Fun With Numbers (I) – September 19, 2010

For about thirty years now, I have been an interested follower of the scientific community’s evolving analysis of cosmology and fundamental physics. These are the deepest questions of what our physical environment looks like, how it developed, and what is happening in the domains of the very large (the universe beyond our galaxy, with the oncepts of relativity and gravity) and the very small (subatomic particles, with concepts of quantum mechanics).

Now for the disclaimers. I was never very good at mathematics in high school and college, being a hyperliterate word person, but I have tried to correct that lack through reading and study in the years since then. I am not trained in physics or any other science, although I read about as much in the sciences as I do in history and fiction. I am a writer and storyteller by trade and, in technical matters, an interested bystander. But I do have a passion for sense and proportion and I have a strongly logical mind. I am not a Luddite, and I am certainly not proposing any kind of alternative theological solution (“God did it, the Bible said it, case closed”) to these questions.

But still, the state of physics and cosmology right now seems to be in some kind of intellectual whirligig: spinning and spinning and not making a lot of sense. The universe began as the ultimate singularity, infinitely dense and infinitely hot, which then exploded (even though nothing, not even light, can escape from garden-variety black holes). The universe is the intrusion into this space of matter and energy from other multiverses (all that star stuff had to come from somewhere, and a single dense point is not it). The universe is expanding at an accelerating pace and will eventually disappear (first the galaxies, then the stars, then your neighbors, then your own nose). Physics cannot account for all of its observed forces in a space of three dimensions plus time, but it can with four, eight, or eleven dimensions (but then only if matter and energy become circular strings vibrating within those extra, unseen dimensions).

Is any of this, excuse me … real?

Both physics and cosmology are heavily dependent on mathematics. In fact, it would seem that, in the last couple of decades at least, these sciences are driven by mathematics as much as by observation. If a scientist can come up with an equation or mathematical statement of a relationship among various observations, that bit of math by itself becomes the foundation of a new theory and so an explanation for the observations.

Now, mathematics as a tool of measurement and description has been very powerful in shaping the industrial and technological revolutions that we’ve gone through in the past 250 years. But mathematics is simply a language of numbers that incorporates a certain kind of logical thinking. In the same way, the language of words can apply kinds of logical thinking to address conceptual problems. But pure logic and mathematics cannot of themselves answer questions about origins, purpose, or the structure of reality. And it’s entirely possible to construct statements in either numbers or words that bear no relation to reality. And using either numbers or words requires the user to make certain underlying assumptions that neither mathematics nor logic can test. (More on those assumptions in mathematics itself next week.)

I think the universe is stranger than we can imagine. I think that, so far, anyone who has tried to quantify, measure, or explain the universe has done so by holding one part of it steady through an assumption in order to examine the other parts.

For example, the original observation of a red shift in light from distant objects was considered to be a Doppler effect (the wavelength being stretched out or slowed because the object is receding from the viewer). The assumption here is that all electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, defines its inherent energy as wavelengthe rather than velocity because, unlike speeding bullets or bats, it can only travel at one speed, the speed of light (c). That energy is assumed to be unchanging unless some physical force acts directly upon it, such as the light being absorbed by an intervening atom at one energy level, driving its electrons to a new energy state, and then re-radiated at another level. And so light that comes from great distances cannot change its energy unless the intervening distance is increasing.

From this observation and explanation came the original description of the Big Bang: the universe is flying apart, and so it must have once had a common origin at a particular place and time. Other physical observations, like the microwave background radiation, have been interpreted to fit into this expanding universe: all the energy of the Big Bang has cooled to this one low note with local variations.

But, frankly, the Big Bang has become another creation myth. What if, over distances with which we have no active experience, light does lose energy? What if simply passing through the multiple and overlapping gravity fields of distant galaxies can shift the wavelength? What if we simply do not understand the basic nature of light, distance, and time?

I believe we as a scientific community lack a robust set of definitions for these components that we toss around like circus balls—among them “time,” “space,” “matter,” “energy,” and “gravity.” We think they are somehow linked. We use mathematics to try to define their relationships. But I believe we are missing an essential feature, and so our brightest minds spin their wheels. We can't define time or space or energy except in relation to each other, yet we treat them as discernible, extractable elements.

The trouble may be—although I don't accept this quite yet as a postulate—that our minds are wrong for contemplating the universe. Our minds are the product of evolution and accept certain limitations as givens: the linearity of time (apparently proven by the sequences of birth, maturation, subjective experience, and death), the dimensionality of space (required for swinging through trees and hunting with a sharpened stick), and the possibility of accurately mapping the physical universe with our thoughts (I can put the spoon next to the cup, so why don't the four basic forces line up for me?).

I'm not saying we will never understand the universe, but it may turn out to be far stranger than we think it is. We’re just at the beginning. And maybe, at some point, we have to take a step back in order to go ahead.