Physics has led to an astonishing range of developments in the last century from transistors, computers, the Internet, atomic bombs and space travel to the recent search for the Higgs boson at CERN.
On closer inspection, there is also a quasi-religious undertone (albeit without the promise of salvation or the threat of eternal damnation). From the cosmos-gazing nature of Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation and Einstein’s General Relativity to the subsequent developments in quantum mechanics of Planck, Bohr et al., which studied matter and energy at molecular, atomic and nuclear levels, Physics has searched for the macroscopic and microscopic clues to our very existence. It is no coincidence that the news is awash with stories of the ‘God particle’ and the quest for a ‘Theory of Everything’.
The interest in Theoretical Physics has grown exponentially in recent decades, with ‘celebrity’ scientists such as Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku and Brian Greene writing bestselling books and producing popular scientific series on mainstream national television. Moreover, string theory, a branch of theoretical physics that states that the fundamental ingredients of nature are tiny strings of energy and proposes 11 dimensions and parallel universes, has captured the imagination of a generation raised on Star Trek and The Matrix.
While many of us may be more concerned with trivial quandaries, such as who is responsible for the virus-like proliferation of coffee bars in Western Europe where the price of a latte increases at three times the rate of inflation, Erik Verlinde, professor of Theoretical Physics and world-renowned string theorist, is at the vanguard of efforts to unravel the secrets of our universe.
In January 2010, Verlinde caused a worldwide stir with the publication of On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton, in which he challenged commonly held perceptions on gravity, going so far as to state ‘for me gravity doesn’t exist’. If he is proved correct, the consequences for our understanding of the universe and its origins will be far-reaching. In 2011, he received the Spinoza prize (the Dutch Nobel Prize) from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.
Robbert Dijkgraaf, UvA University Professor and current director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (where scientists including Turing, Oppenheimer and Einstein have worked) went so far as to say: ‘Everyone who is working on theoretical physics is trying to improve on Einstein. In my opinion, Erik Verlinde has found an important key for the next step forward.’
So, what are Verlinde’s views on the future of Physics and our understanding of the origins of the universe?