Reflecting on the future of human understanding.
Being an avid follower of news and politics, I find it necessary to blow my own mind on occasion. After reading one too many stories about human shortsightedness, my thoughts begin to narrow and old ideas petrify. Sometimes, the scalpel of knowledge isn’t enough to extract the rigid crust of cynicism; only a cannon will do. Accordingly, I like to pick a meaty book from the astrophysics shelf every few months. Whether it’s black holes or the origins of the universe, I prefer to escape this particular stretch of spacetime altogether, and then return to Earth with (hopefully) a little more perspective.
Since math is definitely not my forte, however, I tend to stick to writers like Brian Greene and Caleb Sharf, who can distill the greatest mysteries of the universe into common language that’s clear and vivid. Because of their deft writing, I can “see” things like vibrating strings, the gravitational distortions of space-time, and colliding branes. Sort of. At the very least, they help me visual the otherwise unimaginable in metaphors that makes sense – even if that understanding is negligible. In doing so, the limitations of my own imagination are challenged regularly (both as a person and as a product designer).
More importantly, such books remind me that we’re all limited in our understanding. This “loose understanding” of how things really work is actually a dominant theme in many of the books I read. Modern cosmology, after all, is largely based on theories derived from pure math, most of which are impossible to observe with human eyeballs, or have yet to be confirmed through experimentation. And then, when repeatable tests do validate a particular theory, we often end up with a universe far stranger – and infinitely more complex – than previously imagined.
In fact, the bedrock theories upon which our current understanding of the universe are based are themselves not easy to reconcile. For example, there is no “Theory of Everything” that neatly ties together Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to String Theory and quantum mechanics. Both yield predictions that are confirmed by testing, and yet they are still, somehow, incompatible. (This is probably the math parts I don’t understand.) Another set of principles or forces seem to be at work.
Perhaps it all has something to do with dark matter and dark energy. Scientist have somehow determined that the two compose almost 96% of the entire universe, leaving only 4% for the stuff we can see. While these phenomena cannot yet be directly observed, they nevertheless have very measurable effects on what we can observe.
If this to true, one must concede that there may be other dimensions beyond the four we perceive. String theorists have proposed that there should be no less than ten dimensions represented in this universe. Furthermore, these dimensions might be so small, and so tightly curled up upon themselves, that we simply can’t detect them with current technology. Dark matter and dark energy may well be further expressions of these extra dimensions.
Meanwhile, in another field of study, scientists are seeking answers to a different riddle: Why is the universe shaped the way it is? It’s a simple question that I had until recently taken for granted.
For most of my life, I had imagined that the universe was spherical. I understood the Big Bang only as an unfathomably large explosion that began in the “center.” Following this logic, I presumed that everything would explode outwards, in all directions, at equal rates. Over enormous expanses of time, everything would slow down as it traveled outward, until the universe reached a degree of stasis. (Just like any explosion I saw in the movies.)
It turns out that all of this is untrue. In reality, the universe is nearly flat, and is expanding faster and faster. In my childhood mind’s eye, the black abyss we inhabited looked like a dandelion from a great distance… I should instead have imagined an elastic, microscopically thin pancake being stretched on all sides with ever greater force. Furthermore, it would more accurate to say that this pancake universe has an “origin”, rather than a “center”.
Even stranger, my notions that everything was “settling down” or reaching a “conclusion” couldn’t be further from the truth either. (Blame my linear, literal mind.) Since then, I’ve learned about the laws of entropy. Entropy is the gradual decline into disorder. The very early universe had surprising low entropy, meaning that there was more order and less complexity. But the Big Bang produced a rapidly swelling universe with ever-higher entropy, or more disorder and great complexity. And just like you can’t unbreak an egg, transitioning from a state of low to high entropy is a one-way train. The universe is still evolving from a singularity, and into something near infinitely complex.
Which leads the devout reader on to the most fascinating — if not disturbing — theories about Cosmic Inflation and the Multiverse. One says that there are really two thin pancakes, separated only by an infinitesimal gap, which collide over and over again, causing Big Bangs. The other suggests that this is but one of an infinite number of universes, maybe even with our own specific expressions of physical laws. There could even be other versions of us out there in the Multiverse, if not the holographic projections of a higher intelligence.
After a good mind blowing, I return to this cerulean blue orb with mixed feelings.
Over the last few centuries, science has uncovered a universe unlike anything Newton imagined. In the last 100 years alone, astrophysicists have made some of the most important – and fundamental – discoveries in all of human history. Today, we have things like high-powered mega telescopes orbiting earth, a Large Hadron Collider, and a rover on Mars. Galileo had a few rocks, a handheld telescope, and a crooked tower. In the next 100 years, imagine what other great mysteries humankind could uncover with more advanced instruments, better analytical models, and a little luck. In the words of Agent Mulder, “The truth is out there.” We may just need some time.
But how much time do we actually have? Sadly, we may not have much of it left if we continue on our present course as a species. Between our nuclear arsenals, accelerated climate change, the current mass extinction of other life caused by our activities, or even advancements in artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, we’re more of a threat to ourselves than any asteroid or alien invasion. It makes me deeply sad to think that we may never know the answers our species seeks because we will destroy ourselves first.
So now, when I put down an astrophysics book and pick up the daily paper, I can’t help but wonder:
Will we ever be worthy of the truth?
The answer is entirely up to us. Whether that’s cause for hope or dismay, I haven’t yet decided.