Therefore, so far as our human senses are concerned, something which appears “real” (the table) can in fact be accurately defined as nothing. Stated the other way round, what we conceive as “nothing” (electrical energy) can in fact be “something”—something which is a “real” table. And, in reality, that is the fact of the matter. These are not idle metaphysical or philosophical conjectures, they are facts that were (or should have been) encountered by every person who ever took high school science or now earns a living by smashing protons at the Large Hadron Collider to see what else can be discovered.
All of which begs the original question: What, really, is this “thing”—this “condition” or “state of being”—that we call “energy,” which is nothing, but which can clump gazillions of its atoms together to create an illusion that we perceive as something such as a table?
The Truth: We honestly don’t know. You can find libraries full of books describing energy’s properties and characteristics in multitudinous scenarios and circumstances. The writers of these—dictionaries, encyclopedias, scholarly books by famous people—will variously “define” energy by calling it a “force,” a “field,” a “naturally occurring aspect of nature,” and telling you what it does. But after becoming so well informed will you really know what energy IS, the way you know how hard your table top feels? No.
That table, common sense assures, seems utterly solid. Smack it as you will, your hand, with all the vast internal empty spaces within its own atoms, is most definitely not going to pass through the vast empty spaces inside the bounds of the atoms of which the table is made. No matter how solid that table “seems,” it is a bewilderingly certain fact—proven thousands of times in scientific experiments over a century and more—that an atom is not a solid thing. An atom contains vastly more open “empty” space than it does component parts. And the parts themselves aren’t solid either.
Is all this not a wonder, a mystery? We live with such obvious mystery daily before our eyes, yet for whole lifetimes we seldom question or even notice it. Energy is utterly central to everything in our lives—e.g., the energy in the food we eat, that becomes our own bodily energy, that runs our vehicles, that activates our household appliances. Energy is the source of (capacity to perform) work, yet we experience its reality as nothing more than—well—nothing. It has no “form,” no shape, yet it constantly creates shapes. It is immaterial rather than solid, yet it readily forms solid things. Energy as such is immaterial, unseeable, un-solid, yet it is the substance of everything we see in our apparently solid world and in our telescopes clear out to the ends of space and time. The energy we constantly live with is a mystery. And the entire universe is made of it.
Undeniably, down at the foundation of things, everything there is on Earth and across the wide universe consists of, and only of, energy. Whatever that is. As the made-of-energy atoms that make up our very cells demonstrate, immateriality is in us as well as all around us. Just like the oak table, since the cells of our bodies are made of atoms, non-material energy is what we ourselves are completely made of. Thus for all practical purposes, and since immaterial energy necessarily looks like “nothing,” everything there is including us must be indistinguishable from nothingness. So what are we, really? Is there wonder and mystery here? Where do such broadened understandings lead us? Or is your personal mindset impervious to seeing wonder and mystery in such things…?
In terms of capacity for bringing us face to face with unexpected mysteries, no field of human interest does a better job than science. Take the speed of light for example. It has been three and a half centuries since the Danish astronomer Ole Roemer enabled the speed of light to be determined by measuring the eclipses of Jupiter’s moons as they fell under its great shadow at different times of year. Roemer’s findings established that light has a speed—at the time some had thought it infinite, or maybe not at all. Subsequent calculations by Christiaan Huygens, based on Roemer’s findings, established ballpark ranges for the actual speed (131,000 miles per second, or maybe 212,000) which wasn’t bad given uncertainties of the time, such as earth’s orbital diameter).
Today we speak of light speed as “constant” at about 186,000 miles per second (or, to be precise, 186,282 miles, 698 yards, 2 feet and 5-21/127 inches per second. Since the beginning of time, now and forevermore, this is the speed of light traveling through space (actually we’re only “pretty sure”—we assume it has never speeded up or slowed down in 13.8 billion years). Moving right along at 186,000 miles every second adds up to more than 670 million miles per hour. If your car’s motor had this capacity you could boogey around the earth seven and a half times every second if you wanted to (I advise against it as this is well above escape velocity for launching you into space). Why light happens to travel at this immutable speed is a mystery—it just is.
And yet the curious human mind insists on asking: Why?—why this speed and not some other speed—for surely there must be a reason… We see cause and effect happening every day of our lives, so if we see an effect we know something caused it—there has to be a cause, a reason why, an effect is there to be seen…surely everything has a reason…? This concept is dear to science. When science goes looking for causes it calls them “initial conditions”—and uses this temporal idea to infer some amazing conclusions such as the impossibility of free will in humans and animals. A truly amazing conclusion (actually let’s call it an hypothesis) which we shall presently explore at more length.
