Astonishing Astrophysics: How Our Universe is Stranger than Fiction- Part 1
This is Part 1 of the Trilogy Series. In Part 1, we take an insider’s view into how Astophysics shows that our universe is far more weird than anything we can imagine. Part 2 deals with what observing our universe can teach us as a society of human beings. Part 3 deals with what insights we can gather from the universe to improve ourselves as individuals.
Immanuel Kant, a giant in philosophy explains that “two things fill the mind with ever increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me”. I have found that this increasing admiration induces me to study both the starry heavens and the moral law within me.
But while studying sociology/philosophy and social sciences I realized that we, as human beings, can learn a lot from astrophysics which is physics of the space. And for that, it is fundamental that we see it from the inside by exploring concepts that astrophysicists deal in their works on the universe. This does not lead us to say that because stars are aligned, so we should follow a dictator because it is his universal right and so on; Very far from it. Studying the universe indirectly but profoundly changes the way we look at our society and ourselves as an individual.
Size of the universe
The universe is big; very big; it is difficult to even imagine the astronomical distances that are in the universe. The universe is 93 billion light years across. To get an idea of this distance, note that light year is the distance traveled by light in a year and light travels at 186,282 miles or 299,792 kilometers per second! The universe also has mind boggling layers to it. Our earth is just a tiny planet on an ordinary galaxy in an ordinary super-cluster.
It is better to show it rather than try to explain the vastness of the universe. This excellent illustration shows how the universe’s vastness is difficult even to imagine (this image shows that earth is a small speck in the solar system, the solar system is a small speck in the solar interstellar neighborhood and so on):
For further mind bending images showing vastness of the universe and our place in it see this collection.
Weird physics facts
Time is dependent on space-time continuum. What this means is that time depends on your mass and your speed. If an object travels at the speed of light, time will cease to exist. If some human starts traveling at speed of time during a meeting and comes back to earth after traveling to even the edge of the universe, his reality will be that he is back to the meeting and no time has passed since then.
As time is relative, it depends on the mass and speed, time in one place is not equal to time in another place. This is what interstellar showed that 1 hour in the planet near black hole is equal to 7 years on earth. This is time dilation and relativity in action.
Atoms are 99.99…% empty space. This means that the atom has a nucleus but the electron circling it circles it far from a distance to make a whole atom. What would happen if we compress them and remove all of that empty space? In a neutron star this is exactly what happens; a teaspoon size of matter there weighs 5 billion tones!
What we know of our universe is visible matter; it includes 100 billion galaxies where each of those galaxies has between 10 million to a trillion of stars within it. That seems a lot but this is actually only 5% of the universe. We know that 95% is something as due to the fact that visible matter is nothing compared to the gravitational pull we can see exerted on galaxies. This 95%, for lack of better words is called dark matter and dark energy. Nobody knows what this is and so definition of dark matter and energy are currently unavailable.
Higher dimensions are really scary and weird for us as we are three dimensional creatures. If we had time dimension within our control, we could go to our future, visit the past and hold on to the present like we swipe images in our smartphones. Going higher, we would be able to visit alternative universes where laws of physics are totally different but self-consistent like as Alice experiences in Alice in Wonderland. The current top contender for theory that reconciles everything is M theory and it has 10 or 11 dimensions! We can’t properly imagine higher dimensions because it will be like asking a blind man to imagine the color red.
We have so many imagination-defying exo-planets, stars and structures in space as well. There is an exo-planet where it rains molten glass, a planet that is just one big diamond, a star that completes its orbit in just 2.8 hours, planets with three suns, and countless more.
There are many weird facts; in-fact majority of facts observed by astrophysics and theoretical physicists are weird.
Quantum mechanics study the very micro- the sub atomic particles of electrons, gluons, higgs boson, neutrinos and so on. The problem is that these very small sub atomic particulars do not behave in the manner that macro bodies behave like humans, galaxies, planets and so on. Quantum particles behave in strange and unexpected ways that really should not even be possible in the first place.
Welcome to the world of Quantum physics, where the renowned Physicist Niels Bohr once said, “Everything we call real is made up of things that cannot be regarded as real. If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.”
