Erik Verlinde is a 48 year old professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam. Verlinde is a celebrated expert in string theory, that esoteric field of research attempting to move the description of the universe beyond Einstein. Dennis Overbye has a very interesting article today about Verlinde in The New York Times.
It is not string theory that has attracted new attention to Verlinde. In fact, what has some of the physics world talking (and some yawning) involves little rigorous mathematics. Verlinde has proposed that gravity is not a fundamental force of the universe, as proposed by Newton and Einstein. He proposes that it is secondary, an illusion if you will, resulting from observations of the effects of laws of thermodynamics. He sees gravity as a symptom produced by entropy, the form that energy takes as a result of irreversible (ie, naturally occurring) processes which makes that energy unavailable to do work. Many are most familiar with entropy as a measure of disorder.
Verlinde sees entropy as a fundamental parameter and gravity as a dependent variable. Newton and Einstein saw gravity as a fundamental force of the universe whereby any two objects undergo mutual attraction which increases as the product of their masses and decreases as the square of the distance that separates them. I find Verlinde's suggestions seem to be centered on the idea that our perception of gravity is a prisoner of our view of space. The Overbye article goes into a number of interesting thought processes relating our traditional physics in three dimensional space to holograms which reduce multidimensional information to two dimensional space without any losses. One of the ideas was written as follows:
Those exploding black holes (at least in theory — none has ever been observed) lit up a new strangeness of nature. Black holes, in effect, are holograms — like the 3-D images you see on bank cards. All the information about what has been lost inside them is encoded on their surfaces. Physicists have been wondering ever since how this “holographic principle” — that we are all maybe just shadows on a distant wall — applies to the universe and where it came from.
Verlinde's ideas have critics who say he is lacking in mathematical rigor. He does sound something more like a science philosopher than a practicing theoretical physicist. Some might say he should try his hand at writing science fiction. But this humble reader is in awe of his audacity. He is working, along with his twin brother Herman, a physics professor at Princeton and also a noted string theorist, on applying the mathematics of string theory to the idea of "entropic force" producing gravity. Will a modern day "Newton" be struck on the head with a 21st century version of the "apple"?
Read Overbye's article in The NY Times. I have only touched on the human and scientific subtleties Overbye covers.
I hope readers will indulge my need to note some thoughts about this here.
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