What is the Ultimate “Thing” of the Universe?

Amanda Gefter’s book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is about her journey into the world of physics with her father. Throughout the book she and her father search for the ultimate building block of the universe. What is the smallest particle that forms the basis of all other particles? What aspect of the universe is constant among all scales and all perspectives? What constitutes reality in our universe?

 

From our perspective here on Earth, these questions seem like they should be strait-forward and easy to answer. However, once we start looking into the universe and observing more than what we can simply experience here on Earth, we begin to see that what we understand as reality is not as clear as it appears. The deeper we peer through space, the more we see strange phenomenon such as the curving of spacetime, and the more energy we put forward in the search of smaller and smaller particles, the more we find that matter seem to come and go and not behave as we expected.

 

Throughout their search, Gefter and her father look into the physics of various candidates for the ultimate building block of reality and meet many interesting scientists and physicists.  From the beginning, one of Gefter’s favorite physicists was John Wheeler, and early on in his research he took down the idea that spacetime itself was the most basic unit of the universe. “Wheeler emphasized that spacetime couldn’t be reality’s ultimate ingredient, because at its highest resolution quantum mechanics and general relativity conspire to destroy it, warping its geometry until it isn’t geometry anymore.”

 

Over the last two years a principle predicted by Albert Einstein has been proven correct as we have discovered gravitational waves. These are ripples through spacetime caused by events of massive energy. The empty space of space, according to the theory of Einstein is not actually empty but is composed of what we have confusingly named spacetime. Our planets and everything in the universe permeates across and through this spacetime according to physics that Einstein helped describe. In her book, Gefter turns back to Wheeler to describe this concept, “As wheeler put it, ‘Matter tells space how to curve. Space tells matter how to move.” Our planet, our sun, our galaxy, and everything in the universe is interacting with spacetime which is everywhere and all around us. As matter interacts with what appears to be empty space it actually distorts that space, because that space is more than emptiness. Light, energy, and matter are all influenced by spacetime which itself is simultaneously shaped by the matter and energy flowing through it. Even more bizarre, across spacetime, particles seem to pop in and out of existence continuously, with particles and antiparticles appearing from nothing and then colliding on a sub-microscopic level to vanish back into nothingness.

 

Early on what Gefter demonstrated with the help of Einstein, Wheeler, and spacetime, is that our concrete understanding and experience of reality is not as concrete as it appears. We can only see, measure, and experience so much, and there is far more in the universe than what we currently know and understand. The ultimate reality of the universe is beyond our current comprehension, and what this reminds us is that we should not be too sure of our own knowledge, for we are always limited by what we can experience and observe from our perspective. The universe is more than the stories we tell ourselves about it.

The Big Bang Was Everywhere

Space and time are big and complicated. Like, really big, and really complicated. The enormous sizes that we use when talking about space and the incomprehensible timescales of the universe truly boggle my mind. It is hard to understand just what it means for a star to be 150 light years away from earth, or for the earth to be about 4.5 billion years old, and for the universe itself to be almost 14 billion years old. But even more challenging to understand than the incredible time and size proportions that go so far beyond what human experience can comprehend is our current understanding of how it all started.

 

In her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter walks us through her journey to try to understand the Universe and the Big Bang. At the start of the Universe, 13.75 billion years ago, everything in the universe existed as nothing. Everything was everywhere around us, as Gefter and her father would come to call and undifferentiated homogenous state. And  then something changed, and the Universe as we can see and measure it today began to take shape. That event has been called the Big Bang, and since that event the universe has been expanding and changing. The origin of the Big Bang is called a singularity in physics, and Gefter explains a little about that starting point of the universe:

 

“It was tempting to think of a singularity as small, but, as my father and I quickly learned, that’s a rookie mistake. It only seems small because you picture it as a point in space, as if you’re looking at it from the outside. But the singularity has no outside. It’s not a point in space because it is space. It’s the universe, it’s everything. We’re in the point. Besides, a point isn’t small—it’s sizeless. I had learned that in geometry class, in spite of my protests. You can just as well think of a point as infinitely big. The Big Bang happened everywhere, I scribbled in my notebook. Even in the suburbs.”

