Tying it all together

Ken Tapping, August 1, 2012

In the sky this week…

  • Mars and Saturn are now getting low in the west after dark.
  • Venus and Jupiter lie close together in the eastern sky in the early hours before dawn.
  • The Moon will be Full on August 1st.

Our remote ancestors lived in a scary world. Plagues, invasions, crop failures, earthquakes and floods turned up unpredictably, and there was usually little that could be done about them. It is not surprising that they rationalized all this by assigning the major forces of nature to a bunch of squabbling, capricious gods and goddesses. It was a great step forward when Greek philosophers proposed that the universe follows consistent rules, and it should be possible to deduce at least some of them. This was probably the most important development in the development of science, because it made it worth doing. Before that revelation, why try to work out rules the gods could change on a whim?

When we decided that science was worth doing, it began as a process of trying to understand little bits of what we saw the universe doing around us, and slowly joining those bits of the puzzle together to make some sort of bigger picture. We like to present the idea of a steady progress, but really it was more a matter of a lot of little steps, some right, some wrong and some backwards.

Today it is widely held among scientists that all we see around us is based upon a small and coherent set of natural laws, not a bunch of disjointed processes. A lot of progress has been made in that direction but there are major issues that are not resolved, such as difference between how things work on the everyday and large scale, and how things work in the realm of the very small.

At the end of the 19th century, many scientists believed that physics was all over bar the shouting, and that the only work remaining to be done was to sharpen up the ideas already developed. It’s funny how we let hubris carry us away, despite the number of times we have been proved wrong.

It was back then that two dramatic new ideas came along. The Theory of Relativity shook the world of the very big, and the Quantum Theory did the same thing for the world of the very small. The first one has made many things we see out there in the universe more comprehensible, and the second has made it possible to understand processes at the atomic level. However, the two theories don’t mix well and we are still trying to connect them.

Now we have to come to terms with everything we are familiar with making up only 4% of the universe. The rest is Dark Matter and Dark Energy, neither of which we understand or can observe directly. However, the Holy Grail of tying it all together remains, but we still have a very long way to go.

We’ve found that twiddling the physics even very slightly gives rise to a universe without stars, or with stars that blow up before anything else can happen, or where the chemistry of life cannot work. This begs the question as to whether we are here because the numbers just happened to come out right at the Big Bang, or whether those values were chosen? That is a question that science alone will probably not be able to answer. It’s unlikely we will ever know everything about the universe. However, if we did, who’d want to live in such a place?

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton,  BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
Fax: 250-497-2355
E-mailken.tapping@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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