Monday, October 18, 2010

Understanding of Gravity -> Technology Revolution?

This post relates to a thought that I had driving into work this morning. Most of the technology that we use today and the advances that literally drive our economy come as the result of our understanding of quantum mechanics. We have gotten extremely good at manipulating things in the small. An understanding of solid state physics along with control of light and other subatomic particles have allowed for remarkable advances in miniaturization. Humans have dominated the small scale down to atomic nuclei and electrons. We don't do much below that yet, but perhaps that will come. Still, what we have done has far outstripped most of the imaginings of science fiction writers and those who would predict future trends.

On the other hand, we have failed miserably to keep up with these things at larger scales. We don't jet off into space whenever we want. Humans can't visit other bodies in our solar system. We are constrained to Earth and we are constrained to move around fairly slowly. We have plans for tall buildings and every so often a new structure is built that goes higher than where we got before, but there is no space elevator. There are also no flying cars that are really useful. In a sense, we have mastered the microscopic and failed to do much with the macroscopic.

One of the biggest areas of future discovery for humans is the merging of quantum mechanics and relativity. Both theories work wonderfully in their areas. They are both very accurate in the domains where they dominate. However, we know there is a problem with our understanding because the two theories don't get along. A lot of the research in basic physics has been aimed at figuring out how a combined theory would work or at getting experimental data that will help point us in the direction of a combined theory. I have argued in the past that having funding go to this is essential to our future. We don't know what advances will come out of it, but I have always felt confident that they would be huge and have significant social implications. My thought this morning was just a tiny insight into what that might be.

So what could we really gain from a Grand Unified Theory as the theories that merge QM and relativity are often called? How about mastery of the macroscopic? Our understanding of the force of electromagnetism along with the weak and strong nuclear forces has been instrumental in mastering the microscopic. We don't make full use yet of the two nuclear forces, but the most advanced of our technologies do rely on our understanding of these. The forces that we have a unified theory of only control behaviors in the small. The macroscopic world is dominated by gravity, the one force we know of that we have brought into unification. It is the force that holds us to the planet and makes it so darn hard to fly or visit other planets. Really understanding gravity might be what helps us to get past that.

I'm not proposing that we will find a way to "get around" gravity. We certainly haven't stopped electromagnetism of the nuclear forces either. What we did was learn how to manipulate them to do the things that we want to get from them. Perhaps the same will be possible with gravity. Perhaps finding the GUT will allow us to slowly build our ability to manipulate gravity in the same way we have slowly developed our ability to manipulate the other forces and eventually give us the control of the macroscopic that we currently enjoy over the microscopic.