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April 30, 2020 44 mins

How does Stephen Wolfram's Physics Project work and what have we learned?

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:08):
Hey, Daniel, how can you tell the difference between a
physicist and a crack pot? Is this one of those
Internet memes like can you tell which picture is a
homeless man and which one is a physics professor? Well,
you usually can, but I guess. I mean, you know,
if someone has a crazy new idea, how do you
know whether to take them seriously or just ignore them? Well?

(00:29):
The truth is mostly you can't tell. I mean, some
crazy ideas about the universe turn out to be true,
like look at quantum mechanics. Wow. So does that mean
that you read every theory that people send you over
the internet. I try to, but you know, there are
just too many. There's so many people out there with
fun and silly and crazy ideas, so honestly, most people

(00:51):
in physics just ignore them. Oh man, does that mean
that the theory of everything could be right now buried
in a spam folder? What a tragedy selected for the
junk mail pile by some Ai. Hi am poor Hammy

(01:18):
cartoonists and the creator of PhD comics. Hi, I'm Daniel.
I'm a particle physicist. I'm always on the hunt for
the theory of everything. But I don't expect it to
show up in my inbox? Is that how you usually
get your research ideas through Emailsdam? That's right. I just
like looking there the slush pile. So like maybe somebody
emailed me exactly the idea I need right now. Oh man,

(01:41):
it's called tenure sit around and wait for emails for it. No,
but I do get messages some from our listeners suggesting
new ideas and even like grand theories that could describe
some of the open puzzles in physics. Wow, that's awesome.
It's awesome that people are listening and getting you know,
stimulated intellectually, and and they come up with their own

(02:02):
ideas about how the universe might work. Yeah, and it's
not just our listeners, and it's not just me. I
think basically everybody who's a physicist gets a few random
suggestions for theories of everything in their inbox every week.
Do you think maybe that's sort of a basic human curiosity?
You know, we're all trying to figure out how to
all work. We all are, and as we say on
this podcast all the time, wondering belongs to everybody, and

(02:24):
these questions about the universe are ones that everybody wants
to know. The answer to and frankly, I love that
people are thinking about this and that they're imagining that
maybe they could come up with the idea they could
have that moment of insight, which explains deep questions about
the universe. Well, speaking of everybody, Welcome to our podcast
Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe, a production of I

(02:44):
Heart Radio in which we examine all those big questions
about the universe and take you to the forefront of
what science knows and what it doesn't know, and what
it's hoping you will email it to it because you know,
I guess it turns out that science doesn't know everything.
There's a lot we don't know. We know a timey amount.
We've only recently learned how little we know about the universe.
And so while it might feel like a lot of

(03:06):
the stuff around you is understood, the fraction of the
universe that we know is very small and big, crazy
new ideas awaits. So it's sort of like the universe
is still up for grabs. You know, anyone out there
could potentially come up with the theory of everything, because
we are pretty far away from it right now. We're
very far away from it. In fact, if you delivered
it to me today in complete form, I probably wouldn't understand.

(03:29):
It would take like days, weeks, months to digest it.
It might require whole new branches of mathematics, which I'm
totally not familiar with and nobody has even thought of.
So even if aliens arrived and emailed me, or you know,
delivered in golden engravings the theory of everything, it would
take a while to understand it. I might immediately dismiss it.
You mean, are you saying my handwriting is that bad?

(03:51):
Are you an alien? Are you admitting that? Finally? I
am a doctor technically, so I think we're required to
have bad handwriting. Crypto I'm writing. But the point is
that the truth about the universe might be something which
is strange and weird and sounds wrong on the surface,
which makes us think about the universe in a different way.

(04:12):
And that's the difficulty. But that's also the beauty of science,
is that we follow the data, we follow the clues,
and eventually we get to the right answer. It's amazing
that the process works. Yeah, And so to be on
the program will be tackling something, a new theory, a
new clue about the universe, that just that it is
super recent, it's hot off the process. It just came out,
and physicists are still sort of scratching their heads and

(04:34):
trying to think about whether or not this is something
that's actually true and describes the universe, or maybe it's
something that's totally wrong. That's right. It sort of came
out of left field, and it's a bold claim from
a man famous for bold claims, and you know, dropped
like a nine d pages of stuff on the physics community,
and it's fascinating that people are taking it seriously. He's

(04:56):
not a physics professor, but he's attracted the attention of
a lot of top physics Since it be on the program,
we'll be asking the question, did Steven Wolfram come up
with the theory of everything? Well, he definitely came up
with a theory. The question is what the theory of him?
Does it describe our universe or and the universe or

(05:18):
does it even work at all? And some listeners actually
wrote in asking us to break this down for them. Hey,
Daniel and Jorge, this is Cure from Chicago, and I
recently read about Stephen wolf from his physics project where
he's trying to come up with a fundamental theory of
physics that I know a lot of people have been
searching for for a long time, and it sounded really
interesting to me, but it was also a little bit

(05:40):
over my head. And you guys are really great at
explaining these kinds of things, So I was wondering if
you could maybe tell me a little bit about how
his theory works, how it's different from other theories that
are out there, and if you feel like it actually
has the potential to truly answer one of the great
mysteries of physics. Thank you, guys, and keep up a
great job. Thanks to everybody who wrote in with those questions. Well,

(06:00):
let's talk about Stephen Wolfram, because you know, I know
the name from my college days when I used a
program called Mathematica. But tell me what you know about
this person, Stephen Wolfram. Yes, so Wolfirm is sort of
a Polly math. He's a really smart guy. He graduated
got his PhD at a really young age. He studied
particle physics, He worked with Richard Feynman. Really he's a physicist.

