There are, to say the absolutely very least, a great many phenomena in the universe that I find to be imponderable; at least not ponderable in any more than purely superficial, meaningful way. Other people may find it possible to not just ponder some of them deeply and meaningfully, but also actually understand them. I don’t.
The following is an infinitesimal sampling—just the top three at the top of my mind now; others may make my top-three list at other times—of what I find imponderable:
The Universe: Infinitely Finite?
Consider the following two statements:
- The universe is infinite.
- The universe is finite.
Unless I’m missing something—probably something that involves mysticism and angels performing elaborate, multi-act circus extravaganzas on the head of a pin—one and only one of the above statements is true. Yet I can’t wrap my mind around either of them.
How can anything go on without end? That’s inconceivable to me. If I were to try to visualize something material, such as the universe, rather than just something conceptual, such as angels on pinheads, going on without end, my brain would explode—possibly literally.
Yet, how can the universe be finite? What would happen if you walked to the edge of the universe (or visited the restaurant there1) and then took one more step? Where would you be?
I believe some physicists explain this by saying that space is curved and eventually folds back on itself. Thus, no matter how many steps you take you will stay within that finite space.
Yeah. OK. But I have to move on now because I think I left the stove on and my brain is starting to boil.
The Multiverse: Everything and More
Some esteemed physicists postulate that there isn’t just our universe, but a collection of universes—possibly an infinite number of them—making up a multiverse2. How can that be?
I always understood the definition of universe to be, “Everything there is. Absolutely everything.”
A two-universe multiverse, then, is, in essence, everything squared. And a multiverse with an infinite number of universes is everything raised to the power of infinity. A multiverse with more than two, but still a finite number of universes falls somewhere in between.
There are people out there who claim to understand this. Some even claim to be able to come up with formulae that give credence to this hypothesis. I don’t doubt their integrity. And they probably do understand it. And their conjectures may even be spot-on accurate. My only question is, whether the theory is correct or not, what sort of drugs do you have to be on to come up with this sort of hypothesis in the first place?
Time: It’s All Relative
If I come anywhere close to understanding it (a very, very, very long shot, at best), according to Albert Einstein3, if you hopped into a super-duper spaceship, accelerated to close to the speed of light and then spent a couple of years travelling around at that speed, when you returned to earth all of your friends—and all of your enemies, as well as everyone else around at the time you left—would be long dead.
The reason for this is, again according to Einstein, time moves more slowly for a body in motion than for a stationary body. In addition, the faster you travel, the more time slows down.
He didn’t mean this in simply a “time flies when you’re having a good time” or an “a watched pot never boils” sort of way. He didn’t mean that time would simply appear to be going slower. He meant that it would actually run slower for you.
(I believe he, or maybe some other physicist, also said that the strength of gravity has an influence on time, so someone sitting on a large, dense planet would experience time at a different rate than someone out in space, far from anything with a serious gravitational force. But never mind that. The time/velocity relationship alone is mind boggling enough for this near-brainless post.)
According to my almost certainly flawed understanding of what Einstein was saying, if you took a clock with you on your super-duper spaceship voyage and that clock registered not just hours and minutes, but also the date, your clock would be well behind earth-bound clocks when you returned.
This argument follows “naturally” from the apparent fact that the speed of light relative to you is the same even if you are moving relative to the light source. That is counterintuitive and goes against the rules of relative speeds for just about everything other than light.
For example, if you are traveling in a car at a speed of 60 miles per hour and a car behind you is traveling in the same direction at 50 miles per hour, you’re pulling away from him at the speed of 10 miles per hour (60 – 50). But scientists say that’s not how it works for light.
If you were moving away from a light source at 100,000 miles per hour, you would expect that the light would approach you at 670-million miles per hour (the speed of light) minus 100,000 miles per hour, or 570-million miles per hour. But that’s not what happens. The light still approaches you at the full 670-million miles per hour. This has apparently been verified in a few independent experiments by comparing the speed of light from a moving star to that from a stationary star.4
I minimize my use of swearing on this blog because excessive swearing causes ad servers to stop serving ads to the page containing the swearing, but, what the fuck?
Einstein was way, way, way more knowledgeable and intelligent than I am, so I’m inclined to trust him much more than my intuition, but I, and I suspect most of us, have trouble understanding this concept.
But enough about the relative speed of light; let’s get back to the relative speed of time.
Watched pots and having fun notwithstanding, to me, time appears to move at a constant speed and always only in one direction. How can it progress at different rates for people traveling at different speeds? That sounds counterintuitive to me.
Then again, the ability to sit on a large, near-spherical rock that is rotating on its axis and revolving around a star in space and live to tell about it seems counterintuitive to me, but here I am.
And that brings up the question, speed relative to what? You are probably sitting in front of your computer while reading this. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a smartphone or tablet computer, maybe you’re lying down on a comfy couch. Nevertheless, while it might not seem so to you, you’re travelling very, very, very quickly.
The Earth revolves around the sun at a speed of about 67,000 miles per hour. So, while we’re sitting there on our fat (or thin as the case may be) asses or lying on our backs, we’re hurtling through space at a phenomenal rate.
And the Earth doesn’t just revolve around the sun. It also rotates on its axis. So we’re sitting on a giant whirly ride, like those teacups at an amusement park. How fast you’re moving as a result of this rotation depends on how close you are to the Earth’s axis. If you’re standing at a point on the equator, you’re spinning at about 1,000 miles an hour.
Compounding this motion, our solar system is in a spinning galaxy that, in addition to spinning, is also moving through space. I have no idea how quickly our galaxy is spinning and moving forward, but, needless to say, add it all together and we’re—to put it in scientific terms—traveling super, super, super fast.
So, if you were to go up into a space station that remained stationary relative to not just Earth, but to a point in space, would time for the people on Earth, who are, even while sleeping, hurtling through space at a breakneck move more slowly than time for you?
And that raises yet another question. What does “a point in space” even mean when it comes to relative motion? The universe is expanding. Doesn’t that mean that all points in space are in motion?
The deafening boom you heard was my head exploding. Someone please clean up the mess.
So, which phenomena are on your top three-list of imponderables? Are they the same as mine?
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- The Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe, Douglas Adams, Pan Books Ltd, 1980
- See The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene (professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University), Alphred A. Knopf, 2011; and other similar books.
- If you’re looking for an excellent biography of Albert Einstein, read: Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 2008
- Pages 32 and 33 (first paperback edition), The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, Brian Greene, W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Categorised as: science