Two (Good) Ways to Organize the Universe

Frameworks for universal literacy

short version | tl;dr:

By time and size. Organizing our understanding and perception of the universe across time and size on the largest scales gives us an objective grounding and universal context for the models of reality that we build in our heads. Humanity’s best ideas and deepest insights hang neatly on these frameworks.

“How strange it is to be anything at all.”
-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

To be human is to wonder. We’re born trying to make sense of the relentless barrage of lights, sounds, colors, and emotions flooding into our awareness. Through our experiences we build up and refine models for what we think things are and the way we expect them to work.

As soon as we grasp the basics, controlling our limbs and bodily functions, learning how to walk and talk, becoming aware that we are a self, we want to know more — we’re compelled to make sense of our newly discovered existence! For a while the questions are ceaseless, we ask why the sky is blue, why stars shine, where we came from…

Unfortunately, at some point many of us start accepting the answers to the questions we are asking and stop asking new ones. We become satisfied with our understanding and the models we’ve built in our heads. We either think we’ve got things figured out or we feel we never will.

To think either is to be mistaken.

Seeing Further

Many other animals can communicate and some can even learn from one another, but humans have the seemingly unique ability to build up mountains of ideas and insight. Though imperfectly, we can share the mental models we’ve built, we can improve upon our collective best explanations. Newton didn’t come up with his theory of universal gravitation in a vacuum and neither did Einstein developing his theory of general relativity. To make their insights they stood at the peaks of these mountains and on the shoulders of the giants that came before them.

We can all scale these mountains.

Most of us sell ourselves short on what we think we can understand. It may take a genius to be the first to envision the wave particle duality, to imagine the double helical structure of DNA, or to conceive of light as the speed of causality, but we can all arrive at the same understanding and we can bring with us our unique perspectives. Climbing the mountains is easier than building them. Intelligence often seems to be more a product of curiosity than anything else.

The biggest challenge lies in building the big picture. How can we organize the evidence, discoveries, insights, and mental models uncovered by geniuses across all of history and every field of inquiry? What frameworks can help us see how these concepts relate to one another? It’s quite a tall order, but what characteristics would such a framework have?

“Good” Frameworks

  1. Ideally a framework should be all encompassing. It should be capable of organizing any new idea, concept, model, or experience without requiring any kind of extension. We shouldn’t have to make new categories or reorganize existing ones to accommodate new ideas or experiences we come across. Anything thrown at it should already have a home within it and that home should be fairly obvious. If some new discovery forces the framework to be extended, it should be a rare event and represent a paradigm shift on the level of learning that cells exist or that there are other galaxies outside the milky way.
  2. An organizing framework should also be objective. Even if a particular concept fits into it in several ways, those ways shouldn’t be a matter of opinion. Though our individual perspectives are limited and biased, we can lean on the objective nature of physical reality as a guide. Even if we disagree about what to call a particular color, each has an objective wavelength of light that can be measured.
  3. For the framework to be most practical, it should also provide context. Bringing new ideas and experiences into the framework should land them in close proximity to other useful and relevant concepts that can shed light and provide deeper understanding.

While meeting these criteria may not at first appear easy, using almost any physical property seems like it would work. For example, we could organize the universe based on temperature, from absolute zero to “absolute hot” (like in this infographic). We could consider everything we come across in terms of its density, mass, or electric charge…there are plenty of other options. However, most of these fail to provide useful context.

Two frameworks that seem to provide this context, the ones perhaps best fit for organizing the sum of human knowledge are the time and size scales of the universe.

Organizing by Time

It has been less than 100 years since we uncovered compelling evidence that the universe is not static and eternal.

Edwin Hubble’s graph of redshift versus distance. Image credit: Hubble, PNAS, 15, 3 (1929)

It wasn’t until the 1920's that we discovered there were galaxies outside of the milky way. By measuring their redshift, their velocities, we found they were all moving away from us. The universe is expanding.

Scientific inquiry has enabled humanity to begin painting a single cohesive picture of history on the largest scales. Not just human history or the history of life on earth, but the history of everything that exists, the entire universe.

