Category Archives: Physics

Is Infinity Real?

In the daytime, you are surrounded by trees, buildings and the all-too-familiar accoutrements of Nature, to which by evolution we were designed to appreciate and be familiar. But at night, we see an unimaginably different view: The dark, starry night sky, with no sense of perspective or depth. It is easy to understand how The Ancients thought it a celestial ceiling with pinpoint lights arrayed in noteworthy patterns. Many millennia of campfires were spent trying to figure it out.

We are stuck in the middle ground between two vast scales that stretch before us and within us. Both, we are told, lead to the infinitely-large and the infinitely-small. But is this really true?

Astronomically, we can detect objects that emerged from the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, which means their light-travel distance from us is 14 billion light years or 13,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 centimeters. This is, admittedly, a big number but it is not infinitely-large.

In the microcosm, we have probed the structure of electrons to a scale of 0.000000000000000000001 centimeters and found no signs of any smaller distance yet. So again, there is no sign that we have reached anything like an infinitely-small limit to Nature either.

When it comes right down to it, the only evidence we have for the universe being infinitely large (or other aspects of it being infinitely small) is in the mathematics and geometry we use to describe it. Given that infinity is the largest number you can count to, it is pretty obvious that even the scale of our visible universe of 13,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 centimeters falls woefully short of being even a relatively stupendous number by comparison to infinity.

Infinity is as old as the Ancient Greeks. But even Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) would only allow the integers (1,2,3,…) to be potentially infinite, but not actually infinite, in quantity. Since then, infinity or its cousin eternity, have become a part of our literary and religious vernacular when we mention something really, really, really….. big or old! Through literary and philosophical repetition, we have become comfortable with this idea in a way that is simply not justifiable.

Mathematics can define infinity very precisely, and even the mathematician Cantor (1845 – 1918) was able to classify ‘transfinite numbers’ as being either representing countable infinities or uncountable infinities. To the extent that mathematics is also used in physics, we inherit infinity as the limit to many of our calculations and models of the physical world. But the problem is that our world is only able to offer us the concept of something being very, very, very… big, like the example of the visible universe above.

If you take a sphere a foot across and place an ant on it, it crawls around and with a bit of surveying it can tell you the shape is a sphere with a finite closed surface. But now take this sphere and blow it up so that it is 1 million miles across. The ant now looks across its surface and sees something that looks like an infinite plane. Its geometry is as flat as a sheet of paper on a table.

In astronomy we have the same problem.

We make calculations and measurements within the 28 billion light years that spans our visible universe and conclude that the geometry of the universe is flat, and so geometrically it seems infinite, but the only thing the measurements can actually verify is that the universe is very, very, very large and LOOKS like its geometry is that of an infinite, flat, 3-dimensional space. But modern Big Bang cosmology also says that what we are seeing within our visible universe is only a portion of a larger thing that emerged from the Big Bang and ‘inflated’ to enormous size in the first microseconds.  If you identify our visible universe out to 14 billion light years as the size of the period at the end of this sentence, that larger thing predicted by inflation may be millions of miles across at the same scale. This is very, very big, but again it is not infinite!

Going the other way, the current best theoretical ideas about the structure of the physical world seems to suggest that at some point near a so-called Planck scale of 0.0000000000000000000000000000000015 centimeters we literally ‘run out of space’. This mathematical conclusion seems to be the result of combining the two great pillars of all physical science, quantum mechanics and general relativity, into a single ‘unified’ theory.  The mathematics suggests that, rather than being able to probe the nature of matter and space at still-smaller scales, the entire edifice of energy, space, time and matter undergoes a dramatic and final change into something vastly different than anything we have ever experienced: elements that are beyond space and time themselves.  These ideas are captured in theories such as Loop Quantum Gravity and String Theory, but frankly we are still at a very early stage in understanding what this all means. Even more challenging is that we have no obvious way to make any measurements that would directly test whether physical reality simply comes to an end at these scales or not.

So on the cosmological scene, we can convincingly say we have no evidence that anything as large as ‘infinity’ exists because it is literally beyond our 14 billion light-year horizon of detection. The universe is simply not old enough for us to sample such an imponderably large realm. Advances in Big Bang cosmology can only propose that we live in an incomprehensively alien ‘multiverse’ or that we inhabit one miniscule dot in a vastly larger cosmos, which our equations extrapolate as infinity. Meanwhile, the world of the quantum hints that no infinitely-small structures exist in the universe, not even what we like to call space itself can be indefinitely sub-divided below the Planck scale.

