”Maybe we’re just too dumb,” Nobel laureate physicist David Gross mused in a lecture at Caltech two weeks ago. When someone of his level wonders whether the unification of physics will always be beyond mortal minds, it gets you worried. Since his lecture, I’ve been learning about a theory that seems to confirm Gross’s worry. It is so ridiculously hard that it could be the subject of an Onion parody. But at the same time, I’ve been watching how physicists are trying to power through their intimidation, because the theory promises a new way of understanding what space and time really are, at a deep level.
The theory was put forward in the late 1980s by Russian physicists Mikhail Vasiliev and the late Efin Fradkin of the Lebedev Institute in Moscow, but is so mathematically complex and conceptually opaque that whenever someone brought it up, most theorists started talking about the weather, soccer, reality TV—anything but that theory. It became a subject of polite conversation only in the past couple of years, as math whizzes who take a peculiar pleasure in impossible problems dove in and showed that the theory is not impossible to grasp, merely almost impossible.
Continue this article written by George Musser at Scientific American