A Different Kind of Theory of Everything
In 1964, during a lecture at Cornell University, the physicist Richard Feynman articulated a profound mystery about the physical world. He told his listeners to imagine two objects, each gravitationally attracted to the other. How, he asked, should we predict their movements? Feynman identified three approaches, each invoking a different belief about the world. The first approach used Newton’s law of gravity, according to which the objects exert a pull on each other. The second imagined a gravitational field extending through space, which the objects distort. The third applied the principle of least action, which holds that each object moves by following the path that takes the least energy in the least time. All three approaches produced the same, correct prediction. They were three equally useful descriptions of how gravity works.
“One of the amazing characteristics of nature is this variety of interpretational schemes,” Feynman said. What’s more, this multifariousness applies only to the true laws of nature—it doesn’t work if the laws are misstated. “If you modify the laws much, you find you can only write them in fewer ways,” Feynman said. “I always found that mysterious, and I do not know the reason why it is that the correct laws of physics are expressible in such a tremendous variety of ways. They seem to be able to get through several wickets at the same time.”
Even as physicists work to understand the material content of the universe—the properties of particles, the nature of the big bang, the origins of dark matter and dark energy—their work is shadowed by this Rashomon effect, which raises metaphysical questions about the meaning of physics and the nature of reality. Nima Arkani-Hamed, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, is one of today’s leading theoreticians. “The miraculous shape-shifting property of the laws is the single most amazing thing I know about them,” he told me, this past fall. It “must be a huge clue to the nature of the ultimate truth.”