What is the world made of? is a question that has bedeviled philosophers and scientists as long as there has been philosophy and science. In this century the profusion of discoveries of atomic, sub-atomic and sub-sub-atomic particles and processes has created a cacophony of data that until recently raised more questions than it answered. Quarks, leptons, hadrons, baryons, mesons, bosons, gluons, color, charm: the language of theoretical physics makes the head (and the particles) spin. On top of this are the four forces of nature (gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force), which, physicists believe, are different manifestations of the same thing. But the more they probed, the more confusing the picture became.
Until now. Two new books--"Perfect Symmetry: The Search for the Beginning of Time" by Heinz Pagels and "Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature" by Paul Davies (both published by Simon & Schuster)--assert that the millennium in physics is at hand and that physicists are on the verge of making sense of the whole ball of wax. The hundreds of particles will be explained, a Grand Unified Theory will unite all the forces, and a unified field theory will show that everything follows inexorably from the Big Bang that created the universe 15 billion years ago. With that, the work of physics will be over.
Hmmm. We are reminded a bit of Charles H. Duell, once the director of the U.S. Patent Office, who declared, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." That was in 1899, and was he in for a rude surprise! If anything, the history of thought and of science demonstrates that the world is endlessly surprising and that truth is one of the universe's most elusive commodities.
But suppose Pagels and Davies, two capable physicists, are right. Suppose theoretical physics is about to peel away the last layer and expose what the universe is all about. It will be a grand intellectual achievement, capping thousands of years of thought, but it will hardly provide the answer to all possible questions. There will still be plenty to think about.
For example, some people will look at the world thus explained and say, "It is all the result of an accident." Others will cock an eyebrow, cast a sweeping arm at the things around them and say, "How could all of this have happened by chance? Surely the order and complexity of the universe proves that a Creator is behind it all." In all probability this debate--and many, many others--will forever be beyond the reach of science.
And even if physics has at last come upon the Ultimate Explanation, other sciences are nowhere near that end. How, for example, were these thoughts generated, and how did these words come to be written?