In the end, it seems that infinity is a purely  mathematical ideal that can be classified by Cantor’s transfinite numbers manipulated symbolically, and thought about philosophically, but is never actually found among the objects that inhabit our physical world.

Now let’s go back to the issue of space after the relativity revolution and try to make sense of where we stand now!

Check back here on Monday, December 19 for the next installment!

Relativity and Space

Psychologists and physicists often use a similar term to describe one of the most fundamental characteristics of humans and matter: The Story. Here, for example, is the timeline story for key events in the movie The Hunger Games.

Oliver Sacks, in his book ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ describes the case of Jimmy G who was afflicted with Korsakov’s Syndrome. He could not remember events more than a few minutes in the past, and so he had to re-invent his world every few minutes to account for new events. As Sacks notes ‘If we wish to know about a man, we ask ‘what is his story – his real, inmost story? – for each of us is a biography, a story..[and a] singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us – through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions..and our narratives…we must constantly recollect ourselves’.

Physicist Lee Smolin, in his book ‘Three Roads to Quantum Gravity’ , describes the essential foundation of relativity as the ‘story’ about processes and not the things-as-objects.   “A marble is not an inert thing, it is a process…There are only relatively fast processes and relatively slow processes. And whether it is a short story or a long story, the only kind of explanation of a process  that is truly adequate is a story.”

In both cases, we cannot define an object, be it a human, a table, or an electron by merely describing its properties at one instant in time. We can only define an object in terms of a process consisting of innumerable events, which create the story that defines it. This is very obvious when we are talking about humans, but it also applies to every object in the universe.

In relativity, the history or ‘story’ of a process such as a football or a galaxy, consists of a series of events that are tied together by cause-and-effect to create the process that you see at any particular moment. These events include the interactions of one process with others that cumulatively create what you see as the history of the process at a particular moment. In relativity, we call this history of a process its worldline.

This is a worldline map (Credit Aaron Koblin / BBC)of airlines traveling to and from the United States. The lines give the history of each flight on the 2-d surface of Earth. Each worldline consists of a huge number of ‘hidden’ events contributed by each passenger! By carefully studying these worldlines you could mathematically deduce that Earth is a sphere.

What Einstein said is that only worldlines matter, because that is the only thing we have access to. Even better than that, we are only able to see that part of a processes that can be communicated to us by using light, which is the fastest signal we can ever use to transfer information. When we are ‘looking’ at something, like a car or a star, what we are actually doing is looking back along its history carried to us as information traveling by photons of light.

In an earlier essay, I mentioned how we do not see objects in space, but only the end points of a light ray’s history as, for example, it leaves the surface of an object (Event 1) arrives at dust mote along the way and was re-emitted (Event 2) to arrive at our retina, and cause a rod or a cone cell to fire (Event 3). Because these events are strictly determined by cause-and-effect, and travel times are limited by the speed of light, we can organize these events in a strict history for the object we viewed (which was in fact a ‘process’ in and of itself!).

So, what does this say about space? Space  is irrelevant, because we can completely define our story only in terms of the ‘geometry’ of these history worldlines and the causal connections between events on these worldlines, without any mention of space as a ‘background’ through which things move.

This leads to another problem.

Einstein’s new relativistic theory of gravity makes use of a convenient mathematical tool called 4-dimensional spacetime. Basically we live in a world with three dimensions of space and one dimension of time, making a 4-dimensional thing called spacetime. Without knowing, you live and work in 4-dimensions because there is nothing about you that does not ‘move’ in time as well as space from second to second. All physical process take place in 4 dimensions, so all theories of physics and how things work are necessarily statements about 4-dimensional things.

It is common to refer to gravity as a curvature in the geometry of this spacetime ‘fabric’, but we can just as easily talk about the curvature of worldlines defining gravity and not even bother with the idea of spacetime at all! Remember, when you look at an object, you are ‘just’ looking back through its history revealed by the network of photons of light.

