The Bounds of Opinion

“Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic. Nature is indifferent to humans. The world exists and life exists upon it, but the world doesn’t seem worried about what life flourishes, how it flourishes, and what life does. It simply carries on and life must react to what happens across nature.


In our lives we have an extreme number of desires, of thoughts about good and bad, and of preferences for one outcome over another. All of our desires, our fears, and our thoughts lead to expectations about how we think the world should be, but nature is not aware of our beliefs of how it should operate. We bring to the world a complex set of ideas, and they are continually batted around as if they were meaningless.


Seneca’s quote above is about recognizing that there is no reason that the world should be a certain way, and there is nothing that makes the world conform to the beliefs and views that we have. There is an unlimited number of ways to want the world to be, and while in a sense the way we view the world determines how it seems to us, there is something that seems to be separate about the world. It operates on its own, even if our views and decisions make it seem to behave one way or another. We can work toward different outcomes, we can strive for something different, and we can attempt to actualize our preferences, but ultimately it is all just opinion built upon an indifferent world.


This is not a nihilistic sentiment or something we should feel discouraged by. What it means is that the universe exists and we have come to exist within it with the ability to manipulate and change parts of it. We have great opportunity to use what the universe contains and we are limited by only our imagination, the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of the big bang. We can’t change the laws of physics or the initial conditions of the big bang, but we can always change our imagination and thoughts, and we can always learn more about our universe and what is possible within an indifferent nature.


Bringing this down to an individual level, we can take pressure off ourselves by recognizing that there is no perfect way that we or anything else ought to be. The universe does not care. We are matter that is cognizant of its own existence and from our self-recognition flows the ability to examine and perceive so much more than just the matter within ourselves. From us flows the ability to create the reality we see around us and to create the opinions, thoughts, ideas, and preferences that we bring to the world. It is up to us individually to recognize the opportunity we have and to act accordingly.

Cutting Through

The truly great thing about physics is that it is universal. Literally. What we discover about physics here in the United States is true in South Africa, and what is discovered in South Africa can be learned just as well in Vietnam, and it all holds true on Jupiter or in the Andromeda Galexy. Physics is based in mathematics and repeatable experiments and it can be understood anywhere. It takes our perceptions and it boils them down into their most simplistic forms, tests them, repeats the test, and then determines what is real and what is unsupported. This means that physics has the ability to help us understand things in incredible new ways. We can better understand the universe and how it is held together, but only if we can study the physics and step beyond ourselves to understand what the tests, experiments, and math are trying to explain to us.

For Amanda Gefter, this is one of the best parts of physics. It takes our expectations, our assumptions, and what we want to be true, and completely ignores it. A good scientist, during their search for what is real and what is not, is able to cut through the noise of our expectations, beliefs, and desires to see the science underneath, holding things together.

Gefter writes, “That was what I loved about physics—that moment of pure surprise when you suddenly realize that what you had thought was one thing is really something else, or that two things that seemed so different are really two ways of looking at the very same thing. It was the perennial comfort that comes from discovering that the world is not remotely what it seems.”

By cutting through the noise of humanity, physics helps us to see the world more thoroughly. The world and the universe are not the way they simply appears to us from our perspective on Earth. Much of how we interpret and understand the universe is through what we see, but so much of the universe does not emit electromagnetic radiation or react with light in any way. How we perceive the universe depends on our point of view, and of our experience as human beings living on our planet. What physics does, is move beyond our experience of the universe to tell us how things are at any point in the universe, not just on planet Earth today. If we accept the world as it appears to us, then we somehow cease to move forward, and we begin to live in a story that never completely captures the reality we experience around us. We begin to live in ways that don’t add up, that put us at the center and don’t allow for the types of evolution and adaptation that we need to live in this universe responsibly. Physics takes the stories that we tell and re-writes them, adjusting the language to be the language of mathematics, giving us a new perspective from which to tell our story.

Only Referencing the Inside

The problem of physics and the universe being relative to observers haunts Amanda Gefter in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Throughout the book she writes about the challenge of understanding physics and finding a set, definitive, absolute reality within physics. Motion, matter, electromagnetic waves, particles, and time all seem to change relative to an observer. The observer does not need to be alive, but it just any given point of reference.


During her quest to better understand physics and find an objective agreed upon base for reality Gefter spoke with physicist Fotini Markopoulou. Recounting the conversation Gefter writes, “Was there some way to continue talking about the universe while only referring to it from the inside? Markopoulou seemed to think so, but it came at a serious price. It meant tossing aside ordinary Boolean logic and replacing it with a kind of logic that depended on the observer. It meant redefining what we mean by “true.” It meant stripping physics of the ability to make absolute statements about ultimate reality. Propositions were no longer true or false. They were true or false according to some particular observer.”


