“The cat caught fire.” It was my answer to the simple question, “Anything special happen today?”
Supposedly, everything that can be said has already been expressed. But I’d never, ever heard anyone ever talk about feline flammability. It was a new area.
(The cat was fine. She’d brushed her longhaired tail closely over a candle flame on a friend’s table. The momentary whoosh of high flames was amazing. Despite singed fur and a horrible smell, she never even seemed aware that it happened.)
So it is with new ideas: Mostly there aren’t any. The Big Bang theory – which maintains that the universe traces its origins to a precise natal instant – is an extrapolation from what we see here on Earth, when each rabbit and Twinkie arises at a fixed moment in time. It stands opposed to eternal existence. But there’s no scientific way to know which is real.
Cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole, remains largely bewildering. No one has yet discovered if the universe is infinite versus bounded; what it really contains; what dark energy, vacuum energy and dark matter are; whether distant objects influence us instantaneously; whether consciousness is connected with it and so on: all the important basics. The fault is not that you lack a degree in Astrophysics; that wouldn’t help. The problem lies much deeper.
Start with this: Are our dead-ends due to insufficient information that will someday be remedied, or does knowledge have absolute limits? The British geneticist John Haldane famously said, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it’s queerer than we can suppose.”
If true, we may be fooling ourselves in assuming that this cosmos as-a-whole is mentally knowable to any real degree. And speaking of “mental,” our brains supply their own structural limitations, whose mysteries parallel those of the cosmos that they study. Hence another relevant quote, this one from South African botanist Lyall Watson: “If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.”
We sorely want the universe to make sense, and yet it’s composed of subatomic particles that follow quantum laws that do not make sense. Worse, we routinely observe utterly unfathomable phenomena – like twin expanding bubbles made of gamma rays that radiate from empty spots precisely above and below our galaxy’s center. There’s simply no way to explain them. They are so enormous that they take up half of the southern sky. We can’t even make guesses.
Big bubbles, Big Bang paradoxes and consciousness are stupendous issues. Yet these ideas rarely make the cocktail-conversation circuit, despite having good potential for intelligent discussion. The reason, I think, is that they don’t connect with a critical mass of other concepts. To sink one’s teeth into a new heady subject, to even start the ball rolling, there must be a thread connecting it with something already well-known.
Planets, by contrast, meet this standard. The media quickly grasped that there was plenty of “ink” in the notion of new planets around other stars. “New planet” is an archetypical catchphrase, consisting of two easy words. If one of them is a color, it’s practically guaranteed to stick in the public mind: Red shift. White dwarf. Red giant. Black hole.
In contrast, the media avoid paradox, impossible complexity, unanswerable questions and the reality that logic works to perfection on some levels, while in others it seems to have no value. Peer reviewers have similar biases, which in turns steer and limit the research and discussions that can even arise.
Our knowledge quest is also hampered not just by our tendency toward non-originality, but also by the sheer impossibility of mentally visualizing such likely universal aspects as infinite space, timelessness and solipsism: One Mind. It has become ever more obvious that symbolic, dualistic processes such as thinking may simply be the wrong tool for tackling bedrock cosmological issues.
Consider this real situation: a measuring box known to bias the properties of half the electrons passing through it. If they do not pass through the device, these electrons stay the same; if they do pass through, half are reliably changed in a particular way. But when we force them through a series of such boxes, some characteristics that have nothing to do with these devices change, while others do not. The paths that some of the electrons have taken reveal that they have neither passed through the detectors nor not passed through. They have done something else. They have found some other “choice” beyond those that we can imagine.
No one has the slightest idea how objects can perform these impossible feats of antilogic. That they do is duly noted, given a name (they’re said to be in “superposition”) and even exploited for our inventions. But naming these actions does not mean that we can explain them. We cannot.
That nonlogical things happen faithfully enough to be scientifically predicted is a development that first arose in the 20th century. In some ways, science is starting to resemble faith. It’s requiring “leaps.”
It’s fun, but we’ll have to get used to it.
Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.