Help Wanted

In yesterday’s post we looked at the possibility of an impending “Singularity”, a convergence of various accelerating lines of progress in a number of technical and scientific fields that futurist Ray Kurzweil thinks will be an unparalleled historical disruption. When a sort of critical mass is reached, Kurzweil suggests, the result will be a colossal explosion of technology and artificial intelligence that will radically alter nearly every aspect of human existence.

Meanwhile, however, as reported in yesterday’s Times, fundamental physicists and cosmologists, far from readying the champagne, are confronting what might be called a “Kuhnian crisis“: recent observations of the universe at the largest scales have presented them with data for which no existing theoretical model can account.

The central problem is that the expansion of the universe seems not to be decreasing over time due to the pull of gravity, as we would expect, but in 1998 was found instead to be accelerating — and nobody can say why. The source of this repulsive force, whatever it is, has been given the name “dark energy”, but that is simply a placeholder for a baffled shrug.

Before the expansion of the universe, now understood to be the result of the Big Bang, was announced by Edwin Hubble in 1925, the puzzle was what was keeping the universe from collapsing upon itself. To plug this gap, an exasperated Einstein introduced into his equations what he called the cosmological constant: an innate repulsive force that balanced the inward pull of gravity. When the universe was shown instead to be expanding, Einstein, wincing, retracted his argument, and later called the cosmological constant the biggest blunder of his career.

But now this new observation has made clear that there is indeed a need for something like Einstein’s fudge factor. The problem, however, is that nobody has anything like a good answer as to what ought to account for it.

The situation is remarkably similar to the crisis in cosmology and physics that arose from the unexpected result of the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, which cast down in ruins the notion of the “luminiferous æther” that had been believed to be the medium by which light propagated through space. The finding threw physics into a dire crisis that remained unresolved until Einstein himself dramatically entered the scene in 1905 with his utterly revolutionary theory of special relativity.

What is needed now, all agree, is a 21st-century Einstein to offer us a new paradigm, one that will encompass and expand our existing theoretical models as Einstein’s did for the classical theories of Newton and Maxwell. Some fear that we may have reached the limit of what our ape-brains can comprehend about the world, but I think that history should give us confidence that such worries are premature, and almost certainly wrong. And anyway, if Ray Kurzweil is right, the next Einstein may not even have to be human.

Learn more here.

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11 Comments

  1. Ashek Elahi says

    I, Ashek E. Alahi, age 45; am a service holder of a private organization is suffering for a Testicle Tumor for a long time. A Tumor developed in my Testicle. Now it is increasing and present weight almost 400 grams and size like a Tennis Ball and I feel difficult in my regular work moreover it may develop Cancer. Doctor advises me to operation the Tumor immediately otherwise Tumor will turn to Cancer.

    Posted June 5, 2008 at 5:12 am | Permalink
  2. Charles says

    Wait… so the next Einstein is going to be a 400-gram testicle?

    I am so confused.

    Posted June 5, 2008 at 5:17 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Aw, nuts! Spam is a lousy way to start your day.

    Posted June 5, 2008 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    That comment was so off the wall that I decided not to delete it (though I did perform a painless linkectomy). Imagine leaving something like that on a perfect stranger’s website! The fellow certainly has balls.

    Posted June 5, 2008 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  5. JO says

    Malcolm and company
    well, can’t relate to this but didn’t he change the spelling of his name from the name link to the actual post?
    Jeanie

    Posted June 5, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  6. JK says

    Oh Malcolm,

    Whenever you post something like this it pushes me to extremes as in, “I know I read something about like this, now where was it?” And then it becomes, “When was it?”

    http://cosmicvariance.com/2007/04/27/how-did-the-universe-start/

    Posted June 5, 2008 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  7. JK says

    “And anyway, if Ray Kurzweil is right, the next Einstein may not even have to be human.”

    Comment #3 from the above link on CV

    Posted June 5, 2008 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  8. JK says

    Well at least this has nothing to do with testicles. I’ve been emailing back and forth a bit today given my curiousity factor and one of my physicist friends advised me to look into the Casimir Effect. She did add that it might be a “red herring” path but it is interesting.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casimir_effect

    Posted June 5, 2008 at 4:13 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Thanks, JK, for some interesting links. And quite right, Jeanie, about the spelling – I’ve heard that some guys have their brains down there, and there’s your proof.

    Posted June 5, 2008 at 10:53 pm | Permalink
  10. JK says

    Whoa, hold on now,

    You mention me for “interesting links” then you go on to tell Jeani that some guys have their brains “down there?”

    Malcolm, both she and her (much larger than myself and more capable) husband are very near to my location.

    Might you delete and re-phrase?

    Posted June 6, 2008 at 2:07 am | Permalink
  11. JK says

    Well here’s another tidbit from one of the folks from “CV” linked from the other side of the pond this time.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7440217.stm

    Posted June 7, 2008 at 2:41 pm | Permalink