New worlds are opening up for us in all directions: from the galactic to the sub-microscopic, from global communications to interplanetary ones (like the report from the Martian robot about the existence of water there in an earlier era). The impact of these broadening vistas should be highly positive, but instead it is falling somewhat flat. In one of its latest issues, the New Scientist claimed on its cover that: “We’ve run out of explanations for the universe.”1
My immediate response to this was: Could this really be true? Is this a reflection on our current human condition: namely, are we running out of explanations of how to correct the global economic picture? It would seem that our approach to understanding the universe is not only influenced by our training and profession (depending on whether we are mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, chemists, cosmologists, radiation specialists, or even philosophers or astrologists) but also by what the Germans call our Zeitgeist (the spirit of our times.)
Hardly had I started writing this blog when on March 21st the front-page digitized images came with the startling news of the recordings of the Planck satellite launched in 2009 to examine background radiation in outer space. Here suddenly were new explanations of the evolution of the universe.
The vastly different renditions of the map of space provided by the Planck team would appear to be mosaics of two dimensional images of various parts of the heavens at the wavelength of the cosmic microwave background radiation. The interpretations of such images are inevitably fraught with uncertainties, because much of the energy has been curved by gravity as it traveled for billions of years and was most probably affected by other forces (such as “dark energy”) of which we have little understanding. To conclude at this early stage that the observed “cool” and “hot areas” would eventually grow into galaxies seems presumptuous. The large, international team of scientists involved have analyzed less than half of the data gathered by the space telescope which is not programmed to monitor other particles, such as neutrinos. But the bold and startling conclusions drawn from the haze of space radiation appear at this stage to be more the result of rash interpretation than of serious scientific examination.
It seems to me that our perspective on the universe is still profoundly affected by a variety of unknown factors. We have no idea of what the impact of gamma rays, x-rays, radiation from uranium, the incredible stream of neutrinos, gravity or even speed is having on our mental processes. Yes, because our sun is making a gigantic orbit of our galaxy and we are orbiting around the sun and our planet is spinning all the time, we are in fact moving at speeds of thousands of miles per hour without us having any idea of the impact on us. And when we are informed that untold billions of neutrinos are “harmlessly” passing through our brains (and bodies) every second of the day, we accept this amazing information with little concern!
Neutrinos are minute particles traveling at close to the speed of light but unlike light have no electrons and possess only the tiniest mass. Most of those that pass through us (as well as through the core of our planet!) originate from inside the sun. Others come from stars in our galaxy and even other galaxies. Indeed some physicists speculate that the gradual decay of neutrinos may provide a clue to the origin of matter. A long-time friend, the astronomer Lord Martin Rees, has written that “It is embarrassing to cosmologists that 90 percent of the universe is unaccounted for.”2 Finding out exactly what the universe is made of remains a nagging problem for astronomers. Martin has been optimistic for nearly two decades that we are on the verge of finding out the so-called secrets of “dark matter” and “dark energy.” (Both of which are terms used to identify what we don’t know.) Ordinary atoms, of which we and our planetary system are made, are likely to account for only about 4 percent of the mass of the entire universe.
Optical observation alone cannot give us an adequate perspective on the cosmic scene, Martin tells us. X-ray telescopes have been an amazing improvement, but “the whole electro-magnetic spectrum emitted by cosmic objects ranges over more than 100 octaves.” In Martin’s analogy, “visible light, from the red to the blue, is just a single octave… of the broad range of frequencies that most objects actually radiate.”3
James Clerk Maxwell discovered that light is an electromagnetic wave over 100 years ago. But who has discovered how gravity, the force that ultimately overwhelms all the other forces in the stars, actually operates? Speculation is rife about how a “graviton”, possibly a quantum particle, could be the force behind the attraction exerted by mass. Frankly, I feel quite entangled by quantum weirdness.
The Nobel prize winning physicist, Eugene Wigner, was concerned about “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the physical sciences.” In astronomy, because of the absence of verifiable experimental results when considering black holes, how the universe might have begun, the possibility of multi-universes, “empty” space, or even “time,” the only way forward in our understanding is by resorting to mathematics. And that maybe where we may come to an end of explanation as suggested by the New Scientist.
To repeat, part of the problem facing us is with the limitation of our perspective. We think of existence in terms of a beginning, middle and an end (of our lives, and of this planet, the sun and our immense galaxy.) But perhaps our universe does not follow such a story line. It could be that there is no beginning and no end — only the continuity of a string theory kind of a loop. And back in 1895 the American philosopher and psychologist William James coined the word “multiverse” in which our universe is part of an interpenetrating system of universes. Here we enter into the spheres of fantasy, the quantum, and infinitely varied and complex super-string theories reinforced by ad hoc postulates.
The cosmologist Max Tegemark suggested that of all the various forms of multiverses, the simplest and most elegant involved parallel universes. “Perhaps we will gradually get used to the weird ways of our cosmos and find its strangeness to be part of its charm.”4 And that may be the best counter-point to the proposition of the New Scientist for it is unlikely that we are ever going to run out of explanations for charm.
1New Scientist, 2 March, 2013)
2Martin Rees, Our Cosmic Habitat, (2001) p.75
4Max Tegemark, “Parallel Universes,” (2003).