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March 12, 2011, 2:30 PM

Theories of Everything

Participants: David Albert, Glennys Farrar, Charles Liu, Herman Verlinde, Gareth Williams

Since antiquity, philosophers and scientists have aspired to formulate a unifying theory that accounts for the nature of the world. Democritus, Lucretius, and Averroes, in the Middle Ages, attempted to provide theories to explain all physical phenomena. Perhaps the greatest struggle of Einstein's career was his unsuccessful attempt to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity theory. Even today, a Theory of Everything remains controversial and out of reach. Some assert, relying in part on Godel's incompleteness theory, that it is unattainable, whereas others believe that the 11-dimensional M-theory (or string theory) is in fact a Theory of Everything. This roundtable will address arguments of the differing camps and in the process elucidate the problems inherent in forming such a theory.

David Albert is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. His research has centered on the foundations of quantum mechanics and the nature of time. He has published numerous articles in scientific and philosophical journals, as well as two books, Quantum Mechanics and Experience and Time and Chance, both published by Harvard University Press. He is currently at work on a book entitled After Physics.

Glennys Farrar is Collegiate Professsor of Physics at New York University. She has made seminal contributions to particle physics, demonstrating that quarks are are not just mathematical constructs but are actually physically present in protons, and pioneering the search for supersymmetry, now a primary goal of the LHC. She is also active in both astrophysics and cosmology, with her most recent accomplishment being the first observational detection of the "stellar tidal disruption" phenomenon, whereby the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy tears a passing star to shreds, releasing a brilliant burst of light that lasts a few months. The first woman to get a Ph. D. in Physics from Princeton University, Farrar served as Chair of the Physics Department and was Founder of the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics at NYU; she has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, on the faculty of Caltech, and spent sabbatical years at CERN, Princeton and Harvard among other appointments.

Charles Liu is Professor of Astrophysics at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island, and Associate in Astrophysics at the Hayden Planetarium and the American Museum of Natural History. His research focuses on the star formation history of the universe. He is the author of Black Holes, Quasars, Time Warps and The Handy Astronomy Answer Book, and co-author of One Universe: At Home In The Cosmos.

Herman Verlinde is Professor of Physics at Princeton University. He has made influential contributions to string theory, which unifies the general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. His research interests also include particle physics, cosmology and black holes. From 1994 to 1998, Verlinde was Professor of Physics at the University of Amsterdam, where he was one of the founders of the Center for Mathematical Physics. Last year, he was a member at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton.

Gareth Williams is Professor of Classics at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1992. He is a specialist in Latin literature of the late Roman Republican and Early Imperial eras, spanning the first centuries BCE and CE. He has written extensively on the Roman poets of the age of Augustus, including two books on Ovid. In later work, he has shifted focus to the philosophical and poetic/tragic writings of the younger Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and statesman who served as young Nero's intimate adviser until he fell into imperial disfavor in the early 60s CE. Williams is currently completing a study of Seneca's important writings on natural science, and, more specifically, on the correlation drawn in Greco-Roman antiquity between the physical workings of the world and the human moral condition.

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.


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