physics, such as relativity and quantum theory, seem to contradict each other entirely, while still both successfully predicting real-life phenomena in our universe – naturally, physicists are keen to know why this is.

What Stephen Wolfram has done is to explore various basic computer algorithms, which you can think of as mapping very simple shapes onto themselves over and over again until they attain the kind of 3D complexity that starts to resemble many aspects of our universe. The potentially exciting part is that, as Wolfram himself puts it in his post, from these “tiny, structureless rules out were coming space, time, relativity, gravity and hints of quantum mechanics.”

As I’ve mentioned earlier, we have to be wary that these ideas have not been subjected to scrutiny under the peer review process of the rest of the scientific community. But they’re still noteworthy, and here’s why:

1. This could cause an important paradigm shift in theoretical physics. As pointed out in ABC News’ coverage of the story, Wolfram’s ideas seem to build somewhat on loop quantum gravity, and the loop quantum gravity theorists have long been overshadowed in the physics community by the notorious string theorists. Could this development spark a bit of an overhaul?

2. Wolfram’s project is open-source: he has made all findings and resources available on his website and actively invites contributions to the research. Care to try your hand?

3. It’s not as if Wolfram and his decidedly ‘unconventional’ approach are being written off by the entire physics community – Andrew Strominger and Sean Carroll, professors of physics at Harvard and Caltech respectively, have both expressed interest in Wolfram’s findings.

4. While Wolfram and his fellow researchers haven’t quite pinpointed the exact algorithm(s) potentially determining the structure of our universe, they’ve certainly been more productive than I have during quarantine… How about you?

 


Read more about the theory

If you found this article interesting and want to learn more, the full paper is available to read for free on Stephen Wolfram’s website.

Read: Finally We May Have a Path to the Fundamental Theory of Physics and It’s Beautiful 

 

 

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