 

Thinking about space, time, and universe requires that we change what we understand nature and reality to be. The way that physics and nature work on planet Earth appear to be different from the way reality and physics operate in other parts of the universe, but the reality is that the physics is working the same and we are observing the same reality, just at different scales and with different things experiencing different forces. If we force everything to be understood as we experience reality with our limited set of senses and limited time scales here on Earth, we won’t fully understand what is happening throughout space and time. What Gefter explains throughout her book, and what must be accepted for all the physics of the universe to work, is that there is no gods-eye-view of the universe. You cannot take a viewpoint from outside the universe, because everything is within the universe. Whether the universe is a single dense point of all matter, or an ever expanding infinite expanse of galaxies, planets, and dust, every view point is within the universe. The Big Bang happened everywhere because it was everything. We cannot be a god and stand outside the Big Bang and watch it happen. We are inside the universe, and must look at the Big Bang from the inside.

A Father-Daughter Science Connection

Amanda Gefter’s book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is about her journey with her father through the world of physics and how she crash landed in a career as a science journalist. Early on in the book she describes how she and her father connected through science, with a quick passage that I think many of us can relate to. “As a dogmatically skeptical teenager, I had my own Zen-like practice of zoning out when adults offered me advice, but when it came to my father I listened—maybe because when he spoke it sounded less like an authoritarian command and more like the confession of a secret. It is all an illusion. Now here he was speaking in the same quietly intense tone, leaning in so as not to let the other diners overhear, asking me how I’d define nothing.”

 

Gefter’s quote about her dad really resonates with me. We all want to be included in important discussions and we all want to feel that we are on the inside of a secret. A way to connect with people and spark their interest in science and challenging subjects, is to pose challenging and almost paradoxical questions in a way that encourages wild answers and gives the other person a chance to be part of the secret inside team trying to find the best possible answer. I listen to a lot of science podcasts, and many of the best engage with their audience in this way. They may not be in the same room washing dishes with me or in the car driving down the freeway with me, but they still manage to pose a question which sounds simple, but requires deep and complex thought. Personally I think the public in general needs to be more engaged with science and scientific thinking, but in particular, this is something we need to instill in our children from a young age. Gefter, as an teenage outsider, was inspired by her father’s questions about science in a way that she was not inspired by her actual classes at school.

 

The way we speak with kids and teenagers is important. I do not have kids, but I did coach cross country and track and field as I worked through my undergraduate degree, and I hope to find a way to get back to working with high school students in the future. Gefter’s quote shows us the importance of how we craft messages to teenagers. The content alone is not enough to inspire teenagers and if we have a lesson or a message that we think is crucial for them, we must find a way to brand that message so that it is not an authoritarian command driving them to zone out and ignore us. We must take our important messages and lessons and communicate them in a way that is interesting and in a way that allows teenagers to investigate for themselves and begin to build their own abilities to reason with the world. Gefter’s father was a radiologist, and as a medically trained scientist he had the authority to speak on various science topics, but he did not just throw answers at his daughter like knives shooting through her doubt to tear her faulty reasoning apart, he invited her to offer answers and theories, and then invited her to work through her thoughts with him.

 

Whether we speak with teenagers, toddlers, or grown adults, I think the message holds. Invite curiosity and place your ego in the back seat. Do not challenge your audience with difficult scientific questions just to demonstrate your superior knowledge of a subject, but rather use challenging questions to show the complexity and vast beauty of unknown science. Invite your listener to be part of the secret team trying to think through the challenges of our time.

