back to article 'Wobbly spacetime' is latest stab at unifying physics

Since the early 20th century, physicists have struggled to marry theories governing the very big with those for the very small. Despite the staggering achievements in modern science, the conflict between Einstein's general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics has become a stumbling block in developing a consistent, …

  1. FrogsAndChips Silver badge

    Wibbly wobbly

    If his theory proves right, he'll deserve the title of Time Lord!

    1. bobdehn

      Re: Wibbly wobbly

      I'm looking forward to publication of the Timey-Wimey Corollary.

      1. ecofeco Silver badge

        Re: Wibbly wobbly

        And hopefully a Wambly addendum!

  2. Roj Blake Silver badge

    I Like This Idea

    It could explain all sorts of things, like the clumpiness of the early universe that led to the formation of stars and galaxies..

    1. Rich 11

      Re: I Like This Idea

      That's already explained by quantum fluctuations. Gravity doesn't really come into it at that early point. If Oppenheim's hypothesis turns out to be true (well, a better theory than nothing until something else pops up, as is the way of things) it might offer a more exact description but not a new explanation.

      1. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: I Like This Idea

        Quantum fluctuations are too small to explain the large scale structures we see, so extreme inflation in the very early universe was postulated to explain it - but some even larger structures have since been found which would require even more extreme inflation - but fluctuations larger than predicted by quantum theory would also explain it.

      2. david 12 Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: I Like This Idea

        until something else pops up

        I saw what you did there ....

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Trollface

    So, physics goes wibbly-wobbly

    Nothing like a stiff drink to sooth the nerves, right ?

  4. m4r35n357 Bronze badge

    Suspected as much . . .

    The "quantum imperialists" have always tried too hard IMO to subsume GR, for no good reason AFAICS ;)

    When all is said and done, both theories are merely mathematical models, not "reality", and there is no reason to assume that a model covering all ranges of validity should even exist.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Suspected as much . . .

      “ merely mathematical models, not "reality"”

      Proof that reality and mathematics are different things is not yet shown. Other than the “how do we know that we aren’t living in a simulation” rants, we also were wrong about “the Earth is special”, “electrical activity in the body is special”, “humans are not animals” and “the soul is special”

      We are probably wrong about “reality is special and totally not mathematics”….

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Suspected as much . . .

        <i.We are probably wrong about “reality is special and totally not mathematics”….</i>

        As opposed to "mathematics is special and totally not reality"?

        But don't Gödel's incompleteness theorems say maths is in trouble anyway?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Suspected as much . . .

          Not really. Incompleteness just says that not everything can be proved from axioms. That doesn’t make it incorrect.

          1. Arthur the cat Silver badge
            Happy

            Re: Suspected as much . . .

            Incompleteness just says that not everything can be proved from axioms. That doesn’t make it incorrect.

            It makes it correct but not provably so.

          2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: Suspected as much . . .

            I suppose "in trouble" is sufficiently vague that you can argue either side, but yes. Incomplete is a problem if you wanted completeness, but it's not the sort of problem that inconsistency is.

            And you can get the same result in other ways than Gödel, of course. You can reach it through doxastic logic, for example. You can hypothesize it through the Church-Turing Hypothesis, though that's on a much softer foundation than Gödel's proof or its equivalents. And while Algorithmic Information Theory was inspired by Gödel, I believe its incompleteness results could have been arrived at independently. (At least that's true of Chaitin's version of AIT, according to Chaitin's own account. I don't know what sort of debt Kolmogorov's version owes to Gödel.)

      2. m4r35n357 Bronze badge

        Re: Suspected as much . . .

        "Reality" is a philosophical concept, not a scientific one. All we have are observations and measurements. We can often use mathematics to make sense of them, in certain circumstances, but it is naive to assume that nature cares about our differential equations, boundary conditions, and orders of complexity.

        What precisely leads you to say we are "probably wrong"? That is an pretty outrageous claim, that warrants an explanation.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Suspected as much . . .

          It’s not outrageous (certainly no more than appealing to a deity). If the Universe is an outcome of mathematics existing, then a lot of philosophical questions get answered.

