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Hawking: No 'Theory of Everything' 465

Flash Modin writes "In a Scientific American essay based on their new book A Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow are now claiming physicists may never find a theory of everything. Instead, they propose a 'family of interconnected theories' might emerge, with each describing a certain reality under specific conditions. The claim is a reversal for Hawking, who claimed in 1980 that there would be a unified theory by the turn of the century."
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Hawking: No 'Theory of Everything'

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:08PM (#33751060)

    What sort of people do you think predict the as yet unobserved particles that Fermi and LHC people are looking for? Though I doubt Hawking is right on this one, not many besides you would say he was on the sidelines anyway.

  • Past His Prime (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Wannabe Code Monkey ( 638617 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:08PM (#33751068)

    I certainly hate to say it. And I certainly don't think I'm any smarter. But, Hawking is past his prime. It seems like he's been saying stuff recently just to say stuff. Maybe it's for attention, maybe it's because he knows extraordinary claims will sell headlines and his books/documentaries, or maybe it's because he actually believes in them. However, after his comments on active SETI being dangerous and now this... I don't know, it's like watching an amazing baseball player, past his prime, coaching a crappy minor league team. It's hard to criticize because I was never as good as he, and even now I couldn't manage a Denny's, but I don't really want to watch him either.

  • Wisdom from DS9 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MBGMorden ( 803437 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:09PM (#33751086)

    I'm reminded of a scene from DS9. Sure it's fiction, but it always held some sway with me:

    Bashir: "Trevean was right. There is no cure. The Dominion made sure of that. But I was so arrogant, I thought I could find one in a week!"
    Jadzia: "Maybe it was arrogant to think that. But it's even more arrogant to think there isn't a cure just because you couldn't find it."

    Hawking a smart guy, but he by no means knows everything. Throwing in the towel and declaring that there is no right answer simply because he hasn't found it just doesn't hold much water with me. We might not figure it out for 100 years. We might figure it out tomorrow. We might NEVER figure it out, but simple logic says that there is a unified equation. It might not be simple or pretty, but if the universe operates on a consistent set of physical laws, it's out there.

  • by abigor ( 540274 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:10PM (#33751104)

    Godel used the term "formal system" to specifically mean a recursive axiomatic system that can do arithmetic. I don't think it really applies here.

  • by oldhack ( 1037484 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:16PM (#33751176)
    It's about time they rethink this artificial theoretical/experimental barrier if all the "theories" being cooked up are so far out of the realm of verification that they might as well move to philosophy department.
  • Re:Past His Prime (Score:5, Insightful)

    by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:20PM (#33751228)

    It happens. James Watson, who was part of the team that discovered the structure of DNA, has been saying crazier things for years. []

    My favorite was his presentation on why men liked butts. Certainly funnier than his comments on race.

    Scientists sometimes don't age well. We probably age better on average than rock stars, but then again people pay don't take what rock stars say as seriously as scientists.

  • Re:Wisdom from DS9 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by electron sponge ( 1758814 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:22PM (#33751250)
    "The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition." - Carl Sagan
  • Re:Wisdom from DS9 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by guyminuslife ( 1349809 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:22PM (#33751256)
    Simple logic says a lot of things, some of which it turns out are not true.
  • Re:Past His Prime (Score:3, Insightful)

    by deodiaus2 ( 980169 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:33PM (#33751454)
    The comment about Hawkins being past his prime is really ugly, especially coming from you. I think Hawkins is honest enough to say that he does not know or understand something if he doesn't. Hawkins refered to himself as being lazy in his early years in college, so he does admit some of his shortcomings. Ronnie Reagan was often ignorant of the facts, but he said them with such conviction that even people who knew had to go back to check their references before retorting. We survived Ronnie, so I'm more inclined to trust Hawkins.
    It might be that it takes a lifetime to learn enough physics in order to make a statement like that. Also, as someone said, the theory of everything might fall into Godel's incompleteness type of problem. Quantum physics is a patchwork of knowledge without enough theory to explain itself. Or the theory could be beyond Human understanding.
  • Re:Wisdom from DS9 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MortimerGraves ( 828374 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:45PM (#33751626)

    I wonder if it may be an example of Clarke's First Law:

    "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong."

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:50PM (#33751708)

    At some point, science requires faith.

    Let me be the first to tell you that you don't understand science or the scientific method. At all.

  • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @03:53PM (#33751742) Homepage

    It's about time they rethink this artificial theoretical/experimental barrier if all the "theories" being cooked up are so far out of the realm of verification that they might as well move to philosophy department. ...Said the blowhard in the 60s about the theoretical prediction of the W and Z boson twenty years before a device capable of detecting them was built.

