“Shape-Shifting Cosmos” — Physicists Seek the Question to Which the Universe is the Answer

Early Galaxy


In 2013, one of the leading particle physicists of his generation, Nima Arkani-Hamed at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton and Jaroslav Trnka, founding member of the Center for Quantum Mechanics and Physics, found that the amplitudes of certain particle collisions are encoded in the volume of a gem-like geometric object, which they named the amplituhedron, that makes reference to neither space nor time, raising metaphysical questions about the meaning of physics and the nature of reality

“The miraculous shape-shifting property of the laws is the single most amazing thing I know about them,” Arkani-Hamed told Natalie Walchover for The New Yorker this past fall. It “must be a huge clue to the nature of the ultimate truth.”

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Since their creation of the amplituhedron, this new geometric formulation of particle-scattering amplitudes, they have been hoping that it will lead away from our spacetime-bound conception of the cosmos to some grander structure that embraces the discovery that gravity shapes the universe on both large and quantum scales.



Arkani-Hamed’s research has shown how the extreme weakness of gravity, relative to other forces of nature, might be explained by the existence of extra dimensions of space. He sees the ultimate goal of physics as figuring out the mathematical question from which all the answers flow.

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“The ascension to the tenth level of intellectual heaven,” he told Walchover, “would be if we find the question to which the universe is the answer, and the nature of that question in and of itself explains why it was possible to describe it in so many different ways.”

It’s as though physics has been turned inside out, observes Walchover. “It now appears that the answers already surround us. It’s the question we don’t know.”

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“We’re not building a machine that calculates answers,”  says Arkani-Hamed. “Instead, we’re discovering questions. Nature’s shape-shifting laws seem to be the answer to an unknown mathematical question.”

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Somehow, the answer to the question of the amplituhedron’s volume describes the behavior of particles, writes Walchover. “And that answer, in turn, can be rewritten in terms of space and time”.

One of the leading particle physics phenomenologists of his generation, Nima Arkani-Hamed has taken a lead in proposing new physical theories that can be tested at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.

The new version of Hubble’s deep image is shown below. In dark grey you can see the new light that has been found around the galaxies in this field. That light corresponds to the brightness of more than one hundred billion suns. It took researchers at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias three years to produce this deepest image of the Universe ever taken from space, by recovering a large quantity of ‘lost’ light around the largest galaxies in the iconic Hubble Ultra-Deep Field.

The Daily Galaxy via The New Yorker and The Science Museum


Hubble Deep Field

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