Einstein’s theories of relativity tell us that observers make a big impact on how the universe is measured and understood. Where an observer exists in space, the observer’s scale, and its motion all impact the measurements for the observer.  Gefter was on a quest with her father to understand and determine what it is in the universe that is the absolute reality of the universe. What is the basic constant that forms the simplest building block of all of the universe? Here quest was to find the one thing that was not relative to a reference point and an observer and to find the one thing that everyone and everything in the universe can point to and say “yes, that there is X, and it is always X, and is X for all of us who look at it.”


The challenge is that we are all within the universe. We are all matter and each point within the universe is a point of the universe and is itself changing and interacting with other things in the universe. There is no way to stand outside the universe and set a universe clock to a specific time and see everything a specific way. There is no ‘outside’ to the universe, and that means that any point of reference or timeframe is relative to others based on a host of factors. Gefter wanted to find an objective piece of the universe that was not determined relative to another point, but the only way such a point could exist is if it were outside the universe, something we philosophically understand to be impossible.

A View from Nowhere

Physics is all around us, taking place within our coffee mug, within jet airplane engines, and on the roof above our head. Everywhere we go, physics goes, and everywhere we look, we see physics. Across the universe, magnified at the end of an electron microscope, and throughout time, physics connects everything there is. Amanda Gefter in her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, describes the importance of viewing physics within a totally inclusive system. Because we are walking physics experiments, we alter the physics of the world around us and have an impact on every system that we study and interact with. In fact, it is not just us but everything that interacts or has the ability to observe a phenomenon in physics that acts upon and changes the system.


This is important because it shapes the way we study and understand physics and reality. There is no way for us, or anyone or anything else, to stand outside the universe and look back in at the universe to make an observation independently. If you are observing the universe you are within the universe and you are part of the universe. Describing her efforts to learn and understand what this means for physics, Gefter wrote,


“I had already learned that both relativity and quantum mechanics were trying to tell us the same thing: we run into trouble when we try to describe physics from an impossible God’s-eye view, a view from nowhere. We have to specify a reference frame, an observer. But now I finally understood the real tension between the two theories. The whole mess could be summed up with one question: where’s the observer?”


General relativity tells us that everything is inside the universe, but when we look at quantum mechanics we are trying to look at incredibly tiny particles that form the building blocks of the universe. A tension arises because we appear to be able to separate ourselves from the system in which our experiments take place, but the reality is that we are making an observation of the system, which means we are interacting with the system. Even when we take the human part away from our experiments and our systems, we still leave behind something to make an observation to somehow detect what is taking place. An observer does not have to be conscious and is better thought of as a frame of reference or something that can be changed and adjusted within the system. The only way we could truly understand pure physics it seems, is to be completely outside the system to look in and observe without changing the system, but this completely violates what we know is possible about how our universe works.

Violating General Relativity

Physics today is hard and incredibly head-spinningly confusing. That does not mean, however, that it cannot still be fun and presented in a way that makes us think deeply about the nature of the universe while still enjoying the science of how our universe exists and behaves. Amanda Gefter did not set out to be a science journalist, but she parachuted into a career as a science journalist and has a real skill for combining difficult scientific principles and relatable, real life jokes, puns, situations, and experiences. In doing so, Gefter is able to make physics and science engaging, which is a real and important skill for scientists, technocrats, and skilled professionals to develop. Learning to be engaging, even with the boring and the difficult, is what our society needs in order to convey the importance of the dull and often times drudgery of difficult thought work.


And that brings me to Gefter’s writing about General Relativity, the scientific principle laid out by Einstein that has been reinforced by recent discoveries such as gravitational wave experiments. In our universe, there are certain things we can’t measure simultaneously. We can know one item with certainty but in making a measurement or observation we suddenly are unable to identify or know another related aspect with certainty. Tied together in this type of relationship are time and total universal energy. We seem to be able to potentially measure one or the other, and we must eliminate one when trying to make predictions or models of the universe based on an understanding of the other. Describing this relationship, Gefter writes:


“When you think about it, it ought to have been obvious from the start that there’s no possible way to have both general covariance and a universe that evolves in time—the two ideas are mutually exclusive, because for the universe as a whole to evolve in time, it must be evolving relative to a frame of reference that is outside the universe. That frame is now a preferred frame, and you’ve violated general relativity. It’s one or the other—you can’t have an evolving universe and eat it, too.”


