Physicists and businessmen meet in Vancouver to crack the theory of everything

VANCOUVER – Some of the world’s brightest minds are convening this week in a Vancouver hotel conference center to try to solve a question that has baffled physicists for decades.

The two mainstays of modern physics, the theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity, have been used respectively to describe how matter behaves, as well as space, time, and gravity.

The problem is that the theories don’t seem to be compatible, said Peter Galison, a professor of the history of science and physics at Harvard University.

“These theories cannot simply live harmoniously in splendid isolation, one from the other. We know our worldview is inadequate until we figure out how to make them work well together,” she said in an interview after giving a talk on how black holes fit into the equation.

Galison is among several leading thinkers who came to the Quantum Gravity Conference for the launch of a new global research collaboration known as the Quantum Gravity Institute in Vancouver.

While the speakers at the conference are primarily scientists, including Nobel laureates Jim Peebles, Sir Roger Penrose and Kip Thorne, those behind the institute come from less likely fields.

The Quantum Gravity Society represents a group of business, technology, and community leaders. Founding members include Frank Giustra of Fiore Group, Terry Hui of Concord Pacific, Paul Lee and Moe Kermani of Vanedge Capital, and Markus Frind of Frind Estate Winery. They are joined by physicists Penrose, Abhay Ashtekar, Philip Stamp, Bill Unruh, and Birgitta Whaley.

During a panel discussion, Lee said he has been asked several times why Vancouver would host such an event or institute.

“Why Vancouver? Because we can,” Lee said.

Hui, who studied physics as part of his undergraduate degree, said organizing the conference and launching the institute was like fulfilling a childhood dream.

“I left the field to pursue other things, you know,” he said in an interview.

“How do I put this?” he said, before comparing it to being a guy who never made the high school hockey team and hanging out in the Canucks’ locker room.

Hui said he wanted to help and saw his role as philanthropic, adding that he believed it would benefit Vancouver financially.

As a non-local and founder of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard, Galison said he’s happy to see more interdisciplinary support for exploring some of the biggest questions in science.

He called the conference an interesting event to bring together people in technology and venture capitalism with scientists from various fields. The launch of the institute is also significant, she said.

“It’s also a launch event for something much bigger and more enduring.”

As for the central question of the conference, Galison said it’s an opportunity to explore where theories overlap and where they don’t from different angles.

“One place where they intersect is clearly at the very beginning of the universe, early cosmology, because when energy is incredibly compressed, when you have huge energy densities, you’re at the limit where the bending of space and time creates so much energy that quantum energy effects come into play,” he said.

The theory of quantum mechanics, introduced in the 1920s, entered a world already shaken by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which inspired responses not only from scientists but also from poets and philosophers, he said.

“That these things aren’t compatible is really puzzling,” Galison said.

Cracking the code of why not is something that will happen in a moment, a week or a year, he said.

“There is an enormous amount of work,” he said. “It’s more like building a cathedral than knocking down a bike shed.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 17, 2022.


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