The cool thing about science is that when the shamans make predictions, they tend to come about. Iím not talking about eclipses, which are a fairly simple matter of orbital mechanics. Iím not talking about the rate of decay of a radioactive substance, which is just a matter of figuring out a constant, and remembering that it pertains to a particular element. Thatís ordinary, humdrum stuff that comes easily to us midgets as we stand upon the shoulders of giants.
No, Iím talking about when scientists develop a theory, and extrapolate from it. This is where they differ from the religious shamans, in that they formulate a theory and then say, "if this theory is valid, then we should expect to find this if we look here." Then they run out and look, and sure enough, thereís a stable transuranic, or thereís a outline of a feather in the dinosaur bones, and thereís a layer of iridium pretty much world wide from 69 million years ago when the universe smacked us a good one upside the head.
Of course, then thereís physics. Scientists talk about the Big Bang, Superstring theory, and "vacuum force", and we mortals all exchange doubtful glances and say, "well, if you say so..."
Last year, the Los Angeles Times did a feature story on superstring theory. I pointed it out to a buddy of mine, a physician with a solid backing in science, and he ran out and got a copy for himself. We got together a couple of days later and compared notes. He asked me what I thought.
"Well, to tell the truth, I understood maybe one tenth of what I read."
My friend nodded and admitted that he was in the same boat. It was actually a pretty funny situation, since for both of us, a pet gripe is how much theyíve dumbed down the newspapers in America. That didnít appear to be the issue here. I normally grasp new concepts pretty rapidly, but superstring theory left me feeling like the understudy at Gumby Theatre, or the stunt double for Adam Sandler.
The problem wasnít that the feature writer was inept; it was simply that the whole notion of superstring theory is so outre, so far removed from our quotidian experiences, and so complex, that we couldnít grasp it.
I think I first realized how inaccurate personal perceptions were when I was contemplating the notion of neutroniumĖdegenerate matter compressed to its theoretical atomic maximum density. The stuff at the center of black holes, we think. One cubic centimeter would weigh umphety-million pounds. That would make it millions of times more dense than my desk, atoms squeezed down...
No. Thatís not right. The atoms were the same size. Only the distance between them was reduced. In wood, each atom is somewhere in an area of a molecule thousands of times its own size, and each molecule is somewhere in an area of empty space thousands of times its own size. The desk I was resting my eyes on was, in reality, a very thin cloud of atoms. What I perceived as a desk was mostly not there. It was vacuum.
I wasnít even on drugs.
After that, I stopped trying to visualize relativity, and just trusted what the math said. I wasnít any big math genius, making it only through pre-calc, and that just barely. But I had enough that I could follow the equations to their inevitable conclusion, enough that I understood what it was doing, even if I could never picture it.
Like most people who donít work at math-intensive jobs after college, my math slipped away, reducing me eventually to a mathematical universe of "one," "two," "three," and "many."
This left me superbly unequipped to deal with the dauntingly esoteric math involved in superstring theory. If asked about it, Iím reduced to a confused shrug and a vague mumble of "if you say so."
The universe has gotten a lot more complex than it was when I was in college, back when Newtonís laws were considered something more than local approximations of our misperceptions. E=mc2 was considered a constant, as was Chandrasekharís Limit and the inverse-square law. Science Fiction writers pulled rabbits out of hats through the inevitability of Newtonian physics.
There were already bugger factors in all this. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the Copenhagen experiments and Schrodingerís Cat led to many a coffee-soaked night arguing the ineffabilities of a perverse universe with earnest coeds and gnawing the legs off fundamentalists.
But like most people, I encounter the arcana of the new universe with the same puzzled consternation that a primitive tribesman might feel when, stepping into a clearing, he encounters a glittering, dancing orrery and sits and watches the graceful golden arcs and tries to surmise its purpose. "Me Zepp. My brain hurts."
Thereís a lot of wonderful and fanciful notions about our universe that werenít around when I was a kid, and the planets, mysterious abodes of strange lifeforms and aliens. It was a pretty good universe, but it suffered from a massive lack of knowledge, and failure of imagination.
Now there are black holes, pulsars, X-ray stars, colliding galaxies. Those are the easy ones. There is The Superstring theory (I admit I donít even know what superstrings are supposed to DOĖsomething about multidimensional (17, is it?) harmonic vibrations), "anti gravity," "anti light," "dark matter," and, of course, the Big Bang.
The Big Bang, at first, seemed easy enough. All matter was compressed into a ball, and one day it blew apart, spinning off all the galaxies and nebulae and 1964 Ford Falcons in the universe. That was possible to visualize, even if grasping the scale was a bit hard.
But then they refined it a bit. The universe started with a point. Literally. The whole thing was in a point of subatomic size. The whole universe, they insist, sprang from an object smaller than Putschís brain.
If you say so.
