Modern Physics and Myth – A Dream within a Dream
Grace Park - Honors Seminar - Spring 2003
When I discuss and argue with my father about evolution and the incompatibilities of biblical stories with science and reason, he worries about the arrogance of the human intelligence (mine in this case). The effort to understand God’s word with logic and science for him, is like building the tower of Babel. It is a doomed failure. Faith must overcome reason. His blind faith and exhortations exasperate me most times but sometimes it almost seems enviable. At least, he, being a happy man in nature, cruise life with the unquestioning, unswerving faith as the solid ground of being. His faith in god offers his identity, the meaning and purpose of life. He simply answers to everyday life with ‘Yes’.
As I delve into modern science, I realize that the science is an order within chaos. And also chaos is within an order. The reason of science is facing the unreasonable in the 20th century. It is very much like a myth of a kind. A myth of modern men. Barbara Sproul claims that the most fundamental human existential questions gave rise to creation myths. Real science in fact, has been the journey to understand those questions: Who are we? What is the meaning of our life and death? “How should we understand our place in the world, in time and space? (Sproul, 1)”
The journey of science to understand these mysteries with reason that bases itself in order has come to its own limit. Like the human ear that only hears certain range of sound, the logic of science, the orderliness of things apply only to the certain range of the physical reality. Like the sound that is too small or too loud does not reach human ear, understanding the very small, subatomic world and the very big the world(s) beyond the observable universe do not succumb to reason and order as we know. Sproul states that the primal myths that answered the human existential questions are not in themselves factual, but they involve the value and meaning. They have direct relation to the attitudes toward reality, the experience of life. On the other hand, science though concerns with the same questions is about facts. No matter how close it sounds to mythical language, science in itself does not ascribe the attitude to our experiences of life or the meaning of it. However, as modern physics is facing realms that are essentially unknowable in facts, I think it might need the spice of myth. Science can be used to take the leap of faith toward the meaning of our existence. Modern science since 20th century is beginning to acknowledge the unknowable frontiers of the physical reality. They are beginning to acknowledge that we need higher level of consciousness (beyond reason as we know now) to understand the scientific puzzles of our time.
The scientists know the impermanence of the material world or the illusion of the material world in that effect. The scientists know that everything including all human kind shares same origin, equally made of star stuff and subject to equal fate. However, modern man’s life is no more harmonious and no less attached to materials than the people in Christ’s and Buddha’s time. In fact, modern lives are more separated and disconnected from each other than the men of ancient times. Many scientists themselves take scientific knowledge as facts and do not make use of them to influence their lives. What is knowledge that is not applicable to life? My point is that one can take modern science as myth, applicable to our experiences of life. But that would be a personal leap of faith, a personal journey. Albeit written in a boring language of math, science can be a modern men’s mythical story that has a power of transformation. A scientist who does not apply the knowledge to his attitude to life would be like a Christian well versed of the Bible yet hates his neighbor, a Buddhist who memorizes all sutras yet is selfish and greedy.
If you didn’t know it yet, the theories and their implications of modern physics are stranger than mythical stories. There is less of common sense in its implications. It opens doors to things wilder than our wildest imaginations. Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at CUNY wrote that scientists might have put down the absurdities of mythical stories, but they are embracing even stranger religion (myth) based on curved space-time and quantum mechanics. In this new myth, there are stories of time-travel, multiple universes, worm-holes that connect distant space and time. All these theories are solidly grounded in mathematics and believed by the cutting-edge scientists such as Stephen Hawking. In the progress of science, when the ‘more’ is known, the ‘more’ unkown is known. The theories that are proposed by 20th century scientists to explain the extreme micro and macro cosmos of this day and age are in fact, stranger than mythical stories.
Very Brief History and Revolutions of Physical Science
Behind the scientific jargons, mathematical equations and endless data, the human pursuit of science shares similar concern with many religious paths. That is to understand the world wherein we exist. As I mentioned earlier, the concern is to understand who we are and what we are made of. The term, ‘physics’ is derived from a Greek word ‘physis’ which was a name for something like “the essential nature or real constitution of things” that the Greek philosophers were seeking to understand in 6th century B.C. (Capra, 6) More than two millennias ago, a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus proposed that the world was in continuous flux of changes like fire, the static world being a mere illusion. His rival philosopher, Parmenides, however (of course), proposed the opposite that the change is illusory and the essence of the world was invariable and static. While searching to reconcile these opposing ideas for the elementary properties of the world, Democritus proposed the concept of atom. Atom would be the indivisible building block of the world. Capra asserts that the Greek atomists (Democritus and fellow philosophers) of that time drew distinction between spirit and matter. Atoms, the elementary components of the world were believed as dead particles moving in the void. What caused the motion, however, was a mystery. This distinction seems to be responsible to the Western view of dualism that prevailed in the ensuing centuries. Since atom was believed to be a particle, dead in and of itself, there had to be a separate domain of the reality that dealt with the energy or the spirit that caused the motion. This can explain the long separation of science and religion in the Western tradition.