(06:24):
He's a physicist for sure. Yeah, he was a professor
at cal Tech. Oh, he was a professor professor. Yeah, oh,
I see he made a time like maybe like he
wasn't a professor. No, I mean, the guy was really smart.
He definitely has the chops. He's the youngest recipient of
the MacArthur Genius Award. He got it at age twenty one,
so it was pretty clear from a young age that
this guy had a brain on him. And he's known

(06:45):
for writing Mathematica, which is a software that engineers and
mathematicians used to simulate things right and crunch equations and numbers. Yeah,
Mathematica is a beautiful piece of software. It does a
lot of the really gorgeous physics animations you probably see
on Twitter and elsewhere, but it's also really good for
doing symbolic mathematics. Like there's lots of ways to get

(07:06):
computers to do numerical calculations add these two numbers, but
it's much harder to tell a computer like take this
equation and simplify it. And Mathematica is really powerful that
doing that kind of stuff, and so it's really the
premier way to do math on the computer. Yeah, it's
pretty amazing, Yeah, because it can do symbolic math, which
is not just number crunching, but like manipulating you know,

(07:28):
the concepts and symbols and functions. That's right. And though
he's gone off into founding a company and becoming super
rich and writing this software, he's always had an interest
in theory and in physics because this is where he started.
That's where his hardway. Yeah, that's where all of our
hearts are. That's not where his money was pocketbook was.

(07:48):
But so he always had a sort of a passion
for and A and the chops in the background for
it to think about particle physics and things like the
theory of everything. Yeah, exactly. And there are a lot
of as people who started out in physics and ended up,
you know, becoming super rich or started out with like
deep mathematics and went to Wall Street and became hedge
fund gazillionaires. You know. So these people do penetrate sort

(08:12):
of the water culture. They don't know, we just stay
in the white halls of academia. But you know, they're
always wondering, I think, you know, could I crack that
problem or you know, could I still contribute? And I
guess maybe you're saying he's unusual because he sort of
came up with this new theory of everything, not from
an office in a university I guess that's what's kind

(08:33):
of unusual, or at a research center. It's like he
sort of did it on his own in his house. Yeah,
he did it on his own, I mean, in his
company with a couple of other folks. But he's not
part of a mainstream research group, right, Like I see,
he has a team, he's a small team. He attracted
some young students want at Cambridge and other places to
work with him. Is it getting more legit by the

(08:53):
second thing? I have to say. I feel like we
started the episode talking about like a crack plot, but
I'm like, oh, mag I've see the difference between this
guy and Dannyl. Well he's a lot richer. That's difference
number one. But no, this is not like you know,
sheets of paper you found under the homeless guy at
the bus station. Right. This is a guy who everybody
respects as intelligent. But that doesn't mean necessarily that he's

(09:16):
always on the forefront of knowledge. I mean, the guy
is busy doing a lot of other things. It's difficult
to stay on the forefront of knowledge and to keep
up with academia and to understand the current ideas and
if you're not part of the community of academia, it's
difficult to contribute. You know, some people think of science
is like a single minded pursuit of truth. That's true,
but it's also it's people, which means it's people having

(09:38):
a conversation and it's cocktail parties, it's hanging out on Twitter. Yeah,
but it's it's also it's a big conversation and people
are talking about stuff. And if you're talking about things
nobody else is interested in or talking about, then even
if you're right, it's going to be hard to attract
their attention. So you have to speak the language and
you have to know how to talk to people in
order to get scientists to pay attention. So you can

(10:00):
be totally right and understand the universe, but if nobody
will hear you or talk to you or understand what
you're saying, you can't really have any impact. So there's
this human side of science that I think is underappreciating.
It strikes me as a not a good thing though,
you know what you know what I mean, Like, I
feel like it strikes me as like, you know, people
at a cocktrol party not wanting to listen to somebody
else just because they're not in their little group. Yeah,

(10:20):
it would be better if we had more people, so
we had more diverse ideas, we had more funding for science,
if it was more accessible and more open. Absolutely, it
also be better if humans were like objective and in
ways to measure these things, you know, objectively. But we
can't write human science is done by humans for humans,
at least until the aliens come. You had to press

(10:43):
the alien burn Thenner, Well, well, maybe Stephen Wolf from
is an alien. That seems very likely. This guy seems
too good to be true. Oh my gosh, maybe maybe
this is the aliens coming to give us the ideas. Right,
you're saying, Stephen Wolf from down. He just went from
crack to respectable physicists, to alien to maybe the next

