14. The eerie strangeness of scientific truths

(continued) Chapter 2. Long Evolution:
Universe Emerging




On light

Let us focus a moment on light, because it clearly is an integral part of the story of our unfolding universe. Scientists speak of little particles (or “packets”) of light as photons.


What exactly is a photon? It is light. Or – with the greater precision used by some prominent physicists – it is an “elementary particle” associated with light which is commonly said to actually be light. Do you find that greater precision as unenlightening as I do? A photon has no mass (because it is energy, not matter – but then, as we’ve noticed, everything is actually energy, not matter). It also has no electrical charge and, being light, it always travels at “the speed of light” – an incredible 186,000 miles per second (or 300,000 kilometers/second). If you bother to multiply that by the number of seconds in a year, I guarantee you will be impressed by the great distance a photon of light can travel across the universe in one single earth year. Yet that great distance is the tiniest fraction of the full size of our vast universe measured all the way across, from one side to the other (which side-to-side measurement some scientists say makes no sense, though their saying it makes no sense to me).


Whether a photon, so-called, is light, or is simply associated with light, I cannot say. If you’re odd enough to read a dozen (or a hundred) books on physics, you will notice that scientists of every stripe are exceedingly loosey-goosey in their constant and may I say very inconsistent uses of the word photon. They use it to mean more things, and in more contexts, than seems reasonable. Moreover they change what they mean on different days and in different writings. Moreover yet: “what light is” depends on its energy, which can vary from one instant to the next. According to the noted cosmologist Trinh Xuan Thuan in his book Chaos and Harmony, the particle known as a photon can “be” a gamma ray, X-ray, ultraviolet light, visible light, infrared light, or radio photon. At least all that.


And all that is before quantum physics converts our elusive photon, indeterminately, from a “particle” to a “wave” – but more on that later. Having mentioned quantum physics, did I mention that photons are also called (or equated with) “light quanta?”  Friend, you can look up the meaning(s) of “photon” and “light” and “light quanta” in all the world’s Very Best Reference Sources (VBRS) till the cows come home, and I challenge you to understand the matter clearly. I freely confess I do not. I have struggled for a great many years to get clear in my mind just what light is, what a photon is, what light quanta are, and I have failed. I do not understand light. Of small consolation, I’m in good company:


            All the fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no closer to the answer to the question, “What are light quanta?” Of course today every rascal thinks he knows the answer, but he is deluding himself.
-Albert Einstein, 1951

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In this super-compressed extremely brief summary of the beginnings of our universe, we have previously progressed from the instant of the big bang to a point some millions – possibly a few hundred millions – of years later. Experts differ on details like that. Never mind that the concept of “years” wouldn’t exist until invented nearly fourteen billion years later by an unusual life species resident on a remote planet they named “Earth,” we must have a comprehensible way to express “time” in these early times or it would all make no sense at all.


Following the universe-birthing events described above, “large-scale structures” began to form. This phase is really interesting, as it leads more or less directly to the existence of “us,” and what could possibly be more interesting? But first, there’s a couple more points to make before we leave this “big bang” behind. Did such an odd thing really happen? Just from out of “nothing” – an infinitely small theoretical point called a “singularity” – comes this all-time-colossal explosion in which the entire vast universe “emerges” out of absolutely nothing! Really, now. Do you find that believable? Is it indeed any more believable than the Genesis and Big Turtle versions? How can we possibly think, much less know, such a preposterous idea has any truth at all behind it?


Evidence defined

We need evidence. What is the scientific evidence that such a thing as a big bang actually happened? For that matter, what is evidence? My dictionary describes evidence as “the data on which a judgment or conclusion may be based – or by which proof or probability may be established.” Thus the foundation of evidence is “data” – you have to start with data. Judgments and conclusions may be “based on” that data, and proof or probability may be established “based on” the data, but none of these can happen unless “data” are first present. Data are the starting point for evidence.


(For those who don’t already know, data is a plural word:  thus, plural “data are” and a single “datum is.” Many who very well know this nevertheless often say or write, quite incorrectly, “data is.” If you pay attention you’ll notice this common error daily on the evening news and other high places. Words have meanings. Words like “evidence.”)