          “Why are we here?” become “why does mathematics exist?” becomes “mathematics cannot not exist”

          “Is there a creator?” Becomes “does mathematics need a creator” becomes “no mathematics exists only as logic and is independent of a creator”

          1. m4r35n357 Bronze badge

            Re: Suspected as much . . .

            OK, so that is a personal preference, which I can relate to, but I would not use the words "probably wrong", maybe "hopefully wrong"?

            "Not appealing to a deity" is a pretty low bar ;)

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Suspected as much . . .

              Eh - I don’t spend too much time proof-reading my ramblings on random forums. I probably would use more careful working if “Post Anonymously” wasn’t ticked!

              I like the idea of a Max Tegman Mathematical Universe, personally. It’s the closest I have heard to a sensible explanation….

          2. Graham Dawson Silver badge

            Re: Suspected as much . . .

            Mathematics is a language that we use to describe the universe. It is incomplete, which is why we can't describe things like the interior of a black hole. "Infinity" is merely the contemporary equivalent of "here be dragons".

            Don't mistake the map for the terrain.

            1. m4r35n357 Bronze badge

              Re: Suspected as much . . .

              Mathematics _can_ describe the inside apart from the "singularity". Science (i.e. observations) cannot penetrate the horizon. Anything that we think happens _inside_ the horizon can never be proved, whether you say it is mathematics, "reality", or angels dancing on the head of a pin.

              1. ravenviz Silver badge
                Trollface

                Re: Suspected as much . . .

                It seems the Planck length, black holes, and the confines of the Universe are all an event horizon, and I hypothesise they are all the same one.

                And in the style of Fermat’s Last Theorem I hereby state that I have proved it mathematically, but omitted to show my workings!

      3. LybsterRoy Silver badge

        Re: Suspected as much . . .

        Mathematics is "simply" a mechanism to describe reality and unfortunately we're still getting a lot of red ink on our homework.

      4. FeepingCreature Bronze badge

        Tegmarkism represent!

        All my homies exist as logical implications of formal systems.

        The thing that makes Tegmark IV appealing for me is that I've always thought: "no matter what actually exists or doesn't exist, the fact that the laws of physics if computed will contain myself is immutable and inescapable." So if that's true, and it's hard to see how it couldn't be, why would existence need anything else?

        "But mere mathematics doesn't give you the passage of time, or consciousness, or the phenomenal feeling of selfhood." "Yeah, I calculated the laws of physics and turns out that's what you said in that mathematical formalism as well."

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Suspected as much . . .

      Speaking as a forked tongue, Piecewise Linear patches everything.

  5. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Understanding

    Some famous bloke once said:

    “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”

    Then Oppenheim says:

    "It's quite mathematical. Picturing it in your head is quite difficult."

    That's like 10 year old explaining why he didn't do his homework.

    1. geoffbeaumont

      Re: Understanding

      More like an adult making excuses to the ten year old to avoid having to try explaining something they don't understand themselves...

    2. lglethal Silver badge
      Go

      Re: Understanding

      Try explaining Recursion errors to your 90 year old Granny who has never used a computer? Or perhaps the intricacies of Superheat Phases in a non-ideal Rankine cycle? Or quite frankly String Theory or any of the other competing Unification Theories?

      There are some topics that require a minimum level of expertise to be able to communicate effectively. And let's face it, the entire realm of Theoretical Physics is by now almost entirely pure mathematics.

      I'm sure with time, Oppenheim would be able to come up with a suitable abstraction, but quite frankly does it help anyone outside the Theoretical Physics community? Leave it at, "It's complicated, but we have ideas for experiments that could prove or disprove it...". If enough people in the community of theoretical physicists start taking it seriously, then those tests will happen, and we'll quickly see if it joins the thousands of other disproven Unification Theories or if it joins the not-yet-disproven pile...

      1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

        Re: Understanding

        First you need to explain to her what is recursion.

        1. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

          Re: Understanding

          And as part of that explanation, you need to explain to her what is recursion.

          1. KittenHuffer Silver badge

            Re: Understanding

            But to understand recursion you must first understand recursion!