(11:04):
the second coming. Where will this end up? Danny? But
this is unusual. It's very weird to have somebody outside
of academia, even somebody who used to be a professor,
come back and try to contribute. Often these ideas are
not given any attention, so it's unusual to happen, and
it's unusual that it has gotten so much attention. Interesting.
So okay, so he's sort of been working on this,
apparently with the team for a while, and he came

(11:25):
up with a theory of everything, and he's sort of
so popped into the cocktail party of physicists and dropped
a huge pile of paper saying I got it. Yeah.
And there was a little bit of a hint that
this move was going to happen, because about twenty years
ago almost he wrote a mammoth tome called A New
Kind of Science, in which he unveiled the way he

(11:48):
thinks about science. And you can tell from even just
the title of the book A New kind of Science,
that he thinks very highly of himself and his own work.
And it's important. How would you have called it, Daniel,
a possible new kind of science, a suggestion for a
new kind of science? Well, you know, I I'm a
strong believer in humility. Um. I value that a lot

(12:10):
um And I think that's that's sort of the conclusion
you leave for other people to draw. You know that
that you've invented a new kind of science. And a
lot of criticisms of that book is that there's a
lot in there. It's like twelve hundred pages, but a
lot of it is not actually that new he's not
always either familiar with the existing work in the field
and sort of reproduced it and claimed it as his own.

(12:32):
And some of the stuff is actually wrong. So there's
a danger to working all on your own in your
own ivory tower and then delivering a twelve page tome
is that you know, you can make mistakes early on,
and you could have benefited from some notes notes. Yeah,
and so he made sort of a splash last week.
And so physicists, you were telling me, are still sort
of going over his theory. But there's been sort of

(12:54):
a big initial reaction. People on the internet have reacted
to this. Yeah, and so he's sort of a famous
and people give him attention. And so he captured the
world's attention, especially the attention of physicist when he announced
back on April thirteen that he had a model for
everything in the universe, space, matter and whatever and whatever
and whatever his technical term. And he put out a

(13:18):
really long blog post and a video and then submitted
a couple of sort of academic style papers to journals
full review. But in the meantime, physicists have been trying
to digest it. And you know, I'm part of this
community and everybody's been talking about it. If you read it,
what do you think? And there's sort of, you know,
the strong reactions to it. Yeah. So you collected a
couple of reactions from Twitter about physicists or well known

(13:39):
physicists who have sort of commented on this potential discovery. Yeah.
And so, for example, Sabine Haustin Felder, she's a physics theorist,
and she's also famous for being sort of an alt
theory consultant. She's the one that runs that program where
you can email her your theory and you'll get like
half an hour with an actual particle physicist to give
you opinions on it. I don't think so, because she

(14:01):
says I looked at it and I don't think it's interesting. Wow,
I spent five minutes with it. I think she dug
into it. Then there are other folks like Sean Carroll's
famous science popularizer, and you know he's also a theorist
working at the forefront of knowledge. Yeah, so you have
here that Sean said, I'm in favor of taking swings
that fundamental physics with wildly non standard ideas and seeing

(14:22):
what happens. Most such efforts will inevitably fail. But the
payoff is huge if you hit the target. Yeah. All right,
Well it sounds like people are not embracing this right away,
but keeping an open mind. Yeah, I think people are
sort of hopeful, like, wow, that would be awesome if
you came up with a grand new theory. At first glance,
it doesn't seem like maybe it really accomplishes everything that

(14:45):
Stephen Wolform claims, Like his claims are really broad and
very grand, and I'm not sure he really delivers. But
it's going to take the community a little bit of
time to read these papers carefully and to digest them properly.
All right, well, let's get into what this idea that
Stephen Wolfram just dropped in the physics community and talk
about how that describes the universe. But first let's take

(15:07):
a quick break. All right, Daniel, Stephen Wolfram, famous millionaire philanthropist, mathematica,
code writing genius, just dropped on the phitnist community a

(15:30):
theory of everything. And so let's first talk about what
this theory is because I'm super curious, and then we'll
talk about whether it actually describes the universe. We limit, So,
what's the basic idea Daniel here? So The basic idea
is one that I like. It says, let's look at
this really complex, vast universe with all these different kinds
of things in it at different scales, you know, from

(15:51):
little particles up to galaxy superclusters, and let's try to
explain all that using a simple set of rules. You know,
that's the sort of basic principle behind in particle physics. Right.
You could just describe the universe as like it is,
this is what it is, but we're seeking a reductionist answer.
We want to pull it apart and explain everything in
terms of something underneath that drives it. Right, And you know,

(16:13):
we've had success with stuff like that, Like you look
at the periodic table and you discover that all the
patterns in the periodic table come out of very simple
rules for how electrons fill their orbitals. So complex emergent
phenomena can come from a simple set of rules. That's
the motivation, right, right, I mean, isn't that sort of
how we've built all of our signs theories. I mean

