[asa] LHC, TOE, and the limits of knowledge

From: Iain Strachan <igd.strachan@gmail.com>
Date: Wed Sep 10 2008 - 13:47:39 EDT

It's possible my physics is too rusty to make the following speculations
valid, but I'd be interested to hear what folks think.

Physicists have for a long time talked about the TOE (Theory Of Everything),
and I wonder if the belief that we are somehow close to a TOE is based on
atheistic precepts.

Thinking about the LHC and what it hopes to achieve made me think about this
- and I think it shows possibly that we are always going to run up against
limits that we'll never be able to explore.

What started me thinking was all the headline stuff about the Big Bang and
that the LHC is the "Big Bang" experiment; and that it will create
conditions and energies that were present in the first trillionth of a
second after the Big Bang. That may seem an incredibly small time, but it
occurs to me that in physics that is actually an incredibly long time.

So we're talking about the first 10^-12 of a second of a universe that has
lasted 10^18 seconds - around 30 orders of magnitude longer than this period
of time.

However, the smallest possible unit of time, as I recall, is the Planck time
of 10^-43 seconds, which is an even more impressive 31 orders of magnitude
shorter than a trillionth of a second. So, on a logarithmic scale of
digging back to the Big Bang, we're not even half-way there!

It's my understanding that Physics changes radically when scales change by
many orders of magnitude (e.g. 8 orders of magnitude in velocity is required
for Newton's laws to break down and relativistic effects to come into play).

Hence it seems to me that the next step will likely only peel the next layer
off the onion - and we have no way of knowing what unanswered questions are
present in the layers below, or what complex and rich physics that we know
nothing about took place hidden in those 31 orders of magnitude. We would
only be able to theorise based on what we know of what happened after them.

Since higher energies could only be produced by larger and larger
accelerators, it seems to me that such knowledge, in the sense of empirical
verification, will be forever out of our reach. We might build an
accelerator the size of a country; hardly one the size of the planet, and
impossible to build one the size of the Solar System, or the galaxy.

Now, perhaps I'm missing some vital piece of modern physics that makes us
sure that we're near the last layer of the onion and that we WILL have a TOE
in the near future, but I feel sceptical about this - laws tend to break
down when velocities, energies are pushed to previously unknown limits.

Iain

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Non timeo sed caveo
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Received on Wed Sep 10 13:48:05 2008

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