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Mendel Sachs - Unified Field Theory

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Mendel Sachs

The subject, “unified field theory”, has been frequently referred to in the

scientific literature over the past centuries. Yet it is not generally understood

what this means and why it is significant for science. My purpose in this

essay is to explain what a unified field theory refers to, for the lay readers of

science as well as the professional physicists.

We must first ask: What is a “field theory”? The basic idea was introduced

by Michael Faraday in the 19th century. It was a paradigm change in regard to

the view we have of matter. It is a view that is opposite to that of ’atomism’,

that pervaded the thinking of physicists and philosophers since the times of

ancient Greece. The field view of matter is a continuous, holistic approach,

in fundamental terms, rather than considering a material system as a

collection of singular, ‘things’, interacting with each other in space. The

things that we encounter – protons, people, planets, stars, galaxies, … – are

an infinite distribution of the (correlated) modes of this continuum, that in

general is the universe.

In the 19th century, the predominant thinking about electricity was that there

are individual sources of electrical force - positively or negatively charged

bodies – that affect other charged bodies a distance away. The strength of

this electrical force between charged bodies depends on the inverse square

of the distance between them and on their intrinsic charges e and e’. If e and

e’ have opposite signs the force is attractive; if they have the same sign, the

force is repulsive. The idea in this atomistic view is that there is a singular

source of electrical force that depends on its intrinsic charge, e. The

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divergent set of lines of force that emanate from this particle of matter are

continuously distributed in space. If the second body, with the charge e’ is

on a line of force, r cm from e, then the force between them depends on

ee’/r2.

In this atomistic view, then, the electrical force is due to a singular electrically

charged body with an accompanying set of lines of potential force, to act on

another body that is r cm from e. If e has a positive value, a negatively

charged body –e’ will move along the line of force toward e. A positively

charged body +e’ will move away from e along this same line of force.

It is interesting to note, topologically, that since a line has two ends, the

existence of a positive charge, at one end of the line, implies the existence of

a negative charge at the other end. That is, a ‘test body’ with the same sign

of charge as the ‘beginning’ of this line, will move toward the other end of

the line, with opposite charge. Thus the prediction follows that for every

positively charged body in the world, a negatively charged body must exist.

The topology of the magnetic lines of force is different than that of the

electrical source. Here we have opposite poles of a magnet, always in

proximity. If one magnet is placed near another magnet, its south pole, s, will

align itself toward the north pole N of the first magnet. Its north pole, n, will

align itself toward the south pole S of the first magnet. Since N and S are in

proximity, the magnetic lines of force of the first magnet must be curved,

starting at N and ending at S. This is in contrast with the straight divergent

lines of potential force of an electrical source.

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The ‘field concept’ envisioned by Faraday is that it is the continuum of

(magnetic or electrical) lines of force, a field, that is the fundamental

representation of matter, rather than the particles of matter that were

previously believed to generate this field. The sources, electrical charged

body or a magnetic body, are then manifestations of the fields, rather than

the other way around.

configurations, Faraday felt that they must be aspects of a unified

electromagnetic field. This idea had empirical backing from the experiment of H.

C. Oersted. What he saw was that an electrical current in a straight wire

induced a magnetic field of force in a plane that is perpendicular to the

direction of the current carrying wire. This is seen in the polarization of

small magnets (such as compass needles) in the perpendicular plane in a

circular pattern surrounding the wire. Further, a reversal of the direction of

the current in the wire caused the magnets in the plane perpendicular to the

wire to reverse their orientation by 180 degrees. Thus, Oersted’s experiment

showed that a magnetic field is an electrical field in motion (an electric

current). But since motion, per se, is subjective, it follows that an electrical

field is a magnetic field in motion. Thus Faraday, with Oersted, concluded that

the objective field that underlies electric and magnetic phenomena is a unified

electromagnetic field. It then follows that if one should view a static electric field,

no magnetic field would be observed under these conditions. But if the

source of the electric field should be in motion, a magnetic field would be

detected as well. The idea of the unified field theory was then proposed for

all forces in nature, generalizing from the case of electromagnetism.

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Faraday tried to show, empirically, that the gravitational field of force is

included in the unified electromagnetic field, but he was not able to

demonstrate this. This was primarily because of the large magnitude of the

electromagnetic coupling between matter compared with the gravitational

coupling, in the domain that Faraday studied. In the theory of general

relativity that Einstein proposed, there are logical reasons to believe that all

forces in nature - the gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear and weak forces

- must be unified in a single field of force.