(16:34):
it's all based on like simple particle interactions that then
you know, accumulate, and then that's how the universe exists.
That's right, And Stephen Wolf from Likes the particular kind
of this theory. They're called cellular automata, and the idea
is just take a couple of basic objects and a
couple of basic rules for how they can interact, and

(16:54):
from that you can get really complex behavior. Yeah. Like,
there's a guy who recently passed away named John Conway
who devised this thing called the Game of Life, who
showed that you can devise a really simple game based
on just like black and white squares and a few
simple rules, and really complex patterns emerge, patterns that look
a little bit like how life looks. Okay, so I'm

(17:15):
guessing that cellular automats that this concept that is not
related to cells, like human cells, like biological cells. It's
more like a mathematical term. Yeah, it's like a little
basic object. And you can also think of them as
like nodes and so, you know, like a little dot.
And the idea is just like, have a little very
simple thing and write down simple rules for what it
can do, and then study the behavior as you go

(17:37):
to a zillion of these things, or you take them
azillion steps forward, and you discover that you can get
from very simple things emerge complex behaviors. That's what the
game is, life is all about. I see. So is
the idea that he started approaching it from the bottom
up instead of the top down? You know, like you
know physicists, like what you do is you take regular

(17:58):
big stuff and you break it apart and you so
to see what it's made out of. Is he saying
that maybe a better way to approach the theory of
everything is to start like, let's let's let's see if
we can guess what the smallest thing does, and then
let's build it up to see if it works absolutely
And in that sense, it's very similar in motivation to
string theory. String theory says, maybe the whole universe is

(18:19):
a bunch of titsal vibrating strings, and here are the
rules for how those strings interact. Can we then build
up the universe that we know in the physics that
we've discovered from those simple rules. Very similar motivation, very
similar approach. But it's not the same as string theory.
It's not. Okay, So how is it different? How does that?
How does this theory describe the universe? Like, what's what's

(18:40):
he actually doing here? So what he's actually doing, is
he says, let's begin with a couple of nodes. So
he makes his graph where he says, I have a
couple of nodes and I connect them with lines of
what of space, of matter, of energy? Just mathematically pure. Right,
so far we're just mathematically appeared. Just like draw a
dot in your mind and another dot and put a
line in doctor the man start start with like a

(19:02):
total abstraction. Just in the beginning. What is the thought?
In the beginning, there was nothing, And Stephen wolf from
created a dot, he said, and he just went from
alien to God, let there be created from the second
Coming to the actual Father himself. Well, he's sort of imagined.

(19:23):
That's the point, you know, not to be God, but
to imagine from what is the universe originated? What is
the basic element of it? You know, if you wanted
to build the universe, what is the essential source code?
And he would like if the essential source code of
the universe was just two or three lines that you
just run a zillion times. So he's saying, let's build
up the universe from scratch, and let's start with this

(19:44):
a little bit of math and code and see what happens,
and see if it ends up. If you pile it
on if it ends up into you know, funny and
interesting podcast about exactly. And he's hoping that if you
start from very simple rules and you build up a structure,
then you could then recognize in that structure familiar rules
of physics the things in our universe, because that would

(20:05):
tell you that maybe those are then the simple rules
of our universe. So he starts with, you know, a
couple of dots and a line, and he says, all right,
just pick a random graph, it doesn't really matter. Make
four dots and draw some lines between them. He just
know how it begins, and then make up with some
rules like say, well, if two things are connected to
the same thing, then you know, you can add a

(20:27):
line between them, or you can add a new node,
or you can add a thing whatever. Just make up
some simple rule rule. It's kind of like a simple
game like go or Othello or checkers. Yes, exactly. You
need a basic starting point and then you need an
update rule that says how you can change the graph,
how you can grow it. And so that's the whole
idea is, you know, maybe the universe starts from a

(20:48):
structure like that, And then he takes it And what
he did with his team was make of some of
these simple graphs and develop them, you know, a million times,
a billion times with his very powerful mathematical language, and
visualize them. And then he looked at them and he asked,
do I recognize in here things from physics? I see?
So he started. He took a whiteboard with this team

(21:11):
there in his compound and drew four dots, therew lines
between them, and then did he did he guess what
these rules might be or did he have you know,
powerful computers say all right, try to come up with
a Brasilian rules and see if any of them come
up to the universe. Yeah, he just guessed a few rules.
And the kicker is he didn't find a rule. It
works like he has a few examples, and in those

(21:32):
examples he shows, oh, there's some things in here that
look like physics, and that's what motivates him to think, oh,
maybe I'm on the right track and we can dig
into it a little bit more. But he hasn't actually
found a rule that describes our universe. He's more like saying,
maybe this approach will work. Oh, I see, So he
hasn't he doesn't actually have a theory yet of the universe.
He just has what he thinks might be a way

(21:56):
to get to the theory of everything. Yeah, it's sort
of like a recipe for a theory, and his theory
is also a recipe for building a universe, So sort
of a recipe for a theory for a recipe for
the universe. To a cook as well, he's a chef
in addition to being God. He's cooking up universes. Man,
I see has a recipe for a theory that might

