All that we learn comes in from the outside. Innate behavior shouldn’t count as knowledge. We don’t know why we hunger, and we respond out of the body’s deepest wordless place. The flesh hungers and our sense only returns when it is sated, the fire leaving our eyes.
Some–mystic types, mostly–insist we have learned in previous lives, or are given knowledge by powerful forces we awake to. I don’t dismiss this. The world is as old as it is profound, and who knows what we know before we are ourselves? Life’s thread has been through many needles over billions of years, and it must have some great stories.
Particle Fever is a documentary movie that follows the physicists hunting the elusive Higgs boson with the Large Hadron Collider. (If you don’t understand this sentence, the movie is an excellent introduction.) We are treated to a high-definition tour of the massive complexity that is this machine, and, perhaps more importantly, the long emotional arc of the physicists as they drive headlong into work that may not pay off. It is a movie about standing atop the shoulders of your scientific ancestors, and leaping.
The movie does a good job of capturing what working on such a gargantuan project is like, imparting the endeavor’s essence without dumbing it down too much. It knows focusing on the human emotion and struggle is what keeps a movie alive. The nuts and bolts of the actual work is summarized, and there’s nothing wrong with this. For too long, science has been presented as sterile when it is more often a breakneck plunge down intellectual stairs. Confirming a model of how the universe works is tremendous, a revelation on par with writing, agriculture, or walking upright.
Alluded to but never spelled out, the movie leaves the greatest truth unspoken. The prime assumption of all science–the most amazing thing–is that the universe has order. It is full of patterns, symmetries, and relationships between them. This is why science is possible: if everything was random, or magic, we wouldn’t be able to figure it out. More exceptional still is that these patterns, symmetries, and relationships can be described in mathematics. At least some of us understand the math well enough to make windup universes. Supercomputers can turn these windup models backwards and forwards, tilting them so light shines into inaccessible recesses. Via these proxies, we can go inside stars, back in time, and down black holes. Each journey reveals more.
Whether we look down or up or inward, we can now choose a different kind of knowing.
Three dimensions define our physical world. Semantics and how slavish one is to mathematical purity govern how one talks about anything beyond this, but the explanation I most often see (or the one I remember because it’s the closest I come to understanding) is that the fourth dimension is no different than the other three. It’s just another right angle away from the third.
A line is one dimension. Draw another line at a right angle from the end of the line: that’s the second dimension, a flat plane. Make a square, then draw a line at a right angle to it: you must go up, out of the square’s plane. That’s the third dimension: height, in addition to width and length. To get to the fourth dimension, just draw another line at a right angle to the first three. Limited to three dimensions, we can’t draw another line at a right angle that is straight. The best we can do is something that looks like a cube inside another cube with the vertexes connected, as is rotating in blue grace above.
Some people claim they can imagine this shape as it truly is, if we too were in a space with four dimensions: every angle a right angle. Like the “magic eye” posters from twenty years ago, I can’t see that way. I can only see the cube inside the other cube and understand, as I understand things like “infinity” or “a billion”, that it works out.
Brute-force literal seeing isn’t the point. Being blind to a four-dimensional cube reveals other things.
Atoms and electrons exist. We’re sure of it, even though we will never see or touch them. We can experience them only as abstractions. For example, everybody knows what this is:
This diagram is wrong, and has been for over a century. The people who drew it know it is, just as the producers of the latest Cosmos television series know their whirling fuzzy atoms of a jiggling nucleus with points of electrons circling outside is wrong. Electrons around a nucleus could be imagined to “look” something like this:
Electrons exist within these shells, but not in the black spaces. An electron isn’t “traveling” inside the shells: they exist as probabilities, more likely to be in the white areas, less so the darker you go. They coalesce into a given wavefunction (this is not a discrete point, like a marble; due to wave-particle duality, electrons–like waves–do not appear in exactly one place) when they interact with another atom, or something else at a larger scale. (This is partly codified by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.) In other words, they do not really exist “inside the bright areas”: they are the bright areas. I am certain I have some of this wrong.
Why do we not tell kids this? Maybe some well-meaning people assume kids don’t care, and they’ll find out if they take high school science. Maybe adults have taken to heart the complaints of when are we gonna use this? This is rather esoteric, after all.