Before I probe with the theories of quantum mechanics, I would like to point that it does not completely vanquish the previous classical physics. Leon Lederman, a Nobel prize laureate and a physicist expresses his deep and personal concern about the popularization of pseudo-science in the name of quantum physics. Since the counterintuitive phenomena of the subatomic particles give off the air of spookiness, there is much misunderstanding of this new science in the lay public. Lederman emphasizes that quantum theory does not ‘replace’ the classical Newtonian physics. In the realm of human experience1, classical physics is still totally valid (pg 193). Quantum physics is superior to classical physics only because it can explain both the human experiential realm (it naturally turns into classical physics) and the subatomic realm whereas classical physics only explains the earlier. A theory does not suddenly appear and push out the old theory. Like a particle itself, science is not static entity where old nerds in white coat guards their status quo as some people imagine. It is rather a dynamic revolution that constantly evolves in interaction with human culture.
Lederman gives a good picture of this history of science as successive revolutions that base themselves in the previous discoveries. In 100 B.C, the Greek Archimedes summarized the principles of statics and hydrostatics. Statics is the study of the stability of structures that is still applied to build bridges and arches. Hydrostatics has to do with liquids, and what floats and what sinks, principles of buoyancy. These are as valid today as they were two thousand years ago. In 1600 Galileo examined the laws of statics and hydrostatics, but extended his measurements to moving objects, objects rolling down and dropping from heights. Galileo’s work included Archimedes’ work but explained wider domain of our everyday world. Newton reached father than Galileo. Setting aside the assumption of a essential difference between earthly and heavenly objects by showing that both of them are governed by the same laws. According to Zukav, it was Rene Descartes, the 17th century mathematician and philosopher developed many of the fundamental techniques of modern mathematics and gave us the picture of the universe as a Great Machine. Isaac Newton formulated the laws by which the Great Machine runs (Zukav, 24). His discoveries explained the solar system and diurnal tides. On top of the existing contributions of Archimedes and Galileo, Newton’s revolution extended our knowledge to the regions of the universe that are subject to gravitation. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, observations of phenomena that were outside the obvious everyday human experience were made and studied. For example, electricity was discovered that changed human environment in the modern world. Currents and voltages, electrical magnetic fields were understood and manipulated to our usage through laws of electricity and magnetism. James Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz and many others are responsible for the subsequent technological progress. Then, came Einstein who pondered about a velocity faster than the light. Einstein’s theory of gravity goes beyond Newton’s to include the dynamics of the universe itself opening the door to the realm of its birth, death and possible families of parallel universes.
The universe is proved to be constantly expanding. The picture of the universe by Descartes and Newton as ‘Great Machine’ no longer resonates true. Machine in its essence imply something that is dead. Cars can go thousand miles and computers can conduct super duper complicated tasks but they are not alive like we are. They don’t have emotion or the will of power of their own. Also, both Descartes and Newton believed in ‘the absolute clock,’ the absolute time frame where all things in universe passed in unison in its ticking. After three hundred years of carefully examining the ‘Great Machine,’ the machine itself proved to be dynamic as if having a life of its own. Our ‘Great Machine’ had a birth, the beginning and will have the death, the end. With Einsteins’ insight, it is also proved that there is no absolute time. Time is bound to its space and can pass dramatically differently for the two who experience different states of motion. The genius of Einstein seems to attribute to his ability to imagine the scheme of things from outside of his relative self whereas most of us take things for granted and believe that our experience of life must be the way things are. As we can now examine the ‘life’ of the universe, Einstein’s observation became important. Human scientific domain began to understand time (space-time) as a variable. Parallel to speculating the dynamic universe, quantum physic examines the domains of atomic and the ghostly world of subatomic particles.
All these revolutions describe the widening of human consciousness as we give up more of our egocentricity. This expansion, however, refers to knowledge, not synonymous to growth of spiritual consciousness. Each revolution came with boldly facing the frontier. As our experiments and studies became more precise and accurate, the understanding of larger domain of the physical reality became accessible. In another word, the range of the fathomable universe by human mind has been pushing the limits of the very small to the very big world. Each revolution changed the understanding of our physical reality. Archemedes never fathomed the earth to be a sphere. Then, people believed the earth to be flat and sailing too far out to the sea would lead one to fall off to ‘who knows what’ void. Newton believed the universe to be rather a fixed space. He did not imagine the growing universe. The progress in science comes with new domain of observations that reveal new phenomena that does not conform to the existing principles. When Copernicus proposed the heliocentric universe (as far as solar system is concerned), the previous human centered view of the universe was threatened. As we all know, Galileo was forced to renounce his theory that implied that we humans are not the nearly the center of the universe. The religious authorities of that time could not handle the leap of knowledge. However, the advancement of telescopes left no choice to abandon the long-believed view of the geocentric universe. The first men who conceive revolutionary theories that go against common beliefs usually have tough times. When the theories are scientifically tested again and again, they become widely accepted and pervade the human consciousness as part of the common sense. The first men were poets, dreamers with lots of imagination.