(22:19):
result in the universe. That's right, And you know, it's
more than just like, hey, maybe this will work. He
sees some cool stuff in these things that he built up.
You know, for example, you take these graphs and you
have a few rules and you let them run and
they build up interesting things, Like some of them build
up what looked like three D space, you know, like
a mesh, a mesh, you know, a nicely organized mesh

(22:40):
that you could say, hey, maybe spaces quantized. And we've
talked about how maybe space is just an emergent phenomena
and it's you know a bunch of dots connected together. Yeah,
we have an episode about quantum foam. Yeah, quantum foam
and and you know, the pixelated universe. And so that's
sort of the leap to physics. He's saying, I'm coming
up with this math, thematical construct, and then without building

(23:03):
it in, without saying please build space, just letting it run.
He sees that from it emerge things he recognizes, like
a structure you could identify with space. How can you, boy,
how can you get three dimensions three dimensional space out
of some dots? I guess that's my question. Yeah, And
actually his space is not three dimensions, which is one
of the problems. He makes a space which is two

(23:26):
point seven dimensions, which is pretty weird. Actually that's pretty
cool if you think about it. Fractional dimensions. Fractional dimensions
are cool, but I mean a little inconvenient, Like where
you're gonna put your stuff. You know, you have three
D stuff, it doesn't fit in two point seven D space.
Well that you Jesus describe my closet and everybody's closet.

(23:46):
Feel like my closet is made out of two points.
I know. I'm like, if you're gonna do fractional dimensions
to three and a half, at least you know, give
us some extra, don't just you know, lose point three dimensions.
These days everybody needs more room of us need a
little extra space. You know, that would have been nice,
That would be a good selling point for the theory.
So he he runs this idea and he you know,
grows it, sort of lets it grow itself, right, that's

(24:07):
kind of the idea. And you're saying, he's gets some
things that maybe look like what might be space and
also other things, right, and so he identifies, you know,
this mesh with a higher dimensionality space, and I encourage
you to look at his blog post. It's some really
nice visualizations there. You can understand how he goes from
like a mesh of points to imagining the dimensionality of

(24:29):
that points. Essentially, he's thinking about like the density of
points as you move away from a central point, Like
in three dimensions, the density of points, you know, drops
in a certain way, and two dimensions, the density points
drops in another way. So just by measuring like how
many points there are as you take five or six
steps away, then you can sort of measure the dimensionality

(24:51):
of the space. But it's a leap, you know, Like
this is a mathematical construct. It has some relationship to
some things we see in the universe. Does that mean
it is how the universe works? Like that's a kind
of a deep philosophical question, right. I guess my question
maybe at this point is how does it differ from
some of the other theories that we've talked about, like

(25:12):
quantum foam And is he coming at it totally from
the left field or is he start of saying, maybe
these ideas have some validity to them, but I have
my own spin on it. Yeah, And that's one of
the problems with his work is that he doesn't really
put it into the context of existing ideas. And as
you say, people have been thinking about quantized space as
a building block of the universe and trying to go

(25:34):
from there to recovering Einstein's equations, for example, and that's
tricky people who been working on for ten twenty years
and they haven't quite gotten there yet. Whereas he's starting
from a slightly different point. He's not saying, let's start
from building blocks of space. He's like, let's just start
from these nodes from which we get space and then
from which we also get time and general relativity and

(25:56):
quantum mechanics and all this stuff. He's going a level
deeper just of my mind. He's claiming to have gone
even further than everybody else has gone. You know, he's
starting deeper and he's claiming to have gone further. So
you understand why there's a little bit of skepticism that
he could have accomplished all of this by himself with
a couple other people while also running a big company. Right, Well,
if he's an alien chef second coming, it's totally possible. Um.

(26:21):
But yeah, he just made me realize, Like it's like
he's trying to go from the thoughts in a white
board to time itself and pays itself the time itself. Yeah,
and a lot of this stuff is interpretation. Right. You
look at this structure in the graph that comes out,
and you say, oh, that looks to me like time.
All right, it looks to you like time, But maybe
you were looking for time. You know. Would you have

(26:42):
deduced this just from looking at it? Would you have
found Einstein's equations on your own without Einstein? Or you
just sort of like looking at a room full of
typing monkeys and saying, hey, look at this one's typing Shakespeare. Therefore,
typing monkeys is the way to write great literature. Right, Well,
that strikes me as a little bit of what you
guys do in a way, right, like theories, just like

(27:02):
you know, not to equate physicists theories with monkeys, but
you know, you guys started throwing out theories and and
and then the experimentalis have to see which ones work. Yeah,
experimentalists have to see which one's work. That's the critical
test here. You know, there's a lot of these different
spaces and the fact that some of them can reproduce
theories we already have and they have been tested, doesn't
necessarily mean that this is the fundamental structure of the universe. Right,