            1. FrogsAndChips Silver badge

              Re: Understanding

              Your 90-year old Granny will explain it to you.

              1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

                Re: Understanding

                Surely that's indirect recursion?

                1. FrogsAndChips Silver badge

                  Re: Understanding

                  Only if she was born after you. And don't call me Shirley.

          2. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

            Re: Understanding

            And also tail recursion....

      2. ravenviz Silver badge

        Re: Understanding

        My 90 year old granny thought I said “green cushion”.

    3. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

      Re: Understanding

      I was listening to an old "In Our Time" on Einstein the other day, and one of the Profs opined that Einsteins tendency to use analogies, and the press lapping up things like E=MC^2 from his special theory of relativity set hugely unrealistic expectations for future physicists (and also Einstein himself, with his general theory of relativity a few years later). Physics from that point on became increasingly mathematical and harder to understand for the layperson.

      1. eldakka

        Re: Understanding

        > and the press lapping up things like E=MC^2 from his special theory of relativity

        I find that highly unlikely as E=mc^2 isn't from his Special Theory of Relativity, it's from his Mass-Energy Equivalence paper (english title "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?").

    4. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Understanding

      It sounds as if he's saying it's monotonic but not rectilinear. Even a non-mathematician like me can grok that. Doing it 4 dimensions - maybe a bit trickier.

      And if you want a physical representation, think of an old surveyor's tape (it's probably an old surveyor who owns it). It's a bit stretched in places - the tape, not the surveyor (well, maybe the surveyor as well). As you trace along the tape the numbers get bigger all the time (monotonic) but sometimes the next number is further away and sometimes it's closer (not rectilinear).

      Now you can roll it up but keep it safe - I may need it later to explain the difference between accuracy and precision.

      1. m4r35n357 Bronze badge

        Re: Understanding

        BTW that is an excellent example of my point about nature vs mathematics above. Nature has no more trouble handling four dimensions than one. Mathematics does.

        1. Paul Kinsler

          Re: Nature has no more trouble handling four dimensions than one. Mathematics does.

          No, mathematics doesn't have trouble with high dimension numbers. But some mathematicians might, depending on their specialty :-)

          1. m4r35n357 Bronze badge

            Re: Nature has no more trouble handling four dimensions than one. Mathematics does.

            Does nature _really_ fill up pages on pages with workings of calculus & algebra?

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Nature has no more trouble handling four dimensions than one. Mathematics does.

              Yes

  6. yogidude

    Predictions are everything

    If it's very mathematical, then the real challenge is to point to something tangible as a prediction. This is why we refer to General Relativity on its own, and not as General Relativity Theory. There are a number of predictions of GR that have been successfully tested. String Theory on the other hand, is only ever referred to as theory. Good on them for having a crack. Maths is important but it's not so important to frame the question as it is to explain the answer.

    1. eldakka

      Re: Predictions are everything

      > This is why we refer to General Relativity on its own, and not as General Relativity Theory.

      Err, no, it is correctly The Theory of General Relativity, calling it General Relativity or GR are both shorthands.

      I think you are doing the classic 'casual english' thing and using 'theory' to mean (as Merriam-Websters's '2b' definition - which is the 4th definition for theory)

      2 b:: an ideal or hypothetical set of facts, principles, or circumstances —often used in the phrase in theory
      rather than the precise scientific use of the word theory as per Merriam-Webster's 1a (i.e. first) definition:
      1 a: a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena
      String Theory is correctly labelled a hypothesis, not an actual accepted Scientific Theory, whereas General Relativity is a generally accepted Scientific Theory.

      String Theory plays with semantics by including the word 'theory' as part of the title of the hypothesis, therefore it is "the hypothesis that is titled String Theory", and if it is ever elevated to the status of Scientific Theory (doubtful ... see fo example this youtube video from a working physicist ) then it would be "the theory that is titled String Theory, or The Theory of String Theory."

      1. yogidude

        Re: Predictions are everything

        Nobody refers to it as the hypothesis that is titled string theory. Because that's not what it's called. Nevertheless you seem to have ended up reinfocing my point, although I suspect that wasn't your intention.

