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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Back to the Future: We Need the Super Collider BY RONNIE DUGGER DREAMS OF A FINAL THEORY. By Steven Weinberg 329 pp. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992. $24.50 THE REFUSAL BY the U.S. House of Representatives, for the second time, to spend eight billion federal dollars to build a 54-mile-around scientific instrument, the Superconducting Super Collider, in Ellis County, Texas, resulted from and further provoked formulaic political slogans: cut the deficit, jobs for Texans, “pork barrel” what about infant formula for poor mothers? In due course, also for the second time, the U.S. Senate will decide whether to rescue this breath-catching project. In Dreams of a Final Theory the Nobel Prizewinning physicist Steven Weinberg, now teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, accomplishes a subtle and elusive undertaking. He shows the general reader that, as Weinberg phrased the thought in an op-ed piece in the New York Times earlier this year, beneath this customary political sparring “there is a quieter and older debate about the aims of science and the nature of knowledge.” Iasked another physicist at UT, the late Alfred Schild, once in his office, whether I could approach, to try to understand, the universe. Cautioning me that no one who has not mastered the higher mathematics can ever really understand the universe, Schild instructed me to read The Nature of Physical Law by physicist Richard Feynman, who has also since died. Feynman explained that the laws of each of the sciences chemistry, physics, biology, geology, and so on seem adequate to their own realms, but they do not fit together into a single coherent body of physical law. The systems of laws of the different sciences cannot be seen as parts of a whole. Their edges do not fit together as in a jigsaw puzzle. There are lacunae, contradictions. Ronnie Dugger is publisher of the Texas Observer. For the last 30 years of his life Albert Einstein pondered without success in quest of a unified field theory. Weinberg believes Einstein . erred in rejecting quantum theory and seeking to unify only electromagnetism with the general theory of relativity \(omitting other kinds of force in nature, including the theless, Einstein’s struggle is our struggle today. It is the search for a final theory,” Weinberg writes in Dreams. “Perhaps the most beautiful and the most peculiar thing [scientists] have digcovered is the pattern of science itself,” Weinberg tells us. “Our scientific discoveries are not isolated independent facts; one scientific generalization finds its explanation in another, which is itself explained by yet another. By tracing these arrows of explanation back toward their source we have discovered a striking convergent pattern .perhaps the deepest thing we have yet learned about the universe.” These. arrows of , explanation, Weinberg ventures, do not wander aimlessly, nor do they form disconnected clumps; they “are all connected, and if followed backward they all seem to flow from a common starting point. This starting point, to which all explanations may be traced, is what I mean by a final theory.” Weinberg has written that physicists hope to find a few simple general laws that will explain why nature is the way it is and that the closest we can come to a unified view of nature is a description of elementary particles and their interactions. But why \(rather is elementary particle physics the code that will reveal the final theory? Weinberg replies that working physicists form convictions that some fundamental laws are more fundamental than other fundamental laws, and “we think that elementary particle physics is ..,. closer to the point of convergence of all our arrows of explanation.” In the Times article this year Weinberg admitted, “Of course, we can’t be certain that there is a final theory.” In the book at hand he quotes James Gleick, a writer on the physics of chaos, that the chaos field claims that “the whole cannot be explained in the terms of the parts.” Philosopher of science Karl Popper postulates that the scientists may find, not a final theory, but an endless chain of deeper and deeper principles. Or perhaps, a friend of Weinberg’s suggests, there is no fundamental law all our physical “laws” are imposed by the way we make observations. More likely than any of that, and much more disturbing, Weinberg says, may be that there is a final theory but we shall never learn what it is, perhaps because, for instance, we are not intelligent enough. But, “if history is any guide at all,” according to the author, “it seems to me to suggest that there is a final theory. In this century we have seen a convergence of the arrows of explanation, like the conversion of meridians toward the North Pole. Our deepest principles, although not yet final, have become steadily more simple and economical.” The principal desideratum of a final theory, Weinberg says, would be the symmetry principle, which is fulfilled when a statement can be correctly made that something looks the same from certain different points of view. Weinberg suspects that the final, all-inclusive physical explanation of the universe will be based in string. theories of physics, which “potentially represent a major step toward a rational explanation of nature.” Perhaps, he says, the final theory will be “a unique theory of strings.” “These strings,” he explains, “can be visualized as tiny one-dimensional rips in the smooth fabric of space. Strings can be open, with two free ends, or closed, like a rubber band. As they fly around in space, the strings vibrate. Each string can be found in any of an infinite number of possible states … of vibration…. The strings that concern us here are truly fundamental and keep vibrating forever…. The most important thing about [strings is that] they , are not points, but extended objects.” If so, so what? Should 250 million Americans spend $32 per capita to help scientists pursue this Moby Dick of space and time? Even if the colliding protons in Ellis County establish that reality is strings of stuff that vibrate forever even so! why then, 16 AUGUST 20, 1993 .a4. , ..ii4yerpor 4-1,14011PWO.:me!W” “0094