During recent travels I attended two conferences (in Paris and Berkeley) and met up with quite a few people. At the Paris conference I gave an intentionally provocative talk to the philosophers of physics there, slides are here. The argument I was trying to make is essentially that more attention should be paid to evidence for a deep unity in much of modern mathematics, which at the same time is connected to our best unified theory of physics (the Standard Model and GR). Edward Frenkel has made some similar points, referring to the Langlands program and its connections to physics as a “Grand Unified Theory of Mathematics”. The specific structures underlying this unification seem to me to deserve attention as providing an important way of thinking about what’s at the “foundations” of both math and physics.
Another motivation for this talk was to make an argument against what I see as having become a widespread and standard ideology about the search for a unified theory in physics. Talking to many physicists and mathematicians interested in physics, I noticed that the conventional wisdom, shared by the establishment and contrarians alike, is that the SM and GR are likely low energy emergent theories, that some completely different sort of theory is needed to describe very short distances such as the Planck scale. Physics establishment figures tend to believe that following the path started with string theory, then AdS/CFT, lately quantum error correction or whatever, will someday lead to a dramatically different sort of theory, replacing space, time and maybe quantum mechanics. Contrarians often have their own favorite idea for a radically different starting point. For an example of this, take a look at Figures 2 and 3 of Mike Freedman’s The Universe from a Single Particle (he spoke about this in Berkeley). Figure 2 is the “establishment” picture, with AdS/CFT the fundamental theory, well-decoupled from the emergent SM + GR (since no one has any idea how to relate them). His Figure 3 shows his own proposal, even better decoupled from any connection to the SM + GR.
Given the extreme level of experimental success of the SM + GR, the obvious conjecture is that these are close to a unified theory valid at all distances. That the mathematical framework they are built on is closely connected to unifying structures in mathematics provides yet more evidence that what one is looking for is not something completely different. The odd thing about the present moment is that arguing that our well-established successful theories can provide a solid basis for further unification makes one a contrarian, with the “establishment” position that a revolution sweeping such theories aside is needed.
I hope to find time in the next few weeks to write up what’s outlined in the slides as a more detailed article of some sort. More immediately, I plan to write a blog entry and perhaps some more detailed notes about the “twistor $P^1$” mentioned at the end of the talk, explaining how it shows up in Euclidean twistor theory as well as in recent work on the Langlands program.