SydneySCIENCE Highlights

Asking the hard questions: historians, scientists and the direction of medicine

“We need to examine the assumptions that scientific knowledge rests on, many of which are often highly questionable. These assumptions need to stand up to scrutiny so that current work is relevant and reliable,” explains Dr Dean Rickles.

Rickles is working to solve what may be the greatest problem in theoretical physics, a quest to unite the principles of general relativity with quantum theory, under what is now known as quantum gravity. By mapping out the history of quantum gravity and revealing the connections between various approaches, Rickles hopes to unite this disparate discipline. “Without a theory of quantum gravity fundamental physics remains in a state of conceptual schizophrenia: our two best theories are seemingly incompatible.”

General relativity is a theory of space, time and gravity, which explains attraction as the logical consequence of objects following the curvature of the spacetime continuum. Quantum field theory describes the remaining three non-gravitational forces at work in our universe, strong, weak and electromagnetic. The problem is how to stitch them together. “This puzzle exposes a deep schism in the foundations of physics and, if we believe that fundamental physics tells us what kind of universe we inhabit, a deep conceptual schism in our world view,” suggests Rickles.

“It’s my goal to bring together physicists and philosophers to foster thinking, create collaboration and, hopefully find a solution,” explains Rickles. To this end, Rickles has published a number of books that explore these seemingly contradictory theories and invite discussion and contributions from physicists and philosophers alike. “In working together in such a way that cross-fertilisation occurs there is the promise of progress and a resolution. It seems reasonable to suspect that it is diversity and teamwork that will resolve this problem, rather than a lone Einstein.”

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“In solving this problem there is the potential to solve many other pressing problems in physics: the quantum measurement problem, the problem of singularities in general relativity and even the problem of explicating the apparently very special conditions at and around the Big Bang singularity,” explains Rickles.

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