20th Century Physics Essays And Recollections

So far, in nearly two decades of searching, no experiment has produced convincing evidence of the decay of even one proton, much less an appreciable fraction of the 10 to the 79th power protons the universe is estimated to contain. (That number is mathematical notation for the numeral one followed by 79 zeros.)

This hasn't stopped scientists from continuing the search; in fact, there are hopes that the mighty Super-Kamiokande detector under a mountain near Kamioka, Japan, which contains 50,000 tons of water, will soon see the telltale flash signaling the death of a proton. This minuscule event, the theorists predict, would yield some decay products. In one possible decay route, the products would be an antielectron and a pi meson, which would almost instantly decay into two gamma-ray photons. In another proton decay mode, the debris would include a K meson with a specific energy associated with proton decay, and a virtually undetectable neutrino.

The demise of a proton (or better, of several protons) would make it easier for theorists to build a Grand Unified Theory that would actually work. Frustrated scientists therefore feel a certain urgency in the quest for deceased protons. During a physics conference in Japan last month, Dr. Frank Wilczek of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., told an audience that ''if we don't see proton decay pretty soon, we'll be in serious trouble.''

Of course, if scientists do detect a proton decay, the whole universe, not just theorists, will be in serious trouble. The death of just one proton would herald the eventual end of everything; if one proton can decay, all protons will decay, and without protons there can be no atoms, molecules, DNA, mountains, roses or concertos.

Fortunately, even if a protonic funeral should occur in the coming months, the demise of the universe would not be imminent. In exquisitely sensitive experiments in Japan and elsewhere, physicists have determined that if protons decay at all, it must take them more than 2.5 times 10 to the 32d power years to die, on average. That's about 10 quintillion times the present age of the universe, which is believed to be about 14 billion years. (Although the average lifespan of a proton must be phenomenally long, a handful of them could be expected to have short lifetimes, some ending now rather than in the remote future. This is why the current search for proton decay is practical.)

Of course, inhabitants of the surface of our terrestrial ball of iron and stone have many more immediate worries than proton decay, astrophysicists tell us. The devastating impact of a large comet or asteroid, for example, has furnished profitable grist for movie makers, and there are lots of other celestial catastrophes the entertainment industry has yet to mine.

The nearby explosion of a supernova is one. There is no telling when or where a supernova will explode, but a few known candidates are uncomfortably close. The red supergiant star Betelgeuse, a mere 430 light years from the Earth, might be about ready to pop. Betelgeuse, a bright star at the shoulder of the constellation Orion, is close enough to us that its explosion could conceivably shower the Earth with potentially harmful radiation and disrupt the protective ozone layer.

Another nasty possibility came to light during the past year -- roasting by a nearby gamma-ray burster.

Since the advent of orbiting gamma ray telescopes in recent years, astrophysicists have been puzzled by gamma ray bursters -- spots in the sky that emit intense gamma-ray radiation for a few seconds or hours and then fade away without a trace, never to recur.

But observations by a new gamma-ray satellite named BeppoSAX, built by Italy and the Netherlands, are so fast and so accurate that they can be used by optical, infrared and X-ray observatories to hunt for faint objects created by or left over from the fleeting gamma-ray bursts.

Such objects have been found, and their distances from the Earth measured. This led to a sensational surprise last year: some gamma ray bursters appear to be vastly farther away than had been believed. To produce gamma rays of the intensity recorded from the vicinity of the Earth, these mysterious objects must be almost inconceivably powerful. One of them seems to have produced more energy in a few seconds than an entire galaxy generates during a year.

Theorists surmise that such ''hypernovas'' may result from the violent merger of pairs of black holes or black holes with neutron stars. But no one knows how these great bombs are distributed throughout the universe; if one happened to go off relatively near the Earth, there could be dire consequences.

Among the outlandish doomsday scenarios dreamed up by some scientists is the possibility that the energy density of ''empty'' space in our part of the universe represents a ''false vacuum''-- an emptiness pervaded by a certain amount of hidden energy. The menace is that there might be another vacuum with a lower energy level into which our part of the universe might tumble, losing all its protons and thereby obliterating our neck of the universal woods, ourselves included.

It has been suggested by some non-physicists, led by Paul Dixon, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii, that the powerful Tevatron particle accelerator at Fermilab in Illinois (which collides particles together at a combined energy of two trillion electronvolts) might pack so much punch it could start a tear in our friendly space-time along with its false vacuum. Such a catastrophe, it is surmised, would propagate at the speed of light, plunging Batavia, Ill., the site of Fermilab, and the rest of the universe into non-existence.

Physicists scoff at this notion, saying that the Earth is continuously peppered by cosmic rays that have energies up to 10 to the 19th power electronvolts -- about 10 million times more energy than the most potent accelerator collisions -- and yet our universe survives.

Nevertheless, Fermilab is pestered often enough by doom-saying demonstrators that the editors of the laboratory's news letter devoted two pages last month to debunking the torn space-time threat.

This seems to be the season for contemplating decay and doom, not only in movies but in such serious publications as Sky & Telescope magazine. The August issue features an article entitled ''Future of the Universe,'' which paints a somber process of universal aging and decay, with the last stars winking out about 100 trillion years from now, and even the most massive black holes evaporating in around 10 to the hundredth power years.

But although the long-term prognosis for our ''region'' of the universe is grim, physics offers some possibilities that could save us from the awful all-becoming nothing, to borrow a phrase from Asian philosophy.

Dr. Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose revolutionary conjectures have strongly influenced cosmological thinking during the last two decades, envisions an eternal process, in which our stable region of the universe must run down to cold, dark death, but other unstable regions of the universe might undergo the same instantaneous process of ''inflation'' that our own region supposedly once underwent long ago. Inflation, in the cosmological sense, means not only instantaneous expansion of space-time, but the spontaneous creation of energy to fill the new space-time, providing the raw stuff of a new universe.