So we have used a mathematical tool, namely spacetime, to make visualizing the curvature of worldlines easier to describe, but we now make the mistake of thinking that spacetime is real because we have now used the mathematical tool to represent the object itself. This is similar to what we did with the idea of Feynman Diagrams in the previous blog! As Lee Smolin says ‘When we imagine we are seeing into an infinite three-dimensional space, we are actually falling for a fallacy in which we substitute what we actually see [a history of events] for an intellectual construct [space]. This is not only a mystical vision, it is wrong.”

But what about infinity?

In my next essay I will discuss why infinity is probably not a real concept in the physical world.

 

Check back here on Friday, December 16 for the next installment!

Physicist Lee Smolin’s book ‘The Three Roads to Quantum Gravity’ discusses many of these ideas in more detail.

Is Space Real?

I take a walk to the store and can’t help but feel I am moving through something that is more than the atmosphere that rushes by my face as I go. The air itself is contained within the boundaries of the space through which I pass. If I were an astronaut in the vacuum of outer space, I would still have the sense that my motion was through a pre-existing, empty framework of 3-dimensions. Even if I were blind and confined to a wheelchair, I could still have the impression through muscular exertion that I was moving through space to get from my kitchen to my living room ‘over there’. But what is space as a physical thing? Of all the phenomena, forces and particles we study, each is something concrete though generally invisible: a field; a wave; a particle. But space, itself, seems to be none of these. WTF!

Spider web covered with dew drops

Way back in the early 1700s, Sir Isaac Newton proposed that space was an ineffable, eternal framework through which matter passed. It had an absolute and immutable nature. Its geometry pre-existed the matter that occupied it and was not the least bit affected by matter. A clever set of experiments in the 20th century finally demonstrated rather conclusively that there is no pre-existing Newtonian space or geometry ‘beneath’ our physical world. There is no absolute framework of coordinates within which our world is embedded. What had happened was that Albert Einstein developed a new way of thinking about space that essentially denied its existence!

Albert Einstein’s relativity revolution completely overturned our technical understanding of space and showed that the entire concept of dimensional space was something of a myth. In his famous quote he stressed that We entirely shun the vague word ‘space’ of which we must honestly acknowledge we cannot form the slightest conception. In the relativistic world we live in, space has no independent existence. “…[prior-geometry] is built on the a priori, Euclidean [space], the belief in which amounts to something like a superstition“. So what could possibly be a better way of thinking about space than the enormously compelling idea that each of us carries around in our brains, that space is some kind of stage upon which we move?

To understand what Einstein was getting at, you have to completely do away with the idea that space ‘is there’ and we move upon it or through it. Instead, relativity is all about the geometry created by the histories (worldlines) of particles as they move through time. The only real ‘thing’ is the collection of events along each particle’s history. If enough particles are involved, the histories are so numerous they seem like a continuous space. But it is the properties of the events along each history that determine the over-all geometry of the whole shebang and the property we call ‘dimension’, not the other way around.

This figure is an example where the wires (analogous to worldlines) are defining the shape and contours of a dimensional shape. There is nothing about the background (black) space that determines how they bend and curve. In fact, with a bit of mathematics you could specify everything you need to know about the surface of this shape and from the mathematics tell what the shape is, and how many dimensions are required to specify it!

Princeton University physicist Robert Dicke expressed it this way, “The collision between two particles can be used as a definition of a point in [space]…If particles were present in large numbers…collisions could be so numerous as to define an almost continuous trajectory…The empty background of space, of which ones knowledge is only subjective, imposes no dynamical conditions on matter.”

What this means is that so long as a point in space is not occupied by some physical event such as the interaction point of a photon and an electron, it has no effect on a physical process ( a worldline) and is not even observable. It is a mathematical ‘ghost’ that has no effect on matter at all. The interstitial space between the events is simply not there so far as the physical world based upon worldlines is concerned. It is not detectable even by the most sophisticated technology, or any inventions to come. It does not even supply something as basic as the ‘dimension’ for the physical world!

We should also be mindful of another comment by Einstein that “…time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live“. They are free creations of the human mind, to use one of Einstein’s own expressions. By the way, the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant also called the idea of ‘space’ an example of a priori knowledge that we are born with to sort out the world, but it is not necessarily a real aspect of the world outside our senses.

Like a spider web, individual and numerous events along a worldline define the worldline’s shape, yet like the spider web, this web can be thought of as embedded in a larger domain of mathematically-possible events that could represent physical events…but don’t. The distinction between these two kinds of points is what Einstein’s revolutionary idea of relativity provided physicists, and is the mainstay of all successful physical theories since the 1920s. Without it, your GPS-enabled cell phones would not work!