Our best evidence (from WMAP, Planck, Hubble, and others) now suggests that the universe is 13.799±0.021 billion years old*. While the first strokes of this cosmic painting were broad and glossed over the details, every day we’re making new discoveries that allow us to add color and refine the edges. There’s plenty we don’t yet know, but the picture will only increase in resolution from here onwards.

13.8 billion years may seem difficult to conceptualize, however, there are a handful of distinct chronological events throughout the universe’s past that we can use as milestones to organize our thoughts. Big History is an interdisciplinary curriculum and organizational framework that leverages insights and discoveries from physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, and cosmology to tell the story of the universe as a single narrative. It looks at cosmic evolution through the lens of complexity over time. Big History breaks down all of time into just eight thresholds in which we see a stepwise increase in complexity, beginning with the deeply mysterious origins of space, time, energy, and the physical laws that govern them.

The thresholds of Big History. David Christian, who coined the term Big History, has an excellent TED talk [17:41] which provide an overview of the subject.

Each new threshold arises when raw materials from the previous threshold are met with conditions that allow them to develop into something entirely new and never before seen in the universe.

The raw ingredients produced by the big bang and in the first minutes afterwards slowly coalesced due to gravity acting on miniscule differences in density, setting the stage for the second threshold. Keep in mind that at this point there are no stars, no planets, there aren’t even any molecules let alone anything more complex like cells or organisms. All that exists are radiation and vast clouds of interstellar hydrogen and helium atoms (the simplest elements, with just one and two protons in the nuclei respectively). Over the course of roughly 700 million years*, these clouds were squeezed and heated by gravity, finally reaching the critical temperature of 14 million degrees kelvin. Under these incredibly hot conditions the mutual repulsion of the negatively charged electrons is overcome by the temperature and pressure of gravity and fusion takes place. This is the birth of the very first stars in the universe and lays the foundation for future galactic structures.

The vast majority of a star’s life is spent fusing hydrogen into helium. The third threshold of complexity, the creation of all the heavier elements, begins closer to the end of the lives of these first generation stars. The fusion of heavier and heavier elements in stellar cores is only possible in stars massive enough and only sustainable up until they are faced with fusing iron. For the sake of brevity we’ll have to forgo a description of what happens next (or watch this [12:17] if you’re interested).

Another, far more recent (and less physics heavy) threshold is the seventh: the agricultural revolution. After the last ice age, approximately 12 thousand years ago, warmer conditions allowed many different species of plants and animals to thrive, including our foraging ancestors. As these communities grew larger, so did the demand for resources. Fortunately, this pressure to find new ways to produce resources was met with these group’s growing collective knowledge and understanding of plants. The combination of this pressure met with growing knowledge resulted in our ancestors invention of agriculture, an energy bonanza that planted the seeds for the first civilizations.

Each of the eight thresholds in big history is a self contained story of how new complexity comes about under goldilocks conditions. Taken together, they form a single cohesive narrative representing our best understanding of the events that transpired to lead us to the present.

This is our common origin story.

Part of the beauty of this framework is in recognizing the crucial roles that biology, society, and technology play in advancing this narrative. While it’s been 13.8 billion years in the making, it continues on today and we now actively shape its development.

Even at this very moment we’re forging a path into the future and big history gives the tools and perspective to reflect on where we’ve been as well as where we’re going. This framework is immediately receptive to how events unfold and more than that, can shed light on how we might collectively aim towards a better future.

Organizing by Size

From the very smallest things we know of to the very largest, there are discrete physical objects. Over the last few centuries as humanity has developed tools to extend our senses far beyond the limitations of our biology, we’ve discovered entirely new and awe inspiring worlds of marvelous intricacy.

The size scale of the universe. Powers of Ten, produced by IBM in 1977 is a beautiful flythrough of these scales.

Each of the objects across the size scale of the universe above represents an entire class of objects and the evidence, theories, and history that go with them. It provides a way to think about the relationship between everything from DNA replication, mitosis, and natural selection, to fusion, supernova, and relativity. These ideas can be seen all at once in single big picture perspective when using this framework as a scaffold.

Arranging the scale in a circle is mostly arbitrary, however there is some intrigue in the idea that our best understanding of the largest and smallest scales are dictated and described by mathematics. In somes sense math can be seen to bridge the gap between them (of course, not having a quantum theory of gravity, any potential bridge is currently incomplete!).