Quantum physics has revealed that the true nature of our reality is much “weirder” than we previously thought. Top 3 weird quantum mechanics are elaborated as follows;
1. Double slit experiment
2. Delayed choice experiment
3. Quantum entanglement
Double slit experiment
Is it possible that I am dead and alive at the same time? Or not-dead and not-alive at the same time? Double slit says that only when the observer comes will the wave functions of both dead and alive and not-dead and not-alive collapse into particles of either ‘alive’ or ‘dead’. On macro level we do not see this all-or-nothing behavior but in the quantum world we do. The double slit experiment that showed us that such bizarre behavior exists at quantum level is shown by this excellent short clip by Dr. Quantum:
Delayed choice experiment
This idea was first brought to the forefront by John Wheeler in 1978 and he believed that this experiment was best explained to others by elaborating it on a cosmic scale instead of at quantum level.
He asks us to imagine a star emitting a photon billions of years ago, heading in the direction of planet Earth. In between, there is a galaxy. As a result of what’s known as “gravitational lensing,” the light will have to bend around the galaxy in order to reach Earth. Billions of years later, if one decides to set up an apparatus to “catch” the photon, the resulting pattern would be an interference pattern.
One could also choose to “peek” at the incoming photon, setting up a telescope on each side of the galaxy to determine which side the photon took to reach Earth. The very act of measuring or “watching” which way the photon comes in means it can only come in from one side. The pattern will no longer be an interference pattern but a particle.
What does this mean? It means how we choose to measure “now” affects what direction the photon took billions of years ago. Our choice in the present moment affected what had already happened in the past.
This particular experiment illustrates how what happens in the present can change what happened in the past. It also shows how time can go backwards, how cause and effect can be reversed, and how the future caused the past.
To this John Wheeler says that “Actually, quantum phenomena are neither waves nor particles but are intrinsically undefined until the moment they are measured. In a sense, the British philosopher Bishop Berkeley was right when he asserted two centuries ago “to be is to be perceived.”[3
This makes absolutely no sense, which is a common problem when it comes to quantum physics. Regardless of our ability make sense of it; however, it is very real.
Quantum entanglement is a phenomenon so strange, so fascinating, and so counter to what we believe to be the known scientific laws of the universe, that Einstein himself could not wrap his head around it. It’s called “quantum entanglement,” though Einstein referred to it as “spooky action at a distance.”
Rather than trying to explain it through words, see Dr. Quantum’s video below to know exactly what quantum entanglement is:
So what is going on here? Either information is travelling faster than the speed of light, or, the vast distance we perceive between the objects really doesn’t exist at all! Either possibility is mind altering.
What is consciousness? Consciousness includes a number of things. It’s how we perceive our world, our thoughts, being aware, our intentions and more.
According to the rules of quantum mechanics, our observations, and as some scientists like to call them, ‘factors associated with consciousness,’ influence the universe at the most fundamental levels. When physicists look at reality at the smallest scales, it becomes clear that an atom’s behavior is dependent on the physicist’s observations.
“It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.”  Eugene Wigner, theoretical physicist and mathematician. He received a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963.
Moreover, Max Planck, a cofounder of the quantum theory and one of the most important physicists of the 20th century says that “As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter”.
In a stroke of genius, R.C. Henry, Professor of Physics of Physics and Astronomy at John Hopkins University, explains this further:
“A fundamental conclusion of the new physics also acknowledges that the observer creates the reality. As observers, we are personally involved with the creation of our own reality. Physicists are being forced to admit that the universe is a “mental” construction. Pioneering physicist Sir James Jeans wrote: “The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter, we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter. Get over it, and accept the inarguable conclusion. The universe is immaterial-mental and spiritual”.
Our evolution and existence
Elaborating on the Big Bang which shows that our vast universe came from nothing, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow note in their book ‘The Grand Design’ page 165 that “During inflation in the very early universe, right out of big bang, inflation occurred. It was as if a coin 1 centimeter in diameter suddenly blew up-to ten million times the width of the Milky Way”.
Furthermore, Page 168 says that “ But if you go far enough back in time, the universe was as small as the Planck size, a billion-trillion-trillionth of a centimeter”. It is extremely amazing to realize how the universe started from nothing to this vast size and how it inflated in astronomical proportions.
Another fascinating aspect to consider is that the universe is extremely finely tuned to allow for our human existence. Stephan Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow say further in this book that “These minute irregularities in temperature and fine tuning of other conditions are how intelligent life came into being. Even if minute changes in the conditions would occur, or irregularities in the very early universe were not there, intelligent life would not be able to exist. We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe.”
This stunning coincidence leads us to realize what Professor Freeman of Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton realizes: “As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the universe must in some sense have known that we were coming”.
To round it up, Marin Rees curiously notes that “In the beginning there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it.”
 Critique of Practical Reason, 5: 161–2