So what are these events? Simply put, according to Physicist Lee Smolin, they are exchanges of information, which are also the interaction points between one particle’s worldline and another particle’s world line. If you think at the atomic level, each time a particle of light interacts with (collides or is emitted by) an electron it generates an event. These events are so numerous the electron’s worldline looks like a continuous line with no gaps between the events. So the shape of one worldline, what we call its history, is a product of innumerable interactions over time with the worldlines of all other objects (photons etc) to which it can be in cause-and-effect contact.

Even though this new idea of space being a myth has gained enormous validity among physicists over the last century, and I can easily speak the language of relativity to describe it, personally, my mind has a hard time really understanding it all. I also use the mathematical theory of quantum mechanics to make phenomenally accurate predictions, but no Physicist really understands why it works, or what it really means.

Next time I want to examine how the history of a particle is more important than the concept of space in Einstein’s relativity, and how this explains the seeming rigidity of the world you perceive and operate within.

Check back here on Thursday, December 15 for the next installment!

Seeing with Mathematics

Our brain uses sensory data to sift for patterns in space and time that help us create a mental model of the world through which we can navigate and stay alive. At some point, this model of the external world becomes our basis for thinking symbolically and mathematically about it.

Mathematics is an amazingly detailed, concise and accurate way of examining the world to state the logical relationships we find there, but many physicists and mathematicians have been astonished about why this is the case. The physicist Eugene Wigner wrote an article about this in 1960 titled ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences’. In fact, since the enormous successes of Sir Isaac Newton in mathematically explaining a host of physical phenomena, physicists now accept that mathematics actually serves as a microscope (or telescope!) for describing things and hidden relationships we cannot directly experience. This amazing ability for describing relationships in the world (both real and imagined!) presents us with a new problem.

parabola

Mathematics is a symbolic way of describing patterns our world, and sometimes these symbolically-defined descriptions actually look like the things we are studying. For example, the path of a football is a parabola, but the equation representing its path, y(x), is also that of a parabolic curve drawn on a piece of paper. But what happens when the mathematical description takes you to places where you cannot see or confirm the shape of the object?

Mathematics is a tool for understanding the world and symbolically stating its many logical interconnections, but the tool can sometimes be mistaken for the thing itself. Here is a very important example that comes up again and again when physicists try to ‘popularize’ science.

In the late-1940s, physicist Richard Feynman created a new kind of mathematics for making very precise calculations about how light (photons) and charged particles (such as electrons) behave. His famous ‘Feynman Diagrams’ like the one below, are very suggestive of particles moving in space, colliding, and emitting light. This diagram, with time flowing from left to right, shows a quark colliding with an anti-quark, which generates a photon that eventually produces an electron and anti-electron pair.

feynman_qqgamee1

The problem is that this is not at all a ‘photograph’ of what is actually happening. Instead, this is a tool used for setting up the problem and cranking through the calculation. Nothing more. It is a purely symbolic representation of the actual world! You are not supposed to look at it and say that for the solid lines, ‘particles are like billiard balls moving on a table top’ or that the photon of light they exchange is a ‘wiggly wave traveling through space’. What these objects are in themselves is completely hidden behind this diagram. This is a perfect example of what philosopher Immanuel Kant was talking about back in the 1700s. He said that there is a behind-the-scenes world of noumena where the things-in-themselves (ding-an-sich) exist, but our senses and observations can never really access them directly. The Feynman diagram lets us predict with enormous precision how particles will interact across space and time, but hides completely from view what these particles actually look like.

Another example of how math lets us ‘see’ the world we cannot directly access is the answer to the simple question: What does an electron actually look like?