  7. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    "bet ... against the theory being proven correct"

    Experiments can prove wrong theories are wrong. They can also fail to prove theories wrong even if they are through lack of precision or range - you need a fairly long experiment performed with reasonable accuracy just to prove the Earth is not flat.

    Betting against a theory being proved correct is always safe. No matter how closely experimental results match theory just claim that more precision or a longer/shorter scale would have proved the theory false.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "bet ... against the theory being proven correct"

      All theories have levels of accuracy. Newton’s laws aren’t “wrong”, they are inaccurate (particularly at high speeds/mass/small sizes)

      In fact, “right or wrong” is not usually the correct metric.

      1. m4r35n357 Bronze badge

        Re: "bet ... against the theory being proven correct"

        I think "not applicable to those problem domains" is a better way to put it than "inaccurate".

        His "laws" are much more useful than GR for navigation in the Solar System.

  8. gillburt

    TBBT

    Asymmetrical symmetry anyone?

    1. Zolko Silver badge

      Re: TBBT

      Or a varying Hubble constant ?

      1. ravenviz Silver badge

        Re: TBBT

        I’m all up for the gravitational force constant varying with distance/time.

        But in the end G is just a fiddle filling a gap between mathematics and observation.

    2. eldakka

      Re: TBBT

      > Asymmetrical symmetry anyone?

      Would like like a dash of Spontaneous Symmetry breaking on the side with that?

    3. herman

      Re: TBBT

      Fractal symmetry.

  9. lglethal Silver badge
    Trollface

    So we're creating a new definition for "Chucking a Wobbly"?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    String theory has taught us….

    …talk is cheap. Experimental predictions, please!

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: String theory has taught us….

      I read elsewhere that the 2nd paper was suggesting that fluctuations in successive weighing of the standard 1kg mass might be the basis of a test. I'm not sure what you'd weigh it against that wouldn't be subject to the same fluctuations.

      1. FrogsAndChips Silver badge

        Re: String theory has taught us….

        The 'standard 1kg mass' is no longer a standard, the kg was redefined a few years ago based only on fundamental constants. So now you could measure the fluctuations of its mass, provided your instruments are precise enough.

    2. Ian Johnston Silver badge

      Re: String theory has taught us….

      A friend of mine works in string theory. Thirty years ago he said they were near predicting the charge-mass ratio for electrons. As far as I know, that still hasn't happened. String theory has been a spectacular dud,

      But then, so has much of modern physics, which is now reduced to inventing "dark matter" and "dark energy" is a desperate attempt to change the universe to fit their theories, a la epicycles. Perhaps we'll just have to accept that human brains are not good enough to understand what's going on, in much the way that no dog will ever understand how microprocessors work.

      1. eldakka

        Re: String theory has taught us….

        > As far as I know, that still hasn't happened. String theory has been a spectacular dud,

        As a general note, String Theory is not popular among the physics community as a whole. It is only popular in the tiny subset that support it (basically the ones who work on it and write books on it and get paid to present talks about it, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, et al.) and the media and, through the media, the public.

        acollierastro (a random physicist) did an interesting youtube video, string theory lied to us and now science communication is hard.

      2. LybsterRoy Silver badge

        Re: String theory has taught us….

        -- epicycles -- really deserves more than the one upvote I can give

  11. Howard Sway Silver badge

    Oppenheim proposes to overcome the barrier with the idea of "wobbly spacetime"

    I believe that there's already much experimental evidence for such a theory :

    1) Take a person and put them in a 90 minute meeting discussing which database access framework a new application should use. Time will be observed to have stretched out to what felt like a week amongst all observers.

    2) Take the same person and send them on a week's holiday to some sunny island where good food and wine are abundant and cheap. Time will be observed to pass so quickly that it's time to go home again before they know it.

    This is ample proof that we live in a giant cosmic jelly.

    1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

      Re: Oppenheim proposes to overcome the barrier with the idea of "wobbly spacetime"

      The solution is to have work meetings during holiday.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Oppenheim proposes to overcome the barrier with the idea of "wobbly spacetime"

      "This is ample proof that we live in a giant cosmic jelly."