(27:26):
There's lots of ways to reproduce physics theories. I could
just have monkeys type and occasionally they would reproduce physics theories.
Doesn't mean that the universe is a bunch of monkeys.
And remember, Daniel, keep an open mind, and maybe it is. Yeah, yeah,
maybe it's a monkey. Maybe it is right, it's monkeys
all the way down. All right, let's get into whether

(27:46):
people think this theory actually works or whether it's so
out there that nobody is taking it seriously. But first
let's take a quick break, all right, Daniel talk to

(28:07):
me about two point seven dimensional space. That is still
blowing my mind. How can you have to like frac
tionnel dimensions? Is it that like one of them is
not quite a dimension. Well, he doesn't really have any
spatial dimensions at all, right, it's just points and lines.
He just connects the points with lines, and he tries
to make an analogy two dimensions. He says, if you
take a point and I walk four points away, right,

(28:30):
I walk four points win in every direction, then I
can count sort of how many points are in that object.
You can take paths away from that point in every direction.
You can ask how many points are within four steps away,
and how many points are within ten steps away and
fifteen steps away. And that grows differently if you're in

(28:50):
three dimensional space or two dimensional space or four dimensional space.
So he's taking that as a measure of dimension, right,
it doesn't have any dimensions built in. You could take
his whole hypergraphs and just lay them flat on a
piece of paper, or you could spread them out in
three D. It's totally arbitrary. There's no place to hang
these things, right. They don't have locations, They just have relationships.

(29:11):
But he's contending that from these relationships there is a structure,
and that structure is very similar to dimensionality, to the
relationship that things have in actual space physically, yes, yes, exactly.
So you know, volume grows with our cubed for a spear,
area grows like are squared for a circle. Right in

(29:32):
four dimensions, things grow with a different dependence. And so
he just asks, as I take steps away from a
single point, what's the density of points? And that's my
measure of the dimensionality of my space. And he doesn't
get a number of two or three. He gets this
weird two point seven, and so you're like, what what
does that even mean? You get three, so that you
know that's not you know, physics is like hand grenades

(29:58):
and horseshoes as long as you get close. Well, you
make an interesting point, which is that you know, if
just because something does something the way that you see
it doesn't mean that it's how things are kind of like,
you know, just because you can build an artificial intelligence,
for example, or like a function that spits out or

(30:18):
happens to simulate how a ball gets tossed up in
the air, doesn't mean that that's how the universe works,
that the balls float through the air according to an Ai. Yeah,
and I think there's two different issues here. One is
exactly what you just said. You know, you can't just
identify similar behavior and say that's the truth. But that's
actually a really hard philosophical problem. Like, if you have

(30:41):
a theory of strings that completely describes the universe, does
that mean that strings are real? I mean, and somebody
asked us this question over Twitter just yesterday. They said,
what if I had an alternative theory of bananas and
it also described the universe and you could never tell
the difference between strings and bananas, would that mean that
bananas are also a valid theory of the universe? And

(31:03):
which would be true? Oh? I see, if you have
two theories that both describe the universe, how do you
tell which one's true or the right one? Yeah? And
if you can't tell the difference, if they're like both
make exactly the same predictions, but they have very different
descriptions of what's really happening, then which one is what's
really happening? Well, the answer is, we can't tell. And

(31:23):
so it depends on what you think true means. You know,
is there some untestable actual truths in the external universe
or is it really just about describing what we see?
So that's sort of a deep, unanswerable philosophy question. But
there's a there's a more practical angle to it, which is,
can you do more than just describe what we already see?
Can you predict something we haven't yet seen? Right, It's

(31:47):
very easy to look in a sea of garbage and
pick out something sparkling. It's like, look, I produced one
diamond or something like, my theory, my simulation, my code
predicts how this ball will what this ball will do
if I toss it up in the air. But that's
sort of not interesting to physicists. Yeah, like we have
all these everything that he's derived we already have. We
have Einstein's equations, we have special relativity, we have quantum mechanics. Right,

(32:11):
the question is has he revealed any new insights and
he made any predictions? If his theory is really true,
it should predict something you should say on the universe
also works in this other way that you hadn't yet realized,
and then we can go out and verify that and
be like, oh, well then maybe your theory is true. Right.
It's not just enough to say to describe the universe,
because my hundred typing monkeys will eventually do that also,

(32:34):
but they will generate nonsense predictions. So tell me anything
about the universe I don't already know. You just have
to give those monkeys more bananas. I mean that that
would make it all. But it sort of sounds like
maybe what he's doing that's new and interesting is he's
actually sort of making that connection between a really simple
set of things to the complex things you know, Like,

(32:57):
you know, string theory has been around for a long time,
but nobody has tried to build up the universe using strings,
have they, And but it sounds like maybe he's sort
of done that and is seeing things that are promising. Well,
that's one problem with string theory is that you can
take strings and build up universes, but you get like
ten to the five different kinds of universes, and ours

(33:18):
is one of them, but it doesn't necessarily predict ours, right,
So then you ask, well, if the universe is just strings,
how can we end up in this universe? And he
has basically the same problem, right, He has a lot
of potential possible rules for building up the universe using
his hypercrafts. Some of them lead to universes sort of
like ours, so you know, wrong number dimensions, etcetera. But

(33:40):
some of them don't, and so you know, sort of
in this vast sea of outcomes. It would be much
more compelling if he had a basic set of rules
that necessarily led to our universe that there was nothing
else that could predict, like it had to only be
this way. That would be much more compelling. That would
be better maybe, but maybe not even true or possible,
Like maybe the universe is just a random set of rules.