Since the 1800’s, electricity increasingly runs our civilization, and electricity is merely a measure of the flow of electrons through space inside a wire. Each of us thinks of electrons as tiny, invisible spheres like microscopic marbles that roll through our wires wicked fast, but this is an example of where the human brain has created a cartoon version of reality based upon our ‘common sense’ ideas about microscopic particles of matter. In both physics and mathematics, which are based upon a variety of observations of how electrons behave, it is quite clear that electrons can be thought of as both localized particles and distributed waves that carry the two qualities we call mass and charge. They emit electric fields, but if you try to stuff their properties inside a tiny sphere, that sphere would explode instantly. So it really does not behave like an ordinary kind of particle at all. Also, electrons travel through space as matter waves and so cannot be localized into discrete sphere-like particles. This is seen in the famous Double Slit experiment where electrons produce distinct wave-like interference patterns.

electronwave

So the bottom line is that we have two completely independent, mathematical ways of visualizing what an electron looks like, particles and matter waves, and each can facilitate highly accurate calculations about how electrons interact, but the two images (particle and wave – localized versus distributed in space) are incompatible with each other, and so we cannot form a single, consistent impression of what an electron looks like.

Next time we will have a look at  Einstein and his ideas about relativity, which completely revolutionized our common-sense understanding of space created by the brain over millions of years of evolution.

Check back here on Tuesday, December 13 for the next installment!

Rules-of-thumb

There are at least two basic ways that we create associations. The first is associations in space. The second is associations in time.

Associations in space include recognizing static objects like chairs, trees, cars and people. The reason this works so well is that we live in a world filled with many different kinds of more-or-less fixed objects so that two or more people can agree they have similar attributes.

Associations in time include musical tunes and sounds, or associating one thing (cause) with another thing in the future (effect). For many of these dynamic associations like music, two people with normal hearing senses hear the same sequence of notes in time and can agree that what they heard was a portion of a familiar song, which they may independently be able to name if they have heard it before and made the appropriate associations in memory. But your exact associations related to the song will be different than mine because I associate songs with episodes in my life that you do not also share. Remember, the brain tags everything with patterns of associations unique to the individual.

The human brain is adept at pattern recognition. It can dissect its sensory information and see patterns in space and time that it can then associate with abstract categories such as a chair or a bird, and even specific sub-categories of these if it has been adequately trained (at school, or by reading a book on ornithology!). An upside-down chair seen in the remote distance is recognized as a chair no matter what its orientation in the visual field. A garbled song heard on an iPhone in a loud concert hall, or a particular conversation between two people in a noisy crowd, can also be detected as a pattern in time and recognized. The figure shows some of the brain connection pathways identified in the Human Connectome Project that help to interpret sensory data as patterns in space and time.

brainmapping

Patterns in space let us recognize the many different kinds of objects that fill our world. In the association cortex, once these identifications have been made, they are also sent on to the language centers where they are tagged with words that can be spoken or read. Once this step happens, two individuals can have a meaningful conversation about the world beyond their bodies that the senses can detect. Of course when both people say they have a specific category of objects called Siamese cats, they are most certainly associating that name with slightly different set of events and qualities corresponding to their cat’s personalities , fur patterns, etc..

The next step is even more interesting.

Just as the brain generalizes a collection of associations in space to define the concept of ‘cat’, it can detect patterns in time in the outside world and begin to see how one event leads to another as a rule-of-thumb or a law of nature. If I drop a stone off a tall cliff, it will fall downwards to the valley below. If the sun rises and sets today, it will do so again tomorrow. There are many such patterns of events in time that reoccur with such regularity that they form their own category-in-time much as ‘cat’ and ‘chair’ did in the space context. ‘If I visit a waterhole with lots of animals, there is a good chance that tigers or lions may also be present’. More recently, ‘If I stick my finger in an unprotected electrical outlet, I will probably be electrocuted!’. This perception of relationships is one of cause-and-effect. It has been studied by neurophysiologists, and is due to stimulation of part of the cerebellum and the right hippocampus. These brain regions are both involved with processing durations in time.

Over the centuries and millennia, the patterns in time we have been able to discern about the outside world have become so numerous  we have to write them down in books, and also put our children through longer and longer training periods to master them. This also tells us something very basic about our world.

Instead of being a random collection of events, our physical world contains a basic collection of rules that follow a ‘logical’ If A happens then B happens pattern in time. Physicists call these relationships ‘laws’ and their particular patterns in time and space can be discerned from measurements and observations made of phenomena in the world outside our brains. The brain can also work with these laws symbolically and logically, not by describing them through the usual language centers of the brain, but through a parallel set of centers that make us adept at mathematical reasoning.

In my next blog, I will discuss how mathematics and logic are intertwined and help us think symbolically about our world.

Check back here on Friday, December 9 for the next installment!

Space, Time, and Causality in the Human Brain
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008651/