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Sleepless in the Physics Lab

7 Cosmic Questions That Induce Insomnia

by Regis Nicoll

A virulent strain of insomnia has hit a special group of folks: physicists. According to an article in NewScientist.com, there are seven conundrums that can keep these crumple-jacketed oracles "tossing and turning in the wee hours."

The article was reporting on a panel discussion held in October 2009 at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada. Upon being asked, "What keeps you awake at night?" the group of physicists came up with the following list of vexing questions. Disappointingly, their discussion failed to reveal the depth of these mysteries and why they are so discomforting. To better understand the troubled spirits of scientists, I thought it would be helpful to fill in some detail for each of the seven questions.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 13

1. Why this universe?

Among researchers of a particular bent, there is an uneasy recognition that our universe is a very special place—an "against-all-odds" place, really, whose existence depends on a host of delicately balanced parameters. Newton's gravitational constant, the mass and charge of the electron, and the strengths of the weak and strong nuclear forces are just a few of the factors that, if varied but a smidgeon, would make our cosmic home quite different—perhaps one in which apples fell up, or, more likely, in which there could be no applies at all!

Fidgeting over the apparent "deck-stacking," scientists have been scratching around for something—anything—that could explain our cosmos as the inevitable product of natural, unintelligent processes. Today, a favorite construct is the "multiverse": a vast menagerie of universes in which every imaginable (and unimaginable!) combination of parameters is realized somewhere. Despite its growing popularity, the multiverse hypothesis hinges on propositions that far overreach what has been, or even can be, demonstrated.

For example, one "many worlds" scenario advanced in the 1950s postulated that, at the quantum level, every slice of the cosmos splits off in every moment of time to form a parallel universe. This mind-numbing production of worlds, contingent upon a controversial reading of quantum mechanics, has provoked many researchers to look elsewhere for answers to our Goldilocks existence; specifically, to black holes and "inflation."

In black hole theory, universes are birthed from the digested contents of black holes—those invisible, massive objects gobbling up everything, including light, that falls into their gravitational web. The problem is, among the "black hole candidates" identified to date, not one has been confirmed as an actual black hole. Furthermore, not only is the existence of black holes not demanded by Einstein's gravitational formulations, as once thought, but recent calculations indicate that they will evaporate long before they reach cannibalistic proportions (see, for example, "No More Black Holes?" by Phil Berardelli in Science Now).

According to inflation theory, the Big Bang turned into a Big Fizz, creating an initial "bubble" of energy that quickly fizzled into a constellation of bubbles—much like that created when popping the top on a well-shaken can of soda—with each bubble ballooning into a new, unique universe. It is a tale of cosmic proportions, held together by a string of mathematical abstractions and the will to believe.

All three of these theories share a fundamental difficulty: If another universe did exist, separate from our own and with its own unique set of physical parameters, it would be undetectable because our instruments are constrained by the distinctive parameters of our own universe.

And aside from being unfalsifiable, the multiverse theories challenge one other fundamental premise of scientific logic. Materialists often rebuke intelligent design proponents for allegedly violating "Occam's Razor," the pretension that simple explanations will turn out to be correct ones. In this case, what's simpler to believe: that the order in the universe stems from an intelligent cause, or that there's an unimaginably vast cosmic multiplex of near-infinite numbers of universes that we can't detect? You do the math.

2. What is everything made of?

In the late 1990s, researchers were stunned to discover that the universe was expanding at an ever increasing rate. That suggested a source of cosmic energy very different from the types known to exist; something akin to anti-gravity. Although a positive identification for this "dark," Star Trekkian energy has yet to be established, it is estimated that it comprises 70 percent of the entire universe. If you add to that all the matter in the universe that is not visible, then dark stuff makes up 95 percent of the known cosmos.

The mysterious nature of dark energy and matter, and their implications for understanding the universe, has led prominent physicists to consider them the biggest riddles of science.

3. How does complexity happen?

In the materialistic narrative, everything from spiral galaxies to sentient life started from very simple beginnings. But how? How did quarks form quasars, or molecules organize into a genome, or a genome direct the assembly of beings capable of pondering the mysteries of quarks and quasars?