(34:02):
Oh man, that what are we even doing? Right? If
the universe is not understandable? But I know, I hope
it is. Yet I don't give up. I don't give up.
I'm still hoping. Um, And so it's totally valid to
look for a new way to build things up from scratch.
And maybe he's right, and it would be deep insights

(34:25):
if he was, But you know, it hasn't really shown
in new insights yet, hasn't really shown us anything new
that can come from it. And there's also a lot
of questions about the sort of the connections he's made
between what his theory can do and what we've already discovered.
I see well, maybe it's stepped me through some examples
of what you mean here, because you know you're telling
me earlier that in some ways his model, his theory

(34:48):
of the universe sort of predicts clsality and things like
special relativity and particles. Is that not sort of interesting
or it's interesting and it's a good idea, but it's
not clear that it predicts it, or if he's just
sort of like identifying something in his structures which looks
a little bit like it, and it's sort of wishful connections. Right,
there's a lot of leaps here where he's like, oh,

(35:10):
look at this sort of structure that dot dot, here's
Einstein's equation, And you're like, well, a whole lot of second.
You know, I can write down Einstein's equation on a chalkboard.
Doesn't mean that it's a necessary consequence of what I've
just done. But there are some cool connections, for example, causality.
He takes his little hypergraphs and his little rules for
updating them, and his picture those rules for updating them.

(35:32):
That's time. Every time you change your hypergraph by following
these rules, that's like a step forward in time. And
he shows that for some simple examples. It doesn't really
matter which order you apply these rules in, Like maybe
you apply them first to this node and then to
that note, and the other time you do another direction.
Sometimes you end up in the same place no matter what.

(35:54):
Start from the same initial conditions. Do things in a
different order end up in the same place. And so him,
that's causality that says, look, this first place has to
come before this other place, because in these graphs you
always start with one and end up at the other.
So that's where causality coming from. He sees behavior in

(36:15):
this graph, you know, he sees shades of what might
if maybe you look into it, or if you sort
of maybe keep going with this, you might sort of
rediscover or or create causality and special relativity and particles. Yeah,
exactly the way. You know. I sometimes listen to my
children's random thoughts and say, like, oh, wow, look, you

(36:35):
you're a genius. You just had some great idea. You
know you can recognize in random babbling. Uh, you know,
great ideas if you're hopeful, right, And so there's a
little bit of that, like, well, yeah, you could have
said that, but are you just imposing on very complex
structures the things you wanted to see. So that's one example.
Another is he tries to describe particles and he says, Okay,

(36:57):
in this case, if space is this mesh of points, right,
then what is matter? How do you get matter in
this measure points? And so what he does is he says, well,
maybe matter. Maybe particles are these special connections between these points,
these arrangements between these points. Like every time you have
three nodes with these particular connections between them, you call

(37:20):
that a particle. And he's tried to show that sometimes
these particles are stable configurations, like if they exist, they
will continue to exist, and they will move across the graph.
So they're like patterns in these connections. The relationship between
nodes sort of moves in the way that maybe a
particle would move through space. Yeah, exactly, recognize the relationship

(37:42):
and see that relationship sort of translate itself across the graph.
That would be what a particle would be. I'm getting
the picture of, you know, having the matrix. At the end,
Neo sees the code behind the universe. I wonder if
this is how he was feeling. He's like, oh, I
can see the whole universe. It's just a whole bunch
of notes. I am Kiana reeves again if it worked,
he hasn't actually made that work. He hasn't seen that

(38:03):
happen on his graphs. He's just sort of like, hey,
that would be cool. And he's mentioned that, you know,
they're going to follow up on that in a couple
of weeks and hope to figure that out. And I'm like, yeah,
I'd like to figure out particle physics in a couple
of weeks too. Yeah, why didn't he just wait a
couple of weeks before publishing this? Yeah, there's a lot
of that. There's like, Okay, well you have some cool ideas,
you have some notions here, you haven't really quite figured

(38:24):
it out, so why now we Maybe a question is
he's seen all these things time, causality, particles in his
you know, mesh of nodes. So is this you know,
the mesh, from one simple set of rules, or is
he like tweaking the rules every time and like, if
I tweak it this way, you get castality, If I
tweaked them this way, you get space. He identifies all
these things from one simple set of rules, but he's

(38:45):
tried a few different rules, and he's tried this rule
and that rule and the other rule. And he notices
similar behaviors in a lot of these meshes, which is
cool and makes it more compelling. But again, he hasn't
found the rule that he thinks is convincing and so one,
and he'd like is for everybody to participate. He has
a website where you can go and build a graph

