Thread-Bare Theories

String-theory critic calls for balance in physics research

6 min read

Physics has a special place among the sciences. The revolution in physics during the early part of the 20th century defined subsequent decades by spawning both the transistor and the atomic bomb. And physics has always been viewed as the hardest of all sciences, a domain of mathematically rigorous theories coupled with unambiguous experiments. But now, physicist Lee Smolin argues in his new book, physics is in danger of losing its way.

Smolin, based in Toronto, says in The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next that part of the problem is it is now almost impossible to conduct an experiment that cannot be accounted for within the framework of the Standard Model of particle physics. That model has reigned supreme for 30 years despite its incompatibility with that other great bastion of ­modern ­physics: general relativity. As a result, physicists have been starved of new ­experimental data that could clearly point the way to a fundamental theory that ­reconciles quantum mechanics and general relativity. In that experimental vacuum has risen string theory, which postulates that matter is not composed of pointlike particles but rather of structures consisting of 11-dimensional strings and membranes.

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush

Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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