Ouch. I assumed they were working from a mathematical construct. From a gravitational viewpoint, the one used for orbital calculations, "Earth" is considered a point at the exact center of the planetís mass. This is quite accurate and very useful, provided you plan to orbit at least 8,050 miles above that point. Any nearer, and the results may vary, since the actual, non-point planet extends an average of 7,926 miles above that point, and then thereís another 100 or so miles of atmosphere to consider. I wouldnít recommend attempting an orbit 7,925 miles above the point. Like the gravitational point known as "Earth", this Big Bang theory seemed awfully hypothetical.
Well, those factoring problems we all did in high school algebra always had two answers. (X+2) (Y-5), that sort of thing. The problems had real world applications beyond tormenting the football team, but in the real world, only one of the two answers had validity. Yet both answers were equally correct. Hypothetically. You had to accept the hypothetical to determine the "real."
One problem the astrophysicists had with the theory was that the universe would have been extraordinarily hot, and then cooled enough for the gas to coalesce into matterĖstars, galaxies, etc. Once that occurred, there should be an ionizing effect that would result in vast clouds of neutral hydrogen out near the edges of the universe.
It was one of those questions which the universe stubbornly refused to answer. For 35 years, astronomers scanned spectrographs for the tell-tale signs of such a cloud (called "The Gunn-Peterson effect") with no success. Scientists insisted that for the Big Bang theory to be valid, it HAD to be there.
Thatís another way science differs from religion. When a belief is shaken by inconvenient fact, in science, the search for the fact is continued until scientists are satisfied theyíve found it, or they discard the theory as flawed. Religion tends to make the inconvenient facts go away, like the Crab Nebula explosion, expunged from all records in Europe once the Catholic Church realized the new star in the sky so bright it was visible by daylight for 13 days did not, as they had proclaimed, herald the second coming.
For 35 years, scientists searched for the Gunn-Peterson effect, and avoided presumptions.
And then scientists at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a vast project designed to map and record every object in the sky (some 200 million at this point that we can see), found it. Itís very dim, and very distant, and the oldest thing in the Universe, between 10 and 17 billion years old. (The earth is 4.6 billion years old. Strom Thurmond is only 98 years old.) But careful measurements, replicated many times, make it clear: itís there, and itís evidence that the Big Bang theory, hypotheticality notwithstanding, is valid.
Thatís the cool thing about science. If you donít understand the evidence, you are free to disbelieve. Nobody is threatening you with eternal damnation or being burned at the stake if you donít believe in the Big Bang theory.
I donít have to believe in the Big Bang theory. But science will use reasoning to form postulates, and then assert those postulates openly, and let the evidence fall where it may. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey might not have found that vague mist at the borders of the universe, and Big Bang would have been deader than phrenology in the scientific community. Instead, it continues to twist our minds and perceptions with a vision of the opening of the universe far grander and more complex than any proffered by the religious shamans. What creation theory offers the incredible vista of a ever-expanding universe with billions of galaxies coming from a point 17 billion years ago and moving outward forever? Or even the simple elegance and grace of the Newtonian physics of the orrery mentioned above?
Since I started writing this, less than 24 hours earlier, a report has emerged strongly supporting the idea, inconceivable just ten years ago, that the bleak marches between worlds might be heavily populated with life. The article read as follows:
Evidence of living bacterial cells entering the Earth's upper atmosphere from space has come from a joint project involving Indian and UK scientists.
Samples of stratospheric air were collected on January 21 under the most stringent aseptic conditions by Indian scientists using the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) cryogenic sampler payload flown on balloons from the Tata Institute Balloon Launching facility in Hyderabad.
Part of the samples sent to Cardiff were analyzed by a team at Cardiff University led by Professor David Lloyd, assisted by Melanie Harris.
Commenting on the results, Professor Wickramasinghe said, "There is now unambiguous evidence for the presence of clumps of living cells in air samples from as high as 41 kilometers, well above the local tropopause (16 km), above which no air from lower down would normally be transported."
The detection was made using a fluorescent cyanine dye which is only taken up by the membranes of living cells. The variation with height of the distribution of such cells indicates strongly that the clumps of bacterial cells are falling from space.
The daily input of such biological material is provisionally estimated as about one third of a ton over the entire planet.
His new evidence provides strong support for the Panspermia theory of Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe.
"We have argued for more than two decades that terrestrial life was brought down to Earth by comets and that cometary material containing microorganisms must still be reaching us in large quantities," Professor Wickramasinghe said.
Well, "if you say so." Personally, Iíll wait until someone does the DNA on these beasties and sees if they are related to anything down here. Iíll wait until they reexamine the moon rocks, because if they are falling here at the rate of a third of a ton a day (thatís a lot of bugs), then the Moon should be hip deep in them in those polar dips where the sun never shines. Even the rest of the surface should show something.
If, in a few years, I open my paper and read that theyíve examined some of these things, and determined that they are unrelated to any known terrestrial life form, then Iíll have a different response.
Posted: October 31, 2011