Monday, 6 September 2010

The Universe is Queerer Than We Can Suppose

That great evolutionary Biologist J.B.S. Haldane once said, “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” The words of this beautiful quotation are beginning to bear fruit, in what is a truly glorious reality check.

We have evolved on the surface of a relatively placid planet where nothing we need concern ourselves with moves too swiftly or sluggishly or is too massive or minute. Timescales we are accustomed to range from a few milliseconds to, perhaps, fifty years. The array of unsightly tissue in our skulls, known as the brain, has been selected to only comprehend matters on this scale. We should not, therefore, be disappointed when we are unable to grasp deep, underlying scientific principles. Indeed, we should exalt in it, for it is a constant reminder of our place in the universe, where we were never meant to comprehend the forces that have created us.

Our knowledge of the universe is bounded, first and foremost, by our imagination. Every theory that has ever been postulated had to first be dreamt up, based upon previous knowledge. However, we are reaching a point where we may become unable to dream up a hypothesis because the reality of the universe is so alien from what our brains have evolved to comprehend. Even seemingly fundamental ideas such as the electron, quantum theory and even mass itself are theoretically explainable, but only by making assumptions that we cannot logically justify. We don’t know why, for example, an electron can undergo quantum leaps, but we have a model of assumptions that can explain such phenomena to incredible accuracy. A single electron can travel through two slits at the same time: again, we can give a workable explanation, consistent with all known facts, but we will never be able to actually understand why. I feel we may soon reach a point when the model required to explain an observation is so complex and so unfamiliar to us that the truth will remain forever undiscovered.

Remember, our species is in its infancy. The knowledge that we have acquired about the universe is a mere fraction of everything we will ever learn – and everything we will ever learn is an even smaller fraction of what is actually out there. If, already, our imaginations are straining to understand what is going on in the universe, brace yourself for what is to come.

In a way, it is rather a conceited opinion for us to expect to understand anything that is going on in the universe. Why should we? We survive on a small fraction of one tiny planet, which itself is one of hundreds of billions in our humdrum galaxy; this galaxy itself is one of hundreds of billions of further galaxies in this universe; who knows, there may be hundreds of trillions of universes. The cosmos was not set up for our understanding, it exists independent of our wishes. There are secrets of the universe which will always be beyond our grasp. This is because we are using the brain of a prehistoric tribal ape from Western Africa: hardly the appropriate equipment to know the seemingly infinite cosmic space and time. Regardless, we can chip away at these secrets as best we can, in what is an amazing testament to our species. Who knows what will remain undiscovered?

It’s just a shame that no conscious entity will ever be able to know it.

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