Every successful scientific discovery brings wider human manipulation of the environment. And there is always the frontier, the new circumference of the widened circle of our knowledge. Science, as mentioned earlier, is not only about manipulation of the information already existing (These are inventors, engineers who invent facilities to make human experience more comfortable and efficient). Zukav makes this distinction as the real scientist and technician. Technician deals with the known and the scientist deals with the unknown seeking to understand the true nature of physical reality (pg, 15). Of course, scientists are often technicians but not the other way around. Real scientists seem to realize the importance of intuition, the authenticity of feeling. They acknowledge that the truth of reality lies in our experience of life that is not factual. Isidor I. Rabi, Novel Prize winner in Physics wrote;
We don’t teach our student enough of the intellectual content of experiments-their novelty and their capacity for opening new fields…My own view is that you take these things personally. You do an experiment because your own philosophy makes you want to know the result. It’s too hard, and life is too short, to spend your time doing something because someone else has said it’s important. You must feel the thing yourself. (Zukav, 9)
Quantum Physics : The Small World
Scientists still cannot answer the fundamental question. ‘Really, really, what are we made of?’ Science explains that we are made of cells, cells of molecules, molecules of atoms, atoms of subatomic particles that are quarks and leptons (electrons). But actually, they cannot explain what quarks and leptons are. They have NO volume. They are not real substances. Quantum physics is another word for particle physics that deals with the subatomic particles. The atom that was once thought to be the basic building blocks of matter revealed to have a world of its own. Atom in fact, is mostly empty except these subatomic particles of detected mass without volume. The observations of subatomic particles have jolted the scientists. Not only they defy the laws of classical physics, the implications brought a shift in the world of science. Why does this new science so revolutionary and shocking? Not because it is complicated or too difficult but it’s impossible to explain and understand with reason.
Quantum mechanics in definition is the study of the motion of the quanta- according to dictionary, quantum is a quantity of something- the puzzle lies in ‘a quantity of what’? In classical physics, the mass of an object had always been associated with a indestructible material substance, with some “stuff” of which all things were thought to be made. But subatomic particles are not real “stuff.” Relativity theory showed that mass has nothing to do with any substance. In classical physics, one was either energy (can be equated to wave-like quality that moves the matter here) or matter but not both. A wave is an energy that is demonstrated through the matter that it propagates. For instance, a wave in the ocean is not the water molecules; it is the energy that is shown through the motions of the water molecules. Earthquake (wave) is not the ground itself (matter = classical particle), but the energy or the power that is shown by the turbulence of the ground that it is propagating. In classical physics, there is clear distinction between the definitions of wave and the particle. One cannot be both. However, the nature of subatomic particles cannot be distinguished between wave-like nature and particle-like nature. In Zukav’s words, “matter” is actually a series of patterns out of focus. The search for the ultimate ‘stuff’ of the universe ends with the discovery that there isn’t any (Zukav, 193).
Well, subatomic particles are both matter and energy. Zukav called the matter-like aspect and the idea-like aspect (pg, 80). Idea is not a thing but is also not nothing. There is some quality of existence in an idea. We often say ‘I had this thought.’ Energy is a dynamic quantity, associated with activity, or with processes. The fact that the mass of a particle is equivalent to a certain amount of energy means that the particle can no longer be seen as a static object, but a dynamic pattern, a process, involving the energy which manifests itself as the particle’s mass (Capra 67). Subatomic particles, then, are between something and not-something, between being and non-being. Leon Ledermen confirms the sense of groundless an experimenter experiences; “Is this universe real? If so, can we know it? An experimenter, in Ledermen’s words, “tormented by the frailty of his instruments and his senses can break out in a cold sweat over the task of measuring this reality, which can be slippery thing when you lay down on it. Sometimes the numbers that come out of an experiment are so strange and unexpected that they raise the hairs on a physicists’ neck (pg, 63).” One of the early quantum physicists, Werner Heisenberg expressed the study into subatomic particles ‘demand for change in the thought pattern may engender the feeling that the ground is to be pulled from under one’s feet (Zukav 192).’
Well, subatomic particles so far, have been reduced to six quarks and six leptons. The majority of the universe in fact is made of two quarks (up and down) and one lepton that is electron. Most of other quarks and leptons are ‘manufactured’ and observed in the scientific laboratories that is so expensive and sophisticated that is hard to imagine. According to Ledermen, at the time of big bang the 12 different guys had equal footings but now the three make up the most of our universe (pg, 51). If they are illusory what does all these different kinds of particles mean? Scientists have built accelerators to bang these particles, trying to break them off and to understand better of the illusive ‘things’. In that process, the particles are detected with different mass. They have named the particles with different mass as different quarks and leptons. But of course they could be illusory. The collision processes involving high energies. Now, the scientists have built accelerators that bang the particles and make them move close to the speed of light. In 1972, Fermilab generated enough energy to get 99.999 percent proton (which means the proton moving at 99.999 percent of the velocity of light) (Ledermen 205). They are building the Superconducting Super Collider, that costs US$ 8 billion and is to be built in 2005 (pg 189). The Super Collider will generate enough energy for the protons to catch up with the light very very close. As a experimenter, he knows the sleepless nights, blood, sweat, and tears of the experimenters that goes into each painful advance. The enormous effort and dependency on facts differentiates science from religion. If science were a religion, Ledermen jokes, he would not have such a difficult time raising money. But no matter how expensive the machine is or how fancy, we cannot generate enough energy to catch up the speed of light. According to relativity, at the speed of light, the mass becomes infinite. As the proton travels faster, its mass becomes heavier and harder to move it faster.
