Big things we don’t know, mysteries unsolved, and why can’t we do any better than guess about our place in the universe…? Will we ever know enough? Or will the endpoint keep receding?
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
By David Stone
In Sagacity, William Rose Benét reflected on lost love and… all the things we did not know. But in a larger frame, his poem exposes a puzzle about how we go through life, coaxed into believing we know more than we do. Take the universe as we think we know it, for example.
It’s planets, solar systems, stars, galaxies, black holes, supernovas and the like; even up close, it’s forests, lakes and soils we touch every day. We know most of the details, don’t we?
But we couldn’t be more wrong, as any card-carrying physicist can tell you. Yes, I know, physicists don’t carry cards. But they probably should, distinguishing them from amateurs… like most of us.
All those big things we don’t know and some we do
Scientists have known for decades that the physical universe, that humongous collection of all named things, all the material stuff — collected and totaled up — amounts to no more than 5% of what’s “out there.” But nobody talks about that much, the vast majority of the recognized universe a near total mystery.
95% of the universe consists of mysteries and indefinite stuff given titles like “dark energy,” “dark matter” and “the zero point field.” Impressive titles belie the fact that we don’t know what they are. We know them only by indirect observation. We glimpse them only through calculation.
Something’s there, part of our daily life, all around and in us, influencing, affecting us and everything around us. But that’s all we know. Something. Some things…
You know what’s worse? Scientists aren’t even sure what they should be looking for. That makes finding the needle in a haystack way more than difficult because might not even be a needle.
The Bigness of Our Littleness
There’s a vast expanse of things more distant, higher energy and larger than anything we’ve seen up close or once imagined. There are supernovas, solar incubators and colliding galaxies that spray explosive ripples of energy into space, etc. None of those, strange as they are, are among the really big things we don’t know.
More mysterious is a bottomless, interior whirl of stuff — virtual or possible stuff — indescribably small, so small our most powerful instruments mostly miss it. Some particles are so insubstantial they pass straight through Earth without touching anything or changing course. Billions of them around the clock.
Considered the basic building block of all things since Aristotle, the average atom is about .0000001 millimeters across its middle. That’s too small to imagine, and it’s why only mathematics tells the story. Atoms are mostly empty.
Inside an atom’s protective shell buzz three types of particles so indefinite and distant from each other they might as well be lost in space. But that isn’t really abstract. Atoms are you and me, the stuff of us, head to toe, muscle and bone.
You see yourself as hands and feet, but in nature, you’re gazillions of atoms. In some mysterious way, all of that, all of you, gets you in front of a mirror, toothbrush in hand every morning. Nobody really knows how or why, and nobody can tell you why you don’t just fall apart. You’re just molecules, like everything else, but mysteriously self-organizing.
It’s the why of things that’ll make you crazy with wonder.
Fantastic discoveries give us something else — fantastic riddles.
Take quantum theory, the universally accepted guide for things so small you can’t see them. It takes a look at simple atoms, and it redefines them as weird. An average person — you or me — has no hope of understanding this theory resting vitally on advanced mathematics.
All we get to consider is the big picture and hope for the best with whatever’s propping it up. Yet, we’re not alone in our ignorance. As Richard Feynman, a quantum physics pioneer conceded, “Nobody understands quantum mechanics.”
Honest in Our Ignorance
What science can explain, using instruments and mathematics, is so beyond most of us, we have no choice but to trust that the really smart guys will do the right things. This assumes we figure out which ones the really smart guys are.
So, let’s be honest in our ignorance. Experts could tell us anything, and we’d be incapable of mounting a counter-argument. Most of us can’t even get the gist of how a television works. How are we to comprehend how countless tiny, virtual particles conjure giant suns?
Consider that the universe about which we’ve learned so much may be, according to one theory — Many Worlds — only one of thousands born every second, and even those who think that might be true aren’t sure what the others are like.
We don’t know what being sucked through a wormhole in the fabric of our universe might show us on the far side or what the theorized infinite number of universes being peeled off from the fabric every second may have to do with us, if anything.
Mixed Messages: Get Used to Them
Intriguing, too, are weird whiffs of tiny stuff, superpositions, quantum leaps, probability waves, that underlie the things we see and decide to call “real.” Ourselves, for example.
Categories: A Different Way