The Last Theory
The Last Theory
The Last Theory
17 February 2022

Why you’ve never heard of Wolfram Physics

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Why you’ve never heard of Wolfram Physics

Wolfram Physics might be the most fundamental scientific breakthrough in your lifetime.

And yet you’ve probably never heard of it.

Here’s why.

Annus Mirabilis

In 1905, a patent clerk named Albert Einstein published four papers.

Each on its own would have established Einstein’s genius.

Together, they revolutionized physics.

By the end of 1905, everyone had heard of Einstein’s physics.

The following year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for establishing the foundations of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Einstein? Who’s Einstein?

Except that those last two things aren’t true.

At the end of 1905, no one had heard of Einstein’s physics.

He wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize for another 16 years. Even then, the Nobel Committee cited his work on the photoelectric effect, without mentioning, you know, quantum mechanics, or relativity, the truly revolutionary stuff.

Why did it take so long?

It’s life, Jim...

The trouble with Einstein’s physics was that, well, it wasn’t really physics. At least, it wasn’t physics as we knew it at the time.

Imagine you’re a scientifically literate person in 1905. These are things you’d have known:

  • light is waves (well, obviously: it reflects, refracts and diffracts, just like waves on water);
  • time is the same for everyone (well, obviously: if a watch carried by a passenger on a train runs at a different rate from a watch carried by the station master at the terminus, we could never agree whether the train is on time or late);
  • energy and mass are different things (well, obviously: energy is what a steam engine generates, whereas mass is how much a steam engine weighs).

These are things Einstein’s 1905 papers claimed:

  • light is particles;
  • time is different for people travelling at different speeds;
  • energy and mass are the same thing.

Einstein wasn’t tweaking a few concepts in physics, he was reconceiving physics entirely. His concepts were totally incompatible with the concepts that would have seemed so obvious to you as a scientifically literate person in 1905.

Einstein’s physics wasn’t physics as we knew it.

It’s hard to change your mind

Physics is a framework.

Whether it’s the more mechanical physics of the 19th century or the more conceptual physics of the 20th century, it’s a way of thinking about the world.

It turns out that once you’ve absorbed such a framework, it’s difficult to think about the world any other way.

It’s no accident that Albert Einstein was a young man, aged 26, when he wrote those four papers that revolutionized physics. His mind wasn’t yet set on a 19th century framework: he was free to imagine a framework of his own.

Nor was it an accident that the members of the Nobel Committee who failed to recognize Einstein’s revolution for 16 years were old men. (I’m guessing here, but it seems a pretty safe guess.) Their minds were set on the 19th century framework.

It’s especially hard to change your mind when the new framework is so damned weird. Light is particles? Time is different for people travelling at different speeds? Energy and mass are the same thing? Ridiculous.

Old guard

It’s especially especially hard to change your mind when you’ve built a career on the old framework.

Imagine you’re a physicist in 1905.

You’ve spent a lifetime mastering Maxwell’s equations for the propagation of light waves, and then some young punk – I mean patent clerk – comes along and suggests we should start thinking about the propagation of light particles instead?

You’re an expert at applying calculus to relate mass, energy and time, and this young punk – I mean patent clerk – suggests that mass, energy and time aren’t what we thought they were, and that we’re going to have to think again about how they relate to each other?

If this young punk – I mean patent clerk – is right, it means that all your expertise, all your mastery, is suddenly worthless. If he’s right, it means that you’re going to have to unlearn everything you thought you knew and start learning again from scratch.

For someone of your stature, that’s unthinkable.

Better to keep quiet about this youngster. Better to hope that you’ve retired with a generous pension by the time his weird framework catches on.

Back to the future

In 2020, a software entrepreneur named Stephen Wolfram announced a project to find the fundamental theory of physics.

Imagine you’re a scientifically literate person in 2020. These are things you’ll know:

  • the structure of the universe is space-time;
  • space and time are fundamentally the same thing;
  • physics is complex, mathematical equations.

These are things Wolfram’s 2020 announcement claimed:

  • the structure of the universe is a hypergraph;
  • space and time are fundamentally different things;
  • physics is simple, computational rules.

Wolfram isn’t tweaking a few concepts in physics, he’s reconceiving physics entirely. His concepts are totally incompatible with the concepts that seem so obvious to you as a scientifically literate person in 2020.

Wolfram’s physics isn’t physics as we know it.

Same as it ever was

Why have you never heard of Wolfram Physics?

For the same reason that no one in 1905 had heard of Einstein’s physics.

It’s too weird.

It’s too revolutionary.

There are maybe half a million physicists in the world.

If you’re one of them, you’ve spent a lifetime mastering those complex, mathematical equations.

You might be tempted to conclude that Wolfram’s simple, computational rules can’t possibly be right.

They’re too computational.

They’re too simple.

Better to keep quiet about this new framework.

As someone who’s not a physicist, and who’s never mastered those complex, mathematical equations, however, I can’t help but wonder:

What if Wolfram’s weird, revolutionary physics, like Einstein’s weird, revolutionary physics, were right?

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