Photographic (Quantum) Loops

The image above represents “loop quantum gravity,” selected somewhat arbitrarily from Carlo Rovelli’s website. The inspiration for this image choice came from a lecture held at the Hayden Planetarium just last night. Lee Smolin showed up to promote his new book, The Trouble with Physics, which I will admit up front I have not read (although a copy now sits in my office, waiting for my attentions).

The use of a photographic subject to illustrate a highly abstract concept intrigues me greatly. In contrast to the award-winning attempt to make a tremendous amount of data look photographic, we have here a photograph attempting to make a tremendously complex concept look real. Furthermore, Rovelli offers the image (and another) effectively without comment, stating only that it gives “an intuitive picture of the ‘loopy’ structure of space predicted by loop quantum gravity at very short scale.” Hmmm.

The problem with expecting intuition when confronted with an image—particularly an image intended to function essentially as a metaphor—is that intuition is a hard-won and highly specialized skill. Personally, my intuition on astronomical imagery is quite respectable; on physics, pretty decent; on biology, almost non-existent. So the message that I will extract from Rovelli’s images differs tremendously from his own reaction, I’m certain, and a layperson’s response could have little or nothing to do with the specialists’ interpretation.

Smolin’s lecture (and presumably his book) suggested that physics needs to go back to its experimental roots, reconnecting highly-complex concepts to observable events, such as gamma-ray bursts, that could provide a real-world (or -universe) evidence for esoteric theories. A podcast of the lecture is scheduled to appear on Seed magazine’s website in the not-too-distant future. Keep your eyes (and Internet connections) peeled!

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