The issues facing modern physics are so baffling that they've crossed a threshold and now fascinate the general public. We laymen have very little at stake, personally speaking, when scientists argue over the Big Bang--without advanced mathematical training, it's all but impossible to follow the arguments. But we do have a stake when the universe starts to disappear, as it is doing right this minute.
The cosmic vanishing act began, approximately, when dark matter and dark energy showed up on the radar of cosmology. "Dark" is a misleading term, because the space between the stars is pitch black, but it isn't dark in the way that dark matter and energy are. They are dark as in totally mysterious. No light is given off by them, or any known form of energy we associate with the universe. They cannot be measured, and so far as anyone can guess, dark matter is probably not constituted of anything resembling atoms or subatomic particles.
The reason that dark matter and energy are important is arcane to the layman, having to do with the fact that instead of moving apart at a constant rate or slowing down, the galaxies are accelerating as they move away from each other. This acceleration defies gravity, so at the very least dark energy is some species of antigravity (to put it in very general terms--the actual nature of this unknown force is complex, arcane, and much speculated over).
Even knowing this, you may shrug your shoulders and ignore such an abstruse problem, until you discover that only around 4% of the created universe is accounted for by the matter and energy visible to the eye or to scientific instruments, bound up in galaxies and interstellar dust. The vast majority, around 96% is dark, hence unknown. Far beyond the abstractions of scientific theory, the known and knowable universe slipped out of reach--that's the cosmic vanishing act.
Annoyed physicists can attach comments to the effect that a mere layman has no business poking his ignorant nose into their profession, a line of inquiry where quantum mechanics is boasted of as the most precise theory in scientific history. Which is laudable, but it does seem as if someone has patched a hole in a flat tire and claims to have built the whole car. As headlines are grabbed by the discoveries made at billion-dollar particle accelerators, the whole fabric of reality is being shredded to tatters.
If you have heard the terms multiverse, string theory, superstring theory, and dark matter and energy, you need to realize the unmentioned problems with all of them:
- None of these things called strings, superstrings, or multiverses has ever been observed.
- There is every likelihood that they never will be observed.
- None can be experimented upon in order to prove whether they exist or not. (There are supposedly some exceptions having to do with prying evidence out of the quantum field for dark matter, but no success yet.)
- There is a good chance that the hidden fabric of reality cannot in fact be known through scientific means. Dark matter and energy, for example, if they are outside the framework of all forms of discovered matter and energy, may be so alien to our brains (which are composed of that ordinary matter and energy) that they are literally inconceivable.
- If 96% of creation is inconceivable, all the brilliant mathematical models in the world can't undo the fact that the universe, as we conceive of it, has vanished.
These aren't just theoretical difficulties. What we are finding out is that reality isn't what science has been describing. Instead, science has been relying on an assumption that measuring something and fitting it into a neat mathematical model is the same as knowing what's real. This is like a deaf person examining a graph of the sound frequencies associated with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and claiming that he knows the music. The fact that you have a map in your hands doesn't mean you have experienced the territory.
Someone should have predicted the vanishing universe long ago. The famous physicist-astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington is often quoted as saying, "Something unknown is doing we don't know what." These words are generally taken as a quip from an era decades ago before physics had figured out so much about the cosmos that a Theory of Everything was just around the corner. But the quip should be taken soberly. Even a confident mind like Stephen Hawking has more or less given up on the Theory of Everything, settling for a patchwork of smaller theories that will serve to explain local domains of physics.
Yet the obvious point to be drawn isn't technical and requires no Oxbridge postgraduate degrees: Reality is still unknown. The more one contemplates this strange situation, the more uneasy the situation becomes.
Aren't all these subatomic particles getting us closer to the nature of matter and energy? No, because at bottom, matter isn't material. It isn't tangible or visible.
Doesn't scientific research count for anything? That depends. If most of the universe is totally inconceivable--or even well hidden--empirical data has reached its limit. The so-called subempirical domain may be running the whole show.
But surely the scientific method is the greatest tool ever devised by the rational mind. It has gotten us where we are today, at the height of understanding Nature, hasn't it? Dubious. All theories ae right about what they include and wrong about what they exclude. The scientific method, with its basis in reducing difficult problems to manageable bits and pieces that can be explicated, happens to exclude consciousness. It fails to entertain that we haven't the slightest idea how the brain's gray matter produces the mind. There is no biological basis for thinking. No one knows what preceded the Big Bang, if that's even a meaningful question, since the Big Bang may be the beginning of time and space as we know it.
These aren't just gaps in a fabric that needs mending and more weaving. They strike at the false assumption that if you measure a thing, you know the thing. Reality can't be modeled; it's infinite, every-changing, mostly hidden from view, based on inconceivable beginnings, and at times walled off even from mathematics, the primary language of science.
So what's next? In practical terms, the world will crank along doing what it's already doing, and this inertia applies to science too. No doubt 99% of practicing scientists go to work without considering any of the points I've raised. Why bother--the whole thing sounds like metaphysics, which 20th-century science assumed was dead and buried.
What matters isn't so much the fate of science, which has created its own self-sustained world. But it's unsettling to realize that, "Something unknown is doing we don't know what." More than unsettling. Humans want to know what's real and what's not. Our minds depend on it, and it's with our minds that we are human. Until the mind can touch reality and be sure that it's not an illusion, the human project has been stalled, and scientific reassurances aren't going to help us move forward again.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more