Silent Earth

Noise pollution is a serious matter that can affect not only how well you sleep at night, but also your health and even psychological state. None of this should surprise you, but as our planet becomes more urbanized, the expanding cloud of man-made noise from jets, traffic and even leaf-blowers can penetrate even remote forests and habitats.

Just out of curiosity, I have created a citizen science project that you can download to your phone from your app store and help me map, not the noisiest places on this planet, but the quietest places. The project can be found by downloading from your store the app called ‘Anecdata’. It will ask you to register by entering an email address, a username and your own private password. Once registered, scroll down the project page and join the one called ‘Silent Earth’. You should also join the Facebook group called ‘The Silent Earth Project’ because I post updates there and tips for taking data, as well as interesting results along the way. https://www.facebook.com/SilentEarthProject

This is what the project banner looks like on your phone

In time, I will be using this blog space to include article of interest on noise pollution and some of our results as we get more areas covered. Here is what you need to do to get going.

Check out the national map by the National Park Service to see how your area ranks https://earthsky.org/earth/map-shows-loudest-quietest-places-in-u-s

Step 1: Tap the bar that says ‘+Observe’ on the project window

Step 2: Tap the bar that says ‘Measure’ and click ‘OK’. Remain quiet for a few seconds.

Step 3: Tap the check boxes that apply to you and your location

Step 4: Tap the ‘save’ tab at the upper right of the screen to record your data.

Don’t be shy!! Make as many measurements as you like but certainly more than one!!! Also, if it seems noisy where you are, say above 50 decibels (dB) walk around your neighborhood or town (or use a bike or car) to find a place that is quieter than what you just measured. Numbers in the 40s are very typical of suburban locations but numbers in the 30s are exceptionally quiet and what you would find in rural locations where there is little traffic, jet, plane or other man-made noises. One of the quietest places I have encountered is deep inside Skyline Caverns in Virginia where readings in the high-20s were encountered!

What is ‘Now’?

What is the duration of the present moment? How is it that this present moment is replaced by ‘the next moment’?

Within every organism, sentient or not, there are thousands of chemical processes that occur with their own characteristic time periods, but these time periods start and stop at different times so that there is no synchronized ‘moment’. Elementary atomic collisions that build up molecules take nanoseconds while cell division takes minutes to hours, and tissue cell lifespans vary from 2 days in the stomach lining to 8 years for fat cells (see Cell Biology). None of these jangled timescales collectively or in isolation create the uniform experience we have of now and its future moments. To find the timescale that corresponds to the Now experience we have to look elsewhere.

It’s all in the mind!

A variety of articles over the  years have identified 2 to 3 seconds as the maximum duration of what most people experience as ‘now’, and what researchers call the ‘specious present’. This is the time required by our brain’s neurological mechanisms to combine the information arriving at our senses with our internal, current model of the ‘outside world’. During this time an enormous amount of neural activity has to happen. Not only does the sensory information have to be integrated together for every object in your visual field and cross connected to the other senses, but dozens of specialized brain regions have to be activated or de-activated to update your world model in a consistent way.

In a previous blog I discussed how important this world model is in creating within you a sense of living in a consistent world with a coherent story. But this process is not fixed in stone. Recent studies by Sebastian Sauer and his colleagues at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich show that mindfulness meditators can significantly increase their sense of ‘now’ so that it is prolonged for up to 20 seconds.

In detail, a neuron discharge lasts about 1 millisecond, but it has to be separated from the next one by about 30 milliseconds before a sequence is perceived, and this seems to be true for all senses. When you see a ‘movie’ it is a succession of still images flashed into your visual cortex at intervals less than 30 milliseconds, giving the illusion of a continuous unbroken scene.  (Dainton: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017).

The knitting together of these ‘nows’ into a smooth flow-of-time is done by our internal model-building system. It works lightning-fast to connect one static collection of sensory inputs to another set and hold these both in our conscious ‘view’ of the world. This gives us a feeling of the passing of one set of conditions smoothly into another set of conditions that now make up the next ‘Now’. To get from one moment to the next, our brain can play fast-and-loose with the data and interpolate what it needs. For example, it our visual world, the fovea in our retina produces a Blind Spot but you never notice it because there are circuits that interpolate across this spot to fill-in the scenery. The same thing happens in the time dimension with the help of our internal model to make our jagged perceptions in time into a smooth movie experience.

Neurological conditions such as strokes, or psychotropic chemicals can disrupt this process and cause dramatic problems. Many schizophrenic patients stop perceiving time as a flow of  linked events.  These defects in time perception may play a part in the hallucinations and delusions experienced by schizophrenic patients according to some studies. There are other milder aberrations that can affect our sense of the flow-of-time.

Research has also suggested the feeling of awe has the ability to expand one’s perceptions of time availability. Fear also produces time-sense distortion. Time seems to slow down when a person skydives or bungee jumps, or when a person suddenly and unexpectedly senses the presence of a potential predator or mate. Research also indicates that the internal clock, used to time durations in the seconds-to-minutes range, is linked to dopamine function in the basal ganglia. Studies in which children with ADHD are given time estimation tasks shows that time passes very slowly for them.

Because the volume of data is enormous, we cannot hold many of these consecutive Now moments in our consciousness with the same clarity, and so earlier Nows either pass into short-term memory if they have been tagged with some emotional or survival attributes, or fade quickly into complete forgetfulness. You will not remember the complete sensory experience of diving into a swimming pool, but if you were pushed, or were injured, you will remember that specific sequence of moments with remarkable clarity years later!

The model-building aspect of our brain is just another tool it has that is equivalent to its pattern-recognition ability in space. It looks for patterns in time to find correlations which it then uses to build up expectations for ‘what comes next’. Amazingly, when this feature yields more certainty than the evidence of our senses, psychologists like Albert Powers at Yale University say that we experience hallucinations (Fan, 2017). In fact, 5-15% of the population experience auditory hallucinations (songs, voices, sounds) at some time in their lives when the brain literally hears a sound that is not there because it was strongly expected on the basis of other clues. One frequent example is that  people claim to hear the Northern Lights as a crackling fire or a swishing sound, because their visual system creates this expectation and the brain obliges.

This, then, presents us with the neurological experience of Now. It is between 30 milliseconds and several minutes in duration. It includes a recollection of the past which fades away for longer intervals in the past, and includes a sense of the immediate future as our model-making facility extrapolates from our immediate past and fabricates an expectation of what comes next.

Living in a perpetual Now is no fun. The famed psychologist Oliver Sacks describes  a patient, Clive Wearing, with a severe form of amnesia, who was unable to form any new memories that lasted longer than 30 seconds, and became convinced every few minutes that he was fully conscious for the first time. “In some ways, he is not anywhere at all; he has dropped out of space and time altogether. He no longer has any inner narrative; he is not leading a life in the sense that the rest of us do….It is not the remembrance of things past, the “once” that Clive yearns for, or can ever achieve. It is the claiming, the filling, of the present, the now, and this is only possible when he is totally immersed in the successive moments of an act. It is the “now” that bridges the abyss.”

Physical ‘Now’.

This monkeying around with brain states, internal model-making and sensory data creates Now as a phenomenon we experience, but the physical world outside our collective brain population does not operate through its own neural systems to create a Cosmic Now. That would only be the case if, for example, we were literally living inside The Matrix….which I believe we are not. So in terms of physics, the idea of Now does not exist. We even know from relativity that there can be no uniform and simultaneous Now spanning large portions of space or the cosmos. This is a problem that has bedeviled many people across the millennia.

Augustine (in the fourth century) wrote, “What is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain, I do not know. … My soul yearns to know this most entangled enigma.” Even Einstein himself noted ‘…that there is something essential about the Now which is just outside the realm of science.’

Both of these statements were made before quantum theory became fully developed. Einstein developed relativity, but this was a theory in which spacetime took the place of space and time individually. If you wanted to define ‘now’ by a set of simultaneous conditions, relativity put the kibosh on that idea because due to the relative motions and accelerations of all Observers, there can be no simultaneous ‘now’ that all Observers can experience. Also, there was no ‘flow of time’ because relativity was a theory of worldlines and complete histories of particles from start to finish (called the boundary conditions of worldlines). Quantum theory, however, showed some new possibilities.