(39:06):
and enter a rule and see what universe it builds.
And he wants to sort of like crowdsource, the crowdsourcing
making universes exactly. We are all God, it sounds like
a smart god. He's like, God's like, I'm tired, I'm
I'm out of ideas. I'll just get one of my
creations to help me create more creations. Right, I'm just
going to leave the recipe on the counter here, and

(39:26):
I want you to actually make the cookies. All right. Well,
it sounds sort of like, you know, he's he's sort
of a bit of an outsider, and he's sort of
maybe taking a huge leap forward without bringing the rest
of the community along. And there's some skepticism, and but
it sort of sounds like his idea is not too
far off from what people are thinking or we're looking

(39:47):
for it sounds like maybe he's just sort of skipped
a few steps, you know, in the procedures of physics. Yeah,
he skipped a few steps in the procedures, which is okay.
I mean, if you deliver a five page treatise on
the universe, it's a lot to swallow. But hey, if
it's true, thank you, thank you. But he's also skipped
a few steps in his treatise, Like you read it
and you're like, well, well, how do you get from

(40:08):
here to there exactly? You know, And in this case,
he knows all the results in advance, and so he's
sort of like dot dot dot general relativity. You know,
you have to really show that it's the only consequence,
and I don't think he's really compellingly done that. The
way to do that, really compelling lee would be to
come up with a new theory. They're like, okay, and
here's dark matter or here's the dark energy, or this

(40:31):
explains that, you know, what happened before the Big Bang
or something, and then we could probe that and see
that it's true, and wow, okay, maybe then the universe
is just four lines of mathematic Well, it sounds like
maybe he is not quite there yet, but he's saying, Look,
it's promising. You can start to see space, you can
sort of see time totally, and sounds like maybe the
real answer is to be determined. In a couple of weeks,

(40:52):
will out, Daniel, everything. Everyone will be stuck at home,
but we'll know how everything works. Yeah, and he had
made a prediction or two. You know, he thinks that
the size of these hypergraphs is something like ten to
the minus ninety three meters, mean the size of the
little bananasm makeup the unit. Yeah, the distance between these

(41:14):
points in the node. Right, the minimum distance, the basic
unit of distance in his universe is ten to the
minus ninety three ms, which is like almost impossibly small
and hard to think about because remember, the smallest distance
we've ever seen is like tend to the minus twenty meters,
which is already like you know, tiny, tiny, tiny fraction
of a proton. And other people think the universe like

(41:37):
the quantum loop theory, people think the universe is like
ten of the minus thirty five meters is like the
size of a space pixel. So this guy's like sixty
orders of magnitude smaller, and so that's a that's a
prediction that's almost impossible to test, but so so as
drink theory kind of yeah, so strength theory. Strength theory,
we think operates on the plunk scale. So it's only

(41:58):
fifteen orders of magnitude away, you know, instead of being
sixty or seventy orders in magnet. It's uh, it might
be difficult to prove this. Ever, you're saying yes, yes,
And you know, he imagines that there might be particles
down at that little scale, and maybe those particles are
even dark matter, right, so saying earlier he should make predictions,
All right, Well he has made this one, but it's

(42:19):
sort of out of reaching. This is not something we're
going to test in a couple of weeks. But at
the same time, it could be that the real nature
of the universe will never be able to grow. Man,
you're really hoping for that, aren't you. It's just like Daniel,
you're wasting your life. No, it's true. It's true that
it's true that the universe might not be understandable to humanity.

(42:42):
It's true the universe might not be understandable, but for
some weird reasons. So far, we've been making pretty good progress,
which suggests that this method of science and our way
of thinking is somehow aligned with the way the universe works,
or can be aligned, and so yeah, we'd like to
keep doing it. We're all wishful thinkers. Not everybody thinks
that we're wasting our time. All right, Well, that's pretty interesting.

(43:05):
I guess we'll find out in the future whether he's
right or not. And in the meantime, I guess you
can go online and read more about it and even
make up your own universe. That's right. And you know,
he's down a bit of an unusual pr campaign with
his blog post and his videos and his announcements, but
he's physics. Yeah, but he's also submitted some papers to

(43:25):
journals and so they're being vetted by other physicists taking
them seriously, you know, peer review, and so that takes
a little while. And so you know, stay tuned. He
learned his lesson from two thousand two where he just
brought a book. Well, no, he's also writing a nine
page book which we have very soon I see, but
he he learned to post it on Twitter, So stay tuned.
You know, the top minds in the fields are thinking

(43:47):
about this, and they will critique it and criticize it
and find what's good and what remains to be worked on.
But you're right, it could be the theory of everything.
We just don't know yet and we might never know,
or it might come from somebody and not him, but
somebody who's maybe listening to this podcast. That's right. So
if you're working on your theory of everything, take heart.
You know, Stephen Wolfram might not be right. All right, Well,

(44:09):
we hope you enjoyed that. Thanks so much for listening.
See you next time. Thanks for listening, and remember that
Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe is a production I
Heart Radio. For more podcast for my Heart Radio, visit
the I Heart Radio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you

(44:32):
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