Category: September 19 (page 1 of 3)

A New Fascination

As a die-hard humanities academic, I have always strayed away from the complexities and conundrums of physical science. I have never studied the stars beyond the occasional look up at constellations, or to marvel at the milky way on a clear night in the desert, without light pollution to diminish its enormity or brilliance. However, the idea of astrology and the origin of the universe has always fascinated me. Having never understood the true theory beyond an explanation a couple sentences long and what I can infer from the title of the theory. As such, this lecture was a fascinating and invigorating ride. I found myself simultaneously understanding the topic more deeply than I ever had, but also having more questions that I never had even thought to wonder about. This led to a simultaneously satisfying, but frustrating experience of learning a great deal, while also becoming aware of how much I don’t understand. As I have found with many of these lectures, I leave with more questions than when I arrive. Having known very little about the origin of anything from the universe to Italian Poetry or Novel Writing, I am repeatedly exposed to a new corner of the world which I know little to nothing about. In the brief time, it is impossible to learn the origins of anything to a satisfactory level. However, opening up these corners of the world, and shedding a bit of light on them makes me more curious, and I find myself wondering about the finer points of origins often. Can we prove the big bang? If we can prove that it happened, but we can’t prove how or why, then is this finding really significant? Does investigating this idea bring us more answers or will it lead to more questions, as the brief lecture on it has for me? How is is possible to define the first novel except by the definition used at the time when it was written? Is it possible to define the boundaries between poetry and music, or does doing so pigeon-hole a broad art form into a claustrophobically tight academic category? It was fascinating to learn so much about both a topic that I was previously very uninformed about, as well as a whole different method for investigating the topic. By looking at the stars, and using them to examine the changes that have occurred in the universe, astrologers believe in the power of the stars for both science, while also reveling in their natural beauty and enjoying the process of analyzing movements. The trust in the stars to move in the way that astrologers predict makes them a supernatural phenomenon in the eyes of the beholding scientist. Few other scientific pursuits have such a magical feeling to them, or such deep roots in the old religious pursuits. This blurs the lines between the scientific and religious facets of astrology, two different pursuits that are often at odds in the modern world, but are brought together in time by the movements of the stars.

 

 

 

Is Astrology a Religion?

I’m not an astronomer. I’m a computer scientist and fiction writer. So after Monday night’s lecture I was grasping for a take away, and I was struggling. I left the lecture with new found knowledge on red shifting, deuterium, and the hubble effect, but I had no new, definite insight on origins — the topic of this years humanities lab. After some thought, it dawned on me that I was approaching it from the wrong angle. I was asking myself the “how”, and no the “why”. I was asking “how was the universe derived from such confined origins” and “if the big bang was truly the creation of all, then what was before? What is nothing?”. I should have been asking “why do we need to seek for an origin in the stars” and “why do we cling to the belief that the big bang was the start of the universe?”.

My immediate answer: our obsessive need to define our origin through physics derives from our need for affirmation — a confirmation bias. That’s why Steven Hawking’s No Boundary proposal has ruffled so many feathers: it upends the commonly accepted, preexisting hypothesis of absolute creation. Similar to the general public’s reaction when proposing the world is not indeed flat (but rather continues on the ‘other side’), we have a hard time digesting that our universe may simply be a string of a higher-dimensional cosmos or a galactic reflection mirrored across this opaque primordial soup.

Of course, this is not unlike our desire to color our origin story with all shades of religion. A simple rule of thumb I carry as a fairly agnostic individual: we can neither positively confirm nor deny a Gods existence, thus claiming God is real is just as ignorant as claiming He is a farse. Similarly, we can neither confirm nor deny that the ‘big bang’ was the creation our universe. Moreover, just as religious individuals cling to their beliefs for the comfort, faith, or sanity, the scientifically minded cling to cosmic events. Disproving the big bang’s role in the creation of our universe would be adjacent to debunking religion.

But where does this leave us in the realm of our humanities lab? Obviously we’re are grounded many million years later on an apparently stable planet in an apparently stable galaxy. I arrive at the conclusion that all origins are hierarchical. The origins of man making fire led to the origins of cooking food over a fire, which in turn lead to the origins of gastronomy. Similarly, the origins of language led to the origins of story, which in turn lead to the origins of religion and so much more. My point is this: if origins can be traces up a lineage tree, it is only natural for human curiosity to trace it to the top — the origins of all origins. So, to come full circle, perhaps the greatest question to ask, and the question religion and astronomy alike attempt to answer, is “what is the origin of origins”?

