Nautilus

The Quest for Unity Is Not Something Physics Is Cut Out to Do

If physics is understood as a descriptive mode of explanation, free of the unifying quest, the angst of not knowing it all is exorcised.Image by Andrew J. Hanson / Indiana University.

In physics, we like theories that are simple and broad-ranging. By “simple,” physicists usually mean a mathematical theory that rests on as few postulates as possible; by “broad-ranging,” we mean theories that can describe a wide class of phenomena, even when apparently not related. A quintessential example is Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Resting on a handful of simple principles, it successfully describes planetary orbits in this (and any) solar system, black holes, gravitational waves, and the expansion of the universe.

When theories are simple and broad-ranging, physicists call them “beautiful.” Nobel laureates Steven Weinberg and Frank Wilczek have compared such theories with Mozart’s musical compositions, masterful

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