    It's not an artificial barrier, by the way, it's a practical arrangement. Both coming up with theories, and conducting and executing experiments, take substantial amounts of time that don't leave much left for the other. You might as well say we should eliminate the artificial barrier between academic computer architecture research and production circuit design. It don't work that way.

  • Re:Old news (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Jeremiah Cornelius ( 137 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @04:02PM (#33751904) Homepage Journal

    When "Everything" is defined for certain values of "Kurt Godel"...

  • Re:Past His Prime (Score:5, Insightful)

    by oldhack ( 1037484 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @04:07PM (#33751980)
    You're conflating blings with accomplishment. Should have listed his papers instead of awards given to him.
  • by FrozenFOXX ( 1048276 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @04:08PM (#33751992)

    I always figured that when they found the theory to everything, they would find God. But since the don't believe in Him, they'll never find the theory to everything. At some point, science requires faith. On the religious side, God said the laws are irrevocable and He cannot break them - he knows the science and we are just trying to catch up. (In other words, science and religion/philosophy aren't necessarily at odds.)

    I can't say my own views are too far off but there's a critical distinction that needs to be made. "Science" does not require faith (though the scientific COMMUNITY usually does...any non-physicists here test every law of thermodynamics lately?). "Science" is observation and experimentation. If you cannot experiment, you cannot demonstrably repeat it, it's usually not science. This isn't a Bad Thing because there are most likely some things we will never be able to classify under science.

    I DO agree that science/religion aren't at odds...but only because when done properly the two have nothing to do with each other. One's about the How of the world working and the other's about the Why.

    It's important to understand the difference between Religion/Philosophy and Science. The communities and people may have issues (kinda like our "faith" in Open Source...I haven't personally inspected the Linux kernel, but I believe that others have and what they tell me about it. Until I test it for myself I can't claim I'm doing science with it) but they are very, very distinct.

  • by MaWeiTao ( 908546 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @04:12PM (#33752054)

    The problem is that most young people who think they care about science are merely infatuated with the latest gadgets. Any venture that doesn't result in shiny toys to ogle and possess is a wasted endeavor.

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @04:25PM (#33752246) Journal

    Aren't the laws of physics axioms for the universe? Isn't the idea behind a grand unified theory to find one or two simple mathematical expressions (axioms) from which the rest of the universe can be derived? The universe is clearly Turing complete, so I really don't see how it wouldn't apply.

  • Anonymous Coward (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 30, 2010 @04:27PM (#33752266)

    “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough” -- Albert Einstein

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @04:28PM (#33752286) Journal

    If the "Theory of Everything" isn't complete, then how is it a theory of *everything*?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 30, 2010 @04:38PM (#33752428)

    I've never been to space, but I can look up. And I trust the fine people at NASA that say they have launched numerous probes into space.

    As for Antarctica I've actually been there, once. But I've never been to Australia so your argument is valid for that place.

    I'm not buying into your superstitious crap about a god that only shows itself to deluded people that are mentally unstable. I'm sorry, but the notion is absurd.

  • by MpVpRb ( 1423381 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @04:56PM (#33752714)
    When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong
  • Hate it (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 30, 2010 @05:24PM (#33753120)

    I hate it when a human, smart as he/she is, claims to know something that is the absolute.

    We're human. We understand things, but we don't know shit. Travel around the universe first, then we'll talk.

  • by spun ( 1352 ) <> on Thursday September 30, 2010 @05:38PM (#33753326) Journal

    I can prove to myself that space or antarctica exist without having to rely on someone else's experience. The difference between space and Antarctica, on the one hand, and God, on the other, are that, at least according to people who have been there, space and antarctica are physical, tangible things with discernible properties. God is not. I can watch a rocket taking off. I can not watch a person experiencing God. That experience is entirely subjective, and exists only in the person having it. Space and Antarctica are things that can be seen directly or videotaped. Sure, someone may be faking those videos, but that is stretching the definition of faith. Do you have to have faith to walk? According to you, you do. You need to have faith that the ground is solid, because you have not experienced the solidity of this piece of ground at this time. But don't you see that defining "faith" that way destroys any meaning the word has?

    Science is not based on faith, because science does not even claim to tell us what is "true." If you think science tells us what is true and what is false, you drastically and fundamentally misunderstand what science is and how it works. True and false aren't part of it. It doesn't matter if a theory is true or not. We still use theories we absolutely know to be false, like Newton's theory of gravity. We use that instead of Einstein's theory in almost all engineering, because it is useful, that is to say, it makes accurate predictions in known circumstances. And it is much simpler to calculate. As long as your building is not traveling at light speed, Newton's theories are close enough to be useful. And that is all science tries to do, find theories that are useful, that make accurate and important predictions in given circumstances.

