I’ve been reading an article in The New Yorker about current theories on the structure of the Universe. What we can see and sense of the Universe indicates that is very large (at least in comparison to ourselves) and contains much stuff. It’s not hard to understand that explaining it all presents a few problems, especially since many of our observations are made at great distances and with the help of manmade, and therefore imperfect, machinery. For those of us who have studied human nature, it comes as no surprise that different people can view the same events and come to completely different conclusions about what it is they have observed.
Much of the theory about the Universe is based on mathematics. After all, it is ludicrous to think that we can observe every facet of the Universe, record it all, and come to conclusions about the origin and nature of the totality. It is much too large and we are too weak and puny to get close enough for firsthand observation. This requires some way to take account of what can be observed, apply the science we know, and work out a reasonable and believable explanation for all of the stuff. Math is the only way we know to do such a thing on such a large scale.
Much of the discussion about the nature of the Universe concerns whether it is finite or infinite. Did it have a beginning and will it end? Did it have a beginning but will go on forever? Or did it just exist forever and will continue forever? Tied to the lifespan of the Universe is the composition of it. Its size and mass have a great deal to do with the timeline of its existence. It has been determined that the Universe is expanding. If there’s enough mass inside it, the thought is that eventually the expansion will slow, stop, and reverse into a contraction. If the mass is not sufficient to pull things back together, the expansion will continue indefinitely and everything we can see will continue to recede forever.
Concerning the nature of what’s inside the Universe, a number of theories attempt to explain how things are put together. Although there is much interest in how the Universe began, there is also great interest in how it will end. Most of us enjoying the benefits of being alive hope that the End will come long after our demise. It seems as if the end will come about gradually rather than abruptly, even though the beginning (as covered in the Big Bang Theory) could have been very sudden. There is a much greater chance that Earth’s doom will come long before the Universe ends, when the Sun will explode and engulf us in a tempest that is beyond imagination. But even that event would be preceded by thousands or millions of years of warnings.
Questions abound, and that is the reason why so many scientists (as well as philosophers and religionists) are involved in the effort to answer the questions. Some people, such as Albert Einstein, have managed to answer some of the questions. Occasionally, the answers have held out through years and decades of testing, tweaking, and experimentation. Some of the answers remain questionable because the methods required for proof do not yet exist. We must be patient and will probably have to leave the solution, if there ever will be one, to succeeding generations.
It seems that there is a constant flux in our understanding of the Universe. Although scientists are hard at work (and have been for many years) in doing what they are wont to do, almost every theory propagated goes through an endless process of refinement and revision. Each theory, of course, is formulated by humans with predilections, beliefs, preconceptions, biases, conditioning, opinions, propensities, and philosophies. It can be assumed that all theories, at least those put forth by true scientists, have some basis in fact, some tie to reality. But it might also be assumed that theories have some basis in the characters and personalities of the humans who develop them. The act of an observation itself includes the sensing and filtering of an event or a state of existence. As I observe, I surmise.
Biking down a neighborhood street the other day, I heard a wind chime singing. It was a pretty sound, but unorganized with no recognizable structure. The chimes were just drifting around in the breeze, touching and vibrating, bouncing and reacting to forces as any dumb entity will. But wait. Did I hear a few notes of “Love Me Do,” the song performed and immortalized by the Beatles? Is it possible? I’m sure I heard it. Am I – are we – missing something very important? How could the wind, blowing about in its random, wayward way, produce (even partially) something so perfectly organized as a song by the Beatles? Any song for that matter? Perhaps the chimes could play the entire tune perfectly if they were organized properly. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do something that would allow the wind to properly perform the song? If I wanted to control the sound that the chimes made, could I assemble them in such a way that they would produce the song of my choosing when the wind blows?
For this exercise, of course, I can actually do such a thing. So here I am, on the deck behind the house, wind chimes overhead, enjoying the chimes’ rendition of “Love Me Do.” It’s wonderful. No one ever guessed that “Love Me Do” is in the wind until I came up with a way to listen to it! It’s merely a matter of developing the proper tool to coax the song out of the wind. I am – humans are – fully capable of doing just that. Taking this another step, the proper math might be able to coax the Solution to Everything out of the Universe. All we need to do is find a few notes that make sense and develop the mathematical interpreter that will make the rest of the notes intelligible to us. Then we will know for sure.
Or will we?