      What flavour? And are you going to trifle with it?

      1. Rich 11

        Re: Oppenheim proposes to overcome the barrier with the idea of "wobbly spacetime"

        Turritopsis dorhnii flavour. And it's not to be trifled with, because it always wins in the end.

        1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
          Coat

          Re: Oppenheim proposes to overcome the barrier with the idea of "wobbly spacetime"

          I cussed hard at these puns.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Oppenheim proposes to overcome the barrier with the idea of "wobbly spacetime"

      "This is ample proof that we live in a giant cosmic jelly."

      That'd explain why staplers keep appearing on my desk.

    4. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

      Re: Oppenheim proposes to overcome the barrier with the idea of "wobbly spacetime"

      Or as Douglas Adams put it, "Time is relative; lunchtime doubly so."

      1. ecofeco Silver badge

        Re: Oppenheim proposes to overcome the barrier with the idea of "wobbly spacetime"

        And 2nd lunch is right out!

        1. ravenviz Silver badge

          Re: Oppenheim proposes to overcome the barrier with the idea of "wobbly spacetime"

          What about second breakfast?

  12. Lee D Silver badge

    Rule #1:

    Don't back bets championed by people with names like Oppenheim in the field of physics...

    "Oppenheimer himself had bet ten dollars against George Kistiakowsky's entire month's pay that the bomb would not work at all"

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      But what was George Kistiakowsky's monthly pay?

      1. Rich 11

        A college professor's salary at the time was about $4000 on average, but since Kistiakowsky had been at Harvard he'd likely have earned more there. He also headed the Explosives Research Lab before joining the Manhattan Project, so the government was probably paying him more than Harvard. A monthly pay of about $500-$600 seems likely.

    2. Ian Johnston Silver badge

      I can't understand betting terminology. Does that mean that Oppenheimer won or lost ten dollars if the bomb didn't work?

  13. itzman

    Dead cert bet

    No scientific theory is ever proven 'right'. At best. it's 'not wrong, so far'...

    1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

      Re: Dead cert bet

      As a colleague of mine used to say, all scientists know that in due course everything they have discovered will be proved wrong. Perhaps fundamentally, perhaps only at the tenth decimal place, but eventually wrong. Which is why scientists are generally much more humble than religious types, or social scientists, neither of which groups admit that being proved wrong is even a possibility.

    2. LybsterRoy Silver badge

      Re: Dead cert bet

      Shouldn't that have "except climate change" in there - after all as St Greta told us - "THE SCIENCE IS FINISHED"

  14. Arthur the cat Silver badge

    Try the social media approach

    GR and QM decide which is right by having a cage match.

    1. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

      Re: Try the social media approach

      I thought that was the Harry Hill method? I guess leftpondians wouldn't be familiar with him.

      FIGHT!

  15. John Miles
    Joke

    TODO found in universe source code

    Fix discrepancy between quantum mechanics and general relativity before any species evolve sufficiently to detect it

  16. CrackedNoggin Bronze badge

    Random's just another word for nothing left as clues (to paraphase JJ & the Kozmic Blues Band)

    We have shown that if spacetime doesn't have a quantum nature, then there must be random fluctuations in the curvature of spacetime

    El Reg first published the discovery of non-random fluctuations in space time in 2016 - "Boffins' gravitational wave detection hat trick blows open astronomy"- news that is still reverberating today. These were non-random fluctuations because they were pronounced enough and correlated with enough other observed data to attribute them with high certainty to colliding black holes.

    What if such gravitation waves didn't die but continued to reverberate, mixing it up with waves from other gravitational events, leaving space time riddled with mutually interfering ripples of all sizes whose origins are impossible to attribute to any particular event? You might as well call them random.

  17. F.Domestica

    People expecting unity on something as yet untested really don't understand the scientific method. Any theory can be proposed; the question is whether it matches the data (known and later) better than other theories. And even then it's only a provisional best-guess since some other data or idea may either refine it or replace it later.

    As far as I can tell even philosophy admits of this process. Individual philosophers may not, but that's _their_ current theory, which may not survive.

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