Though the objects at each scale can be taken as distinct and discrete entities, they are also fundamentally and deeply connected. At each step, the objects are composed of the ones immediately smaller, and when combined in different ways, they form the objects at the next step larger.

The fundamental particles and forces come together in different ways and form the physical structure of all of the subatomic particles, which combined in different ways form the atoms, which combined form molecules, which form organelles, which form cells, which form organs, which form organisms, and so and and so forth. In some sense this size scale could be thought of as the matryoshka dolls of the universe. The collection of objects at each scale contains the one immediately smaller than it and is contained by the one immediately larger.

When taken all together what emerges is a coherent, interdependent, and interconnected picture of objective reality. Though science is a social institution and while there is certainly room for disagreement and misconception, it’s not controversial to recognize that when considering the size scale of the universe, the sciences are fundamentally part of the same study. Despite often being taught and thought of as completely siloed subjects, the various disciplines are essentially stacked on top of one another, just focused on different sections of the same scale. Physics on top of mathematics, then chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, ecology, geography, astronomy and finally cosmology.

Our day-to-day perceptions lay within just a small sliver of this scale. The sum total of humanity’s endeavors in art, philosophy, literature, love and relationships, culture and tradition, sports, and even war exist only at the level of organisms and species. This isn’t to diminish the importance or utility of our endeavors, but to appreciate them within a larger context. This framework empowers us to think about the aspects of reality that exist beyond our physical senses.

Leveraging Time and Size

Knowing that something exists is the first step to understanding. Internalizing these structures in time and size gives us hooks on which we can hang our mental models as we grapple with humanity’s greatest discoveries and deepest insights. To fully leverage these scales as frameworks for our thinking requires that we develop an understanding of the underlying evidence, theories, and history at each step. While this isn’t necessarily easy, it’s by no means insurmountable and the benefits both individually and societally are immense.

Undertaking this literacy allows new experiences or ideas we come across to be woven into into an existing fabric, providing them with immediate context. Knowledge is power and when we’re able to leverage the genius of all those that have come before us in our decision making, we are able to be more effective in working towards just about any goals we might have.

Societally, a public that more deeply appreciates its own delicacy and better understands the science and technology on which it now depends is able to more effectively mitigate the risks involved with wielding such great power moving forward. It enables us to more confidently hoist the sails and steer the rudder in navigating to a more ideal future even if rough seas are ahead.

In truth, the hardest work has already been done for us by the many geniuses throughout human history that first uncovered the evidence and made the initial insights. All we must do is stand on their shoulders and lend our perspective. To endeavor to do so is to undertake the lifelong pursuit of a universal literacy and to actively join the human story of discovery.

There is so much we don’t yet know, so much to be discovered. The more that we know, the more that we know that we don’t know. Neil deGrasse Tyson put it like this:

“as the area of our knowledge grows, so too does the perimeter of our ignorance.”*

Our knowledge is limited, but the quality of the questions we’re now asking across all of the sciences displays a level of insight never imagined by our ancestors. The picture we’re collectively painting of our existence will only increase in resolution going forward.

Standing on our ancestors shoulders we see further, and so too will our descendants standing on ours.

Praxis | The Means

So how precisely can we go about it? Simply searching the internet for items at each step of the scales might suffice, however, we can’t search for something if we don’t know that it exists and without having a means of understanding where the limits of our knowledge currently lay, it’s hard to know where to start. We also find that when searching we retrieve hundreds of thousands of results, if not millions. Though modern algorithms do an impressive job of bringing the most relevant websites to the top of the list, they’re not adept at finding specific sets of images, videos, or other learning resources related to a topic. They’re also essentially oblivious to hierarchies and semantic trees of knowledge; knowing the prerequisites for understanding a given idea. Searching the internet also lacks a support network, a community of peers also endeavoring to discover and share knowledge.

Knowlo, though in its infancy, is being made to overcome these hurdles. It is a place to collectively aggregate humanity’s greatest ideas, identify the resources that best teach them, and organize it all across the scales of time and size. It points a finger to the shoulders of the biggest giants and provides a ladder to help you get there. Join a community of learners working to see further and find out more at knowlo.io

The drafts and edit history of this article can be found here.