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

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

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

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 beautiful isolation, one from the other. We know our record of the world is inadequate until we figure out how to make them play nicely together,” he said in an interview after giving a lecture on how black holes fit into the equation.

Galison is one of the leading thinkers who arrived at the Quantum Gravity Conference to launch a new global research collaboration known as the Quantum Gravity Institute in Vancouver.

While the speakers at the conference are mostly 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 are 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 was asked several times why Vancouver would host such an event or institution.

“Why Vancouver? Because you can,” says Lee.

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

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

“How do I post this?” he said, before comparing it to a man who never sat on the high school hockey team to hang 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 economically.

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

He called the conference an interesting event to bring together people in technology and venture capitalism with scientists from different fields. The launch of the institute also makes sense, he said.

“It’s also a kickoff event for something much bigger and longer-lasting.”

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

“One place they intersect is clearly at the beginning of the universe, early cosmology, because when energy is incredibly compressed, when you have tremendous energy densities, you’re on the edge where the bending of space and time creates so much energy that quantum effects play a role,” 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 are not compatible is really unnerving,” Galison said.

Cracking the code for why isn’t 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 throwing up a bike shed.”

—Amy Smart, the Canadian Press

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