Most scientists who concern themselves with such matters are convinced (i.e., assume, are pretty sure) that nothing can go faster than light. Admitted, there are few candidates that can even be considered for exceeding such a speed, though energy in one of its many particle guises, such as neutrinos, might conceivably travel as fast as light. Then there’s the hypothetical quasi-particles called tachyons which are theorized to travel faster than light, though such far-out imagining is considered tacky by mature scientists who reasonably point out that 1) the very existence of tachyons is unproven and, anyway, 2) Einstein’s relativity theory doesn’t allow for anything to speed faster than light. (Truth be told, some very obstinate scientific minds say the jury is still out on that, and I’m pretty sure I agree.) In a later chapter we will also explore at more length this mystery of light’s speed in a broad context that transcends both religion and science—as so many things do.
Light—the most common thing in the environment of every person and critter able to see, yet it presents mysteries we seldom think about. What is light? What are the extremely tiny bits called photons of which light is said to consist? Are light and its photon particles simply another face of energy in one of its many guises? Are they the same as energy? If they are, why do we distinguish light and its photons separately from energy and not just call them both “energy,” or “light”? Immaterial light, seen but cannot be touched—opens the door to a long line of mysteries in the realm of immaterial real things.
Constants of Nature
Mostly within the past hundred years, ever-upward-evolving science—“upward” in the sense that as the breadth of our knowledge increases the quality of our understanding goes “up”—has made us aware of natural conditions that were here all along but of which we were not yet conscious. These conditions, called constants of nature, are best understood as quantities—numbers—which apply in certain natural contexts, and are important. They are important because they rule absolutely in many of the key ways that the natural world works. If they were anything other than what they are, the universe—and (most importantly) we within it—would not, could not, exist. What a loss.
There’s no apparent reason for these numbers to be what they are—they “just are.” And there’s the mystery—nobody knows why they “just are,” which sets up a mental tension in terms of the aforesaid human curiosity. Many scientists know quite a lot about the constants of nature but—assuming most people would misinterpret constants of nature to mean Acts of God—they disfavor saying much about them in public. Neither do you hear much said about them in Sunday School where all the focus is on filling your mind with certain doctrines you are expected to believe on faith. So, all in all, very little information about these strange constants of nature trickles down so the general public might become more enlightened and mystified. Since a tad more mystification might produce a healthy increase in public curiosity and thinking, a brief tour of a few of them is of interest here.
The constants of nature are important to you regardless whether you ever thought about it. As fundamental governors of how the universe works, they include well known natural phenomena, such as gravity, and some not so well known in the quantum realm of things smaller than atoms. There are quite a number of these, depending on your angle of approach, though in recent times some scientists have made the bold claim that reality in our universe can be understood in terms of just three constants: the speed of light cited above, plus gravity and an extremely tiny something called Planck’s Constant. This idea seems reasonable, inasmuch as gravity addresses the macro-universe (everything bigger than an atom, right on up to galaxies and even bigger structures) and Planck’s Constant addresses the micro-verse (the infinite quantum world of things from the size of an atom on down to quarks. That about covers the ballpark. To help our understanding of nature’s constants, let’s look at four of them popularly known as “the fundamental forces”—i.e., gravity, the electromagnetic force, the strong force and the weak force.
Consider gravity. Over the macro-scale of the vast universe, gravity is the irresistibly compelling driver that causes the formation of all celestial bodies from tiny moons and planets to gas clouds, stars and great galaxy clusters. At close distances, gravity is the weakest of all known forces. A small magnet held an inch above a paper clip, for instance, can pick up the clip because it easily overcomes the gravitational attraction of the entire planet Earth which is holding the clip down. However, the magnet’s strong magnetism is strong only over very short distances. Gravity’s pull, though extremely weak over short distances, reaches from one side of the universe clear over to the other side, and at this grand scale its strength controls everything bigger than an atom—say, planets, and stars, and galaxies, and other really heavy things.
If gravity were as strong as magnetism, the universe could never have formed because it would have pulled and compacted everything into one enormously dense black hole so that nothing else could ever have existed. That’s the extreme case, but what about lesser cases? If the constant strength of gravity were even just very slightly stronger, the stars formed by it would burn too hotly and thus burn out too quickly to produce the atoms of the elements which comprise all structures both natural and manmade. Conversely, if gravity were slightly less strong the stars would never have formed at all, and there would be no elements heavier than the hydrogen and helium produced in the big bang. Nothing.
Isn’t that just amazing? The strength of gravity just happens to fall within an extremely narrow range that happens to be just exactly right to allow things to be as they are throughout the universe and here on earth—and no other strength of gravity would allow all this to happen? Some might offhandedly say “Oh that’s just how God did it”—but that would be leaping to an unfounded presumption that God pre-existed to make it happen. People acting as if they know unknowable things and hoping to be taken seriously would be well advised to build a more convincing case than such simplistic take-it-on-faith fluff.