Edward Witten

Edward Witten
Incredible Humans, a series (part 4)

Edward Witten is a theoretical physicist, but hold on; don’t leave yet! This guy is really worth learning about. He is a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where intellectual peers such as Albert Einstein, Hermann Weyl, John von Neumann, and Kurt Gödel also worked. He is the only physicist to have ever won the Fields medal, a highly prestigious mathematics award. He actually earned his undergraduate degree in history, which is a bit surprising considering his otherworldly talents in mathematics and physics. He explained in an interview that he had an early interest in history, but his natural talents eventually pointed him toward his current pursuits. He later earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He is most well known for his work in string theory.

String theory was developed to be a “theory of everything.” This isn’t as grand as it may sound, although it’s pretty awesome. It won’t explain women, for instance. For that, I believe that we’ll need to develop a much grander theory, a theory of things beyond everything. Nevertheless, a theory of everything would certainly be a major step forward. A theory of everything was a concept developed by Einstein and his contemporaries who worked feverishly to find it, but never did. As Witten himself explains, Einstein’s theory of gravity could never be reconciled with quantum theory. The former applies to large objects like stars and galaxies while the latter applies to small objects like atoms and quarks. Attempts to combine these theories leads to aggravating inconsistencies which tell us that both theories are woefully incomplete. Resolving these issues has been the most important pursuit in physics in modern times.

Prior to 1995, five separate theories of strings had been developed. Essentially the concept was that strings were the basic components of all matter in the universe. Strings are one-dimensional strands that vibrate in ten dimensions (nine spatial dimensions and one time dimension). Much like the different frequencies of a guitar string produce different musical notes, different vibrational modes of these theoretical strings produce the different particles of the universe such as electrons and photons, etc. Certain topological properties that these strings could exhibit led to the five different theories. It was believed that only one of the five theories could be correct. However, in a stroke of sheer brilliance, Witten proposed that these five theories were in-fact limiting cases of one overarching theory which he dubbed M-theory. He compared M-theory to the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Blind men inspecting an elephant by touch would come to very different conclusions about the creature depending on the part of the elephant they felt: the trunk, an ear, a leg, its side, or its tail.

Edward Witten would be the first to point out that very little is known about his proposed theory. He has convinced me that strings have merit, however, since as an innate feature, they dictate a unification of quantum theory and gravity. That makes M-theory the most promising candidate for a theory of everything. I’m rooting for him. I think he’s incredibly brave to pin his entire, brilliant career on a theory that is so utterly elusive. If he succeeds, it would be an accomplishment that surpasses Einstein’s. Edward Witten would go down in history as one of the greatest minds to ever live. If he is wrong, he will be remembered by a few mathematicians for his stunning contributions, but the bulk of his career would largely be forgotten. Like I said, that’s brave for someone with epic talent. I imagine a man standing at a roulette wheel, betting his life’s fortune on double zero. It would be foolish to stake so much on such poor chances. I don’t think Witten is doing that, however. I think he sees something–a possibility, a beauty too great to ignore. He says that M could stand for “magic,” “mystery,” or “membrane.” I think he’s peering deeper into creation than anyone has ever seen and he sees a majesty.

Ariel Hammon
Author of JACK

See the previous post in this series.

Photo of Witten taken from worldsciencefestival.com.

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