As humans, we have many questions. Some of our simplest inquiries can lead to profound answers. Where do we come from? What are we made of? Where do we fit in the vastness of the universe? The Nobel Prize in Physics was recently awarded to three scientists who advanced our understanding of the Earth’s place in the great scheme of things. But the really surprising thing about the many scientific discoveries of the past decades is that they reveal a world that, at its core, is nothing like the one we think we’re experiencing every day. The beauty and order that surrounds us is actually the product of a bizarre set of particles with chaotic properties that seem straight out of science fiction. The universe teems with uncertainty that defies description in our ordinary terms, yet we have learned to confidently plot our course toward tomorrow, should we be granted another day.
What is our ancestry? DNA testing provides a great tool for tracing our lineage, and people are learning unexpected facts about their roots. But if we want to go really far back, our origins are found in the remnants of catastrophic star explosions billions of years ago. Those explosions provided enough energy to fuse simpler atoms into new elements that are essential for human life and that ended up in a newly forming planet we call Earth.
Even time does not behave the way we generally experience it. Two identical clocks, for example, tick at different rates if one is high on a mountain and the other is on the ground. So, my measure of time passing is likely different from yours. Fortunately, these time disparities only become significant when there are extreme differences between the locations of the two clocks. The difference, however, is enough that the GPS satellites that help us with maps and directions have to take it into account.
At the microscopic level, things are even stranger. We’ve known for a long time that our bodies are made of cells. Our cells, in turn, are made of strings of chemical compounds, which are composed of atoms like carbon and hydrogen. And the atoms have even smaller parts, like protons and electrons.
The fundamental particles that we have been able to detect are very unusual and behave like nothing else in our experience. ‘Particles’ is probably the wrong word for them. Their location cannot be pinned down to any one place, regardless of the accuracy of our measuring tools. They are here AND they are there, simultaneously. And two of them can perform a perfectly choreographed dance — each reflecting the other’s moves — while being billions of miles apart.
There are surprising things about our neighborhood, too. It’s good to be curious about where you live. Finding food and friends has always been critical to the human species. The larger neighborhood of the universe is vast beyond our imagination. It would take a beam of light over 100,000 years to get from one side of the Milky Way to the other. And our galaxy is just one of hundreds of billion of galaxies out there.
Albert Einstein thought the size of the universe was stable. So it came as quite a surprise that our universe is rapidly expanding at a pace that appears faster than the speed of light. And yet, our whole universe is traceable back to a tiny speck that exploded just 14 billion years ago. In that relatively short time, we have gone from a big bang to poets and pioneers on a green-blue planet.
Another more recent shock to what we thought we knew about our world is that almost all of the matter in the universe is invisible — not because our telescopes are too weak to see it, but apparently because most matter is dark — it gives off no light. This dark stuff comprises about 85% of the matter that’s out there, and scientists are mystified about what it is.
The surprises within our universe are endless. The astounding thing is that they describe our real world, our earth, our bodies, and not some imaginary planet in a distant galaxy. We are made up of quantum particles that have no single location, governed by time that ticks differently on every watch, and surrounded by dark matter that we can’t yet explain.
Science is driven by the most basic questions. As the surprising answers come forward, we may need to adjust our presumption of way things are ‘supposed to be’ and learn the new language of how they really are.
-Richard Dieter is the author of the forthcoming book “Reflections on a Surprising Universe.”