A new generation of observatories and experiments now on the drawing board may provide some answers to human's most deep-seated questions about the texture and fate of universal existence. In any case, the quest will continue.

The authors of the Sky & Telescope article, Dr. Fred Adams of the University of Michigan and Dr. Gregory Laughlin of the University of California at Berkeley, put it this way:

''Whether life can exist indefinitely, or whether the universe is structured to guarantee the final annihilation of all consciousness, purpose and meaning -- including any record that such things ever existed -- holds an inordinate fascination.''

Correction: July 16, 1998, Thursday An article in Science Times on Tuesday about theories on the end of the universe misstated the name of the institute in Princeton, N.J., with which Dr. Frank Wilczek, a physicist, is affiliated. It is the Institute for Advanced Study, not the Institute of Advanced Studies.

Continue reading the main story

Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity

Alan D. Sokal
Department of Physics
New York University
4 Washington Place
New York, NY 10003 USA
Telephone: (212) 998-7729
Fax: (212) 995-4016

November 28, 1994
revised May 13, 1995

Note: This article was published in Social Text#46/47, pp. 217-252 (spring/summer 1996).
Biographical Information: The author is a Professor of Physics at New York University. He has lectured widely in Europe and Latin America, including at the Università di Roma ``La Sapienza'' and, during the Sandinista government, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua. He is co-author with Roberto Fernández and Jürg Fröhlich of Random Walks, Critical Phenomena, and Triviality in Quantum Field Theory (Springer, 1992).

Transgressing disciplinary boundaries ... [is] a subversive undertaking since it is likely to violate the sanctuaries of accepted ways of perceiving. Among the most fortified boundaries have been those between the natural sciences and the humanities.

-- Valerie Greenberg, Transgressive Readings (1990, 1)

The struggle for the transformation of ideology into critical science ... proceeds on the foundation that the critique of all presuppositions of science and ideology must be the only absolute principle of science.

-- Stanley Aronowitz, Science as Power (1988b, 339)

There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ``eternal'' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ``objective'' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics1; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility2; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ``objectivity''.3 It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ``reality'', no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ``knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz's analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics4; in Ross' discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum science5; in Irigaray's and Hayles' exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics6; and in Harding's comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular.7

Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step farther, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg's quantum mechanics and Einstein's general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded. In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science -- among them, existence itself -- become problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science.

My approach will be as follows: First I will review very briefly some of the philosophical and ideological issues raised by quantum mechanics and by classical general relativity. Next I will sketch the outlines of the emerging theory of quantum gravity, and discuss some of the conceptual issues it raises. Finally, I will comment on the cultural and political implications of these scientific developments. It should be emphasized that this article is of necessity tentative and preliminary; I do not pretend to answer all of the questions that I raise. My aim is, rather, to draw the attention of readers to these important developments in physical science, and to sketch as best I can their philosophical and political implications. I have endeavored here to keep mathematics to a bare minimum; but I have taken care to provide references where interested readers can find all requisite details.

Quantum Mechanics: Uncertainty, Complementarity, Discontinuity and Interconnectedness

It is not my intention to enter here into the extensive debate on the conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics.8 Suffice it to say that anyone who has seriously studied the equations of quantum mechanics will assent to Heisenberg's measured (pardon the pun) summary of his celebrated uncertainty principle:

We can no longer speak of the behaviour of the particle independently of the process of observation. As a final consequence, the natural laws formulated mathematically in quantum theory no longer deal with the elementary particles themselves but with our knowledge of them. Nor is it any longer possible to ask whether or not these particles exist in space and time objectively ...

When we speak of the picture of nature in the exact science of our age, we do not mean a picture of nature so much as a picture of our relationships with nature. ... Science no longer confronts nature as an objective observer, but sees itself as an actor in this interplay between man [sic] and nature. The scientific method of analysing, explaining and classifying has become conscious of its limitations, which arise out of the fact that by its intervention science alters and refashions the object of investigation. In other words, method and object can no longer be separated.910

Along the same lines, Niels Bohr wrote:
An independent reality in the ordinary physical sense can ... neither be ascribed to the phenomena nor to the agencies of observation.11
Stanley Aronowitz has convincingly traced this worldview to the crisis of liberal hegemony in Central Europe in the years prior and subsequent to World War I.1213

A second important aspect of quantum mechanics is its principle of complementarity or dialecticism. Is light a particle or a wave? Complementarity ``is the realization that particle and wave behavior are mutually exclusive, yet that both are necessary for a complete description of all phenomena.''14 More generally, notes Heisenberg,

the different intuitive pictures which we use to describe atomic systems, although fully adequate for given experiments, are nevertheless mutually exclusive. Thus, for instance, the Bohr atom can be described as a small-scale planetary system, having a central atomic nucleus about which the external electrons revolve. For other experiments, however, it might be more convenient to imagine that the atomic nucleus is surrounded by a system of stationary waves whose frequency is characteristic of the radiation emanating from the atom. Finally, we can consider the atom chemically. ... Each picture is legitimate when used in the right place, but the different pictures are contradictory and therefore we call them mutually complementary.15
And once again Bohr:
A complete elucidation of one and the same object may require diverse points of view which defy a unique description. Indeed, strictly speaking, the conscious analysis of any concept stands in a relation of exclusion to its immediate application.16
This foreshadowing of postmodernist epistemology is by no means coincidental. The profound connections between complementarity and deconstruction have recently been elucidated by Froula17 and Honner18, and, in great depth, by Plotnitsky.192021

A third aspect of quantum physics is discontinuity or rupture: as Bohr explained,

[the] essence [of the quantum theory] may be expressed in the so-called quantum postulate, which attributes to any atomic process an essential discontinuity, or rather individuality, completely foreign to the classical theories and symbolized by Planck's quantum of action.22
A half-century later, the expression ``quantum leap'' has so entered our everyday vocabulary that we are likely to use it without any consciousness of its origins in physical theory.