In physics, time is a variable, often represented by the letter t, that is a convenient parameter with which to describe how a system of matter and energy change. The first very puzzling feature of time as a physical variable is that all mathematical representations of physical laws or theories show that time is continuous, smooth and infinitely divisible into smaller intervals. These equations are also ‘timeless’ in that they can be written down on a piece of paper and accurately describe how a system changes from start to finish (based on boundary conditions defined at ‘t=0’) , but the equations show this process as ‘all at once’.

In fact, this perspective is so built into physics that it forms the core of Einstein’s relativity theory in the form of the 4-d spacetime ‘block’. It also appears in quantum mechanics because fundamental equations like Schroedinger’s Equation also offer a timeless view of quantum states.

In all these situations, one endearing feature of our world is actually suppressed and mathematically hidden from view, and that is precisely the feature we call ‘now’.

To describe what things look like Now, you have to dial in to the equations the number t =  t(now). How does nature do that? As discussed by physicist Lee Smolin in his book ‘Time Reborn’, this is the most fundamental experience we have about the physical world as sentient beings, yet it is not represented by any feature in the physical theories we have developed thus far. There is no theory that selects t = t(now) over all the infinite other moments in time.

Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place!

Just as we have seen that what we call ‘space’ is built up like a tapestry from a vast number of quantum events described (we hope!) by quantum gravity, time also seems to be created from a synthesis of elementary events occurring at the quantum scale.   For example, what we call temperature is the result of innumerable collisions among elementary objects such as atoms. Temperature is a measure of the average collision energy of a large collection of particles, but cannot be identified as such at the scale of individual particles. Temperature is a phenomenon that has emerged from the collective properties of thousands or trillions of individual particles.

A system can be described completely by its quantum state – which is a much easier thing to do when you have a dozen atoms than when you have trillions, but the principle is the same. This quantum state describes how the elements of the system are arrayed in 3-d space, but because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the location of a particle at a given speed is spread out rather than localized to a definite position.  But quantum states can also become entangled. For these systems, if you measure one of the particles and detect property P1 then the second particle must have property P2. The crazy thing is that until you measured that property in the first particle, it could have had either property P1 or P2, but after the measurement the distant particle ‘knew’ that it had to have the corresponding property even though this information had to travel faster than light to insure consistency.

An intriguing set of papers by physicist Seth Lloyd at Harvard University in 1984 showed that over time, the quantum states of the member particles become correlated and shared by the larger ensemble. This direction of increasing correlation goes only one way and establishes the ‘Arrow of Time’ on the quantum scale.

One interesting feature of this entanglement idea is that ‘a few minutes ago’, our brain’s quantum state was less correlated with its surroundings and our sensory information than at a later time. This means that the further you go into the past moments, the less correlated they are with the current moment because, for one, the sensory information has to arrive and be processed before it can change our brain’s state. Our sense of Now is the product of how past brain states are correlated with the current state. A big part of this correlating is accomplished, not by sterile quantum entanglement, but by information transmitted through our neural networks and most importantly our internal model of our world – which is a dynamic thing.

If we did not have such an internal model that correlates our sensory information and fabricates an internal story of perception, our sense of Now would be very different because so much of the business of correlating quantum information would not occur very quickly. Instead of a Now measured in seconds, our Now’s would be measured in hours, days or even lifetimes, and be a far more chaotic experience because it would lack a coherent, internal description of our experiences.

This seems to suggest that no two people live in exactly the same Now, but these separate Now experiences can become correlated together as the population of individuals interact with each other and share experiences through the process of correlation. As for the rest of the universe, it exists in an undefined Now state that varies from location to location and is controlled by the speed of light, which is the fastest mode of exchanging information.

Read more:

In my previous blogs, I briefly described how the human brain perceives and models space (Blog 14: Oops one more thing), how Einstein and other physicists dismiss space as an illusion (Blog 10: Relativity and space ), how relativity deals with the concept of space (Blog 12: So what IS space?), what a theory of quantum gravity would have to look like (Blog 13: Quantum Gravity Oh my! ), and along the way why the idea of infinity is not physically real (Blog 11: Is infinity real?) and why space is not nothing (Blog 33: Thinking about Nothing). I even discussed how it is important to ‘think visually’ when trying to model the universe such as the ‘strings’ and ‘loops’ used by physicists as an analog to space ( Blog 34: Thinking Visually)

I also summarized the nature of space in a wrap-up of why something like a quantum theory for gravity is badly needed because the current theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity are incomplete, but also point the way towards a theory that is truly background-independent and relativistic (Blog 36: Quantum Gravity-Again! ). These considerations describe the emergence of the phenomenon we call ‘space’ but also down play its importance because it is an irrelevant and misleading concept.

Things to do with your Smartphone!

We all have smartphones, but did you know that they are chock-full of sensors that you can access and use to make some amazing measurements?

Here is an example of a few kinds of data provided by an app called Physics Toolbox, which you can get at the Apple or GOOGLE stores.

Sensor data accessed by Physics Toolbox app

Each of these functions leads to a separate screen where the data values are displayed in graphical form. You can even download the data as a .csv file and analyze it yourself. This provides lots of opportunities for teachers to ask their students to collect data and analyze it themselves, rather than using textbook tables with largely made-up numbers!

There are also many different separate apps that specialize in specific kinds of data such as magnetic field strength, sound volume, temperature, acceleration to name just a few.

I have written a guide to smartphone sensors and how to use them, along with dozens of experiments, and a whole section on how to mathematically analyze the data. The guide was written for a program at the Goddard Space Flight Center called the NASA Space Science Education Consortium, so if you know any teachers, students or science-curious tinkerer’s that might be interested in smartphone sensors, send them to this blog page so that I can count the traffic flow to the Guide.

Here is an interview with the folks at ISTE where I talk about smartphone sensors in a bit more detail:

https://www.iste.org/explore/classroom/students-can-do-citizen-science-their-smartphones

OK…here’s the URL for the actual Guide!

http://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/Sensor/SensorsBook.pdf

If you really want to look into using smartphone sensors in a serious way, here are some articles I have written about them that you might also enjoy:

Odenwald, S., 2019. Smartphone Sensors for Citizen Science Applications: Radioactivity and Magnetism. Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 4(1), p.18. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/cstp.158

Odenwald, S., 2018, The Feasibility of Detecting Magnetic Storms With Smartphone Technology, IEEE Access, https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8425973

Black Holes for Fun and Profit!

Well, astronomers finally did it. Nearly 100 years ago, Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity predicted that black holes should exist. Although it took until the 1960’s for someone like physicist John Wheeler to coin the name ‘black hole’ the study of these enigmatic objects became a cottage industry in theoretical physics and astrophysics. In fact, for certain kinds of astronomical phenomena such as quasars and x-ray sources, there was simply no other explanation for how such phenomena could generate so much energy in such an impossibly small volume of space. The existence of black holes was elevated to a certainty during the 1990s as studies of distant galaxies by the Hubble Space Telescope turned in tons of data that clinched the idea that the cores of most if not all galaxies had them. In fact, these black holes contained millions or even billions of times the mass of our sun and were awarded a moniker all their own: supermassive black holes. But there was still one outstanding problem for these versatile engines of gravitational destruction: Not a single one had ever been seen. To understand why, we have to delve rather deeply into what these beasties really are. Hang on to your seats!

               General relativity is the preeminent theory of gravity, but it is completely couched in the language of geometry – in this case the geometry of what is called our 4-dimensional spacetime continuum. You see, in general relativity, what we call space is just a particular feature of the gravitational field of the cosmos within which we are embedded rather seamlessly. This is all well and good, and this perspective has led to the amazing development of the cosmological model called Big Bang theory. Despite this amazing success, it is a theory not without its problems. The problems stem from what happens when you collect enough mass together in a small volume of space so that the geometry of spacetime (e.g. the strength of gravity) becomes enormously curved.

               The very first thing that happens according to the theory is that a condition in spacetime called a Singularity forms. Here, general relativity itself falls apart because density and gravity tend towards infinite conditions. Amazingly according to general relativity, and proved by the late Stephen Hawkins, spacetime immediately develops a zone surrounding the Singularity called an event horizon. For black holes more massive than our sun, the distance in kilometers of this spherical horizon from the Singularity is just 2.9 times the mass of the black hole in multiples of the sun’s mass. For example, if the mass of a supermassive black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, its event horizon is at 6.5 billionx2.9 or 19 billion kilometers. Our solar system has a radius of only 8 billion km to Pluto, so this supermassive black hole is over twice the size of our solar system!

