Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Elegance of Nothingness and A Slice of Reality Loaf

I enjoyed considering what types of parallel universes could be theoretically possible as per Brian Greens's The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Some suggestions included a universe that's really multiple universes (a multiverse) each separated by different "bubbles," a universe where we're really just a computer program (sort of like The Matrix does Tron does the ol' metaphyscial how-can-we-disprove-we're-not-just-a-brain-in-a-vat situation), or my favorite: reality is a big loaf that we're really just seeing is one slice of it. It gives the term "homeslice" a whole new meaning. Also, the idea of thinking of reality as one big loaf made everything so adorable I just couldn't handle it, especially because I think of my cat as a loaf, so of course, a cat loaf reality IS CLEARLY THE MOST EXCELLENT THING EVER.

cat loaf multiverse
I enjoyed reading this book right before bed in the hopes that I'd have some real awesome dreams. However, I have to take pills that help me sleep, and they kick in quicker when I lay in bed and read, which means that I often don't get much read before bed. I should add that falling asleep getting loosey-goosey on medication is probably not the most optimal situation conducive to consuming a book about physics. That being said, I can only blame the sleeping pills for so much. This book wasn't exactly all easy to get through for me. It took me a long time to get through The Hidden Reality. Even if I was totally awake, there were parts I had to re-read over and over to understand them. I didn't let that stop me, especially considering there were many parts that were conversational that I very much enjoyed, but I'll be honest, there were parts that I don't know how much of it I can truly say I fully understood.

I always have a few books going at once, which is helpful in a situation like this, where the book is a bit more challenging. It helps me from getting too frustrated. Sometimes I'll go read other stuff for weeks and then come back to a book. For the most part, the only books I tend to be monogamous to and only read without some other book action on the side, are fiction books. I can read fiction faster without interrupting them with other books (I guess I get sucked into the narrative, the last two books of fiction that I enjoyed very much being Catie Disabato's The Ghost Network and also Gareth P. Jones' No True Echo), but science books, unless they're super awesome (like books by Mary Roach or Diane Ackerman), those take me longer. Sometimes though, a book of any genre will pull ahead in front of the pack and demand all my time, ones where I'm like, No, I don't want to go out, I want to stay home and read this book, as I get further in, and it will take the lead because after the initial beginning investment of a hundred pages or so, I'll get pulled in more, and that will take the lead until I finish it, while all the other books get put on the back burner. (Recently the book that pulled ahead was John Lydon's Anger Is An Energy: My Life Uncensored, which is miles ahead of his last book Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. Perhaps this is because he is also significantly older and wiser. I was sad when the book was over. My mom used to say that she was sad when she finished a good book because it was like losing a friend, and I know exactly what she meant.)

There are some really good quotes in The Hidden Reality. One that I enjoyed was about the unified theory (the idea that there's some theory or equation that can explain, like, everything). The author had a conversation with a philosophy professor in college who told him (pg 337):

"Let's say you find the unified theory. Would that really provide the answers you're looking for? Wouldn't you still be left asking why that particular theory, and not another, was the correct theory of the universe?"

I know I'm not covering any new ground here when I say that we can all pretty much agree that science doesn't really explain everything we want it to; it only disproves things that are not true, and an explanation is only a theory until it is proven false. And then the disproven theory isn't even a theory, it's just an explanation dead in the water.

Does this mean we can't have confidence that our explanations we accept as being the current up-to-date answers are correct? This makes me sad, that we can't ever really be 100% sure that we're right about something, and that probably we'll never know all the answers. I'm always afraid I'm going to die before I ever get any real satisfactory answers about things. Specifically, I'm afraid something tragic will happen to me, like a bridge will collapse when I'm on it or something, and that not only will I not live long enough to get some real explanations to big questions but also that I won't live long enough to find out what happened to Agent Cooper in the Black Lodge, which will supposedly be answered when Twin Peaks reemerges in 2017.

Accepted theories getting proven wrong over time is only a few degrees removed from the theory suggested by Mac on It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia when he says, "Science is a liar sometimes." He labels a series of past scientists who have a bunch of right answers but get some parts wrong, as a "Bitch!"

How are we ever supposed to get to the bottom of anything?
No matter how on the money some theories are, inevitably parts of them end up on the cutting room floor because newer developments illuminate more answers, which means I don't have 100% confidence that I will ever get some solid answers.

Another interesting point The Hidden Reality makes, is about how bizarre it is that the universe exists at all, considering how much energy/time/space is required for that to happen. On page 339 he had a very poetic angle on somethingness and nothingness (pardon the liberties I took shortening the quote):

"But because nothing also seems so vastly simpler than something -- no laws at work, no matter to play, no space to inhibit, no time to unfurl...Why isn't there nothingness? Nothingness would have been decidedly elegant."

It's kind of fascinating that there is anything at all really. But I can totally understand this. I'm continually shocked when shit gets done, just shocked that somebody accomplished something. When a building gets built, an event gets planned, a road gets paved, an operation happens, or any kind of project really, I kind of marvel that somebody followed through on something. I feel like getting anything done takes so much work and it's such a struggle, especially considering how easy it is to lose momentum when something is taking longer than you expect. I'm in a perpetual state that's a cross between laziness and low-grade helplessness, so I can appreciate it all the more when somebody makes something happen. That's why it makes sense to me that we should find it shocking that the universe exists at all, because honestly, that'd be so much easier for the universe, to just not exist at all. It would be considerably less effort. It's kind of amazing that the universe continues to expand, considering how hard I know it is to just, well, keep going. Indeed, nothingness would have been "decidedly elegant," because being a slacker is so much easier.

Another point I'd like to add in talking about this book, and I'll just say it: one might argue that I'm intellectually lazy. I want explanations for things, but I don't want any actual equations. How many people get into astronomy and then lose interest in it because they have to learn physics? I'm sure I'm not the first asshole to fall in love with stars exploding and the rings of Saturn, only to realize that to really study that stuff you have to do things with numbers and equal signs, which makes me go, "Nah, fuck it." Sure, I'll watch Cosmos and love it, but if you want me to do anything beyond marveling at the universe, like actually do some math, I'm out. I bet lots of people secretly think I want answers! But I don't want to do the work to fully understand them!

That being said, even though I don't have any particular fascination with numbers, there are a couple really good quotes about the subject of math in The Hidden Reality. On page 341, Greene writes:

"A couple years ago, in a public debate...I said that I could imagine an alien encounter during which, in response to learning of our scientific theories, the aliens remark, 'Oh math. We tried that for a while. At first it seemed promising, but ultimately it was a dead end. Here, let us show you how it really works.' But, to continue with my own vacillation, I don't know how the aliens would actually finish the sentence, and with a broad enough definition of mathematics (e.g., the logical deductions following from a set of assumptions), I'm not even sure what kind of answers wouldn't amount to math."

I love this, it's to say that math is just explaining the experience of the world, which is why I loved when he wrote a few pages later (pg 344), "Reality is how math feels."

Is there an equation that would explain how I feel like getting things done is so often lugubrious and time-consuming? Is there a reality in which I'm in a different slice of the reality loaf and I get satisfactory answers to things? How do they get the cat to pose for the camera with the bread on it's head?

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