When does anyone “use” their understanding of the universe’s fundamental truth? You can’t put nature in the bank. It’s only good for exposing the way things really are, and, even greater than that, the truth that “the way things really are” is something we cannot experience.
We have no innate means to handle this information. As the great Richard Feynman himself is claimed to have said: anyone who says they understand quantum mechanics is lying or crazy. Thought can only do so much in understanding something too big to be immense.
The Large Hadron Collider works far below the lowest subbasement of the atom. It uses energies far beyond anything any human has ever experienced, in spaces so small our ideas of size have no meaningful application, to look at things that cannot be said to “look like” anything. We, the taxpaying public, see the same computer-generated diagrams the physicists use. We are told an exciting new understanding of how matter, energy, time, and the universe relate has been made. We celebrate, even if we don’t really understand. At least the physicists understand their machine speaks to them in ciphers.
But the greatest lesson is one not even physicists allude to.
When Newton formulated his laws of motion and developed calculus to describe them, the work was complete. In one stroke it allowed its practitioners godlike point of view. If you knew the starting states of everything with enough precision, you could figure out where everything would be far into the future. Everything could be known. Newton gave birth to the clockwork universe.
Universe-as-clock was fine for a time when a clock was a marvel. Go faster and smaller than any clock and Newton’s laws give wrong answers.
At the turn of the 20th Century, physicists found great speeds or tiny scales opened up new worlds. Newton didn’t work at all there. Quantum mechanics describes those places in ways that have nothing to do with clocks, or even cause and effect. Everything is probability, uncertainty, ambiguous, and subjective.
So, is Newton wrong? No. Newton works fine at the scales we live in. Quantum mechanics works fine too, if you want to do the math. It’s only outside our experience that quantum mechanics becomes a necessity.
Newton was one step, quantum mechanics another. Two steps is almost a path. It opens up the possibility of a third, and one as different and impossible to anticipate as the second was from the first. That’s the lesson I see, and, man, what a lesson!
Like all instruments, the Large Hadron Collider can only find what it was designed to find. That design comes from the predilections and assumptions of its physicist designers. Aggressive and driven, these people stand on the shoulders of Newton, Leibniz, Pauli, Planck, Heisenberg and others who took those first two steps. I suspect, without knowing so, they imbue their work with the white and European ideas of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution: Progress, Reason, the possibility of Perfection–Heaven on Earth. Most important: the unconscious assumption that new things to discover will be like the ones we already found.
Is that a smart assumption, given how different quantum mechanics is from Newton?
Physics, astronomy, and cosmology are already blurring into metaphysics. What does it mean that time stops at the speed of light? Or that electrons and smaller particles aren’t “particles” at all, too small to have anything like our idea of “size”? What if, after crunching the numbers and years of reflection, it turns out the Large Hadron Collider didn’t find the Higgs boson after all, but found something very different?
Mystics have long held that this reality is only a shadow of something else: the previous and next life, other worlds, “the Truth”. Modern physics agrees, with its assertion of a multiverse, at least by some practitioners. More staid minds insist this isn’t a scientific pursuit: how can the premise of a multiverse be falsified?
Knowledge has limits. When not used as a cop-out for superstition, this fact is profound truth. Accepting it means that even science has limits. Science must have a point where it stops working. At the very big, very small, very fast, or very hot–beyond even the insides of the Large Hadron Collider–can hypotheses be made and tested? In such places, can science exist?
We are animals. We are finely tuned to walk the savanna of a hundred-thousand to a few millions of years ago, on the lookout for berries and snakes. Driving cars and doing algebra strain our capacities. We see more and farther with our tools and abstract thinking, but we don’t hold things in our palms, smell them, taste them. The truth of the very large and very small is true, but a shadow to us. We will never, ever touch it.
Science, in its exacting reduction, has rightly taken the mantle of The Best Tool We Have. We must now face the most interesting and terrifying question: What happens when science ends? Will there be a difference between it and mysticism? Having come full circle, will the two be joined?
Einstein himself said God has a sense of humor: “When God created the ass he gave him a thick skin.” Maybe that old man on the beach was right: it’s turtles all the way down.