               Now the problem with event horizons is that they are one-way. Objects and even light can travel through them from outside the black hole, but once inside they can never return to the outside universe to give a description of what happened. However, it is a misunderstanding to say that black holes ‘suck’ as the modern colloquialism goes. They are simply points of intense gravitational force, and if our sun were replaced by one very gently, our Earth would not even register the event and continue its merry way in its orbit. The astrophysicist’s frustration is that it has never been possible to take a look at what is going on around the event horizon…until April 10, 2019.

               Researchers using the radio telescope interferometer system called the Event Horizon Telescope were able to synthesize an image of the surroundings of the supermassive black hole in the quasar-like galaxy Messier-87 – also known as Virgo A by early radio astronomers after World War II, and located about 55 million light years from Earth. They combined the data from eight radio telescopes scattered from Antarctica to the UK to create one telescope with the effective diameter of the entire Earth. With this, they were able to detect and resolve details at the center of M-87 near the location of a presumed supermassive black hole. This black hole is surrounded by a swirling disk of magnetized matter, which ejects a powerful beam of plasma into intergalactic space. It has been intensively studied for decades and the details of this process always point to a supermassive black hole as the cause.

Beginning in 2016, several petabytes of data were gathered from the Event Horizon Telescope and a massive press conference was convened to announce the first images of the vicinity of the event horizon. Surrounding the black shadow zone containing the event horizon was a clockwise-rotating ring of billion-degree plasma traveling at nearly the speed of light. When the details of this image were compared with supercomputer simulations, the mass of the supermassive black hole could be accurately determined as well as the dynamics of the ring plasma. The round shape of the event horizon was not perfect, which means that it is a rotating Kerr-type black hole. The darkness of the zone indicated that the event horizon did not have a photosphere of hot matter like the surface of our sun, so many competing ideas about this mass could be eliminated. Only the blackness of a black hole and its compact size now remain as the most consistent explanation for what we are ‘seeing’. Over time, astronomers will watch as this ring plasma moves from week to week. The next target for the Event Horizon Telescope is the four million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way called Sgr-A*. Watch this space for more details to come!!

We have truly entered a new world in exploring our universe. Now if someone could only do something about dark matter!!!

A Life in Remission

In the midst of an active research career in astrophysics, in 2008 I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and my world ended.

For the next eight years I learned to live with the cancer growing slowly within me like some creature out of the infamous ‘Alien’ movie series. Annual tests showed the dozens of affected lymph nodes were very slowly growing in size by the millimeter, but with luck none of them would  turn dangerous for a decade or more. But no one could predict when my cancer would ‘transform’ and become dangerously aggressive, requiring immediate chemotherapy. Actuarial forecasts said that the probability of transformation increased by 5% per year, so that after 10 years I would have a 50/50 chance of my NHL becoming aggressive, but it could happen sooner. …or much later. As a scientist, this uncertain diagnosis was devastating.

A scientist conducts research based on the a priori assumption that they will live to see the end of their work and to publish the results.  I just know you are going to say ‘Well, no one knows when they are going to die’, but among those of us who deal with cancer, these kinds of sentiments seem insensitive and a bit flippant no matter how well-intended.

How does one function when one does not know when the monster will spring out of hiding and put the kibosh on your current work? Many of my projects required several years of work, followed by months of writing-up the results and interacting with referees and journal editors to publish the results. You simply cannot muster the stamina to carry-on your research and deal with referees when you are on a short, emotional leash.

Coping with an uncertain future in research

I immediately began to wean myself away from the rigors of research and instead moved into the area of education where NASA had a huge footprint. I won two grants to develop my SpaceMath@NASA resource, which grew every year to become a significant mathematics resource for educators. I even became known in some circles as Dr. Space Math! This was an intensely therapeutic undertaking for me because could write new math problems and design new math books whenever I chose to on my timetable, and if I literally died tomorrow, I would have left behind a complete archive of fun math resources. It was an open-ended commitment that suited my new frame-of-mind, and still made me feel as though I was contributing, intellectually, to a Greater Good: The education of our children.

As the years began to add up, 5…6..7…8  I started to realize that I might be in this cancer frame-of-mind for the long haul. But by this time my hiatus from research, and my ‘advanced age’ of 64, precluded any re-entry into the level of research I had enjoyed in my earlier years. It was very sad to see this part of my career waste away, but considering I was in my peri-retirement years, perhaps as it is for so many other scientists, this transition was inevitable.

In 2016 my NHL became aggressive after eight years of near-dormancy. I was quickly rushed into a course of immunotherapy with a monthly infusion of Rituximab and Bendemustine for six months. At the end, a PET scan showed in November, 2017 that there wasn’t a sign of  the NHL anywhere, and my oncologist, Dr. Bruce Cheson at MedStar/Georgetown University Hospital in Washington DC pronounced me in remission. For the next two years, if there was no further sign of the NHL, he would consider me cured!

All of a sudden my attitude seemed to change almost literally over-night. I was anxious to start new research projects that, at least for now, could be completed in six months or less including writing up the results and submitting to the Journals. I had been out of my own research area for too long, and besides no astronomer at the age of 65 worries about new research unless they are still employed at a stable faculty or government job…which I was not. But I did have a part-time position at NASA working on citizen science activities. I was also involved in some very fun research trying to determine how well smartphones performed as scientific data-gathering sensors. That was starting to generate a pipeline of short-term projects culminating in several papers every year. But now that I was in remission, I could start to think about more complicated projects to tackle once again.

So I, basically, have come full circle in research having wandered for eight years in the dreary and uncertain desert of non-research work.

It’s good to be back!!

 

Quantum Gravity – Again!

In my previous blogs, I briefly described how the human brain perceives and models space (Oops one more thing), how Einstein and other physicists dismiss space as an illusion (Relativity and space ), how relativity deals with the concept of space (So what IS space?), what a theory of quantum gravity would have to look like (Quantum Gravity Oh my! ), and along the way why the idea of infinity is not physically real (Is infinity real?) and why space is not nothing (Thinking about Nothing).  I even discussed how it is important to ‘think visually’ when trying to model the universe such as the ‘strings’ and ‘loops’ used by physicists as an analog to space (Thinking Visually)

And still these blogs do not exhaust the scope of either the idea of space itself or the research in progress to get to the bottom of our experience of it.

This essay, based on a talk I gave at the Belmont Astronomical Society on October 5, 2017 will try to cover some of these other ideas and approaches that are loosely believed to be a part of a future theory of quantum gravity.

What is quantum gravity?

It is the basic idea that the two great theories of physics, Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity are incompatible with each other and do not actually deal with the same ingredients to the world: space(time) and matter. Quantum gravity is a hypothetical theory that unifies these two great ideas into a single language, revealing answers to some of the deepest questions we know how to ask about the physical world. It truly is the Holy Grail of physics.

Why do we need quantum gravity at all?

Quantum mechanics is a theory that describes matter and fields embedded in a pre-existing spacetime that has no physical effect on these fields other than to provide coordinates for describing where they are in time and space. It is said to be a background-dependent theory. General relativity is only a theory of space(time) and does not describe matter’s essence at all. It describes how matter affects the geometry of spacetime and how spacetime affects the motion of matter, but does so in purely ‘classical’ terms. Most importantly, general relativity says there is no pre-existing spacetime at all. It is called a background-independent theory. Quantum gravity is an overarching background-independent theory that accounts for the quantum nature of matter and also the quantum nature of spacetime at scales where these effects are important, called the Planck scale where the smallest unit of space is 10^-33 cm and the smallest unit of time is 10^-43 seconds.

We need quantum gravity because calculations in quantum mechanics are plagued by ‘infinities’ that come about because QM assumes space(time) is infinitely divisible into smaller units of length. When physical processes and field intensities are summed over smaller and smaller lengths to build up a prediction, the infinitesimally small units lead to infinitely large contributions which ‘blow up’ the calculations unless some mathematical method called ‘renormalization’ is used. But the gravitational field escribed by general relativity cannot be renormalized to eliminate its infinities. Only by placing a lower limit ‘cutoff’ to space(time) as quantum gravity does is this problem eliminated and all calculations become finite.

We need quantum gravity because black holes do not possess infinite entropy. The surface area of a black hole, called its event horizon, is related to its entropy, which is a measure of the amount of information that is contained inside the horizon. A single bit of information is encoded on the horizon as an area 2-Planck lengths squared. According to the holographic principle, the surface of a black hole, its 2-d surface area, encodes all the information found in the encompassed 3-d volume, so that means that the spacetime interior of a black hole has to be quantized and cannot be infinitely divisible otherwise the holographic principle would be invalid and the horizon of the black hole would have to encode an infinite amount of information and have an infinite entropy.