Finally, Bell's theorem23 and its recent generalizations24 show that an act of observation here and now can affect not only the object being observed -- as Heisenberg told us -- but also an object arbitrarily far away (say, on Andromeda galaxy). This phenomenon -- which Einstein termed ``spooky'' -- imposes a radical reevaluation of the traditional mechanistic concepts of space, object and causality25, and suggests an alternative worldview in which the universe is characterized by interconnectedness and (w)holism: what physicist David Bohm has called ``implicate order''.26 New Age interpretations of these insights from quantum physics have often gone overboard in unwarranted speculation, but the general soundness of the argument is undeniable.27 In Bohr's words, ``Planck's discovery of the elementary quantum of action ... revealed a feature of wholeness inherent in atomic physics, going far beyond the ancient idea of the limited divisibility of matter.''28

Hermeneutics of Classical General Relativity

In the Newtonian mechanistic worldview, space and time are distinct and absolute.29 In Einstein's special theory of relativity (1905), the distinction between space and time dissolves: there is only a new unity, four-dimensional space-time, and the observer's perception of ``space'' and ``time'' depends on her state of motion.30 In Hermann Minkowski's famous words (1908):

Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.31
Nevertheless, the underlying geometry of Minkowskian space-time remains absolute.32

It is in Einstein's general theory of relativity (1915) that the radical conceptual break occurs: the space-time geometry becomes contingent and dynamical, encoding in itself the gravitational field. Mathematically, Einstein breaks with the tradition dating back to Euclid (and which is inflicted on high-school students even today!), and employs instead the non-Euclidean geometry developed by Riemann. Einstein's equations are highly nonlinear, which is why traditionally-trained mathematicians find them so difficult to solve.33 Newton's gravitational theory corresponds to the crude (and conceptually misleading) truncation of Einstein's equations in which the nonlinearity is simply ignored. Einstein's general relativity therefore subsumes all the putative successes of Newton's theory, while going beyond Newton to predict radically new phenomena that arise directly from the nonlinearity: the bending of starlight by the sun, the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, and the gravitational collapse of stars into black holes.

General relativity is so weird that some of its consequences -- deduced by impeccable mathematics, and increasingly confirmed by astrophysical observation -- read like science fiction. Black holes are by now well known, and wormholes are beginning to make the charts. Perhaps less familiar is Gödel's construction of an Einstein space-time admitting closed timelike curves: that is, a universe in which it is possible to travel into one's own past!34

Thus, general relativity forces upon us radically new and counterintuitive notions of space, time and causality35363738; so it is not surprising that it has had a profound impact not only on the natural sciences but also on philosophy, literary criticism, and the human sciences. For example, in a celebrated symposium three decades ago on Les Langages Critiques et les Sciences de l'Homme, Jean Hyppolite raised an incisive question about Jacques Derrida's theory of structure and sign in scientific discourse:

When I take, for example, the structure of certain algebraic constructions [ensembles], where is the center? Is the center the knowledge of general rules which, after a fashion, allow us to understand the interplay of the elements? Or is the center certain elements which enjoy a particular privilege within the ensemble? ... With Einstein, for example, we see the end of a kind of privilege of empiric evidence. And in that connection we see a constant appear, a constant which is a combination of space-time, which does not belong to any of the experimenters who live the experience, but which, in a way, dominates the whole construct; and this notion of the constant -- is this the center?39
Derrida's perceptive reply went to the heart of classical general relativity:
The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability -- it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something -- of a center starting from which an observer could master the field -- but the very concept of the game ...40
In mathematical terms, Derrida's observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group ``acts transitively'': this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.

Quantum Gravity: String, Weave or Morphogenetic Field?

However, this interpretation, while adequate within classical general relativity, becomes incomplete within the emerging postmodern view of quantum gravity. When even the gravitational field -- geometry incarnate -- becomes a non-commuting (and hence nonlinear) operator, how can the classical interpretation of as a geometric entity be sustained? Now not only the observer, but the very concept of geometry, becomes relational and contextual.

The synthesis of quantum theory and general relativity is thus the central unsolved problem of theoretical physics41; no one today can predict with confidence what will be the language and ontology, much less the content, of this synthesis, when and if it comes. It is, nevertheless, useful to examine historically the metaphors and imagery that theoretical physicists have employed in their attempts to understand quantum gravity.

The earliest attempts -- dating back to the early 1960's -- to visualize geometry on the Planck scale (about centimeters) portrayed it as ``space-time foam'': bubbles of space-time curvature, sharing a complex and ever-changing topology of interconnections.42 But physicists were unable to carry this approach farther, perhaps due to the inadequate development at that time of topology and manifold theory (see below).

In the 1970's physicists tried an even more conventional approach: simplify the Einstein equations by pretending that they are almost linear, and then apply the standard methods of quantum field theory to the thus-oversimplified equations. But this method, too, failed: it turned out that Einstein's general relativity is, in technical language, ``perturbatively nonrenormalizable''.43 This means that the strong nonlinearities of Einstein's general relativity are intrinsic to the theory; any attempt to pretend that the nonlinearities are weak is simply self-contradictory. (This is not surprising: the almost-linear approach destroys the most characteristic features of general relativity, such as black holes.)

In the 1980's a very different approach, known as string theory, became popular: here the fundamental constituents of matter are not point-like particles but rather tiny (Planck-scale) closed and open strings.44 In this theory, the space-time manifold does not exist as an objective physical reality; rather, space-time is a derived concept, an approximation valid only on large length scales (where ``large'' means ``much larger than centimeters''!). For a while many enthusiasts of string theory thought they were closing in on a Theory of Everything -- modesty is not one of their virtues -- and some still think so. But the mathematical difficulties in string theory are formidable, and it is far from clear that they will be resolved any time soon.