Still, the subatomic particles themselves are not really particles, being dynamic energy patterns, they are unbreakable. When banged, the patterns dissolve only to be rearranged. The realm of subatomic particles is naturally something between mass and energy, constantly vibrating in a rapid speed (1022 times per second) being destroyed and recreated anew with every collision.
The apparent contradiction between the particle and the wave picture brought a shift in the concept of the reality of matter. The gist of the Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in Quantum physics is this; at the subatomic level, matter does not exist with certainty at definite places, but rather show “tendencies to exist,” and atomic events do not occur with certainty at definite times and in definite ways, but rather show “tendencies to occur.” ”In the formalism of quantum theory, these tendencies are expressed as probabilities and are associated with mathematical quantities which take the form of waves. This is why particles can be waves at the same time. They are not “real” three-dimensional waves like sound or water waves. They are “probability wave,” abstract mathematical quantities with all the characteristic properties of waves which are related to the probabilities of finding the particles at particular points in space and at particular time. All the laws of atomic physics are expressed in terms of these probabilities (Capra 57).” Since the particles themselves are not substantial and cannot be pinpointed down, we cannot know their nature for certain. .
The Newtonian physics that prevailed until the 20th century, deals with the laws of motion. The implication of Newtonian physics is that if we know enough about the present, we can know the past and the future. It is rather deterministic point of view in a philosophical sense. However, quantum physics says that we can never know for sure. We can never predict an atomic event with certainty; we can say only how likely it is to happen. Since the smallest units of matter (no longer an atom but electrons and quarks) are found no longer to be ‘dead’ particles but somehow organic in a sense that they process information and respond2, we just cannot know for sure.
At this point, it seems relevant to mention the similar gist of this in Buddhist tradition. Linji3 once wrote; “If you wish to attain freedom in moving through the world of birth and death, then know the man who right now is listening to the Law. He is without shape, without characteristics, without root, without basis, yet always brisk and lively. There is no trace of the activity of all his many devices.” He means that an enlightened person who sees the things the way they really are knows that the truth can only be grasped here and now. The nature of here and now, like quantum particles cannot be pin pointed and defined. Everything is constantly being destroyed and recreated. There is no ground of being in the factual science. Science now tells us that every moment, in essence, is a new reality.
Quantum Mechanics brought another revolutionary shift in the in the concept of reality. Science (physics) became no longer the study of something outside of us but something that includes us. Traditionally, science has been thought to be about observing the object that is separated and independent. But the phenomena of subatomic world have shown that the observed is influenced by the fact of being observed. For instance examining the paradoxical nature of light, both waves and particles, scientists must choose the kind of experiments. In fact, in 20th century, physicists have realized that depending on the type of our experiment, light manifests the corresponding characteristic that the experiment detects. For instance, “if we want to demonstrate that light is a particle-like phenomenon or that light is a wave-like phenomenon, we only need or select the appropriate experiment (Zukav 31).” However, one cannot detect both characteristics at the same time because when it is particles, it cannot be waves and when it is waves, it cannot be particles. That is what the Uncertainly Principle bases on. We just can never know for certain. The thing is that it is that not only light has this wave-particle duality but also all electrons in essence, have this dual quality. In another words, on the subatomic level, we share this paradoxical property, both of waves and of particles. In the subatomic world, there is no distinct differentiation between energy and matter that are, in a philosophical and religious language, mind and body.
With the act of choosing the kind of experiment, we affect the result of the experiment. In another word, we take part in determining the reality. In subatomic level, this applies to all experiments. Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics4 acknowledged this phenomenon that had been consistently tested. We are no longer separated from the object we are studying. There is no longer the separation of the experimenter and the experimented but only the interaction between the two.
This importance of the observer reminded me a story told by Goenka, a teacher of Vipassana Meditation in the tradition of Buddhism. A young professor with lots of Ph. Ds was making a sea voyage. In his conversation with an illiterate old sailor, he bragged about geology, oceanology, and meteorology. He pitied the sailor for not knowing those studies of science and told him that he has wasted three quarters of his life. The old sailor was impressed with the knowledge of the professor and saddened at his ignorance. However, one day the sailor came running to the professor and asked if he knows ‘swimology.’ The young professor turned out to never have learned swimming. The sailor exclaimed ‘sir, you have wasted all your life, the ship is sinking and one has to swim to the nearby shore!’ Geology, oceanology and meteorology can exist apart from the person but swimology requires the participation of the learner. It involves the experience of the learner, observer, the experimenter. I thought quantum mechanics is like swimology. It includes the act of the participation. The inclusion of the observer makes quantum physics superior as the inclusion of the participator makes swimology makes it superior to the studies of science.