We also need quantum gravity because it is believed that any fundamental theory of our physical world has to be background-independent as general relativity shows that spacetime is. That means that quantum mechanics is currently an incomplete theory because it still requires the scaffolding of a pre-existing spacetime and does not ‘create’ this scaffolding from within itself the way that general relativity does.

So what is the big picture?

Historically, Newton gave us space and time as eternally absolute and fixed prerequisites to our world that were defined once and for all before we even started to describe forces and motion. The second great school of thought at that time was developed by Gottfrid Leibnitz. He said that time and space have no meaning in themselves but only as properties defined by the relationships between bodies. Einstein’s relativity and its experimental vindication has proven that Newton’s Absolute Space and Time are completely false, and replaced them by Leibnitz’s relativity principle. Einstein even said on numerous occasions that space is an imaginary construct that we take for granted in an almost mythical way. Space has no independent existence apart from its emergence out of the relationships between physical bodies. This relationship is so intimate that in general relativity, material bodies define the spacetime geometry itself as a dynamical solution to his famous relativistic equation for gravity.

How does the experience of space emerge?

In general relativity, the only thing that matters are the events along a particle’s worldline, also called its history. These events encode the relationships between bodies, and are created by the intersections of other worldlines from other particles. This network of fundamental worldlines contains all the information you need to describe the global geometry of this network of events and worldlines. It is only the geometry of these worldlines that matters to physical phenomena in the universe.

The wireframe head in this illustration is an analog to worldliness linking together to create a geometry. The black ‘void’ contains no geometric or dimensional information and any points in it do not interact with any worldline that makes up the network. That is why ‘space’ is a myth and the only thing that determine the structure of our 4-d spacetime are the worldliness.

General relativity describes how the geometry of these worldlines creates a 4-dimensional spacetime. These worldlines represent matter particles and general relativity describes how these matter particles create the curvature in the worldlines among the entire system of particles, and thereby creates space and time. The ‘empty’ mathematical points between the worldlines have no physical meaning because they are not connected to events among any of the physical worldlines, which is why Einstein said that the background space in which the worldlines seem to be embedded does not actually exist! When we look out into ‘space’ we are looking along the worldlines of light rays. We are not looking through a pre-existing space. This means we are not seeing ‘things in space’ we are seeing processes in time along a particle’s history!

There are two major quantum gravity theories being worked on today.

String theory says that particles are 1-dimensional loops of ‘something’ that are defined in a 10-dimensional spacetime of which 4 dimensions are the Big Ones we see around us. The others are compact and through their geometric symmetries define the properties of the particles themselves. It is an approach to quantum gravity that has several problems.

 

This figure is an imaginative rendering of a ‘string’.

First it assumes that spacetime already exists for the strings to move within. It is a background-dependent theory in the same spirit as Newton’s Absolute Space and Time. Secondly, string theory is only a theory of matter and its quantum properties at the Planck scales, but in fact the scale of a string depends on a single parameter called the string tension. If the tension is small, then these string ‘loops’ are thousands of times bigger than the Planck scale, and there is no constraint on what the actual value of the tension should be. It is an adjustable parameter.

This figure is an imaginative rendering of a ‘loop’

Loop Quantum Gravity is purely a theory of spacetime and does not treat the matter covered by quantum mechanics. It is a background-independent theory that is able to exactly calculate the answers to many problems in gravitation theory, unlike string theory which has to sneak up on the answers by summing an infinite number of alternate possibilities. LQG arrives at the answer ‘2.0’ in one step as an exact answer while for example string theory has to sum the sequence 1+1/2+1/4+1/8+1/16 +…. To get to 2.000.

LQG works with elementary spacetime ingredients called nodes and edges to create spin networks and spin foam. Like a magnetic field line that carries magnetic flux, these edges act like the field lines to space and carry quantized areas 1 Planck length squared. By summing over the number of nodes in a spin network region, each node carries a quantum unit of space volume. These nodes are related to each other in a network of intersecting lines called a spin network, which for very large networks begins to look like a snapshot of space seen at a specific instant. The change of one network into another is called a spin foam and it is the antecedent to 4-d spacetime. There is no physical meaning to the nodes and edges themselves just as there is no physical meaning to the 1-d loops than make up strings in string theory. . They are pure mathematical constructs.

So far, the best idea is that LQG forms the bedrock for string theory. String theory looks at spacetime and matter far above the Planck scale, and this is where the properties of matter particles make their appearance. LQG creates the background of spacetime that strings move through. However there is a major problem. LQG predicts that the cosmological constant must be negative and small, which is what is astronomically observed, while string theory says that the cosmological constant is large and positive. Also, although LQG can reconstruct the large 4-d spacetime that we live in, it does not seem to have have any room for the additional 6 dimensions required by string theory to create the properties of the particles we observe. One possibility is that these extra dimensions are not space-like at all but merely ‘bookkeeping’ tools that physicists have to use which will eventually be replaced in the future by a fully 4-d theory of strings.

Another approach still in its infancy is Causal Set Theory. Like LQG it is a background-independent theory of spacetime. It starts with a collection of points that are linked together by only one guiding principle, that pairs of points are ordered by cause-and-effect. This defines how these points are ordered in time, but this is the only organizing principle for points in the set. What investigators have found is that such sets create from within themselves the physical concepts of distance and time and lead to relativistic spacetimes. Causal Sets and the nodes in LQG spin networks may be related to each other.

Another exciting discovery that relates to how the elements of quantum spacetime create spacetime involves the Holographic Principle connected with quantum entanglement.

The Holographic Principle states that all the information and relationships found in a 3-d volume are ‘encoded’ on a 2-d surface screen that surrounds this volume. This means that relationships among the surface elements are reflected in the behavior of the interior physics. Recently it was discovered that if you use quantum entanglement to connect two points on the surface, the corresponding points in the interior become linked together as a physical unit. If you turn off the entanglement on the surface the interior points become unconnected and the interior space dissolves into unrelated points. The amount of entanglement can be directly related to how physically close the points are, and so this is how a unified geometry for spacetime inside the 3-d ‘bulk’ can arise from unconnected points linked together by quantum entanglement.

 

Additional Reading:

Exploring Quantum Space  [My book at Amazon.com]

Quantum Entanglement and quantum spacetime [Mark Raamsdonk]

Background-independence  [Lee Smolin]

Holographic Principle [ Jack Ng]

Causal Sets: The self-organizing universe [Scientific American]

 

Eclipse Postscript

In a previous blog in June , I described the August 21, 2017 eclipse and what to expect from it, along with the many resources available at the NASA website that fill-in the details of this event as we were expecting it to unfold.  This website, by the way,  went crazy for the eclipse and got over 2 billion hits from tens of millions of daily visitors. For myself, I was not prepared for the surge of emotions I would feel even after glimpsing only 15 seconds of this event between gaps in the clouds over Carbondale, Illinois. Why Carbondale? I described in a 2014 Huffington Post article how this would be the place where the eclipse lasted the longest, 2 minutes and 40 seconds, and so this is where NASA Edge decided to park us for our major public outreach activities and NASA TV interviews.

I had been interviewed by a number of TV and radio reporters as well as a memorable Facebook interview with Curiosity. My article at NASA on the airline flights that would see the eclipse got quite a bit of traction. It was fun to see my articles on smartphone eclipse photography get so much press like this one at BuzzFeed, or this one at WIRED.  I even presented my smartphone tips to 1000 students at a local high school, which was carried by the local TV station WSIL-TV. Amazingly, despite my public ‘expertise’ on the matter, I did not bother using my smartphone at all in the brief time that the eclipse showed itself!

I mentioned in an interview with Carolyn Cerda also on WSIL-TV how I had brought along my cameras and hoped to grab just one image of this event. This was after many weeks of debating with myself whether I should even bother with photography at all. I knew how easy it was to get lost among the f/stops and exposure speeds in pursuit of a trophy to commemorate this event. I certainly didn’t want to waste precious time wrestling with the very finicky smartphone telephoto lens set up. But I also wanted to spend as much time as possible letting the emotions wash over me, just as they had done for millions of other people down through the thousands of years of human history. Could I, too, experience the fear that had so commonly been the popular experience? Or would my science protect me from these irrational feelings like some coat-of-armor? I had no idea, and in many of my TV interviews I said as much.