Questioning Constructs

In several of the science classes I’ve taken over the past three years at Colby, particularly Physics, the Big Bang and its associated theory are a common point of discussion. Generally placed as a an early topic in the term’s curriculum, conversation about the Big Bang lasts for an relatively equal time as the actual events of the Big Bang, a mere blip in the overall timeline.  Students (and teachers) quickly embrace this idea and happening, ready to move immediately on to the next topic without hesitation or questioning. However, upon further glance and thought, it becomes vital to question and reintroduce the discussion of chaos and order. A single millisecond (or infinitely smaller) moment of chaos resulting in hundreds of thousands of years of order following begs a further investigation into order on our (and the Earth’s) origins – if we’re born from chaos, is it constantly present or is order miraculously found?

 

It is generally much easier to find order than it is to recognize chaos. Producing relationships, reasoning, sequences, and justifications is inherent to human nature of observations and analyses, however allowing for chaos is not. Dissonance opposes the natural tendency to find solution, and our scientific understanding does not extend far enough to understand the philosophical factors that play into this juxtaposition. Professor Kocevski addressed this knowledge gap, acknowledging that there is still much we don’t know, in the realm of scientific discovery, particularly in reference to the big Bang. However, it is possible that our knowledge gap exists not only in fact, but also approach. Why are we so eager to accept the Big Bang Theory that is shared with us, and why are we so eager to share this approach to discovery, human life, and order? Is it in our “natural manner” to immediately how, why, and who we are? Understanding and comprehension are entirely dependent on perception, even physically, when looking at such a baseline theory as the Doppler Effect. They are centered around time, distance, and relativity, three common focal points of our discussion of physical chaos and order.

 

Walking away from this lecture re-instilled in me a sense of doubt – not for science, but rather blind acceptance. As Professor Kocevski alluded to, there are no real constants, particularly within time and space. Even given factual evidence and scientific support, we must constantly question our approaches, and the structure that is so easily placed upon our teachings. Chaos and order, though defining our everyday existences, are constructions in themselves.  

From origins to the destination

I was 10 years old when I learned that humans could only move forward in time and that the Sun would eventually engulf the earth for the first time. The fear of death and inexistence immediately swallowed me, who was too young to think about and question the meaning of life. I wondered for such a long time what the point of living was if eventually everything would be exploded and gone and how could the future creatures know that I once existed. Even till today, I feel so lost and flustered to think about these questions to which I have never had an answer.

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The limit of order (so far)

On September 19th, without breaking a sweat, Professor Kocevski managed to condense 13.8 billion years of universal evolution into a brisk 75 minutes (a 1/96,776,640,000,000 reduction). This is no easy feat for the average human. However, astronomers like Professor Kocevski have a number of tricks up their sleeve, which he kindly enlightened us on.

Astronomers are in the unique and fortunate situation that they can gaze back into time, simply by observing the night sky. The further away they set their scopes, the further back into our universe’s evolution they see. A single snapshot (a slight understatement perhaps), can capture billions of years of universal history. Professor Kocevski explained how observing the Doppler shift of known absorption lines in the spectra of distant galaxies leads us to know the rate of our universe’s expansion, which in turn allows us to estimate the age of our universe. He also explained how the discovery of cepheid variable stars permitted us to measure distances to objects far beyond the capabilities of stellar parallax measurements.

Most importantly, Kocevski explained that the cosmic microwave background (CMB) represents the furthest we can see back into time. Formed at roughly 378,000 years after the Big Bang, the CMB is the earliest form of radiation we can detect. Prior to its creation, photons were unable to travel freely in the dense proto-universal plasma soup. Our understanding of the laws governing our universe enable us speculate on events prior to the CMB’s creation, enough that we can explain our universe’s development up until a split second after the Big Bang. At this point, our understanding of physics simply becomes insufficient.

Up until this point, questions have been met with solutions and explanations. No matter the complexity of the problem, an astronomer could make their way to an answer in an orderly progression. Professor Kocevski certainly embodied this idea with his “Try to stump me!” challenge. His grasp of the astronomical domain (excuse the double-meaning) enables him to take logical steps toward an answer.

Once we reach that split second, however, all of our order dissolves. We are simply unable to tame the chaos any longer. Perhaps, order necessitates chaos. Without one, how could we have the other? What is order but the conquering of chaos?

Our species has consistently combated chaos with knowledge, logic, organization, and discourse. All tools which we, as humans, have developed within the context of our own four-dimensional reality. These are all concepts we can fathom, for we have made them, here in our own little bubble of (possibly minuscule) dimensionality. What if our reality, and the chaos that began it, was formed by some event taking place in another reality with a higher dimensionality which we are unable to comprehend or detect.

[A poor example: If I drew a 2 dimensional square on a sheet of paper, the square is unaware that there is a third dimension existing above it. This dimension is inaccessible to it and not a graspable concept belonging to its own reality.]

By this logic, it could be imagined that our reality could simply be a product of a higher reality. The simulation hypothesis echoes this notion. If our descendants should ever reach a post-human state (one with technology enabling them to run high-fidelity ancestor simulations), there is would be an almost certain probability that our reality could simply be an experiment in simulation [according to Nick Bostrom’s trilemma].

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