More recently, a small group of physicists has returned to the full nonlinearities of Einstein's general relativity, and -- using a new mathematical symbolism invented by Abhay Ashtekar -- they have attempted to visualize the structure of the corresponding quantum theory.45 The picture they obtain is intriguing: As in string theory, the space-time manifold is only an approximation valid at large distances, not an objective reality. At small (Planck-scale) distances, the geometry of space-time is a weave: a complex interconnection of threads.

Finally, an exciting proposal has been taking shape over the past few years in the hands of an interdisciplinary collaboration of mathematicians, astrophysicists and biologists: this is the theory of the morphogenetic field.46 Since the mid-1980's evidence has been accumulating that this field, first conceptualized by developmental biologists47, is in fact closely linked to the quantum gravitational field48: (a) it pervades all space; (b) it interacts with all matter and energy, irrespective of whether or not that matter/energy is magnetically charged; and, most significantly, (c) it is what is known mathematically as a ``symmetric second-rank tensor''. All three properties are characteristic of gravity; and it was proven some years ago that the only self-consistent nonlinear theory of a symmetric second-rank tensor field is, at least at low energies, precisely Einstein's general relativity.49 Thus, if the evidence for (a), (b) and (c) holds up, we can infer that the morphogenetic field is the quantum counterpart of Einstein's gravitational field. Until recently this theory has been ignored or even scorned by the high-energy-physics establishment, who have traditionally resented the encroachment of biologists (not to mention humanists) on their ``turf''.50 However, some theoretical physicists have recently begun to give this theory a second look, and there are good prospects for progress in the near future.51

It is still too soon to say whether string theory, the space-time weave or morphogenetic fields will be confirmed in the laboratory: the experiments are not easy to perform. But it is intriguing that all three theories have similar conceptual characteristics: strong nonlinearity, subjective space-time, inexorable flux, and a stress on the topology of interconnectedness.

Differential Topology and Homology

Unbeknownst to most outsiders, theoretical physics underwent a significant transformation -- albeit not yet a true Kuhnian paradigm shift -- in the 1970's and 80's: the traditional tools of mathematical physics (real and complex analysis), which deal with the space-time manifold only locally, were supplemented by topological approaches (more precisely, methods from differential topology52) that account for the global (holistic) structure of the universe. This trend was seen in the analysis of anomalies in gauge theories53; in the theory of vortex-mediated phase transitions54; and in string and superstring theories.55 Numerous books and review articles on ``topology for physicists'' were published during these years.56

At about the same time, in the social and psychological sciences Jacques Lacan pointed out the key role played by differential topology:

This diagram [the Möbius strip] can be considered the basis of a sort of essential inscription at the origin, in the knot which constitutes the subject. This goes much further than you may think at first, because you can search for the sort of surface able to receive such inscriptions. You can perhaps see that the sphere, that old symbol for totality, is unsuitable. A torus, a Klein bottle, a cross-cut surface, are able to receive such a cut. And this diversity is very important as it explains many things about the structure of mental disease. If one can symbolize the subject by this fundamental cut, in the same way one can show that a cut on a torus corresponds to the neurotic subject, and on a cross-cut surface to another sort of mental disease.5758
As Althusser rightly commented, ``Lacan finally gives Freud's thinking the scientific concepts that it requires''.59 More recently, Lacan's topologie du sujet has been applied fruitfully to cinema criticism60 and to the psychoanalysis of AIDS.61 In mathematical terms, Lacan is here pointing out that the first homology group62 of the sphere is trivial, while those of the other surfaces are profound; and this homology is linked with the connectedness or disconnectedness of the surface after one or more cuts.63 Furthermore, as Lacan suspected, there is an intimate connection between the external structure of the physical world and its inner psychological representation qua knot theory: this hypothesis has recently been confirmed by Witten's derivation of knot invariants (in particular the Jones polynomial64) from three-dimensional Chern-Simons quantum field theory.65

Analogous topological structures arise in quantum gravity, but inasmuch as the manifolds involved are multidimensional rather than two-dimensional, higher homology groups play a role as well. These multidimensional manifolds are no longer amenable to visualization in conventional three-dimensional Cartesian space: for example, the projective space , which arises from the ordinary 3-sphere by identification of antipodes, would require a Euclidean embedding space of dimension at least 5. 66 Nevertheless, the higher homology groups can be perceived, at least approximately, via a suitable multidimensional (nonlinear) logic.6768

Manifold Theory: (W)holes and Boundaries

Luce Irigaray, in her famous article ``Is the Subject of Science Sexed?'', pointed out that

the mathematical sciences, in the theory of wholes [théorie des ensembles], concern themselves with closed and open spaces ... They concern themselves very little with the question of the partially open, with wholes that are not clearly delineated [ensembles flous], with any analysis of the problem of borders [bords] ...69
In 1982, when Irigaray's essay first appeared, this was an incisive criticism: differential topology has traditionally privileged the study of what are known technically as ``manifolds without boundary''. However, in the past decade, under the impetus of the feminist critique, some mathematicians have given renewed attention to the theory of ``manifolds with boundary'' [Fr. variétés à bord].70 Perhaps not coincidentally, it is precisely these manifolds that arise in the new physics of conformal field theory, superstring theory and quantum gravity.