This synthesis of subject-object distinction does sound like the idea of absolute reality that the religions have strived to understand. In Primal Myth, Sproul states that the absolute reality cannot be known ‘since it is beyond any subject-object distinction, being by definition the ground of both, it cannot be objectified (pg, 8).’
The Simplicity of Truth
Contrary to seemingly complicated system, science is actually a simplifying and unifying process. The simplifying process goes both ways to the big world and the small world. For instance, for the bigger world, Newton’s discovery unified the earthly realm with the heavenly. For the smaller world, the seemingly different objects such as trees, houses and people are actually different configuration of the elementary atoms, well, into subatomic particles. The journey into the smaller world is parallel to the journey into the bigger world. The more we understand about the atomic and subatomic particles, the wider and bigger range of the macro- universe is understood. Since the subatomic world shows phenomena that is bizarre and counterintuitive with no satisfactory principle, scientists are looking for so called ‘God particle’ and Theory of Everything, Grand Unification Theory (GUT). The pursuit for GUT is the pursuit of the principle that will unite the discrepancies that rise between the classical theory and quantum theory. It seems to illustrate the human inclination toward harmony and unity. Perhaps, those intuitive wisdom have led to scientific discoveries. Physicist Richard Feyman believes in simplicity of truth;
You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity. When you get it right, it is obvious that it is right- at least if you have any experience- because usually what happens is that more comes out than goes in… the inexperienced students, make guesses that are very complicated, and it sort of looks as if it is all right, but I know it is not true because the truth always turns out to be simpler than you thought. (Kaku, 130)
Truth must be as simple and obvious as ourselves. It seems like modern science has come to know that the truth of reality is too simple to explain it in a language. Like the nature of here and now, pathless path, gateless barrier, and mind to mind transmission of enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition, the truth may be ‘unputdownable’ in words.
Astronomy, The Big World
The sophisticated data of sophisticated scientific experiments exposed the limits of Newtonian physics. Newton’s law applies to our current world but fails to explain the phenomena of very small world, the subatomic world and objects that travel very fast (nearly the speed of light). Interestingly, the study of the very small, like the light particle photon, gave understanding of the very big like our observable universe. Studying the qualities of photon such as its wavelengths, it revealed the answers to the macroscopic world. In 1929, Edward Hubble successfully formulated Hubble law observing the stars (examining the data of spectra of distant galaxies) that kept moving further away from the earth with his telescope (Kaufmann 375). Hubble law is the relationship that states that the redshifts5 of remote galaxies are directly proportional to their distances from Earth. It implies that the further a galaxy is from ours, the faster it is moving away from us. This redshift is called ‘cosmological redshift’ that is caused by the expansion of the spacetime itself. The astronomers have agreed that the photons we observe from far away galaxies are all redshifted. In another words, as the photon travels through space that is expanding, and its wavelength expands. We are examining the drawn-out wavelength of the photon that has traveled from the distant galaxy (Kaufmann III, pg 399). The nearer galaxies therefore have smaller amount of redshift and the farther ones have greater amount. The gist of the expanding universe is not the stars dashing out to the wider empty space. It is like dots in a balloon. The dots are the individual galaxies and the space, the surface of the balloon. As we make the balloon bigger by blowing more air into it, the distance between dots grow longer. But it is not the dots really ‘traveling’ further apart from one another but the spacetime itself where they are embedded is expanding. What does it imply? In our observable universe, there is no center that everything else is going away from. There is no center and no edge. All points on the surface of this balloon are democratically equivalent to all other points. Everywhere and nowhere is the center.
That is how the amount of redshift of a photon that reaches our eyes can determine how far they are from us. However, another thing to note is that the distance between Earth and the Sun is not subjected to this expansion. The force of gravity keeps individual points that are galaxies, clusters, and superclusters the same size. The expansion is the increase of the space between those clumps. The size of the clumps remains pretty much the same. Edward Hubble’s observation of the redshifts of the galaxies gave out the constant expanding rate. This constant expanding rate in Hubble law, called ‘the Hubble’s constant’ is 75 km/s/Mpc (75 kilometers per second per megaparsec6). A galaxy 1 Mpc distance away from us is moving away at a rate of 75km per second. This enables us to trace back to the beginning of our universe in terms of classical physics. The age of observable universe according to Hubble law is about 13 billion years old. Based on Hubble’s observation, George Gamow in the 1940s proposed that the universe began in a colossal explosion, the birth of our universe. Sir Fred Hoyle named this explosion ‘Big Bang’ in 1950s.