    The thing about theories, you can test them. Science works because anyone can look at a theory, see what it predicts, and look at the real world, and see if it matches the theory. Personally, I have tested a great many theories of God, and none of them work as purported for me. I've lived as just a life as possible, believing in God. I've opened my heart. I've prayed. I've fasted. I've meditated. You know what I got for my troubles?

    Nothing. Do you understand? I have done everything that the people who claim to have personally experienced God told me would work, and it didn't. That is the cold hard truth for most people. But I bet they said they did, because who wants to look impious? Now, science has given us other tools for looking at this dilemma. I could, with the help of science, personally experience God. Just shoot a beam at the right spot on a person's head, and they will experience everything the saints and mystics do, direct personal experience of God. Even knowing it came from a beam of electrons, most people who have experienced it still believe it was real, because it "felt real." But it wasn't really God, it was a particular region of the brain getting triggered by electricity.

    Now, I have two possible explanations for this God thing. One is, he exists but is hiding from me personally. The other, everyone who had a direct experience of God just had a particular region of the brain triggered by some event.

    And just to be clear, I do not want your advice on how to find God. Whatever you have to say, I've tried it already and it didn't work. No God for me. But that is really okay, I do not need a God. I do not need an external reason for this. This exists, and that is enough. All else is fantasy. There is no ultimate meaning or purpose to life or the universe, and that is a good thing, because it means we are free to create any meaning or purpose we like. I know that kind of freedom scares some small minded people, which is why they invented a God that, according to their books, is far, far less awe inspiring than the real universe.

    I'll take reality, you can keep your useless schizophrenic God. You want to know who created reality? I did. Everything I see, I have given it all the meaning it

  • Re:Wisdom from DS9 (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 30, 2010 @05:42PM (#33753378)

    He is not throwing the towel. He is being realistic instead of fanatic, which he was before.

    Years before, Hawking claimed that the theory of everything was "around the corner". Hawking is a genius but his claim always seemed to me an example of intellectual arrogance. Even the existence of a theory of everything is debatable. In fact, there is no evidence of such a theory, except for the fact that scientists think that this would be an elegant solution (for example, to have one force instead of four forces in nature). And, although nature is often elegant, elegance is not a proof of existence.

    Medieval astronomers (and Copernicus and Gallilei) thought planets' orbits were circular because circle is an elegant shape. When Kepler had to reject this hypothesis, he did it with the biggest grief, thinking that all the other mathematical shapes were inferior to circle. The same way, one is a number more elegant than four, but this does not prove that only one force exists.

    Even if the "theory of everything" exists, nobody knows when a breakthrough will happen, because nobody can predict the future and science is more complex than we think. Hawking predicting the end of physics seemed a fool to me. The same prediction was made months before Einstein discovered the theory of relativity.

    That is not to say that the guy is not a genius. But a genius is not someone that does not commit mistakes.

    Now Hawking says that there might be a theory of everything or there might not be a theory of everything. This seems more accurate to me. We simply don't know. He is not throwing the towel. He is admitting his own ignorance. Socrates would be pleased. Admitting the lack of knowledge is a kind of wisdom.

  • by tomhudson ( 43916 ) <> on Thursday September 30, 2010 @06:32PM (#33753834) Journal
    First problem ( of many ) - a representation of something is not that something. This is something that programmers forget all the time. There is no such thing as objects, methods, function calls, etc. Those are just representations. At a higher level, ordering a pizza online, and them sending you a fax of that pizza, is not going to work either. Even them sending you a complete description of the state of every single atom in a pizza is not going to work. Information, contrary to popular belief, is not equivalent to the thing being described.

    In other words, even if you had a machine that was able to represent every single state of the universe, it is not equivalent to the universe. Any description of something, no matter how detailed, is not that thing, no matter how many times people chant "information theory says otherwise." It's like the pastor who preaches against same-sex marriage, saying it's unnatural and that same-sex behaviour doesn't occur in nature, but completely ignores the male dog humping his leg.

    However, what you offer is not proof by contradiction. It buys into the idea that there's the possibility that the universe might be represented by a Turing machine. That's the flawed premise (but try to get people to see it when they've got their precious theories on the line).

    Also, the halting problem is trivially solved by allowing the arrow of time to reverse at the end of each calculation (say once a second), so that even a near-infinite solution must, by definition, complete in 1 second of "real" time. In other words, either the Turing machine continues to exist after one second, or it disappears - stuck in an infinite time loop. This lets you know that the problem is either solvable, or not.

    As for the "dude" bit, please see my profile thx bye!

  • by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @06:56PM (#33754050) Homepage

    The universe contains complete, formal, logical systems (e.g. computers).

    Real computers are not complete, formal, logical systems.

    Are they not governed by the laws of physics?