So I compromised.

I would run my digital, Sony camcorder during totality, and on the same tripod bracket, I would set my Nikon D3000 to a fixed f/stop and exposure speed selected to highlight the dazzling bright inner corona and any prominences or blood-red chromospheric light that may be present. I would hold the shutter release down so that the camera took bursts of a dozen photos, and periodically snap photos at mid-eclipse, and on each side of the 2.5-minute window to catch Baily’s Beads and anything else going on. It sounded like a good plan, and one in which I could still spend all of my eyeball time looking at totality and not at my camera!

This turned out to be a very good choice!

The clouds did roll in and cover the entire eclipse except for the last 15 seconds of totality. I snapped a few pictures like the one above using the clouds themselves to filter the intense sunlight, revealing a diminishing crescent sun. Had my NASA activities allowed us to be located a mile east rather than by Saluki Stadium at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale campus, I would have been treated to a full 2.5 minutes of eclipse. But 15 seconds was just enough time to send chills down my spine and have the experience of a lifetime.

My photos turned out not to be too bad. The montage below was posted on my Facebook page within an hour or so, and although a bit fuzzy for the clouds, it was clear I had seen the entire circumferential inner corona, several red spots along the solar limb as the chromosphere peaked through, and the delightful Diamond Ring of sunlight streaking through a deep lunar canyon! My camcorder also showed the emergence of the sun from totality, capturing the dense clouds and the screams from the thousands of people looking on. This also went up on my Facebook page to the delight of dozens of my friends and family!

But how did I feel?

It was frustrating to see the crescent sun dip in to the dense clouds at the start of totality, and to watch the clock tick out the next few minutes, but as we reached mid-eclipse the scenery around me turned to twilight so quickly that I actually gasped in amazement! Hopefully, and with cameras at the ready I waited and then suddenly the brightening of a small portion of the cloud heralded that the eclipsed sun was about to make its appearance. When it did, everyone shouted and I watched with amazement, not really understanding what it was I was seeing. I immediately placed my finger on the shutter button, let the camera’s machinery take a series of 100 images, and hoped for the best. Again I was not dissappointed.

A dark object appeared surrounded by an intense ring of light. I thought this was just the reflection of sunlight on the cloud, but in an instant I realized this was no sun glint for there was no brilliant solar disk to illuminate it. Instead, it was the corona itself, brighter to the naked eye than I ever could have imagined! Within a few seconds the moon began to move off the western edge of the solar disk and slowly but steadily a single bright point of light appeared and grew in brightness until I could no longer stare at it with my eye through the digital display of my camcorder.

There was so much noise and ruckus from everyone else cheering that it was hard for me to collect and reflect on my thoughts – a process that took several days and repeated sharing of my experiences with family and friends. I had only experienced the ‘tip of an iceberg’ in the emotions that had hit me, and some were no doubt muted by the confusion of what I was seeing so briefly. I could only imagine what the full two minutes would have brought to mind.

I was not prepared for the days to follow. My sense of loss was something ineffable that I could not quite shake. I drifted from day to day, occasionally gawking at the many gorgeous online photos taken by more savvy photographers and old-hands at totalities. But you have to start somewhere, and at least for the first time in my life as an astronomer I can describe to my students,not only why we have eclipses and how our ancestors regarded them, but as with the Northern Lights, I can now add my own tiny voice to describing them in purely human terms!

Thinking Visually

Look at the two images  for a few minutes and let your mind wander.

What impressions do you get from the patterns of light and dark? If I were to tell you that the one at the top is a dark nebula in the constellation Orion, and the one on the bottom is a nebula in the Pleiades star cluster, would that completely define for you what you are experiencing…or is there something more going on?

Chances are that, in the top image you are seeing what looks like the silhouette of the head and shoulders of some human-like figure being lit from behind by a light. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but the image seems vaguely mysterious and perhaps even a bit frightening the more you stare at it.

The image on the bottom evokes something completely different. Perhaps you are connecting the translucence and delicacy with some image of a shroud or silken cloak floating in a breeze. The image seems almost ghost-like in some respects…spiritual

But of course this is rather silly” you might say. “These are interstellar clouds, light-years across and all we are doing is letting our imaginations wander which is not a very scientific thing to do if you want to understand the universe.” This rational response then tempts you to reach for your mouse and click to some other page on the web.

What has happened in that split second is that a battle has been fought between one part of your brain and another. The right side of your brain enjoys looking at things and musing over the patterns that it finds there. Alas, it cannot speak because the language centers of the brain live in the left cerebral hemisphere, and it is here that rules of logic and other ‘scientific’ reasoning tools exist. The left side of your brain is vocal, and talking to you right now. It gets rather upset when it is presented with vague patterns because it can’t understand them and stamp them with a definite emotion the way the right hemisphere can. So it argues you into walking away from this challenge of understanding patterns.

If you can suspend this indignation for a moment or two, you will actually find yourself thinking about space in a way that more nearly resembles how a scientist does, though even some scientists don’t spend much time thinking about space. This indifference has begun to change during the last 20 years, and we are now in the midst of a quiet revolution.

There are three child-like qualities that make for a successful scientist:

Curiosity. This is something that many people seem to outgrow as they get older, or if they maintain it as adults, it is not at the same undiluted strength that it was when they were a child.

Imagination. This is something that also wanes with age but becomes an asset to those that can hang on to even a small vestige of it. It is what ‘Thinking out of the box’ is all about.

Novelty. As a child, everything is new. As an adult we become hopelessly jaded about irrelevant experiences like yet another sunset, yet another meteor shower, yet another eclipse. In some ways we develop an aversion for new experiences preferring the familiarity of the things we have already experienced.

If you wish to understand what space is all about, and explore the patterns hidden in the darker regions of nature, you will have to re-acquaint yourself with that child within you. You will need to pull all the stops out and allow yourself to ‘play’ with nature and the many clues that scientists have uncovered about it. You will need to do more than read books by physicists and astronomers. They speak the language of the left-brain . They can help you to see the logical development of our understanding of space and the Void, but they can not help you internalize this knowledge so that it actually means something to you. For that, you have to engage your right-brain faculties, and this requires that you see the patterns behind the words that physicists and astronomers use. To do that, you will need to think in terms of pictures and other types of images. You will need to bring something to the table to help you make sense of space in a way that you have not been able to before. You will need to expand your internal library of visual imagery to help you find analogues to what physicists and astronomers are trying to describe in words and equations. These visual analogues can be found in many common shapes and patterns, some seen under unusual and evocative circumstances. Here are some evocative images that seem to suggest how space might be put together compliments of  a diatom, the painters Miro and Mondrian, dew on a spider web, and atoms in a tungsten needle tip!

Spider web covered with dew drops

Remember, the right brain uses ALL sensory inputs to search for patterns and to understand them. It even uses imaginary information, dreams, and other free-forms to decode what it is experiencing.  

My book ‘Exploring Quantum Space’ is a guidebook that will give you some of the mental tools you will need to make sense of one of the greatest, and most subtle, discoveries in human history. Space, itself, is far from being ‘nothing’ or merely a container for matter to rattle around within. It is a landscape of hidden patterns and activity that shapes our universe and our destiny. You cannot understand it, or sense the awe and mystery of its existence, by simply reading words and following a logical exposition of ‘ifs and thens’. You also have to experience it through evocative imagery and imagination. Space is such a different medium from anything we have ever had to confront, intellectually, that we need to employ a different strategy if we wish to understand it in a personal way. Once we do this, we will be reconnected with that sense of awe we feel each time we look at the night sky.

My next blog about Nothing introduces some of the other ideas and techniques that scientists use to think about the impossible!

 

Thinking about Nothing

Looking back at the millennia of model building and deduction that has occurred, not a century has gone by when the prevailing opinion hasn’t been that a perfectly empty vacuum is impossible.

Aristotle’s Aether blends seamlessly into the 19th century Ether. In this century, overlapping quantum waves and virtual particles have finally taken root as the New Ether, though it is now infinitely more ephemeral than anything Aristotle or Maxwell could have imagined. We have also seen how the Atomist School of ancient Greece reached its final vindication in the hands of 19th century scientists such as Boltzman. By the 20th century, the Atomist’s paradigm has even been extended to include not just the graininess of matter, but the possible quantum graininess of the vacuum and space itself. In the virtual particles that animate matter, we finally glimpse the world which Heinrich Hertz warned us about nearly a century ago when he said that we would eventually have to reach some accommodation with “invisible confederates” existing alongside what we can see, to make our whole model of reality more logically self-consistent.

