by Jan W '13

Erik Verlinde: Challenging Gravity since 1962

It makes ourselves and any object around us accelerate downwards at 9.8 meters-per-second squared… but why? Since approximately 1650 when the famous apple fell from the tree, gravity has been perpetually accepted as the most fundamental aspect of the physical world. The daunting truth is that there are no putative explanations for why various physical bodies in the universe are attracted one another.
Let’s take a step back into the profession of Erik Verlinde, a respected professor and theoretical physicist who has recently been interviewed on his venture to take on the question that has baffled scientists since the Enlightenment movement, “why gravity?”
In his more recent article On the Origin of Gravity and The Work of Newton, professor Verlinde destabilized the logic created by 300 years of the renowned scientific method by calling the accepted notion of attractive force an “illusion”. In an interview with a reporter from the New York Times, Verlinde said plainly and conclusively; “to me, gravity doesn’t exist.” Verlinde’s argument rests on the idea that gravity depends on the intertwined physical effects of the laws of thermodynamics (the study of heat transfer and concepts). Thus, according to Verlinde gravity is created by various physical variables such as temperature and pressure and their effects regarding particle motion. By comparison, such a point of view would make sense. Verlinde’s notion that gravity is more of an extrapolation than it is a fundamental constant is very similar to the affected behavior of the stock market, or the elasticity of atoms as outlined by Marx Trautz and William Lewis in the proposal of the collision theory of atoms in 1916 (a theory that explains how chemical reactions occur and why reaction rates are not constant). However, the majority of Verlinde’s well-informed readers do not agree with his position because it would mean that even basic concepts like kinematics (the study of motion of objects in systems) taught in physics classrooms all over the world would require drastic rethinking. This ponderous undertaking sways even the less of Verlinde’s work.
The critiques of physicists and professors are not news to Verlinde, but his recent publication was met with a nearly unanimous lack of understanding. String theorist Andrew Strominger is among many who believe that Verlinde’s perspective must be met with a “healthy skepticism.” It is important to take note that String theory (Verlinde’s area of expertise) attempts to reconcile quantum mechanics with Einstein’s general relativity but cannot be considered a part of ‘science’ because it has yet to make any kind of empirical predictions or experimental basis. In other words, whether or not electrons and quarks (a fundamental constituent of matter; protons are generally composed of three quarks) within the atom are zero or one dimensional is a question yet to be answered with a rigid experimental basis.
Though his recent contradiction of the relatively lenient tenets of string theory, the theory of everything, has spurred debate and rejection, Verlinde’s work is not to be undermined holistically. “The Verlinde Formula,” an element of the broader Verlinde Algebra, is a comprehensive and accepted contribution to mathematics that is used as a building block for graduate physics and astronomy programs all over the world.
Another ‘less-scrutinized’ concept that Verlinde explored in 2009 was the notion of “Entropic Gravity.” This theory of gravity functions within a similar framework of Verlinde’s more recent venture in that it describes gravity as a “probabilistic consequence of a physical systems tendency to increase entropy [measure particle motion randomness].” In other words, because the concentration of particles in the atmosphere is not constant, any two given groups of particles will appear to attract each other simply due to the moving force. Yet again, we see gravity as a derivation of more fundamental physical means. In June 2011, Verlinde was awarded the Spinoza Prize with a 2.5 million euro grant for his work on this theory. Thus while many of Verlinde’s claims succumb to public scrutiny, his work has a unique value that shuts out researchers who take refuge in the purely objective models of science.
Novel thinkers in science show us that in the grand scheme of things, the study of science is not much different from the study of history. Historians can narrow down the truth value of texts and past events to debate, but they can never be entirely sure.  All the same, people like Erik Verlinde are necessary for compelling scientific debate. Without zealous challengers like him, the assumptions that those scientific concepts buried deep within the comfort zone of academia are absolute, would cloud our visions, and close our minds.


By Mr. Lakhaney

TOK Teacher

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