Tuesday, December 07, 2004

String Theory

I have always felt a sneaking envy of physicists (especially theoretical ones). I read A Brief History of Time in high school and for a brief time thereafter was convinced that I wanted to be a physicist.

Physics has always had the great metaphysical flourishes, the profound raison d'être, and the intuitive qualities that (at the time) I felt a drier discipline like theory CS didn't quite have; my original interest in computer science came from AI, Turing Tests, and Turing machines, and it was fun to immerse myself in discussions of mind-body separations and Chinese Room arguments.

My views evolved over the years. As I studied more, and learnt more (especially about complexity theory), I began to realize the deeper meaning of "computation as a phenomenon" and how the study of computational complexity is really about understanding different metaphors of computation and how these metaphors address the fundamental question of "what can you do, and how well can you do it ?"

Now it almost seems like the wheel has turned full circle. A recent issue of the Scientific American talks of black holes as computing devices, and current theories of quantum gravity all appear to reduce to wrestling with discrete space-time, which together with quantum computing, suggests a more fundamental role for computation in nature than one might have envisaged thirty years ago.

In that context, it is interesting to read quotes like this (via Not Even Wrong):
String theorists in general seem to have trouble getting their minds around the idea that it is even possible the theory is wrong. Jeff Harvey does admit that sometimes he wakes up thinking "What am I doing spending my whole career on something that cannot be proved experimentally"
It's nice to feel that we don't have to worry about something like that :)

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