The question tackled by this year’s Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, held at the American Museum of Natural History on March 7, 2011, is still eating at physics, many decades after Einstein himself gave it up: can the entire universe be explained with a single, unifying theory? The answer, delivered by some leading theoretical physics, is, not surprisingly, an hour and forty seven minutes long. But it features an eye-opening tour through higher dimensions, the multiverse, irreconcilable forces, dark energy, strange particles, the Large Hadron Collider, and the history of modern physics. In short, string theory (or its more recent variant, M Theory) still rules, but some doubters wonder if we’re just being delusional and human, and say that such a theory will remain elusive.
Sparks – invisibly tiny sparks – do fly, especially when Jim Gates raises the Matrix-ish (and decades-old) idea that our universe is a giant computer (1 hour and 2 minutes in) to Lee Smolin’s chagrin, and when moderator Neil de Grasse Tyson confronts Brian Greene (one minute and eight minutes in): Einstein needed just a few years to develop his theory of relativity – why’s string theory taking you guys so long? Greene issues a spirited retort, rounding it out in frustration: “To say there’s no progress, c’mon man, that’s just not right!” He offers a hug afterwards though.