The challenge facing materialists is that their "simple-to-complex" story line is at loggerheads with one of the most sacrosanct laws of science: Left to its own devices, the universe, like all closed systems, will go from order to disorder and from complex to simple, not the other way around.

More and more researchers are realizing that, for living systems, materialistic mechanisms are insufficient to account for even the basic components of life. Consider the biological cell. To imagine that a living cell could emerge from pond swill is tantamount to believing that several tons of satellite debris orbiting the earth could, after a few billion years, organize into a fully functioning, self-operating space station, capable of performing its own maintenance and repair with its own self-manufactured spare parts.

4. Will string theory ever be proved correct?

It is axiomatic among scientists that there is a meta-principle, a Theory of Everything (TOE), that will tell us why our universe is the way it is. To date, three fundamental forces and hundreds of particle types have been identified or suggested. Yet, why these particular building blocks of nature exist and not others, and why they have the features they do, remains a mystery.

Another puzzle is why the two most successful theories of science—general relativity, which governs the large-scale structure of the cosmos; and quantum theory, which governs its innermost workings—are in conflict. The dissonance suggests that one or both of these highly vaunted theories is wrong. And that is unsettling.

To rescue the day, Himalayan hopes are riding on string theory. According to this theory, the fundamental particles of nature are not vanishingly small "points," but rather "strings" of quantum-sized dimensions whose vibrational patterns determine the physical properties of mass, charge, and magnetic spin. The essence of the theory, Princeton physicist David Gross explains, "is to build matter itself from geometry."

But if matter is a product of geometry, which is a measure of space, which in turn (according to general relativity) is shaped by matter, then we seem to be back where we started. So will string theory really be able to tell us anything?

5. What is the singularity?

For most of the history of mankind, the universe was universally accepted as a creation. But today, it is pitched as the product of a "singularity": a one-time event in which the fundamental laws of physics broke down, setting up the Big Bang with all the stuff that would become our universe.

Although the "bang" is supported by observational data and theory, the question of what banged, and how, is up for grabs. The question is especially troublesome because of another sacrosanct law of science, which says: You can't get something from nothing, or, in other words, There is No Free Lunch!

Interestingly, some theorists are not bothered by that difficulty. Take Alan Guth, a top theoretical physicist, who acknowledges, "It is said that there's no such thing as a free lunch," but who then blithely chimes, "But the universe is the ultimate free lunch." Something to keep in mind the next time you see a scientific expert pontificating to the fawning media.

6. What is reality really?

In the sixth century b.c., musings over the nature of reality led to the competing worldviews of what we may call naturalism and transcendentalism.

Heraclites took the naturalist side, insisting that what is real is what changes—things that come into being, then decay, and ultimately disappear—that is, the material realm of nature thought to be reducible to fire, water, air, and earth.

Parmenides, on the other hand, took the transcendentalist view, claiming that reality consists of those things that are eternal; namely, the pure, immaterial "forms" of the things in the sensible world. It is in the intangible, unseen realms of nature, Parmenides insisted, that reality exists.

Plato elaborated on this idea in his Allegory of the Cave, which depicted the material world as an illusionary shadow pointing to the world of forms—the ideal, numinous realm of what is really real.

Funny, twenty-five hundred years later, thinkers are no closer to an answer.

7. How far can physics take us?

This question, I suspect, is the real sleep snatcher. In a transparent moment, physicist Lawrence Krauss reflected, "I worry whether we've come to the limits of empirical science."

His worry is legitimate.

Notice that nearly every question causing Krauss and his fellow physicists to lose sleep hinges on the ultimate question: What is Prime Reality, the thing that is self-existent and non-contingent, preceding all that exists? Is it matter, energy, the Void, God?

Prime Reality is the fountain from which all knowledge springs, yet it is beyond the reach of experimental knowledge, even that gleaned from light spectra captured by the Hubble telescope, or exotic particles detected by the Large Hadron Collider, or cellular structures unraveled by the electron microscope.

Prime Reality can neither be deductively proven nor empirically verified; it must be revealed, and, in fact, many believe it has been: "In the beginning was the Logos."

No wonder the oracles are having trouble sleeping.

So, one day, if you should find yourself in a hotel lobby when a blurry-eyed physicist comes stumbling out of a conference room, have a little compassion on the fellow—offer him some Sominex and mention the Gideon next to his bed. 


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