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Jewish World Review March 13, 2003 / 9 Adar II 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Science asks us to imagine a world in 11 dimensions

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The human brain is a marvelous computer.

My own brain, for instance, often can distinguish the ring of the phone on my bedside table from the ring of my alarm clock next to it. The result is that when a phone call awakens me, I answer the alarm clock no more than 34 percent of the time.

My brain also tells me so accurately which of my two children and four stepchildren are in my presence that I call each of them by the wrong name only 26 percent of the time.

Despite its admirable precision, however, my brain often has trouble imagining what modern science is up to. Take, for instance, the concept of dimensions. I do pretty well with the four-dimensional universe - height, depth, thickness and time, even if I'm too tall, too deep, too thick and too slow to please some people.

But now that I'm accustomed to thinking in terms of four dimensions, science wants me to stretch that out to maybe 11. How can that be? If that question is directed at me, I will offer only a blank stare in response. I know only that physicists -- especially those attached to something called String Theory -- propose that reality is not limited to the four dimensions that make some sense to my put-upon brain.

I have read Brian Greene's explanation of some of this in his book "The Elegant Universe,", and I am perfectly willing to abandon four dimensions in favor of at least seven more. But I would be a poor advocate for the change in a court of law. I could say little more than, "Uh, because."

And yet, despite early opposition, scientists from hither and yon seem to be rallying around the notion that the universe contains more than four dimensions. Just recently, for instance, a panel of experts addressed the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and suggested that before long everyone will understand that a four-dimension world just doesn't cut it.

For a long time, physicists have been guided by what they call the "Standard Model" of the universe. It's full of tiny, tinier and tiniest particles - and forces - that somehow make up reality. But the more experiments these scientists do, the more they suspect the Standard Model may be incomplete.

"We have things in the data that leave our mouths hanging," says Maria Spiropulu, a University of Chicago scientist who works at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Well, she didn't say that to me. She said it in a three-dimensional University of Chicago press release.

I love it when scientists are puzzled and humbled. Science, after all, has become one of our most respected modern religions, and religion should bring people to their knees.

It's one reason I'm so attracted to the possibility that the four-dimension crowd may be wrong. But I'm equally attracted to the chance that the extra-dimension people may not have it quite right, either.

My joy at humbled science is one reason I'm reading Stephen Wolfram's huge new book, "A New Kind of Science" . Wolfram, a mathematical prodigy, developed popular computer software that essentially automates math. He made enough money and got enough grants to be able to study the foundations of science for about 20 years.

As a result, he kept smacking the palm of his hand on his forehead and saying, "Well, dang. The old science just doesn't work very well."

At the foundation of his work is the idea that amazing complexity can result from simple beginnings. Why that is such a startling idea is beyond me, as it should be beyond others who have reared children. But apparently most scientists until Wolfram thought you had to have complex beginnings and complex rules to yield complexity.

No, no. If you start with simplicity and let things run their course for long enough, Wolfram says, you sometimes get breathtaking intricacy. Think of the growth of the federal government. Think of how the simple idea of marriage has transmogrified itself into a highly choreographed deal that now costs more than our parents paid for houses.

I'd tell you more, but I have to answer my alarm clock in another dimension.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.


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