Why physicists are rethinking the route to a theory of everything

WHAT if there was a perfect board game? A combination of boards, pieces and rules – perhaps with a few additions yet to be invented – that would create an unsurpassable experience, the only board game anyone wants to play?

This is what physicists think about the Theory of Everything, a putative “final” framework that would explain all of reality in one fell swoop. This is the ultimate goal of physics, with Stephen Hawking once writing that discovering it would mean knowing “the mind of God.”

It’s a bold mission, so much so that some consider it quixotic. At this point, there's no doubt that breaking reality down into more and more fundamental pieces hasn't really worked. But the potential benefits of a final theory are so enormous that some physicists stubbornly refuse to give up and are now turning to a radical new approach.

Since a theory of everything must explain all the building blocks of reality, including space and time, the idea is that we must start from an even more fundamental principle. This is why a wave of new potential final theories are not based on physics at all, but on a wild landscape of abstract geometry. Perhaps the ultimate scientific truth lies in the mathematics of a metaphysical gem that calculates the universe, or in a shimmering tapestry of triangles and tetrahedrons?

This may seem far-fetched to you, but it makes sense to Peter Woit, a mathematician at Columbia University in New York. “Our best theories are already very deeply geometric”…

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