Even by the start of the 21st Century, we have reached this accommodation only by shrugging our shoulders and honestly admitting that there are things going on in the world that seem to defy human intuition. What impresses me most about the evolution of our vision of the vacuum is that the imagery we find so potent today is actually in some sense thousands of years old.

It is difficult to imagine that humans would be drawn to the same understanding of physics and astronomy that we now enjoy if our brains had been wired only slightly differently. Without sight and mobility we could not form the slightest notion of 3-D space and geometry. This is what Kant spoke about, what Henri Poincare described at great length without the benefit of 20th century neuroscience, and what Jacob Bronowski described in his book The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination with the benefit of such knowledge. But the object of science is more than just making sense of our senses. It must also guide us towards a deeper understanding of the physical world. This understanding must be self-consistent, and independent of whether we are sensorially or neurologically handicapped. Mathematics as the premier language of physical model building, seems uniquely suited to providing us with an understanding of the physical world. Mathematics lets us see the world in a way that all of the other human languages do not.

If our mathematical understanding of nature is a product of mental activity, and this activity can be physically affected by the hard-wiring of our brain, how do we arrive at a coherent model of the physical world? Can we see in this process any explanation for why certain ideas in physics appear to be so historically tenacious?

It is commonly believed that in order for mathematics and the underlying logic to exist, at the very least a conscious language must be pre-existent to support it. This is the point of view expressed by Benjamin Whorf. But the thoughtful reflections by individuals such as Einstein, Feynman and Penrose point in a very different direction. Einstein once wrote a note to Jaques Hadamard prompted by Hadamard’s investigation of creative thinking,

“…The words of language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements of thought are certain signs ( symbols ) and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined…The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some muscular type…”

Roger Penrose echoes some of this same description in his book, The Emperor’s New Mind,

“…Almost all my mathematical thinking is done visually and in terms of non-verbal concepts, although the thoughts are quite often accompanied by inane and almost useless verbal commentary such as ‘that thing goes with that thing and that thing goes with that thing’..”

Freeman Dyson, one of the architects of modern QED had this to say about how Feynman did his calculations,

“…Dick was using his own private quantum mechanics that nobody else could understand. They were getting the same answers whenever they calculated the same problem…The reason Dick’s physics was so hard for ordinary people to grasp was that he did not use equations…Dick just wrote down the solutions out of his head without ever writing down the equations. He had a physical picture of the way things happen, and the pictures gave him the solutions directly with a minimum of calculation…It was no wonder that people who had spent their lives solving equations were baffled by him. Their minds were analytical; his was pictorial…”

In many instances, the conversion of abstract thinking into conventional language is seen as a laborious, almost painful process. Often words are inadequate to encompass the subtleties of the non-verbal, abstract ideas and their interrelationships. According to Penrose,

“I had noticed, on occasion, that if I have been concentrating hard for a while on mathematics and someone would engage me suddenly in conversation, then I would find myself almost unable to speak for several seconds”

In fact, abstract thinking is often argued to be a right-hemisphere function. Visual or pattern-related thinking and artistic talents are frequently coupled to this hemisphere, and since the language centers are in the left-hemisphere, with such a disconnect between language and abstract thinking, there is little wonder that theoreticians and artists find themselves tongue-tied in explaining their ideas, or are inclined to report that their work is non-verbal.

So the creation of sophisticated physical theories may involve a primarily non-verbal and visual-symbolic thinking processes, often manipulating patterns and only later, with some effort of will, translating this into spoken language or fleshing out the required mathematical details. Could this be why scientists, and artists for that matter have such difficulty in explaining what they are thinking to the rest of the population? Could this be why ancient philosophers managed to land upon archetypes for their Creation legends that seem familiar to us in the 20th century? The symbols that are used appear disembodied, and no amount of word play can capture all of the nuances and motivations that went into a particular interpretive archetypes, and make them seem compelling to the non-mathematician or non-artist. Feynman once wrote about the frustrating process of explaining to the public what goes on in nature,

“…Different people get different reputations for their skill at explaining to the layman in layman’s language these difficult and abstruse subjects. The layman then searches for book after book in the hope that he will avoid the complexities which ultimately set in, even with the best expositor of this type. He finds as he reads a generally increasing confusion, one complicated statement after another,… all apparently disconnected from one another. It becomes obscure, and he hopes that maybe in some other book there is some explanation…but I do not think it is possible, because mathematics is NOT just another language. Mathematics is a language plus reasoning…if you do not appreciate the mathematics, you cannot see, among the great variety of facts, that logic permits you to go from one to the other…”

If this is the mental frame used by some physicists to comprehend physics, it is little wonder that a great chasm exists between the lay person and the physicist in explaining what is going on. The task that even a physicist such as Freeman Dyson had in translating Feynman’s diagrammatic techniques into mathematical symbology, seems even more challenging knowing that Feynman may have had a whole other perspective on visualization via his apparent color-symbol synthesia. The equations below are the current best mathematical expression for the Standard Model in physics, which describes all known particles and fields excepting gravity.

Another feature of thinking that separates scientists and artists from everyone else seems to be the plasticity of the thinking process itself. Scientists flit from one idea to another until they arrive at a model that best explains the available data, although scientists can also get rooted to particular perspectives that are difficult to forget after decades of inculcation. The general adult population prefers a more stable collection of ideas and ‘laws’ which it can refer to over a lifetime.

Where does this all leave us?

The vacuum has been promoted to perhaps the most important clue to our own existence. The difficulty is that we lack a proper Rosetta Stone to translate the various symbolisms we use to describe it. The clues that we do have are scattered among a variety of enigmatic subjects which strain at our best intellectual resources to understand how they are linked together. Could it be that we are lacking an even more potent symbolic metaphor, and an internal non-verbal language, to give it life? Where would such a thing come from?

Spider web covered with dew drops

If we take our clue from how ideas in physics have emerged in the past, the elements of the new way of thinking may be hidden in some unexpected corner of nature. We may find an analogy or a metaphor in our mundane world which, when mixed with mathematical insight, may take us even closer to understanding gravity, spacetime and vacuum. It is no accident that string theory owes much of its success because it asks us to think about quantum fields as ordinary strings operating in an exotic mathematical setting. It is exciting to think that the essential form of the Theory of Everything could be this close to us, perhaps even lurking in a pattern we see, and overlook, in our everyday lives.

Much of this symbolic process may be performed sub-consciously, and only the form of dreams, insights or hunches seem to bring them into consciousness when the circumstances are appropriate. It is, evidently, the non-verbal and unconscious right hemisphere which experiences these ideas. Is there a limit to this process of symbolic thinking? At least a dozen times this century, physicists have had to throw up their hands over what to make of certain features of the world: the collapse of the wave function; quantum indeterminacy; particle/wave dualism; cosmogenesis. Some of these may eventually find their explanation at the next level of model building. Others such as the meaning of quantum indeterminacy and particle/wave dualism, seem to be here to stay.

In working with these contradictions, the human mind prefers the avenue of denial, you can almost hear your inner voice saying “Aw come on, quantum mechanics just can’t be that weird!” or a state of anxiety as the two hemispheres try to fabricate conflicting world models. Little wonder that we have particle/wave duality, the seeming schism between matter and energy, and a whole host of other ‘polar’ ideas in physics, as two separate minds try to resolve the universe into one model or another with the left one preferring time ordered patterns, and the right one, spatial patterns.

It is hard to believe that our brains can control what we experience of the objective world, but we need only realize that the brain actually blindsides us in a variety of subtle ways, from seeing a wider sensory world. The object of science, however, is to discern the shapes of objective laws in a way that gets to the universal elements of nature that are not coupled to a particular kind of brain circuitry. It doesn’t matter if all scientists have anasognosia and see the world differently in some consistent way, what counts is that they must still live by the laws of motion dictated by gravity and quantum mechanics.