Anyhow, according to the prevailing Big Bang theory, scientists fathom the time ‘when everything began’. According to this expanding theory, everything in our observable universe was squeezed into a size of a pinhead of a pinhead in time of Big Bang. Extremely dense and extremely hot (far in excess of 10 to the 32 Kelvin7, the current temperature of our universe is about 3 degrees) and extremely small is hard to imagine. The observable universe is consists of about 100 billion galaxies, each with its 100 billion suns (Ledermen, 387)! To imagine them all compacted into a volume, vastly smaller than the head of a pin truly calls for a headache. Based on the mechanical physical law, human being can fathom now the time 10-338 per second after its birth of the universe and the size of the observable universe. The limit however, comes about what it was before the 10-33 seconds and what is beyond the observable universe. It is by definition also simply unknowable.
Most scientists believe the theory of Big Bang. Of course, it is not a perfect theory and the recorded disparaging data have been troubling them. In fact, Hoyle, who gave its name, did not believe in the theory. As of now, there is no alternating theory that explains better corresponds more accurately with the observed data. (Kaufmann III, 401)
According to the balloon model of the universe, the radius of the sphere is 13 billion light years of distance. But the problem with this method of calculating is that we cannot know the realm that is farther than 13 billion light years away. The boundary of this sphere is called the ‘cosmic particle horizon.’ Here comes the distinction between the real universe and ‘the observable universe’. The observable universe is the most we can see. Since light takes time to travel (186,000mpc), the photon from the possible galaxies from farther away has yet to arrive to the Earth. When we say the universe is 13 billion light years old, we mean the universe observable to us.
Even in the Big Bang theory, scientists assums a mysterious inflation at its birth: the intinitesimal Planck moment, the tiniest moment in physics, a speck of nothing, vastly smaller than the head of a pin inflated out to the size of a soccer ball. According to Ledermen, the time interval of this inflation is from 10-35 seconds to 10-33 seconds after Creation (pg 398). The physical universe can be said to start at that infinitesimal age of 10-33 seconds when the inflation somehow stopped. Then, the “Big Bang process took over to slowly unfold our universe through an energy-radiation phase to the birth of matter, and then evolving galaxies, stars, and planets to their present proportions (Conway, 9)”. The scientists can calculate the inflation period and somewhat fathom the size but do not know why or how. The observed data provides a theory that somewhat fits the data.
For all scientists know, if this inflation theory in the Big Bang theory is correct, our entire visible universe can be but an infinitesimal bubble in a larger cosmos (Kaku 333). For all they know, there may be many other “universes” that we cannot detect, each at a different temperature (Kaufmann, 404). The infinite families of parallel universes.
Theory of Relativity
Einstein’s pondering about the velocity of light is one of the biggest genius of human mind. Michelson-Morley experiment (1887) in the history of science raised a nonsensical conundrum about the speed of light. If A travels 30 mph and B travels 50 mph in the same direction, B travels 20 mph for A according to common sense. Light travels 186,000 mps therefore if I travel 100,000 mps in the same direction, light should appear to travel 86,000 mps in relation to me. However, the speed of light remains 186,000 mps, constant no matter how fast or how slow I travel in the same direction or the opposite or at rest. “Do you mean that if a light bulb is at rest and we measure the speed of the photons (light particle) emitted from it while we also are at rest, and if we then measure the speed of the photons from it while we are moving toward it, and lastly, if we measure the speed of the photons emitted from it while we are moving away form it, we get the same result in all three cases? (Zukav 128) Michelson-Morley experiment implied the answer to be right. This mystery was solved with Einstein’s theory of special relativity. How different places in the universe a person might be, how different their states of the motion, the speed of light will always appears to be the same. Even in a distant star that is moving away from the earth at a speed close to 100,000 mps (such stars are discovered), the light will still travel 186,000 mps in the same direction.
Special relativity is a theory that appearances are relative. What may appear to be 5 mins to a person traveling fast could appear to be an hour to a person at rest. This theory dismantled the classical idea that there was one clock ticking (=absolute time) which governed the whole universe. Time after all, is a relative idea, bound to its particular space. Likewise, mass is also a relative idea bound to its particular space-time. What appears to be one-foot long stick could appear to be one inch-long to a person traveling very fast past us. Then, what we assume to be an hour and a foot long are not absolute qualities but relative ones. All the measurement of speed of light and time is in relation to us, human experience.
The property of light had perplexed scientists for quite some time. In the beginning of 1800s, Thomas Young’s experiments showed the wave characteristics of light and had been believed even though Michelson Morley experiment puzzled scientists with the missing substance of ‘what is waving’. In 1905, Einstein proved the particle characteristic of light with the theory of photoelectric effect9. Light is simply not understood by scientists. The mass-less particle that travels at the speed of light holds the gateway to what is unknown. But as the observer observes with light, it cannot observe something further than the medium of the observation.