In string theory, the quantum-mechanical amplitude for the interaction of n closed or open strings is represented by a functional integral (basically, a sum) over fields living on a two-dimensional manifold with boundary.71 In quantum gravity, we may expect that a similar representation will hold, except that the two-dimensional manifold with boundary will be replaced by a multidimensional one. Unfortunately, multidimensionality goes against the grain of conventional linear mathematical thought, and despite a recent broadening of attitudes (notably associated with the study of multidimensional nonlinear phenomena in chaos theory), the theory of multidimensional manifolds with boundary remains somewhat underdeveloped. Nevertheless, physicists' work on the functional-integral approach to quantum gravity continues apace72, and this work is likely to stimulate the attention of mathematicians.73

As Irigaray anticipated, an important question in all of these theories is: Can the boundary be transgressed (crossed), and if so, what happens then? Technically this is known as the problem of ``boundary conditions''. At a purely mathematical level, the most salient aspect of boundary conditions is the great diversity of possibilities: for example, ``free b.c.'' (no obstacle to crossing), ``reflecting b.c.'' (specular reflection as in a mirror), ``periodic b.c.'' (re-entrance in another part of the manifold), and ``antiperiodic b.c.'' (re-entrance with twist). The question posed by physicists is: Of all these conceivable boundary conditions, which ones actually occur in the representation of quantum gravity? Or perhaps, do all of them occur simultaneously and on an equal footing, as suggested by the complementarity principle?74

At this point my summary of developments in physics must stop, for the simple reason that the answers to these questions -- if indeed they have univocal answers -- are not yet known. In the remainder of this essay, I propose to take as my starting point those features of the theory of quantum gravity which are relatively well established (at least by the standards of conventional science), and attempt to draw out their philosophical and political implications.

Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Liberatory Science

Over the past two decades there has been extensive discussion among critical theorists with regard to the characteristics of modernist versus postmodernist culture; and in recent years these dialogues have begun to devote detailed attention to the specific problems posed by the natural sciences.75 In particular, Madsen and Madsen have recently given a very clear summary of the characteristics of modernist versus postmodernist science. They posit two criteria for a postmodern science:

A simple criterion for science to qualify as postmodern is that it be free from any dependence on the concept of objective truth. By this criterion, for example, the complementarity interpretation of quantum physics due to Niels Bohr and the Copenhagen school is seen as postmodernist.76
Clearly, quantum gravity is in this respect an archetypal postmodernist science. Secondly,
The other concept which can be taken as being fundamental to postmodern science is that of essentiality. Postmodern scientific theories are constructed from those theoretical elements which are essential for the consistency and utility of the theory.77
Thus, quantities or objects which are in principle unobservable -- such as space-time points, exact particle positions, or quarks and gluons -- ought not to be introduced into the theory.78 While much of modern physics is excluded by this criterion, quantum gravity again qualifies: in the passage from classical general relativity to the quantized theory, space-time points (and indeed the space-time manifold itself) have disappeared from the theory.

However, these criteria, admirable as they are, are insufficient for a liberatory postmodern science: they liberate human beings from the tyranny of ``absolute truth'' and ``objective reality'', but not necessarily from the tyranny of other human beings. In Andrew Ross' words, we need a science ``that will be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests.''79 From a feminist standpoint, Kelly Oliver makes a similar argument:

... in order to be revolutionary, feminist theory cannot claim to describe what exists, or, ``natural facts.'' Rather, feminist theories should be political tools, strategies for overcoming oppression in specific concrete situations. The goal, then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories -- not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories.80
How, then, is this to be done?

In what follows, I would like to discuss the outlines of a liberatory postmodern science on two levels: first, with regard to general themes and attitudes; and second, with regard to political goals and strategies.

One characteristic of the emerging postmodern science is its stress on nonlinearity and discontinuity: this is evident, for example, in chaos theory and the theory of phase transitions as well as in quantum gravity.81 At the same time, feminist thinkers have pointed out the need for an adequate analysis of fluidity, in particular turbulent fluidity.82 These two themes are not as contradictory as it might at first appear: turbulence connects with strong nonlinearity, and smoothness/fluidity is sometimes associated with discontinuity (e.g. in catastrophe theory83); so a synthesis is by no means out of the question.

Secondly, the postmodern sciences deconstruct and transcend the Cartesian metaphysical distinctions between humankind and Nature, observer and observed, Subject and Object. Already quantum mechanics, earlier in this century, shattered the ingenuous Newtonian faith in an objective, pre-linguistic world of material objects ``out there''; no longer could we ask, as Heisenberg put it, whether ``particles exist in space and time objectively''. But Heisenberg's formulation still presupposes the objective existence of space and time as the neutral, unproblematic arena in which quantized particle-waves interact (albeit indeterministically); and it is precisely this would-be arena that quantum gravity problematizes. Just as quantum mechanics informs us that the position and momentum of a particle are brought into being only by the act of observation, so quantum gravity informs us that space and time themselves are contextual, their meaning defined only relative to the mode of observation.84

Thirdly, the postmodern sciences overthrow the static ontological categories and hierarchies characteristic of modernist science. In place of atomism and reductionism, the new sciences stress the dynamic web of relationships between the whole and the part; in place of fixed individual essences (e.g. Newtonian particles), they conceptualize interactions and flows (e.g. quantum fields). Intriguingly, these homologous features arise in numerous seemingly disparate areas of science, from quantum gravity to chaos theory to the biophysics of self-organizing systems. In this way, the postmodern sciences appear to be converging on a new epistemological paradigm, one that may be termed an ecological perspective, broadly understood as ``recogniz[ing] the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the embeddedness of individuals and societies in the cyclical patterns of nature.''85

A fourth aspect of postmodern science is its self-conscious stress on symbolism and representation. As Robert Markley points out, the postmodern sciences are increasingly transgressing disciplinary boundaries, taking on characteristics that had heretofore been the province of the humanities:

Quantum physics, hadron bootstrap theory, complex number theory, and chaos theory share the basic assumption that reality cannot be described in linear terms, that nonlinear -- and unsolvable -- equations are the only means possible to describe a complex, chaotic, and non-deterministic reality. These postmodern theories are -- significantly -- all metacritical in the sense that they foreground themselves as metaphors rather than as ``accurate'' descriptions of reality. In terms that are more familiar to literary theorists than to theoretical physicists, we might say that these attempts by scientists to develop new strategies of description represent notes towards a theory of theories, of how representation -- mathematical, experimental, and verbal -- is inherently complex and problematizing, not a solution but part of the semiotics of investigating the universe.8687
From a different starting point, Aronowitz likewise suggests that a liberatory science may arise from interdisciplinary sharing of epistemologies:
... natural objects are also socially constructed. It is not a question of whether these natural objects, or, to be more precise, the objects of natural scientific knowledge, exist independently of the act of knowing. This question is answered by the assumption of ``real'' time as opposed to the presupposition, common among neo-Kantians, that time always has a referent, that temporality is therefore a relative, not an unconditioned, category. Surely, the earth evolved long before life on earth. The question is whether objects of natural scientific knowledge are constituted outside the social field. If this is possible, we can assume that science or art may develop procedures that effectively neutralize the effects emanating from the means by which we produce knowledge/art. Performance art may be such an attempt.88

Finally, postmodern science provides a powerful refutation of the authoritarianism and elitism inherent in traditional science, as well as an empirical basis for a democratic approach to scientific work. For, as Bohr noted, ``a complete elucidation of one and the same object may require diverse points of view which defy a unique description'' -- this is quite simply a fact about the world, much as the self-proclaimed empiricists of modernist science might prefer to deny it. In such a situation, how can a self-perpetuating secular priesthood of credentialed ``scientists'' purport to maintain a monopoly on the production of scientific knowledge? (Let me emphasize that I am in no way opposed to specialized scientific training; I object only when an elite caste seeks to impose its canon of ``high science'', with the aim of excluding a priori alternative forms of scientific production by non-members.89)

The content and methodology of postmodern science thus provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project, understood in its broadest sense: the transgressing of boundaries, the breaking down of barriers, the radical democratization of all aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life.90 Conversely, one part of this project must involve the construction of a new and truly progressive science that can serve the needs of such a democratized society-to-be. As Markley observes, there seem to be two more-or-less mutually exclusive choices available to the progressive community:

On the one hand, politically progressive scientists can try to recuperate existing practices for moral values they uphold, arguing that their right-wing enemies are defacing nature and that they, the counter-movement, have access to the truth. [But] the state of the biosphere -- air pollution, water pollution, disappearing rain forests, thousands of species on the verge of extinction, large areas of land burdened far beyond their carrying capacity, nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons, clearcuts where there used to be forests, starvation, malnutrition, disappearing wetlands, nonexistent grass lands, and a rash of environmentally caused diseases -- suggests that the realist dream of scientific progress, of recapturing rather than revolutionizing existing methodologies and technologies, is, at worst, irrelevant to a political struggle that seeks something more than a reenactment of state socialism.91
The alternative is a profound reconception of science as well as politics:
[T]he dialogical move towards redefining systems, of seeing the world not only as an ecological whole but as a set of competing systems -- a world held together by the tensions among various natural and human interests -- offers the possibility of redefining what science is and what it does, of restructuring deterministic schemes of scientific education in favor of ongoing dialogues about how we intervene in our environment.92
It goes without saying that postmodernist science unequivocally favors the latter, deeper approach.

In addition to redefining the content of science, it is imperative to restructure and redefine the institutional loci in which scientific labor takes place -- universities, government labs, and corporations -- and reframe the reward system that pushes scientists to become, often against their own better instincts, the hired guns of capitalists and the military. As Aronowitz has noted, ``One third of the 11,000 physics graduate students in the United States are in the single subfield of solid state physics, and all of them will be able to get jobs in that subfield.''93 By contrast, there are few jobs available in either quantum gravity or environmental physics.

But all this is only a first step: the fundamental goal of any emancipatory movement must be to demystify and democratize the production of scientific knowledge, to break down the artificial barriers that separate ``scientists'' from ``the public''. Realistically, this task must start with the younger generation, through a profound reform of the educational system.94 The teaching of science and mathematics must be purged of its authoritarian and elitist characteristics95, and the content of these subjects enriched by incorporating the insights of the feminist96, queer97, multiculturalist98 and ecological99 critiques.

Finally, the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics.100101 But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, ``neither logic nor mathematics escapes the `contamination' of the social.''102 And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic: ``mathematics is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other.''103104 Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics.105 As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory106; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations.107 Catastrophe theory108, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis.109 Finally, chaos theory -- which provides our deepest insights into the ubiquitous yet mysterious phenomenon of nonlinearity -- will be central to all future mathematics. And yet, these images of the future mathematics must remain but the haziest glimmer: for, alongside these three young branches in the tree of science, there will arise new trunks and branches -- entire new theoretical frameworks -- of which we, with our present ideological blinders, cannot yet even conceive.


I wish to thank Giacomo Caracciolo, Lucía Fernández-Santoro, Lia Gutiérrez and Elizabeth Meiklejohn for enjoyable discussions which have contributed greatly to this article. Needless to say, these people should not be assumed to be in total agreement with the scientific and political views expressed here, nor are they responsible for any errors or obscurities which may inadvertently remain.

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Heisenberg (1958), Bohr (1963).

Kuhn (1970), Feyerabend (1975), Latour (1987), Aronowitz (1988b), Bloor (1991).

Merchant (1980), Keller (1985), Harding (1986,1991), Haraway (1989,1991), Best (1991).

Aronowitz (1988b, especially chaps. 9 and 12).

Ross (1991, introduction and chap. 1).