Nils Bohr believed atoms are not real in the same sense as trees. The quantum world really does represent a different kind of reality than our apparently naive understanding of macroscopic reality implies. This being the case, we must first ask to what extent fields and the denizens of the quantum vacuum can be represented by any analogy drawn from the macroworld? We already know that the single most important distinguishing characteristic of atomic particles is their spin; far more so than mass or charge. Yet unlike mass and charge, quantum mechanical spin has ABSOLUTELY no analog in the macroscopic world. Moreover, fundamental particles cannot be thought of as tiny spheres of charged matter located at specific points in space. They have no surface, and participate in an infernal wave-like dance of probability, at least when they are not being observed. Yet despite this warning, we feel comfortable that we understand something about what reality is at this scale, in the face of these irreconcilable differences between one set of mental images and what experiments tell us over and over again. What is the true nature of the vacuum? How did the universe begin? I suspect we will not know the answer to these questions in your lifetime or mine, perhaps for the same reason that it took 3000 years for geometers to ‘discover’ non-Euclidean geometry.

At the present time we are faced with what may amount to only a single proof of the parallel-line postulate, unable to see our way through to another way of looking at the proof. There is also the very real worry that some areas of nature may require modalities of symbolic thinking beyond the archetypes that our brains are capable of providing as a consequence of their neural hard-wiring. Today, we have quantum field theory and its tantalizing paradoxes, much as the ancient geometers had their parallel-line postulate. We, like they, scratch the same figures in the sand over and over again, hoping to see the glimmerings of a new world view appearing in the shifting sands. At a precision of one part in a trillion, our quantum theories work too well, and seem to provide few clues to the new direction we must turn to see beyond them.

The primary arbiters we have at our disposal to decide between various interpretive schemes, experimental data, are not themselves in unending supply as the abrupt cancellation of the U.S. Superconducting Super Collider program in 1989 showed. It was replaced by the CERN Large Hadron Collider shown above, but even the LHC may not be large enough to access the new physics we need to explore to further our theories and understanding.

Whatever answers we need seem to be hidden, not in the low- energy world accessible to our technology, but at vastly higher energies well beyond any technology we are likely to afford in the next few centuries. It is easy to provide a jet plane with an energy of 100 billion billion billion volts — its energy of motion at a speed of a few hundred miles per hour, but it is beyond understanding how to supply a single proton or electron with the same energy. On the other hand, our internal symbolic thinking seems to lead us to similar interpretative schemes, and unconscious dualities which may only be a reflection of our own neural architecture, which we all share, and which has remained essentially unchanged for millennia. We visualize the vacuum in the same way as the Ancients did because we are still starting from the same limited collection of internal imagery. At least for some general problems, we seem to have hit a glass ceiling for which our current style of theory building seems to lead us to a bipolar and contradictory world populated by various dualities: matter/energy, space/time, wave/particle. When we finally do break through to a new kind of reality in our experiments, would we be able to recognize this event? Will our brains filter out this new world and show us only the ghostly shadows of contradictory archetypes cast upon the cave wall?

We have seen that many schemes have been offered for describing the essential difference between matter and empty space; many have failed. Theoreticians since Einstein have speculated about the geometric features of spacetime, and the structure of electrons and matter for decades. The growing opinion now seems to be that, ultimately, only the properties of space such as its geometry or dimensionality can play a fundamental role in defining what matter really is. In a word, matter may be just another form of space. If the essence of matter is to be found in the geometric properties of ’empty’ space, our current understanding of space will not be sufficient to describe all of matter’s possible aspects.

Misconceiving the Big Bang

The Big Bang was NOT a Fireworks Display!

Written by Sten Odenwald
Copyright (C) 1997. Published in the Washington Post Horizon education supplement on May 14, 1997.

The Big Bang wasn’t really big. Nor was it really a bang. In fact, the event that created the universe and everything in it was a very different kind of phenomenon than most people–or, at least, most nonphysicists–imagine.
Even the name “Big Bang” originally was a put-down cooked up by a scientist who didn’t like the concept when it was first put forth. He favored the idea that the universe had always existed in a much more dignified and fundamentally unchanging, steady state.

But the name stuck, and with it has come the completely wrong impression that the event was like an explosion and that the universe is expanding today because the objects in it are being flung apart like fragments of a detonated bomb.

Virtually every basic aspect of this intuitive image for the Big Bang (we ARE stuck with the name) is incorrect. To understand why, you need to understand Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Or, at least, you need to have a sense of it. That may sound daunting, but general relativity is the most revolutionary scientific advance of the 20th century, and we all ought to acquire some feeling for it before the century ends.

After all, it’s been 82 years since Einstein put forth his theory. It’s been tested in scores of experiments and has always passed with flying colors and is now firmly established as our premier guide to understanding how gravity operates. Moreover, it is part of the foundation of Big Bang cosmology. And it is because of general relativity that we know the Big Bang was (and is, for the event is still going on) nothing like an explosion.

Albert Einstein developed general relativity in order to make his famous theory of special relativity include the effects of gravity. It is a better way than Sir Isaac Newton’s of understanding how gravity works. Like a hungry amoeba, general relativity ( or just GR for short) had absorbed both Einstein’s newly-minted special relativity and Newton’s physics, giving us the means to replicate ALL of the predictions from these two great theories, while extending them into unfamiliar realms of experience. One of these realms was the Black Hole. The other was the shape and evolution of the universe itself.

Big Bang cosmology says that the universe came into existence between 10 to 20 billion years ago, and that from a hot dense state has been expanding and cooling ever since, remains unassailable. Yet, Big Bang cosmology is vulnerable. It is based on GR being accurate over an enormous range of scales in time and space. Just how good is general relativity? So far, GR has made the following specific predictions:

1…The entire orbit of Mercury rotates because of the curved geometry of space near the sun. The amount of ‘perihelion shift’ each century was well known at the time Einstein provided a complete explanation for it in 1915.

2…Light at every frequency can be bent in exactly the same way by gravity. This was confirmed in the 1919 Solar Eclipse for optical light using stars near the Sun’s limb, and in 1969-1975 using radio emissions from star-like quasars also seen near the limb of the Sun. The deflection of the light was exactly as predicted by GR.

3…Clocks run slower in strong gravitational fields. This was confirmed by Robert Pound and George Rebka at Harvard University in 1959, and by Robert Vessot in the 1960’s and 70’s using high-precession hydrogen maser clocks flown on jet planes and on satellites.

4…Gravitational mass and inertial mass are identical. Most recently in 1971, Vladimir Braginsky at Moskow University confirmed GRs prediction of this to within 1 part in a trillion of the exact equality required by GR.

5…Black holes exist. Although these objects have been suspected to exist since they were first introduced to astronomers in the early 1970’s, it is only in 1992 that a critical acceptance threshold was crossed in the astronomical community. It was then that Hubble Space Telescope observations revealed monstrous, billion-sun black holes in the cores of nearby galaxies such as Messier 87, Messier 33 and NGC 4261.

6…Gravity has its own form of radiation which can carry energy. Russel Hulse and Joseph Taylor in 1975 discovered two pulsars orbiting each other, and through careful monitoring of their precise pulses during the next 20 years, confirmed that the system is loosing energy at a rate within 1 percent of the prediction by GR based on the emission of gravitational radiation.

7…A new force exists called ‘gravito-magnetism’. Just as electric and magnetic fields are linked together, according to GR, a spinning body produces a magnetism-like force called gravitomagnetism. GR predicts that rotating bodies not only bend space and time, but also make empty space spin. A NASA satellite called Gravity Probe B will be launched in the next few years to see whether this effect exists. This is a killer. If it is not found, GR is mortally wounded despite its long string of other successes.

8…Space can stretch during the expansion of the universe. This was confirmed by Edwin Hubble’s detection of the recession of the galaxies ca 1929. More recently in 1993, Astronomer Kenneth Kellerman confirmed that the angular sizes of distant radio sources shrink to a minimum then increase at greater distances exactly as expected for a dilating space. This is not predicted by any other cosmological model that does not also include the dilation of space as a real, physical phenomenon.

We have now boxed ourselves into a corner. If we accept the successes of GR, we are forced to see the world and the cosmos through its eyes, and its eyes alone, since it is the theory which satisfies all known tests to date.

So, how should we think about the Big Bang? Our mental ‘fireworks’ image of the Big Bang contains these basic elements: 1) A pre-existing sky or space into which the fragments from the explosion are injected; 2) A pre-existing time we can use to mark when the explosion happened; 3) Individual projectiles moving through space from a common center; 4) A definite moment when the explosion occurred; and 5) Something that started the Big Bang.

All of these elements to our visualization of the Big Bang are completely false according to GR!

Preexisting Space?

There wasn’t any!