There are two things I want to pick out of the quote above. I am not scientifically literate (within the physics world) to fully pull apart the ideas about general relativity, general covariance, and how the universe changes in time, but I do understand Gefter’s point about a preferred reference frame. Relativity tells us that the universe is observer dependent, meaning that how you observe the universe shapes the reality that you experience. The experiments you do, what you can see, feel, measure, and interact with has an impact on the physics of the universe around you. This does not seem to apply only to conscious observers, but other types of observers such as stars emitting light rays, giant space rocks traveling to our solar system from other solar systems, and even quantum particles popping in and out of existence along the horizon line of a black hole. Everything in the universe is in the universe and therefore every action impacts the universe. We are never perfectly outside the universe in a true world or perfect perspective from which we can point back and say “that, right there, is the universe as it actually truly exists.”


Second, physics does not have to be all technical and serious. In complex writing we often want to display how smart we are and how well we understand the subject by using the language and writing style of smart academics. A recent podcast from the Naked Scientists highlighted work from researchers that show that journal articles are getting harder to read, and that means science is becoming less accessible. However, if you put the ego aside you can write about science without having the need to prove to others that you are smart and can write in complex styles. In the quote above Gefter manages this, and even includes a fun variation on a popular idiom. Finding ways to do this in science is important because it shows others that you can be a real human being and an ordinary person and still be interested enough to learn a little about cutting edge science.

What Reality Ought To Be

The universe is filled with paradoxes, but often times those paradoxes seem to be the result of how our brains and thinking work. Amanda Gefter addresses this in her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. In the book Gefter describes how she found her way to a career as a science journalist, something she never set out to do directly, and at many points never believed would be possible for her. Her descriptions of science and physics are as much a description about the progression of human life that we all share, and it is a perfect opportunity to reflect on paradoxes within our personal lives and within areas like science.


Gefter describes the challenges of quantum mechanics and the reality that we can measure some parts of the universe one way, but get a different result if we measure them a different way or at a different time. Also, with quantum particles, we seem to be a able to measure with incredible precision a particle’s position or its momentum, but not both. We can accurately look at where a particle is, but in doing so we can’t describe where it is going. Alternatively, we can look at where a particle is going and how it is moving through space, but we can’t actually then pinpoint where in space it is. This measurement paradox is challenging and creates a lot of problems and further questions for scientists. Describing the way we are challenged by measurements and observations and our inability to separate ourselves from the measurements and observations we make, Gefter writes the following:


“There’s no normal reality lurking behind the quantum scene, no objective Einsteinian world that sits idly by regardless of who’s looking. There’s just the stuff we measure. The whole thing reeked of paradox, but as Feynman said, ‘The ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ‘ought to be.’”


I think this idea extends well beyond physics throughout our lives. A paradox is something that sounds like it would be correct and obvious, but leads to a conclusion or reality that could not possibly exist. Paradoxes are contradictions that break our expectations and are outcomes that run counter to our intentions. With this framework, we can begin to see that Feynman’s description of paradoxes extends beyond the world of science into any aspect of our lives today.


The physical universe and the ever confusing and challenging world of particle physics is under no obligation to act in ways that our limited brains and current extent of mathematical and scientific understanding would expect. We make predictions based on observations, but we are never playing with all the data and never have a complete set of all possible observations when we make our predictions. Our ideas of what should and should not be possible are shaped by our experiences and by all the information we can hold in our head, and that information is astoundingly limited compared to the vastness of possibilities within the universe.


Looking at our actual day-to-day lives, we can see that this concept translates into the expectations, generalizations, and predictions we make about our futures and desires. I live in Reno, Nevada, and at the moment housing prices in Reno have increased dramatically as the number of homes and quality apartments has remained level while economic development and population growth have occurred. One result of a stronger economy and a lagging housing infrastructure is increased home costs, and fewer living accommodations for those who want to live on their own. I was recently running with a friend of mine who stated that an individual graduating from college should be able to afford a starter home if they are in an introductory position and have a solid and stable job. My friend is not wrong to say this, but his statement is simply a value judgement based on the experiences of his family and expectations that have been shaped by where he has lived and what he has been told he should do to be successful. Whenever we begin talking in terms of how things should be, we need to recognize that we are making value judgements, and that we are expressing only our ideas of what reality ought to be. The conflicts this creates and the paradoxes it leads us to are not paradoxes that actually exist in the universe, they are just situations where the real world does not align with the way that our brains comprehend our experiences.