Irigaray (1985), Hayles (1992).
Harding (1986, especially chaps. 2 and 10); Harding (1991, especially chap. 4).

For a sampling of views, see Jammer (1974), Bell (1987), Albert (1992), Dürr, Goldstein and Zanghí (1992), Weinberg (1992, chap. IV), Coleman (1993), diary Maudlin (1994), Bricmont (1994).

Heisenberg (1958, 15, 28-29), emphasis in Heisenberg's original. See also Overstreet (1980), Craige (1982), Hayles (1984), Greenberg (1990), Booker (1990) and Porter (1990) for examples of cross-fertilization of ideas between relativistic quantum theory and literary criticism.

Unfortunately, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle has frequently been misinterpreted by amateur philosophers. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1994, 129-130) lucidly point out,
in quantum physics, Heisenberg's demon does not express the impossibility of measuring both the speed and the position of a particle on the grounds of a subjective interference of the measure with the measured, but it measures exactly an objective state of affairs that leaves the respective position of two of its particles outside of the field of its actualization, the number of independent variables being reduced and the values of the coordinates having the same probability. ...Perspectivism, or scientific relativism, is never relative to a subject: it constitutes not a relativity of truth but, on the contrary, a truth of the relative, that is to say, of variables whose cases it orders according to the values it extracts from them in its system of coordinates ...

Bohr (1928), cited in Pais (1991, 314).
12...World War I.
Aronowitz (1988b, 251-256).

13...World War I.
See also Porush (1989) for a fascinating account of how a second group of scientists and engineers -- cyberneticists -- contrived, with considerable success, to subvert the most revolutionary implications of quantum physics. The main limitation of Porush's critique is that it remains solely on a cultural and philosophical plane; his conclusions would be immeasurably strengthened by an analysis of economic and political factors. (For example, Porush fails to mention that engineer-cyberneticist Claude Shannon worked for the then-telephone monopoly AT&T.) A careful analysis would show, I think, that the victory of cybernetics over quantum physics in the 1940's and 50's can be explained in large part by the centrality of cybernetics to the ongoing capitalist drive for automation of industrial production, compared to the marginal industrial relevance of quantum mechanics.

Pais (1991, 23). Aronowitz (1981, 28) has noted that wave-particle duality renders the ``will to totality in modern science'' severely problematic:
The differences within physics between wave and particle theories of matter, the indeterminacy principle discovered by Heisenberg, Einstein's relativity theory, all are accommodations to the impossibility of arriving at a unified field theory, one in which the ``anomaly'' of difference for a theory which posits identity may be resolved without challenging the presuppositions of science itself.
For further development of these ideas, see Aronowitz (1988a, 524-525, 533).

Heisenberg (1958, 40-41).
Bohr (1934), cited in Jammer (1974, 102). Bohr's analysis of the complementarity principle also led him to a social outlook which was, for its time and place, notably progressive. Consider the following excerpt from a 1938 lecture (Bohr 1958, 30):
I may perhaps here remind you of the extent to which in certain societies the roles of men and women are reversed, not only regarding domestic and social duties but also regarding behaviour and mentality. Even if many of us, in such a situation, might perhaps at first shrink from admitting the possibility that it is entirely a caprice of fate that the people concerned have their specific culture and not ours, and we not theirs instead of our own, it is clear that even the slightest suspicion in this respect implies a betrayal of the national complacency inherent in any human culture resting in itself.

Froula (1985).
Honner (1994).
Plotnitsky (1994). This impressive work also explains the intimate connections with Gödel's proof of the incompleteness of formal systems and with Skolem's construction of nonstandard models of arithmetic, as well as with Bataille's general economy. For further discussion of Bataille's physics, see Hochroth (1995).

Numerous other examples could be adduced. For instance, Barbara Johnson (1989, 12) makes no specific reference to quantum physics; but her description of deconstruction is an eerily exact summary of the complementarity principle:
Instead of a simple ``either/or'' structure, deconstruction attempts to elaborate a discourse that says neither ``either/or'', nor ``both/and'' nor even ``neither/nor'', while at the same time not totally abandoning these logics either.
See also McCarthy (1992) for a thought-provoking analysis that raises disturbing questions about the ``complicity'' between (nonrelativistic) quantum physics and deconstruction.

Permit me in this regard a personal recollection: Fifteen years ago, when I was a graduate student, my research in relativistic quantum field theory led me to an approach which I called ``de[con]structive quantum field theory'' (Sokal 1982). Of course, at that time I was completely ignorant of Jacques Derrida's work on deconstruction in philosophy and literary theory. In retrospect, however, there is a striking affinity: my work can be read as an exploration of how the orthodox discourse (e.g. Itzykson and Zuber 1980) on scalar quantum field theory in four-dimensional space-time (in technical terms, ``renormalized perturbation theory'' for the theory) can be seen to assert its own unreliability and thereby to undermine its own affirmations. Since then, my work has shifted to other questions, mostly connected with phase transitions; but subtle homologies between the two fields can be discerned, notably the theme of discontinuity (see Notes 22 and 81 below). For further examples of deconstruction in quantum field theory, see Merz and Knorr Cetina (1994).

Bohr (1928), cited in Jammer (1974, 90).

Bell (1987, especially chaps. 10 and 16). See also Maudlin (1994, chap. 1) for a clear account presupposing no specialized knowledge beyond high-school algebra.

Greenberger et al. (1989,1990), Mermin (1990,1993).

