After a conversation with a friend the other day, I thought I’d add a few to the Physics list.
In 100 Billion years, the galaxies will be so far away that the astronomers at that time will note be able to see them. The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (see Echoes of the Big Bang or other Physics posts) will be so diluted that it will be indistinguishable from noise. Given this data, astronomers at that time–using the best methods and theories of science–will come to the incorrect conclusion that the universe is eternal and consists of the Milky Way galaxy. This fact illustrates the uncertainty of knowledge. Even conclusions that come from the very best methods of science and reason can be incomplete or misleading. For this reason, it is important to maintain humility about the certainty of one’s beliefs. If this deception is inevitable in 100 Billion years, what deception has obfuscated the truth for us already? What knowledge is unattainable at this point in space and time because of some bizarre happenstance?
Another to add to the list is the Fundamental Problem in Physics–the fact the General Relativity (see Einstein’s Universe and other physics posts) and Quantum Mechanics (see Thirty Years that Shook Physics and other posts) are mutually exclusive. One model says the other is impossible, and vice-versa. The two most successful scientific theories in human history are mutually exclusive. The logical conclusion is that both must be incomplete. There must be some deeper framework that combines the two together. For some people, String Theory is the best candidate for this framework. Others disagree (see The Trouble With Physics and other posts). The fact remains that we are painfully aware that the poster-child for hard science is at a crossroads.
If I were a more conscientious blogger, I might write a whole series on the theme of “laundry lists,” but for now, I’ll write a bit about a laundry list of scientific facts.
I have found that every science has at least one fact that, if it were widely known, would make the world a better place. I’ve had this in my head for a while, so I think it would be good to make a laundry list of such facts. Perhaps I’ll pick up on this theme in the future and make other laundry lists in the future (for instance, a list of activities to do every day to be a better person).
Physics has many, many facts of the world-bettering nature, so it is very hard to choose just one. So, I won’t. I may list a couple of facts.
The first fact is that everyone is small and stupid. By small, I mean that we all live on a tiny planet in an average solar system on an unremarkable arm of a typical galaxy. According to WolphramAlpha, there are 2-4 hundred thousand million stars in the Milky Way galaxy. That’s between two and four hundred billion stars in our galaxy. WolphramAlpha also says that there are approximately 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe. So we’re looking at perhaps 4*10^22 stars in the observable universe. That’s 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, most of which resemble the sun. And that’s just the observable universe. That could just be one tiny portion of the whole universe. The universe could also be infinite in size (although I doubt it). So, we are small. We are also stupid. When one thinks about human history from a cosmic perspective, one sees an ambitious, social organism quickly spread over the earth, exploiting resources as fast as they can. Some call themselves king, president, and even god while laying claim to some small corner of a fraction of a dot. They don’t appreciate the fact that all they have is their tiny dot and each other. Even now, humans face global climate destabilization (see climate posts), yet we have to worry about political tensions precipitating into nuclear attack. What childishness is it that we point weapons at each other when we need to be holding each other up? Actually, the word “childish” does a disservice to children who are often much wiser than adults. “Foolish” might be a better word. We are also stupid in a different sense. Perhaps not stupid, but rather ignorant. Everyone is incredibly ignorant. The number of questions people have posed for which no one yet knows the answer is so staggeringly impressive as to render everyone the laughing stock of the imaginary imp of mysteries that I sometimes like to think exists. Furthermore, there is so much knowledge amassed in so many different areas, that no one person can be an expert in most things as used to be the case (consider, for example, da Vinci or Descartes). I was conversing with my friend Sam the other day about math and science. After talking at length about non-euclidean geometries, Sam said, “And after all that, just think about the fact that I have a 800 page encyclopedia about mammals.” Mammals. I don’t know shit about mammals relative to what’s in that encyclopedia. I like to consider myself fairly well educated, and I still find no difficulty in thinking about questions about which I have absolutely no firm understanding.
The other fact about physics I thought I would mention is the fact that the elements that make up my body, the earth, and everything I know, were forged in the hearts of extremely massive stars. The hemoglobin in my blood has iron that shares common origin to the iron in the earth. By all likelihood, there is at least one atom in my body that used to be a part of Benjamin Franklin. The point is that, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson famously says, we are not just in the universe. We are the universe. The universe is in us just as much as we are in the universe. Carl Sagan goes on to say that we are a way for the universe to know itself. I find this incredibly deep and moving. I can’t do justice to these ideas here, so I will move on.
• The idea that the human is a “higher being” that dominates nature is a myth. Humans are only one member of an interconnected ecological community. The health of the ecological community is strongly tied to species diversity. Exploiting and disrespecting our ecological community will ultimately make human life harder to live. Moreover, the earth doesn’t give a fuck about us. Thinking that humans can control nature is like thinking a mosquito controls the path of a horse by way of an irritating ass-bite.
• All life has common origin. We are all related and connected.
• Life evolves
• The placebo effect: perceived effectiveness produces actual effectiveness. Cognitive neuroscience at its best.
• Confirmation bias. We remember the data that agrees with our worldview better than the data that disagrees.
I’ll have to expand this post some other time.