Rage

I find it frustrating to listen to people complain that protesters are angry. Somehow we have in our mind a vision that protestors should be peaceful, calm, and wise, and when we see protestors that are angry and easily stirred into violence, we become critical and fail to consider the ideology, the demands, or the injustices that are at the heart of the protest. When we look back, I think we view the marches of the Civil Rights Movement as being peaceful protests, but only because we have chosen to remember the peaceful movements when sharing the history in our schools and we have collectively forgotten most of the violence that did occur during that time.

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes about the anger that is built up within the activists today who fight for better justice for our minority communities. It is hard to accept mass incarceration and unequal treatment from police officers, prosecutors, and judges without becoming cynical and resentful toward the system and political leaders who have allowed for such inequities. Alexander writes, “Those of us who hope to be their allies should not be surprised, if and when this day comes, that when those who have been locked up and locked out finally have the chance to speak and truly be heard, what we hear is rage.”

Anger and even rage are real human emotions. We should not expect people to ignore their feelings and emotions, especially not when their liberties and futures have been taken away from them with such injustice. We must learn to look beyond the anger, rage, or even violence and rioting of protesters if we want to improve the status quo and create greater social cohesion. By criticizing the poor behavior of protestors, we only increase the anger and rage. We must understand that people are driven to such extremes when they feel isolated and powerless and feel that they have no other avenue to speak out against injustices. This may mean that we listen to people we don’t agree with, and it may mean that we open a floor to people we dislike, but it is a necessary step within democracy, for further disenfranchisement can only build anger and rage while honest discussion and a willingness to hear an argument or a protester’s demands will diffuse the tension and violence.

Clinging to Advantages

Over the last few weeks I have been very critical of American society and how we have treated black people and failed to live up-to ideals of freedom and equality for all. I have scrutinized white culture and politics and how our nation developed a system of mass incarceration that treats people differently based on race, and then hides behind ideas of colorblindness to deflect charges of racism and discrimination. However, it is important for me to address the human nature which drives the behaviors and attitudes of our majority population and dominant culture, so that I can better understand how we arrived where we are today.

 

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “it seems that an aspect of human nature is the tendency to cling tightly to one’s advantages and privileges and to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others.” I have written about John Biewen and his podcast Seeing White, and one of the key take-aways from his podcast was the understanding that racial discrimination followed economic exploitation. When our nation was not yet independent, we did not have genetic science, and we did not have complete working ideas of evolution and biology. In the United States wealthy European settlers enslaved black people for economic gain, and to justify that exploitation, stories, myths, and the idea of what would become the basis for “race” came into being. We would not have race and the creation of a caste system if people were not exploiting humans for economic gain in the first place. This system was never authentically understood or based on reason or science, but based on myth and the self-interest of those whose privilege provided advantages.

 

The quote from Alexander reminds us that we cannot just be critical and cast a judgmental eye on those who push back against our challenges to racial injustice. To a much greater extent than we ever truly recognize, we act more out of our own self-interest or our perceived self-interest than we act based on reason and altruistic values. I do not believe that the world is zero-sum, and I think you can cut behind popular views of the world as being win-lose to see ways in which we all grow and benefit even if we appear to be giving something up. However, the loss of status, the loss of social privilege, and even the loss of economic advantages can truly feel like a loss if you view the world as zero-sum. Giving up any of these things produces short term pains, and the payoffs are often far away and hard to recognize. Asking one group to give up their advantages and privilege may be necessary to ensure longterm stability within a population and may lead to greater economic prosperity for all over a generation or two, but the individual who must give up status and power may feel as though they have given up more than others, and they may feel attacked and victimized.

 

This is a challenge we must work through as a society. As we ask white people to step away from privilege, we must find a way to demonstrate that we are not attacking them personally or punishing white people for having been successful in our traditional system. Often times overall wealth and privilege is not as important for an individual as relative wealth and privilege. If you have more status among those around you, it does not matter that you are less wealthy and less powerful than those you will never meet or see. This vision needs to be shifted so that we look not at our status relative to those around us, but instead look toward stability and opportunity for humanity as a whole, recognizing that we, and our children, can still be prosperous and important, but in a larger system that depends on human connections more than it depends on individual wealth and success.

