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Provocative and engaging, this collection brings together the premiere science writing of the year. Featuring the imprimatur of bestselling author and New York Times reporter Gina Kolata, one of the nation's foremost voices in science and medicine, and with contributions from Atul Gawande, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Oliver Sacks, among others, The Best American Science Writing 2007 is a compelling anthology of our most advanced, and most relevant, scientific inquiries.
Edited by New York Timesscience writer Kolata, this volume celebrates writing that captures the excitement of scientific discovery and also its human consequences. Tyler Cabot's "The Theory of Everything" spotlights theoretical physicists awaiting "the greatest, most anticipated, most expensive experiment in the history of mankind." By contrast, "Manifold Destiny" by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber tells of Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman, who quietly announced a solution to one of the field's most elusive problems: Fermat's Last Theorem. Atul Gawande's "The Score" looks at the all-too-often painful history of obstetrics, and "Truth or Consequences" by Jennifer Couzin examines the bitter fallout for innocent graduate students and postdocs when their adviser is accused of falsifying data. Oliver Sacks's "Stereo Sue" explores the marvel of binocular vision, and Barry Yeoman's "Schweitzer's Dangerous Discovery" profiles unconventional paleontologist Mary Higby Schweitzer, discoverer of tissue remnants in dinosaur bones. These articles, culled mainly from general interest publications like the New Yorkerbut also from science magazines like Discover, showcase articles that show, in Kolata's words, how "[a]dvances in science have changed who we are as human beings and... are changing what we will become," and readers will indeed find them as exciting as they are compelling. (Sept. 18)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Theory of Everything
String theory. M-theory. Loop quantum gravity. The holographic universe. Several theories are competing for the solution to physics' ultimate problem: finding a single theory to unify all of the forces of nature—a theory of everything. Tyler Cabot looks in on what the contending theories' proponents are thinking as a new particle collider gets ready to test their hypotheses.
Eighteen months to go. And now some nights Nima Arkani-Hamed can't sleep. Because in eighteen months someone will flip a switch in something called the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. And when that switch is flipped, billions of protons will fly around a seventeen-mile loop at nearly the speed of light until they smash together hard, harder than any subatomic particles have ever been smashed together on earth. It's the greatest, most anticipated, most expensive experiment in the history of mankind. And if Arkani-Hamed is right, it could help prove that the laws that govern the universe at every scale—from the smallest quarks to the largest black holes—are one and the same. Or else, of course, it could prove that Arkani-Hamed is full of shit.
It's a fool's errand, this quest for a theory of everything. And Arkani-Hamed is only the most recent of thousands of theoretical physicists to embark on it. The idea seemed logical enough when Einstein first set out on it in the 1920s. If general relativity explains the universe from afar—why gravity pulls the earth around thesun—and quantum mechanics explains the world up close—how atoms, protons, and neutrons react to electromagnetism and the strong and weak forces—surely there must be a way to put the two theories together. After all, whether cosmic in size or minuscule, the particles and forces that govern our universe were all born at the same primordial moment. Yet Einstein failed. And in the interim, armies of physicists, equipped with similarly well-intentioned yet ultimately faulty or unprovable ideas, have followed him to the same well-trod dead end.
Since the mid1980s, the leading contender for a grand unifying theory has been string theory. The idea is deceptively simple: At the core of every particle in the universe is a tiny thread of energy. Each of these filaments vibrates like a violin string, and its rate of vibration determines its vital characteristics, or tone. There are neutrino strings and electron strings, photon strings and graviton strings. When played together, they compose the symphony of the universe. Or at least, that's the theory.
There's a problem, though. The strings have too much range. So much, in fact, that for string theory to agree with the established laws of physics and mathematics, there must be not three but at least ten dimensions (including time) that are curled up and tucked away. And because each of these multidimensional landscapes requires a different string tuning, there are potentially billions and billions of different versions of string theory relating to billions and billions of different universes.
Then there's the problem of testing string theory. That's how science works. We hypothesize, then we test. And if a hypothesis passes muster, it becomes law. But the strings that supposedly make up our universe are so infinitesimal—one string is to an atom as a single atom is to the entire solar system—that critics argue that we may never be able to build a collider powerful enough to find them, even the collider that Arkani-Hamed stays up all night thinking about.
So here's the latest tally: Number of years since string theory became dominant: 20. Number of potential string-theory solutions: 10500 (the number of atoms in the galaxy squared and then squared again). Number of testable theories: 0. In other words, Arkani-Hamed better be at least partially right, because the natives are getting restless.
If the problem with string theory, as some critics claim, is that it's a closed-minded boys club whose lifetime members hopelessly shuffle and redeal the same deck of equations ad nauseam, then the solution may be found at the Jane Bond, a bar in the staid Canadian college town of Waterloo. The Jane Bond has a decidedly grungy 1970s flair. Tattooed hipsters talk with awed reverence of Brooklyn while DJs spin eclectic and esoteric music next to the bathroom, near the disco ball. And then there are the physicists from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics who have made the Jane Bond their watering hole. They talk theory sometimes. But mostly they just bullshit. "You want to know the true story?" goads a young postdoctoral researcher at that magical hour in any bar when only bad things can happen. "It's the post-9/11 theocons." Just like the rest of America, he continues, the science establishment is afraid of anything new. It doesn't want to consider any alternatives. "The string theorists just masturbate to their same ideas." At this, the rest of the table—a mixed group of young cosmologists, quantum-information theorists, and quantum-gravity buffs—breaks into nervous laughter. Yes, their friend is drunk. But he's right in a general sense, they concede. There is a growing fissure in the physics world between the haves (string theorists) and the have-nots (everyone else). But not at Perimeter, they caution. Perimeter is different.
The first thing you notice when walking through the concrete-and-glass hallways of PI are the lounges with blackboards. They are ubiquitous. And at each one there are usually two or three young physicists—mostly men, most in their late twenties or thirties—arguing over equations. The feeling is more dorm-room TA session than serious discussion about the origins of the universe. Sneakers and jeans rule. The researchers come and go as they please, and they work as they please. And when they grow too tired of drilling through equations and erasing equations and drilling through them some more, they might take a break. There's a squash court near the billiard table, a few floors below the bistro and bar. But don't get the wrong idea. Foosball aside, the physicists at PI are doing serious work.The Best American Science Writing 2007. Copyright © by Gina Kolata. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.