The mathematics of GR state specifically and unambiguously that 3-dimensional space was created at the Big Bang itself, at ‘Time Zero’, along with everything else. It was a ‘singular’ event in which the separations between all particles everywhere, vanished. This is just another way of saying that our familiar 3-dimensional space vanished. Theorists studying various prototypes for the Theory of Everything have only modified this statement somewhat. During its earliest moments, the universe may have existed in a nearly incomprehensible state which may have had more than 4 dimensions, or perhaps none at all. Many of these theories of the earliest moments hypothesize a ‘mother space-time’ that begat our own universe, but you cannot at the same time place your minds eye both inside this Mother Spacetime to watch the Big Bang happen, and inside our universe to see the matter flying around. This is exactly what the fireworks display model demands that you do.

Preexisting Time?

There wasn’t any of this either!

Again, GR’s mathematics treats both space and time together as one object called ‘space-time’ which is indivisible. At Time Zero plus a moment, you had a well defined quantity called time. At Time Zero minus a moment, this same quantity changed its character in the mathematics and became ‘imaginary’. This is a mathematical warning flag that something dreadfully unexpected has happened to time as we know it. In a famous quote by Einstein, “…time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live”. Steven Hawking has looked at the mathematics of this state using the fledgling physics of Quantum Gravity Theory, and confirms that at the Big Bang, time was murdered in the most thorough way imaginable. It may have been converted into just another ‘timeless’ dimension of space…or so the mathematics seems to suggest.

Individual objects moving out from a common center?

Nope!

GR says specifically that space is not a passive stage upon which matter plays out its dance, but is a member of the cast. When you treat both galaxies and space-time together, you get a very different answer for what happens than if you treat them separately, which is what we instinctively always do. Curved space distorts the paths of particles, sometimes in very dramatic ways. If you stepped into a space ship and tried to travel to the edge of the universe and look beyond, it would be impossible. Not only could you not reach a supposed “edge” of the universe no matter how long or how fast you traveled, in a closed universe, you would eventually find yourself arriving where you departed. The curvature of space would bring you right back, in something like the way the curvature of Earth would bring you home if you flew west and never changed course. In other words, the universe has no edge in space. There is nothing beyond the farthest star.

As a mental anchor, many have used the expanding balloon as an analogy to the expanding universe. As seen from any one spot on the balloon’s surface, all other spots rush away from it as the balloon is inflated. There is no one center to the expansion ON THE SURFACE of the balloon that is singled out as the center of the Big Bang. This is very different than the fireworks display which does have a dramatic, common center to the expanding cloud of cinders. The balloon analogy, however, is not perfect, because as we watch the balloon, our vantage point is still within a preexisting larger arena which GR says never existed for the real universe.

The center of the Big Bang was not a point in space, but a point in time! It is a center, not in the fabric of the balloon, but outside it along the 4th dimension…time. We cannot see this point anywhere we look inside the space of our universe out towards the distant galaxies. You can’t see time afterall! We can only see it as we look back in time at the ancient images we get from the most distant objects we can observe. We see a greatly changed, early history of the universe in these images but no unique center to them in space.

It is at this point that common sense must give up its seat on the bus, and yield to the insights provided by GR. And it is at precisely this point that so many non-physicists refuse to be so courteous. And who can blame them? But there’s more to come.

Projectiles moving through space?

Sorry!

GR again has something very troubling to say about this. For millions of years we have learned from experience on the savanas of the African continent and elsewhere, that we can move through space. As we drive down the highway, we have absolutely no doubts what is happening as we traverse the distance between landmarks along the roadside. This knowledge is so primal that we are incapable of mustering much doubt about it. But science is not about confirming our prejudices. It’s about revealing how things actually are.

What if I told you that you could decrease the distance from your house and the Washington Monument by ‘standing still’ and just letting space contract the distance away? GR predicts exactly this new phenomenon, and the universe seems to be the only arena we know today in which it naturally occurs. Like spots glued to the surface of the balloon at eternally fixed latitude and longitude points, the galaxies remain where they are while space dilates between them with the passage of time. There is no reason at all we should find this kind of motion intuitive.

If space is stretching like this, where do the brand new millions of cubic light years come from, from one moment to the next? The answer in GR is that they have always been there. To see how this could happen, I like to think of the shape of our universe as a “Cosmic Watermellon”. The fact that this is only the shape for a ‘closed’ finite universe is only a technicality. Finite watermellons are also cheaper to buy than infinite ones.

GR predicts the entire past, present and future of the universe all at once, and predicts its entire 4-dimensional shape. As we slice the 4-dimensional, Cosmic Watermellon at one end of the cosmic time line, we see 3-dimensional space and its contents soon after the Big Bang. At the other end of the Cosmic Watermellon in the far future, we see the collapse of space and matter just before the Big Crunch. But in between, our slices show the shape of space (closed, spherical volumes) and the locations of galaxies ( at fixed locations) as space dilates from one extreme to the other.

As a particular slice through an ordinary watermellon, we see that its meat has always been present in the complete watermellon. The meat is present as a continuous medium, and we never ask where the meat in a particular slice came from. Cosmologically, GR ask us to please think of 3-dimensional space in the same way. Space, like the meat of the watermellon, has always existed in the complete shape of the universe in 4-dimensions. But it is only in 4-dimensions that the full shape of the universe is revealed. It is a mystery why our consciousness insists on experiencing the universe one moment at a time, and that is why we end up with the paradox of where space comes from. There really is no paradox at all.

Space is not ‘nothing’ according to Einstein, it is merely another name for the gravitational field of the universe. Einstein once said, “Space-time does not claim existence on its own but only as a structural quality of the [gravitational] field”. If you could experimentally turn-off gravity with a switch, space-time would vanish. This is the ultimate demolition experiment known to physics for which an environmental impact statement would most certainly have to be filed.

The gravitational field at one instant is wedded to itself in the next instant by the incessant quantum churnings of the myriad of individual particles that like bees in a swarm, make up the gravitational field itself. In this frothing tumult, the gravitational field is knit together, quantum by quantum, from perhaps even more elemental building blocks, and it is perhaps here that we will find the ultimate origin for the expansion of the universe and the magical stretching of space. We hope the much anticipated Theory of Everything will have more to say about this, but to actually test this theory may require technologies and human resources that we can only dimly dream of.

Was there a definite moment to the Big Bang?

GR is perfectly happy to forecast that our universe emerged from an infinite density, zero-space ‘Singularity’ at Time Zero, but physicists now feel very strongly that this instant was smeared out by any number of quantum mechanical effects, so that we can never speak of a time before about 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang. Just as Gertrude Stein once remarked about my hometown, Oakland, California that “There is no ‘There’ there”, at 10^-43 seconds, nature may tell us that before the Big Bang, “There was no ‘When’ there” either. The moment dissolves away into some weird quantum fog, and as Steven Hawking speculates, time may actually become bent into a new dimension of space and no longer even definable in this state. Ordinary GR is unable to describe this condition and only some future theory combing GR and quantum mechanics will be able to tell us more. We hope.

Something started the Big Bang!

At last we come to the most difficult issue in modern cosmology. In the fireworks display, we can trace the events leading up to the explosion all the way back to the chemists that created the gunpowder and wrapped the explosives. GR, however, can tell us nothing about the equivalent stages leading up to the Big Bang, and in fact, among its strongest statements is the one that says that time itself may not have existed. How, then, do we speak or think about a condition, or process, that started the whole shebang if we are not even allowed to frame the event as “This happened first…then this…then kerpowie!”? This remains the essential mystery of the Big Bang which seems to doggedly transcend every mathematical description we can create to describe it.

All of the logical frameworks we know about are based on chains of events or states. All of our experiences of such chains in the physical world have been ordered in time. Even when the mathematics and the theory tell us ‘What happened before the Big Bang to start it?’ is not a logical or legitimate question, we insist on viewing this as a proper question to ask of nature, and we expect a firm answer. But like so many other things we have learned this century about the physical world, our gut instincts about which questions ought to have definite answers is often flawed when we explore the extreme limits to our physical world.

I wrote this essay before seeing the new IMAX file at the Air and Space Museum ‘Cosmic Journey”, by far one of the nicest and most heroic movies of its kind I had ever seen. But of course it showed the Big Bang as a fireworks display. No matter. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to accept the fact that the Big Bang was a spectacular moment in history. What is amazing is that the daring audacity of humans may have demystified some of it, and revealed a universe far stranger than any could have imagined.

Still, we are haunted by our hunches and intuitions gathered over millenia, and under circumstances far removed from the greater physical world we are now exploring. No wonder it all seems so alien and maddeningly complex.