Aronowitz (1988b, 331) has made a provocative observation concerning nonlinear causality in quantum mechanics and its relation to the social construction of time:
Linear causality assumes that the relation of cause and effect can be expressed as a function of temporal succession. Owing to recent developments in quantum mechanics, we can postulate that it is possible to know the effects of absent causes; that is, speaking metaphorically, effects may anticipate causes so that our perception of them may precede the physical occurrence of a ``cause.'' The hypothesis that challenges our conventional conception of linear time and causality and that asserts the possibility of time's reversal also raises the question of the degree to which the concept of ``time's arrow'' is inherent in all scientific theory. If these experiments are successful, the conclusions about the way time as ``clock-time'' has been constituted historically will be open to question. We will have ``proved'' by means of experiment what has long been suspected by philosophers, literary and social critics: that time is, in part, a conventional construction, its segmentation into hours and minutes a product of the need for industrial discipline, for rational organization of social labor in the early bourgeois epoch.
The theoretical analyses of Greenberger et al. (1989,1990) and Mermin (1990,1993) provide a striking example of this phenomenon; see Maudlin (1994) for a detailed analysis of the implications for concepts of causality and temporality. An experimental test, extending the work of Aspect et al. (1982), will likely be forthcoming within the next few years.

Bohm (1980). The intimate relations between quantum mechanics and the mind-body problem are discussed in Goldstein (1983, chaps. 7 and 8).

Among the voluminous literature, the book by Capra (1975) can be recommended for its scientific accuracy and its accessibility to non-specialists. In addition, the book by Sheldrake (1981), while occasionally speculative, is in general sound. For a sympathetic but critical analysis of New Age theories, see Ross (1991, chap. 1). For a critique of Capra's work from a Third World perspective, see Alvares (1992, chap. 6).

Bohr (1963, 2), emphasis in Bohr's original.

Newtonian atomism treats particles as hyperseparated in space and time, backgrounding their interconnectedness (Plumwood 1993a, 125); indeed, ``the only `force' allowed within the mechanistic framework is that of kinetic energy -- the energy of motion by contact -- all other purported forces, including action at a distance, being regarded as occult'' (Mathews 1991, 17). For critical analyses of the Newtonian mechanistic worldview, see Weil (1968, especially chap. 1), Merchant (1980), Berman (1981), Keller (1985, chaps. 2 and 3), Mathews (1991, chap. 1) and Plumwood (1993a, chap. 5).

According to the traditional textbook account, special relativity is concerned with the coordinate transformations relating two frames of reference in uniform relative motion. But this is a misleading oversimplification, as Latour (1988) has pointed out:
How can one decide whether an observation made in a train about the behaviour of a falling stone can be made to coincide with the observation made of the same falling stone from the embankment? If there are only one, or even two, frames of reference, no solution can be found since the man in the train claims he observes a straight line and the man on the embankment a parabola. ...

Einstein's solution is to consider three actors: one in the train, one on the embankment and a third one, the author [enunciator] or one of its representants, who tries to superimpose the coded observations sent back by the two others. ...

[W]ithout the enunciator's position (hidden in Einstein's account), and without the notion of centres of calculation, Einstein's own technical argument is ununderstandable ... [pp. 10-11 and 35, emphasis in original]

In the end, as Latour wittily but accurately observes, special relativity boils down to the proposition that
more frames of reference with less privilege can be accessed, reduced, accumulated and combined, observers can be delegated to a few more places in the infinitely large (the cosmos) and the infinitely small (electrons), and the readings they send will be understandable. His [Einstein's] book could well be titled: `New Instructions for Bringing Back Long-Distance Scientific Travellers'. [pp. 22-23]
Latour's critical analysis of Einstein's logic provides an eminently accessible introduction to special relativity for non-scientists.

Minkowski (1908), translated in Lorentz et al. (1952, 75).

It goes without saying that special relativity proposes new concepts not only of space and time but also of mechanics. In special relativity, as Virilio (1991, 136) has noted, ``the dromospheric space, space-speed, is physically described by what is called the `logistic equation,' the result of the product of the mass displaced by the speed of its displacement, MxV.'' This radical alteration of the Newtonian formula has profound consequences, particularly in the quantum theory; see Lorentz et al. (1952) and Weinberg (1992) for further discussion.

Steven Best (1991, 225) has put his finger on the crux of the difficulty, which is that ``unlike the linear equations used in Newtonian and even quantum mechanics, non-linear equations do [not] have the simple additive property whereby chains of solutions can be constructed out of simple, independent parts''. For this reason, the strategies of atomization, reductionism and context-stripping that underlie the Newtonian scientific methodology simply do not work in general relativity.

Gödel (1949). For a summary of recent work in this area, see 't Hooft (1993).
These new notions of space, time and causality are in part foreshadowed already in special relativity. Thus, Alexander Argyros (1991, 137) has noted that
in a universe dominated by photons, gravitons, and neutrinos, that is, in the very early universe, the theory of special relativity suggests that any distinction between before and after is impossible. For a particle traveling at the speed of light, or one traversing a distance that is in the order of the Planck length, all events are simultaneous.
However, I cannot agree with Argyros' conclusion that Derridean deconstruction is therefore inapplicable to the hermeneutics of early-universe cosmology: Argyros' argument to this effect is based on an impermissibly totalizing use of special relativity (in technical terms, ``light-cone coordinates'') in a context where general relativity is inescapable. (For a similar but less innocent error, see Note 40 below.)

Jean-François Lyotard (1989, 5-6) has pointed out that not only general relativity, but also modern elementary-particle physics, imposes new notions of time:
In contemporary physics and astrophysics ...a particle has a sort of elementary memory and consequently a temporal filter. This is why contemporary physicists tend to think that time emanates from matter itself, and that it is not an entity outside or inside the universe whose function it would be to gather all different times into universal history. It is only in certain regions that such -- only partial -- syntheses could be detected. There would on this view be areas of determinism where complexity is increasing.
Furthermore, Michel Serres (1992, 89-91) has noted that chaos theory (Gleick 1987) and percolation theory (Stauffer 1985) have contested the traditional linear concept of time:


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