This is an email from Universes and Unicorns, a newsletter by The Infinite Universe.
Welcome to the inaugural newsletter for The Infinite Universe, “Universes and Unicorns”.
You might ask why I gave it that title and the answer is that they both start with “U”. Seriously though I find that much of science and science news is filled with unicorn sightings, claims of vast paradigm shifts and eureka discoveries. The truth is science is a plodding business. We hear about many marvelous results but these rarely defy expectations. As for the universes, plural, this is a reference to the many universes of the imagination, which is really the topic of The Infinite Universe. We do not shy away from the speculative, yet we always hedge our bets. Nothing is certain without evidence.
In this first issue, I’d like to explore this idea of scientific progress and if science is going anywhere. If so, when will it get there?
But first the month in review.
September in Review
The big hit in September was our first article Space and time may be illusions. This article explored what space and time are made from and why there may not be turtles all the way down when it comes to space and time.
In September we also talked about ants and what they have to do with geometry, talked about my favorite topic (because it is the one I actively research) the 5D universe, and told a scary story about how the universe might disintegrate into nothingness. We closed out the month with two articles on the quantum mechanics of time travel and why Marty McFly really shouldn’t have started disappearing when he broke up his parents in 1955.
Now, on to the feature story in this newsletter, an examination of the progress of science.
My examples will be from physics which is the science I have professional knowledge of.
There was a point in the 19th century when it was believed that all scientific knowledge had been discovered, all laws established, and there were only a few gaps to fill. Then quantum theory happened. Then curved spacetime happened. We began to learn that reality was nothing like what we had imagined.
Since that time, physics has been in an ordinary mode, adding to its knowledge of how physical processes work, struggling to overcome difficulties, but in the end basically settled in its way of thinking. New and interesting features pop up now and then like chaos theory but they are rapidly exhausted of their fruit. Newer and better tools are developed which discover stranger and harder to explain phenomena, yet most of the explanations for these are in the same vein as all of 20th century physics: particles, fields, curved spacetime, alternate states of matter, etc.
Yet we all feel that sooner or later our reality must be overturned and what we think we know about the universe shown to be completely false. After all, this has happened before more than once. And if you’ve read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, you would be a fool to think that a revolution isn’t coming. (If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s short.)
In every scientific revolution, unlike many political ones, we retain all the knowledge that came in the previous incarnation of science. Newton’s laws are still popular, after all. We rarely see engineers cranking out Feynman diagrams to figure out the voltage in a circuit. So, it seems like we must be making progress.
In some sense, science is like creating a sculpture. We chip away at it, making it more refined and smooth, but we do not lose the essence of what went on before. And so, if that is so, when is the sculpture actually done?
The answer is we don’t know. We don’t know if we will ever run out of discoveries to make about the universe or if there will ever be a last possible revolution.
If that is so, then would the last revolution result in some complete and total knowledge of all physical processes and cause and effect in all possible incarnations of the universe? Or would it be like a fundamental shift in ourselves and how we view knowledge?
Consider that humans are evolving and changing as we learn and grow, not just the quality of knowledge that we have access to. While it is likely that paradigm shifts and revolutions are somehow inherent to the growth of knowledge, there may be knowledge that is inaccessible to human beings as we exist today.
If so, then we would have to grow and change to even understand it, as if we are children now who must grow up to understand advanced calculus (prodigies notwithstanding).
It’s food for thought that we may be as incomplete as our knowledge.
Coming Up in October
October is already in full steam with two new articles and more to come. So far the theme has been paradigm shifts. Einstein is a classic example of somebody who clung to 19th century views even as he ushered in the 20th century. Who knows what awaits us in the rest of the 21st century?