    Real computers are, yes. And they are, therefor, not complete, formal, logical systems. The future state of a real computer is not entirely determined by its current state.

  • by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @07:55PM (#33754484)

    I don't know Godel as well as some other people here, but I do know physics and you're making a lot of assumptions there, starting with that the universe can be "derived" from a theory of everything. The name is a little unfortunate, but the goal of a theory of everything is to create a unified description of the fundamental forces, not a program to simulate the entire universe. If you wanted to simply say "the theory of everything won't be able to tell you absolutely everything about every particle in the universe," you'd be right, and probably that's where you're going with your incompleteness thing.

    More fundamentally though, you're assuming the universe is a logical system. From a physicists point of view, it is a happy coincidence that rigorous mathematics is useful in describing the universe, but there is nothing that demands that this is the case (more practically: we're happy in physics to have assumptions about things like causality and time invariance, where needed).

    This may sound crazy to most people, but why exactly mathematics has been so successful in physics is still a subject of debate among physicists: whether mathematics approximates an ultimately imperfect physical reality or mathematics *is* physical reality. I don't think it will be settled soon.

  • by PenguiN42 ( 86863 ) <> on Thursday September 30, 2010 @09:49PM (#33755118) Journal

    However, the halting problem (and all other semi-decidable and undecidable problems) exists in the Universe.

    This is a HUGE assumption on which your entire argument hinges, so I think you need to define it more precisely, and provide some evidence that it is true.

    Your argument seems to fall apart due to equivocation -- at the beginning you define a set of "problems" that the universe turing machine has to solve. For example, one of those "problems" might be "if you arrange mass in a certain configuration, in which direction will it accelerate?"

    However, you then include "the halting problem" in this set. Bzzzt, full stop. This is a decidedly different sense of the word "problem." In this case, we're talking about an abstract idea that only exists as definitions on paper and in peoples' minds, but doesn't actually physically exist in the universe. In other words, our universe can talk about and consider and represent undecidable problems, but that doesn't mean it can actually solve them.

    If you disagree, please describe a phyisical system that is "the halting problem" or some other undecidable problem and show that the universe can indeed resolve it.

  • Re:Past His Prime (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Thursday September 30, 2010 @10:06PM (#33755192)

    "He's a physicist, not a football player."

    Theoretical physics is very much a young man's game, probably even more so than football. Lederman has a good quote in his book. Unfortunately I can't remember exactly what it is, or who said it, but it involves physicists who are in their late twenties being over the hill.

    When physicists get older they become administrators and mentors. Important jobs, but not the breakthrough stuff the young ones are known for.

  • by Artifakt ( 700173 ) on Friday October 01, 2010 @01:16AM (#33756012)

    I have seen Elephants personally, so I have very high confidence that Elephants exist. On the other hand, if someone tells me there are about 12,000 African elephants worldwide, I don't know offhand how reliable such a figure is. It's not just the really unlikely cases, i.e. that elephants have gone extinct since the last time I actually verified one's existence and there's a massive conspiracy to hide that fact, that affect that reliability, but the other, much more probable cases, such as people doing elephant surveys maybe missing some, or someone accidentally adding or dropping a zero while writing a newspaper article, or someone misremembering old information. (Hint, I just pulled that figure from my posterior, deliberately without looking it up, to make an example).
            I'd be a fool to think the two facts were equally reliable. If I carefully specify that at least 3 elephants existed the last time I went to the local zoo, I can approach 100% confidence, but as soon as I get outside that carefully selected area, it is actually the more reasonable thing to do to assume that there is some significant uncertainty. For some propositions, the amount of uncertainty that is likely is very great indeed.
            Now consider this proposition: "The scientific method is the most reliable means of determining the truth that can possibly exist". Can that be proved? Either there is a proof within science of that claim, which means the proof is only as reliable as science itself is, and science still could have any level of reliability including a very poor one, or there's a proof outside of science, which means there is some superior method to proving things and so the claim is actually false by counterexample.
              If I put in in terms of reliability, I would have to, reasonably, claim that it seems more reliable to say that the scientific method is the most reliable method yet developed than to claim nothing better can possibly be discovered. I'd think it very unreliable indeed to declare that there are not even any minor improvements to the scientific method even remotely possible. So yes, in that sense, science requires faith. I have faith that I should continue using the scientific method on many problems, I have both a logical opinion that, where science does not yield ready answers, I should try various forms of logical or philosophical reasoning and a rule of thumb that is derived only from my own experience that says much the same thing. I may even hold the same opinion as a matter of cultural condition as well. Note that I did not say I have a scientific opinion that I should use logic where science doesn't yield immediate results, as that too makes no sense. How can science tell me what to do when science isn't producing results (at least yet)?


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