On Uncovering the Mysteries of the Universe: Why It Matters (or Maybe Doesn’t)

              Brian Greene is one of those people who study the universe in ways that most of the rest of us don’t even have the ability to contemplate.  He is a top astro-physicist who, for over 30 years, has been considering what kind of very small stuff might be the most basic of items that make up everything else.

              Now for most of us, if we are talking small in the scientific world, an atom is the baseline item.  And we probably also remember from our high school science classes that atoms consist of protons and neutrons that together constitute the atom’s nucleus and that even smaller particles, called electrons circle around the protons and neutrons.  We may also recall that it’s the number of electrons a particular atom has that allow the atom to join with other atoms to form molecules which when joined together in sufficient quantity can take the shape of material things that we recognize and use in the world we live in.

              Okay, that’s what most of us may be able to recite as our understanding of the stuff that makes up our material world. 

              Mr. Greene, who addressed a packed house at the Mondavi Center (on the Davis campus of the University of California—commonly known as U.C. Davis) last week, goes a good bit smaller in his research.  Principal among his studies is something called the “string theory,” which postulates that the real basic stuff that the universe is made of is smaller even than electrons, smaller even than quarks, which are now thought to be the elemental particles that make up protons and neutrons.

              The string theory, which Mr. Greene explained in elemental terms in his Mondavi talk, hypothesizes that the smallest substantive matter is in the shape of string-like objects that join in various forms and in differing degrees that then give all objects the ability to inter-relate with each other while still being independent entities. 

              Of course, I’m barely scratching the surface of what consumes Greene and his colleagues with this description (which may not even accurately state the basic thrust of the theory).  But Mr. Greene is the kind of lecturer who makes the stuff he studies, stuff that would be almost impossible to comprehend otherwise, both interesting and entertaining. 

              And so, in the course of his talk, he explained that the universe may be infinite (in my ignorance, I’ve always assumed it was), that there may be an infinite number of universes (I can’t even begin to understand what that means), that these strings may exist in all of them but take entirely different shapes and thereby create entirely different types of existence, and that, amazingly, they may be capable of existing in alternate dimensions than the three (up, down, in/out) that we identify and assume to be all there is.  

              If this sounds like Twilight Zone stuff, it’s probably no accident.  Rod Serling dramatized science fiction in ways that were not always plausible but were most definitely possible.  His tales were imaginative philosophical journeys of the mind into the scientific territory that Mr. Greene and his colleagues explore. 

              And there are also similar philosophical dimensions to the science that consumes Mr. Greene.  Thus, he explained that what we now know may only be a matter of what we are currently capable of perceiving.  As an example, he explained that if the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate of speed, such that the neighboring galaxies are moving ever farther apart, it may be that a trillion or so years from now, our descendants will not be able to see anything beyond our own solar system.  Scientists in that far-off world will thus have no reason (other than the records from previous generations) to believe that there is anything more to their universe than the few stars they would then be able to see.

              In answer to a question from the audience, he also admitted that he did not believe in free will (his lack of belief in that concept presumably the result of studying the inter-relationships of all matter to the point of accepting that everything in existence is controlled, and thus predictable, by the laws of physics).  He joked on this point that he very much desired not to answer the question, but that he could not refrain from doing so.  But his point was clear: the world as we know it could not be other than what it is, what it has become, and what it will continue to become, and all of us who are part of it cannot be other than what we are, what we have become, and what we will continue to become.

              This particular thought can bedevil both believers and non-believers alike if it is dwelt on too much.  The idea of free will is fundamentally integral to our understanding of how our species relates to its environment.  We base our legal system on it, defining criminal behavior by it and otherwise regulating our collective lives on the assumption that choices are made, choices that flow from a freedom every human has to decide or not decide to do or not do something or nothing.

              But if free will is nothing more than a human construction that appeals to our sense of how the world should work, if it is no more than an idea that has been implanted on us by the countless generations of our forebears, and if, indeed, the reality is quite the opposite, that none of us are free to do anything other than what we do because the laws of the universe allow no room for truly independent action, then how might our view of existence be altered?

              It’s an imponderable, to be sure, and hardly something to lose any sleep over.  We are who we are, whether by chance or design.  We do what we do because we feel free to decide so to do, whether we really have a choice or only think we do. 

              In the end, each life matters, if for no other reason than that it is destined to matter and in so mattering to affect everything else, just as each star and asteroid and electron and quark matter, because they, like us, cannot do otherwise.



  1. says

    Ed: Thank for three of the most stimulating articles I’ve ever read from your fingers (and brain!) From science’s string theory to religion to the possibility of spirituality among the cosmos, I was moved to write this. You are indeed bring a carefully assessed observation to all of us. Bravo! Dario Vanni

  2. scotch7 says

    I love to nitpick Ed’s stuff… or so it seems.

    Neighboring galaxies are more attracted to each other than repelled. See the awesome images Hubble gives us of ‘galaxies in collision’ and the animations we get from supercomputers.

    The final moments of Episode 3 of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ‘Cosmos’ reboot has one of the best ‘galaxies in collision’ animations I’ve ever seen. Some readers will still be able to catch it on re-runs and On Demand.

    It is the more distant galaxies (and galaxy clusters) that seem to be pushing each other away, causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. The force causing this acceleration is called “Dark energy” mainly because we have no blinking clue as to what it is and only the tiniest clue about how it works.

    In the past 200 years, mankind has gone from being over 90% clueless about electricity and chemistry, to having very solid models of how electrons and atoms work. These models are so good we are able to build things like satellites, stadiums, vaccines, GMO corn and the internet. Gravity has been modeled to many many decimal places, but we have yet to model how to hack it.

    Ancient wise ones have always tried to tell us: the more you know, the more you know that you do not know. Sometimes we learn from that suggestion, sometimes we get bit on the tuckus.

    We all choose at various points what to believe. An absence of free will is a very very tough belief to me.

  3. says

    I very much enjoyed this post. It is so true, the more we learn, the more we find that we don’t know. Just as w’ve prinned down the age of the Big Bang, we learn about the concept of parallel universes. It is just too mind boggling to sort out (unless you are smarter than I am and have available time to study these types of concepts).

    I’m so glad you were able to attend Greene’s presentation. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  4. says

    I very much enjoyed this post. It is so true, the more we learn, the more we find that we don’t know. Just as we’ve pinned down the age of the Big Bang, we learn about the concept of parallel universes. It is just too mind boggling to sort out (unless you are smarter than I am and have available time to study these types of concepts).

    I’m so glad you were able to attend Greene’s presentation. Thanks for sharing it with us!