Big things we don’t know, mysteries unsolved, and why can we do no better than guess about our place in the universe…? Will we ever know enough? Or will the endpoint keep receding?
By David Stone
In Sagacity, William Rose Benét reflects on lost love… 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 think 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. They just look like they should.
Related: Everything Is Connected
Big things we don’t know and some we do
Scientists have known for decades that what we call “the 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.”
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.
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 probably feel like they’re lost in space.
But that isn’t really abstract. Atoms are you and me, the stuff we’re made of, 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.
But 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, which is 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.
Let’s be honest about 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.
In the collection of 50 to 100 trillion cells pulled together in interlocking systems to make what you call “me” are thousands of collaborative chemical compounds that give each cell the look of a busy independent world of its own, even as it abuts countless others.
Every cell that makes you who you are has its own government, power plant, transportation system and trash collection. And all answer to and work cooperatively with an authority that decides what, when and how it does its work.
That is, although countless chemical and electric interactions take place in you body every second, you stay glued together as one.
Now, forget for a moment that each community of proteins must connect with many others and that all must ultimately connect with the rest of nature, and ponder that these cellular homelands are supported by ever smaller bits of materials or potential materials that may be the base fabric of all realities.
We’re at the bottom of what we can see with our most powerful instruments, but it isn’t necessarily the bottom.
Nobody proved atoms are the smallest building blocks, although for centuries it was taken for granted. And today, nobody honestly knows what, if anything, lies beneath the electrons and protons that give life to our atoms.
Most scientists agree that whatever it is isn’t anything consistently real. Instead it’s virtual, subject to instant change, popping in an out of reality in patterns indistinguishable from chaos.
We live in a world of possibilities that may be random and may or may not be governed at all.
Get used to it.
Let’s Be Big About It
What’s been consistent, as discoveries over history pushed us off one secure plateau after another, is that whatever we find is made up of ever tinier, less substantial stuff doing whatever it does to make its own constituencies hum.
We think of these realities bustling beneath our cells as tiny, but that’s relative only to us. Constituents often prove to be giants compared to what comes next.
And our commitment to seeing the makeup of the world as atom-like structures, things with edges and stuff inside, may keep us from taking less emphatic divisions into account.
What we see as plateaus may be conveniences of perception, and the world may be more an energetic churn in balance than a solid structure.
50 trillion cells = 1 You
Maybe that’s why walking into a building as firm as the Empire State Building can give us a sense of relief, like rocks as a respite from water.
What Happens in Lower Slobbovia Stays in Lower Slobbovia
Big things we don’t know on a relative scale
Our cells themselves may justifiably take pride in being powerful giants as they look down the rabbit hole at smaller, mingling essences.
Perception’s the juice of physical experience. It’s a mistake to impose on it the banner of the one reality against which all others must be measured.
And there are others, billions of them, all working and playing as if their reality is the one that matters. There are books full of descriptions about physical laws and assumptions on which the universe must depend or collapse.
It’s important that we force ourselves to be modest when we think about our place in the all of it.
A lucky debutante on her way to a gala may be surrounded by tuxedoed admirers. It’s of no benefit to assume that the residents of Lower Slobbovia even know she exists, let alone care who her designer is.
Imagine how unimpressed the good citizens of Lower Slobbovia in distant galaxies must be. The pass whole lives without ever knowing what a cotillion is.
Fooling ourselves about the big things we don’t know…
The compromise we make is in taking that which we can know, at some point, to be all that’s worth knowing, a claim easily disproved.
One argument against it is the discovery of previously unknown universes of fact. Another involves the limits on our instruments for digging deeper down the tunnels of truth.
Every time we invent new instruments, we wander deeper into the rabbit holes of reality. We come back with more perplexing unknowns.
Isn’t it chutzpah to argue that no more can exist beyond what we will one day see or theorize and verify by experiment?
Isn’t it just as likely that there are big things, maybe many more, we can’t see and never will? Do we even know what to look for?
Aren’t we making a circular argument that what we can know is all there is to know? It’s all we can know. We may never have a Theory of Everything, nothing missed. The undetectable may glean current events from a digital Times on a bench beside us?
What we don’t know exceeds what we do know, and the more we know, the bigger what we don’t know gets. It’s a paradox.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Roosevelt Island Daily.
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