Hyperspace: Multiple universes
A friend of mine went to India to visit Sathya Sai Baba, a prominent Indian spiritual leader couple of years ago. Sai Baba is known to perform miracles, turning a stone to a candy, materialize objects at his will. He has millions of followers and is believed to be a God-Man. My friend witnessed him creating a dove from an empty hand. Sai Baba claims that the miracles are simply for his credentials but themselves are not important. He simply claims to understand the insight to the nature of reality that is beyond human capacity and human understanding and able to manipulate them. These miracles can be explained with hyperspace. Some agency under his will dematerializes a three-dimensional object somewhere and carry it at space-annihilating velocity (traveling through hyperspace) and rematerialize back in his hand.
The puzzles of the subatomic world that is incomprehensible to us led scientist to come up with higher dimensions of reality. According to Kaku, the hyperspace theory is well-defined body of mathematical equations, we can actually calculate the amount of energy to twist spacetime to create wormholes. Only the energy required is too enormous, quadrillion times larger energy of our currently largest atom smashers (Kaku, preface). Nonetheless, the gist of higher dimensions is this; imagine a two-dimensional world. Let’s call the two-dimensional world on a paper a “Flatland.” Draw a circle around a drawn person. The two-dimensional person cannot escape the circle. But a three- dimensional person (such as human) can tear off the person from the circle into the third dimension. From the Flantlander’s view, the person would appeared to be vanished. When a three-dimensional person puts the two-dimensional person back to the Flatland, but to the position outside the circle, it would seem like a miracle to the fellow Flatlander. The fellow had vanished from the inner circle appeared on the outer realm of the circle. Applying the same principle, what seems non-sensical and incomprehensible phenomena of the three-dimensional world would be understood if we add another dimension. If we imagine the will of Sai Baba in fourth dimension, the miraculous things he seems to perform in three dimensional world might be actually simple. As the Flatlander cannot comprehend or explain the three dimensional world in his language, human beings do not comprehend the phenomena that happen in interaction with higher dimensions (Kaku, 47).
Fourth dimension, in essence is impossible to describe in our language familiar to us. Charles Hilton, a mathematician proposed in the beginning of 20th century the nature of fourth dimension. The philosophy is that all objects in our three-dimensional universe exist in the fourth dimension. But the fourth spatial dimension is possible if it is smaller than an atom. Light, the mystery of three- dimensional world, is a vibration of the unseen fourth dimension. Kaku argues that physicists today adopt the same view that the higher dimensions are too small to be experimentally seen and many theoretical physicists agree about his explanation of light (Kaku 74-75). In another word, the fourth dimension is unknowable with the human knowledge.
Einstein was convinced in the purpose of higher dimensions; to unify the principles of nature: the principles of three-dimensional world and the principles of subatomic world (Kaku, 88). For instance, in three-dimensional world, the concept of matter and energy distinguished and he believed that the higher dimensions would give understanding to their unity and be taken as a single unit: matter-energy. There wouldn’t be 6 quarks and 6 leptons but a simple ‘God particle’ for Ledermen. The late Columbia University physicist Gerald Feinberg speculated that through escaping to higher dimension, humans might outlast the death of our solar system or our universe (Kaku 308). Theory of relativity shows that it is possible to travel through warm-hole to other universe. Steven Hawking’s theory (wave function) speculates the infinite number of parallel universe, many that failed to exists as ours, not having the physical constant our universe had. Superstring theory, now accepted by more than 90 percent of the theoretical physicists, holds that our familiar, four-dimensional space-time cosmos (three dimensional space plus the dimension of time) must be embedded within an eleven-dimensional hyperspace (Conway, 9).
The Meaning of All
As I gloss over the macroscopic and microscopic journey the world strikes as a dream within a dream. The seemingly opposite journeys are inherently related. The outward journey of science led us back to the very tiny beginning. And the inward journey opens possible stories of the enormous universe within a particle. Both journeys are extremely humbling experiences. We are not any special in the universe. The human existence matter very little to the continued evolution of the cosmos. The dimensions (basically three dimensions and time) human experiences involve are vastly limited to understand the scientific data found in the subatomic world as well as the distant parts of the universe. In essence, they are impossible to be known in our conventional language. Our current knowledge about the stellar evolution tells us that our sun will eventually become red giant and consume the earth in nuclear fire. Even if humans learn to live in other planets, it is limited. The entire universe itself is ultimately subjected to death according to laws of physics (Kaku 302). Even if we escape to other universes, they are all subjected to the physical law that dooms the end. Interestingly, two books I was studying, The God Particle by Leon Lederman and Hyperspace by Michio Kaku. include the following passage by Bertrand Russell. The passage, written in 1923, by the well-known mathematician and philosopher sums up the despair of human limit.
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought or feeling, can preserve a life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system; and the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation be safely built.