Colorblindness and Individualism

Americans celebrate individualism. We love feeling that we are special, and we love feeling that we have value based on our accomplishments and achievements. We even love when we have support from those around us to give us nudges toward our goals and help us with both the small and the large daunting steps along our journey. What we don’t love, however, is acknowledging how much we truly rely on others and on luck for our success. We are often quick to find excuses for mistakes and failures, pushing the negative off to someone else, but when it comes to the good things, we have no problem claiming personal responsibility and demonstrating our individual achievement.

 

This spirit of individualism that hypes up our personal responsibility for success and downplays our role in our failures is dangerous. it stems from and further builds an ego inflation that puts us at the center of the universe, and denies our true relationships to society and those around us. This individualism and ego inflation shifts the way we see the world, as Ryan Holiday put it in his book Ego is the Enemy, “It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. Its when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

 

When we talk about personal responsibility in society we must be careful, because our individualism places incredible value on who we areas a single person and misses our role within the collective society. We begin to forget how much we need other people for our success, how much other people depend on us to maintain their lifestyle, and how connected all of us are.

 

An area where we see individualism as particularly damaging within society is criminal justice. Colorblindness is the overwhelming doctrine of criminal justice and race in the United States, but the problem is that colorblindness is an individual approach to the society, and it is subject to the dangers of ego that Ryan Holiday explained above. Our sense of ourselves is inaccurate, and our unrealistically positive view of who we are changes the way we interpret and understand the world and our place in it. When we begin to focus purely on individuals in criminal justice policy, we don’t recognize the structural realities that shape the world for so many, and we act purely in our own self interest.

 

Michelle Alexander describes what happens when we allow colorblindness to take over and are guided by a sense of individualism and ego in her book The New Jim Crow, “For conservatives, the ideal of colorblindness is linked to a commitment to individualism. In their view, society should be concerned with individuals, not groups. Gross racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and opportunity should be of no interest to our government, and racial identity should be a private matter, something best kept to ourselves.” This view of race and individual responsibility is distorted. It is consistent with a view that places the individual at the center of the universe, but it is inconsistent with the reality that we depend on each other and need to engage with others to succeed. Individualism is easily hijacked by ego, and colorblindness is a defense mechanism to prop up our ego and highlight our individual advantages.

Care and Concern for Others

I have written about the ways in which colorblindness has been adopted across the nation, but does not actually lead to the outcomes that we would expect. Rather than helping us create better situations for everyone, colorblindness is an excuse that allows for disparate outcomes based on race, as long as we say that our policies and systems were designed to be race neutral. Colorblindness is effectively ignoring the reality of other people and our differences and shutting some people out of our lives.

 

As an alternative to colorblindness, Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow proposes the idea of color consciousness. She describes a shift to color consciousness from color blindness in detail. “The shift may, in fact, come as something of a relief, as it moves our collective focus away from a wholly unrealistic goal to one that is within anyone’s reach right now. After all, to aspire to colorblindness is to aspire to a state of being in which you are not capable of seeing racial difference—a practical impossibility for most of us. The shift also invites a more optimistic view of human capacity. The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.”

 

Color consciousness is the idea that we can see race and be aware of our race, other people’s race, and the differences between us and our experiences of the world. When we are colorblind we are not able to accept the disparate outcomes of our policies, and we are encouraged to forget and mitigate the past. Rather than try to understand how our present moment is shaped by past events such as slavery and Jim Crow segregation, colorblindness assumes that we have progressed beyond such evils and live in a society where everything has been fixed, so race no longer matters. Color consciousness instead looks at the past to understand where we are today, and is able to be more thoughtful and considerate when developing new policies and strategies to help the lives of everyone.