The set of possibilities within the universe is virtually infinite as far as the human mind is concerned, and thinking that we know how things should be is to some extent arrogant and irrational. The world and universe in physical terms and in terms of our social ordering can have many forms, and if we try to force the universe to be the way that makes sense from our perspective, we will simply be frustrated and confused in a spiral of paradox. When we take away our opinion and think through our expectations, we can begin to see the world more clearly and better react to and adjust to the actual realities of our world. When we take away the expectations of how the world ought to be, we can live in the world we actually have and learn and adapt with greater skill.

Measuring the Universe from the Inside

The human mind is an amazing tool, but it does go astray from time to time and some of our logical fallacies trip us up. The world of physics, particularly the physicists who are pushing the edge of physics knowledge, run into a lot of challenges that clash with the way we typically think about and understand the universe. Our physics today shows us where our logical fallacies lie and how we must tread the line of reason and nonsense to understand what is truly taking place in the universe.


One of the challenges that modern physics presents us with is the need to abandon the idea of objective observers outside the system. Everything in the universe is within the universe. That sounds obvious enough, but it means that everything that is, all matter, all energy, and any observer is in the universe itself. This is important because it means you cannot step outside the universe and look in to see what is happening to make observations and measurements. From the moment the universe began, it has been all there ever is, and there was never anything outside the universe as best as we can understand it.


Amanda Gefter tackles this in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn where she writes, “Of course, if that was true, you couldn’t have an observer to make the measurement in the first place. The observer’s got to live in some kind of reality. That was the problem with Bohr’s view. If measurement is the arbiter of reality, then the measuring device has to sit outside reality—which even within the bizarro universe of quantum mechanics, is downright impossible.” Gefter wrote this in response to the challenges of describing particles within quantum mechanics. There are some properties of particles that you can’t define very precisely, or at least that you can’t define simultaneously. We also look at particles within the wave function, indicating that particles follow a general probability pathway until we decide to make a measurement and determine where they are and how they behave.


But,  because we are inside the universe, when we make an observation we change the system. We shape the reality that we are trying to measure because we are matter and our measurement tools are made of the same building blocks as the things we are trying to measure, so everything interacts and mutually shapes and has an impact on everything else. There is no way to stand outside the universe and there is no way to observe and measure the system without interacting with it, and when you do, you influence the observations you make.

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.

Life in the Universe

Peter Singer shares with his readers a wide variety of areas where individuals can focus in an attempt to make donations of time, effort, or money with a goal of helping the world move in a positive direction in his book The Most Good You Can Do. He discusses donations to individuals in poverty in the developing world, donations to political advocacy organizations, and even donations meant to prevent human extinction through global (usually man made) crisis. Throughout The Most Good You Can Do Singer makes an effort to quantify the benefit and the return on investment of directing donations and efforts toward various causes.


When writing about the preservation of the human species through donations meant to prevent our extinction Singer states, “The universe is so vast and so sparsely inhabited with intelligent life that the extinction of intelligent life originating on Earth would not leave a niche likely to be filled anytime soon, and so it is likely to reduce very substantially the number of intelligent beings who would ever live.” By taking this view Singer is elevating the importance of the role of humanity in the universe and justifying any effort made to protect our species and the lives of humans into the future.  He is advocating that we fill a special spot in the universe because we are the only intelligent life that we have been able to detect in the surrounding areas of our galaxy which we can study at this point.  For Singer, there is an intrinsic value in human life simply because we exist and will exist into the (at the least very near) future.


For me, the quote above makes me question Earth’s value.  The vast space and time of the universe is on a scale so large that it is hard or possibly impossible for any individual to fully encompass.  On an episode of the podcast Startalk, Neil De Grass Tyson once said, “Think about a beach full of sand, and for every grain of sand on the beach, we have more planets in the universe.” With that in mind I cannot imagine that the intelligent life on earth is truly as unique as we imagine we are. We simply have not been able to view life on another planet in the space near Earth that we can study. Throughout the space-time of the universe which operates at a different scale than what we perceive and comprehend on earth it is incredibly unlikely that life has not been quite abundant relative to our standards and experiences in studying the universe to this point.


In my mind, Singer’s view of humans importance in the Universe overinflated the value of humanity. By focusing and placing so much attention on intelligent life Singer also leaves out other species on this planet that play an incredible role but may not be considered intelligent relative to humans. I think our role even on Earth is less than that which Singer imagines.  When human extinction does occur it will only be humans that truly suffer. Life will not suffer, as species will change and adapt and probably thrive with biodiversity returning to the planet in new ways.  The universe will not miss a single species no matter how intelligent or dominant they are within their section of the universe. Life, and the continued organization of the randomness of the universe will continue to expand be it intelligent or not.  I would therefor argue that providing for our continued existence as humans on this planet is less important than the improvement and elevated life quality of those who are currently living.