The most important physics program in the 20th century that continued

Faraday’s quest for a unified field theory was Einstein’s theory of general

relativity. To understand why this theory leads to the requirement of a

unified field theory we will first discuss the paradigm shift from the atomistic

view to the continuum, holistic field approach.

First, however, to define Einstein’s theory it should be pointed out that his

notion of a field theory extends from Faraday’s. Faraday’s field theory is still

based on an open system – fields and the test particles that probe it. But in

Einstein’s field theory we have a closed system from the outset. In principle

there are no discrete particles, even test bodies that are things in themselves.

In asymptotic limits, portions of the total field approach the description of

‘test bodies’ that probe the field. Indeed it is this limit that allows the

scientist to study the closed system. But it is important that the totally closed

system is both conceptually and mathematically distinct from the view in

which there are free test bodies at the outset. The view of a closed system

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described by holism and continuous fields was Einstein’s meaning of a field

theory.

It is interesting that in a letter to David Bohm, in 1952, three years before Einstein

passed away, he said the following: “When one is not starting from the correct elementary

concepts, if for example, it is not correct that reality can be described as a continuous field,

then all my efforts are futile”[Einstein Archives, Jewish National and University Library,

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Call No. 4 1576:8-053]

relativity. This is an assertion of the objectivity of the laws of nature. That is to

say, from the perspective of any observer (a frame of reference), the laws of

nature as expressed in all other frames of reference relative to that of his

own must be in one-to-one correspondence. The usual (but not the only!) language

that is used to express the laws of nature entails four continuous parameters

– three are associated with a measure in three-dimensional space and the

fourth is associated with the time measure. It is found that the objectivity of

the laws of nature with this language implies that a spatial measure in one

reference frame (perspective) must entail a particular mixture of spatial and

temporal measures in any other reference frame where the laws are

expressed. Thus a (subjective) measure of space and/or time becomes an

(objective) measure of spacetime.

The spacetime language for the laws of nature entails continuous and

continuously differentiable parameters. In mathematical language, these

continuous parameters are the independent variables. The solutions of the laws

of nature are mapped in this space of independent variables. These solutions,

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in turn, are the continuous field variables that solve the laws of nature – the

field equations. These are the dependent variables.

Thus we see that the solutions of the laws of nature are a set of continuous

field variables. It follows further that these field variables must also be

analytic. This follows from the requirement of the inclusion of the laws of

conservation of energy, momentum and angular momentum, (in the special

relativity limit) according to Noether’s theorem. Thus, it is a requirement of

this field theory that the transformations of fields from one reference frame

to another, to preserve the forms of the laws, are continuous and analytic.

(This implies that the spacetime coordinates in one reference frame are differentiable to all

orders with respect to the spacetime coordinates of all other reference frames). Such a

transformation group is a “Lie group”. The mathematical functions subject

to these requirements are called “regular”. The Lie group of the theory of

special relativity theory (expressed in a flat spacetime) is the “Poincare

group”. The Lie group of the theory of general relativity theory (expressed

in a curved spacetime) is the”Einstein group”.

We see, then, that the theory of relativity predicts that the matter of the

universe, in any of its domains, must be represented by a continuum,

holistically. The apparent “things” that we respond to - protons, people,

planets, stars, galaxies.. - are of the infinite distinguishable (correlated) modes

of this continuum that in principle is the universe. The way in which these

modes interact with each other in terms of the types of force, must depend on

the physical circumstances of their coupling in a continuous way. That is,

there are no sharp cut-offs where one type of force or another turns off and

another turns on, discretely. Thus it is a feature of the continuous, holistic

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field approach in general relativity that all forces exerted by matter on

matter, as well as the reactions to these forces, must be the components of a

unified field – just as Faraday had anticipated in the 19th century. The

reaction of matter to the forces exerted on it by all other matter of a closed

system must entail the inertial mass of matter in the full expression of the

unified field theory. This is in accord with the Mach principle.

of the true nature of matter, is a holistic, deterministic, continuous unified

field theory. Its holism denies the particularity of matter, as it was assumed

from ancient Greece through the period of elementary particles in present

day physics.

There are present day claims in elementary particle physics that search for

a “unified theory” – such as the “grand unified theory”. But these are not

unified in the sense that we have discussed in this essay. They are attempts

to generalize the categories of data with more “boxes”, as it is done in

biology. This is a phenomenological approach that does not have the

meaning of unification intended by Faraday and Einstein as we have

discussed above.

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