Upon reading the passage, I remembered a show I saw in the Rose-Hyden planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History couple of years ago. It was a documentary called ‘Passport to the Universe,’ about a journey to the cosmos with Tom Hank’s voice narrating. I remember that I was rather lonely and sad for no particular reason and I was going on a date with myself to the planetarium. In the dark planetarium, the stellar night sky covered the dome like a real night sky. There was a grand zooming out process. Starting with a person in a house to his city, to his country, continent, the earth, the solar system, our Milky Way galaxy, and to Local Group (the cluster10), to supercluster and at last to the observable universe. Watching the earth and our galaxy disappearing into a point as the zoom gets larger into the cosmos, I was overcome with a surging emotion in my chest. Instead of deepening my despair, a grand sense of relief overwhelmed me, a sense of gratitude, a sense of the Holy. It is hard to describe or explain. Opening the knots in my heart, tears surged up because… it was so beautiful. I was infinitely alone yet infinitely not. Coming out to the streets of NYC, everything and everyone was a wonder. We are utterly insignificant in the scheme of things. And I was elevated. The Earth is so beautiful and our lives are so precious in its fragility.
In retrospect, I realize that the journey of the science on that day was a mythical journey for me. I was transformed (at least for that day). The journey offered me an insight to how to live. To live fully the precious life while it is gifted to me. It might all be a chance of chaos and atomic collocations but what a chance that we are! It is a cold universe out there. The average temperature of the universe is measured by COBE, Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, in 1990, is 2.73 degrees above absolute zero, -273 Celsius degrees11. (Lederman 149)
Now as I skim through particle physics and astronomy, the wondrous (in the almost impossible probability of chance) existence is not only about human beings or the earth, but the universe itself. At the origin of the material universe, there happened to be a tiny bit more matter than antimatter. If there had been equal amounts, which is what one would expect, then everything would have been canceled out. The exquisite balance of a few more quarks than anti-quarks made the big bang possible. Why did the original inflationary cosmic bubble expand to a certain point and then stop? If it hadn’t gone far enough or had gone too far in that initial Planck moment (the inflationary phase before the Big Bang process), Timothy Conway says that we wouldn’t have a universe today (Conway, 9).
Furthermore, to have life in universe, Kaku confirms that “a rare conjunction of many coincidence. Life depends on a variety of complex biochemical reactions. For all we know if the constants of chemistry and physics were different by small amount from the way it was, the heavy elements need for the creation of DNA would not have been created and life would not have started to eventually evolve to humans (Kaku, 158).
Still the mathematical number of probability does not imbue meaning to life. The large number itself does not offer the transcendent experience. It is funny to put it this way but, what I experienced in the planetarium is not the accumulated knowledge only but the experience of being with the application of the knowledge. In this way, science can function as a myth. Barbara Sproul, in Primal Myth, claims that the truth of myth is experiential. If it is not applied to life, the myth is pointless and meaningless. If you don’t know how to swim at a sinking ship, all knowledge of science is meaningless. “While the worldly is meaningless, our experiences of the world are full of meaning (Sproul, 30). People, their cultures, and nature itself are all revelations of the Holy, occasions in which the transcendent absolute is immanently manifest.” We have examined that science offers no factual ground of being. Then it must be found in the spiritual realm, the inexplicable domain. The upper hand of myth is that it offers the ground of being. It shows ‘how life is a symbol to be lived’ in Sproul’s word. Many scientists indeed recognize the importance of this mythical component in science. ‘Yes’ to life must be the ground of science. French mathematician Henri Poincare express the ground of being that must come before the science and knowledge:
“The scientist does not study Nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If Nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if Nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living. (Kaku, 130)
If a scientist does not delights in life, then he is doomed to face the existential crisis. In the same way, if we do not love life, it is meaningless.
Lastly, this is the message of Sai Baba who claims to understand higher dimensions and perform things that seem miraculous for the three dimensional us. Miracles, themselves are not important but the implication of it is that he might know more than most scientists have found out. He suggests the most appropriate way to unknown God that scientists are searching in microcosmos and macrocosmos.
“Start the day with love
fill the day with love
end the day with love
this is the way to God”
Capra, Fritjof, The Tao of Physics Bantam Books 1975 Boulder
Conway, Timothy, “Coming Back To The World” The Sun April 2003 issue pg 4-13
Kaku, Michio, Hyperspace Anchor Books 1994 New York
Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books 1988,
Lederman, Leon, The God Particle Dell Publishing, Inc. 1993 New York
Sproul, Barbara, Primal Myths HarperCollion 1979 New York
Zukav, Gary, The Dancing Wu Li Masters Bantam Books 1979 New York
Discovering the Universe, Neil F. Comins & William J. Kaufmann III 5th edition W.H.
Freeman and Company 1999 New York
Quantum Physics Teaching Company
2 Using Young’s double slit apparatus, scientists attempt to shoot single photons to see how wave-particle property would make sense. The photons somehow ‘knew’ whether one slit was open or two slits were open. When two slits were open the photons went to the area of band of light so that it did not to contradict the interference pattern of waves. When only one slit was open it went to the general area.
A parsec is the distance at which two objects separated by 1 AU make an angle of 1 arsecond.
AU (astronomical unit) is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun.
It is a very very long distance.