But that’s just for the common man. Data must be tightened up, refined as they say, if they are to meet stringent qualification as “scientific evidence.” To qualify, the starting data must be “representative of the true situation.” This means collecting the data and then analyzing [it or them] in ways that are considered “appropriate” by the scientific establishment. And this establishment is an argumentative lot. Since it has no scientific supreme court, there is always a question as to exactly who has sufficient authority or clout to say what is “appropriate” data collection and analysis – for all scientists well know that mindsets are found in even the most weighty among them. In their constant learned arguments they often snidely mention this matter of closed mindsets – on the record, which can be unnerving when earning your living depends on your scientific reputation. Thus as we make a mental note that this question of whether data are “good enough,” stringent enough, to be called “evidence” will likely arise again, let us move on.


Evidence for a big bang

Evidence. The data are a bit indirect, but they do exist. Starting with a little necessary background understanding of a phenomenon called “initial density,” we shall consider no less than four solid lines of scientifically accepted evidence. These may not tell us why it happened, but all four give strong assurance that, yes, it really did happen. There was such a thing as a big bang. (See Genesis: “And God said, Let there be light.”)


Initial density

First of all, recall that the familiar universe we live in is known to be expanding. It has been doing so ever since the big bang. Therefore: if it’s been expanding every hour since time began, then, looking backward through past ages, on every previous hour it was smaller than it would become an hour later.


Stretch your mind out to the farthest reaches of the known universe, at least 13.8 light years distant from here. In your imagination, as we did before, start shrinking that universe. Like a mental movie running backwards, shrink all its contents – superclusters of galaxies, galaxies, suns, planets, empty space and all – shrink them all way, way down – to the size of Mars, say. Then shrink it all down even farther, down to the size of a basketball, then a walnut. Keep on – shrink it on down to a tiny point you can barely see – then farther down yet to an imaginary unseeable point far smaller than that – down, down, until it is so infinitely tiny that it is, essentially… nothing. No universe.


As this shrinking proceeds, you may notice that each stage becomes more dense – from empty vacuum to airy to cottony to styrofoam then hardwood, then denser than a cannonball. Keep going – eventually it becomes colossally, unbelievably dense. When you have shrunk all the vast galaxies and giant stars and planets and other stuff existing in the wide universe down to a dot, how very dense do you suppose that dot is? How dense can you imagine it to be? This “initial density” was so great as to have no meaning for human minds. To get even a vague notion of the initial density of the universe, multiply that infinitely small dot’s density by several trillions of trillions. Really dense.


Scientists believe our universe at the moment of its creation was at the ultimate possible density – whatever that is. It is known as the “Planck density,” which is 1090 grams per cubic centimeter (another of those incredible numbers). “In this early state,” reasons physicist Joseph Silk, “the universe must have been at the most extreme density that can be conceived under known physics. It represents our best guess at the conditions that prevailed near the beginning of time.”


This imaginary shrinking exercise is called a “thought experiment,” meaning you do it all in your mind, with no supporting telescopes or experimental laboratory apparatus. Just logical reasoning, no evidence. It reflects inverse reasoning regarding what we think we know about the reality of the expanding universe. If it is expanding now, it must have been smaller in the past, before it expanded this much. Thus, going all the way back to the very beginning, it had to have been infinitely small. Since everything in the universe today is far flung, so to speak, the explosion of that infinitely small singularity “must” have started the out-flinging. By such logical reasoning the human mind may reasonably conclude – by inference – that everything started with a big bang when the singularity exploded – as it obviously must have exploded, for reasons unknown. Or no reason at all.


Here then is a first indicator – if you can agree to call it that – that a so-called big bang actually did happen. Of course this is not proof, as science views “proof,” for it is based on inference, not evidence. Actually, in science nothing is ever actually “proved” as such. Always and forever retained, agnostic-like, is the possibility that something long believed to be “true” may be overturned and declared completely untrue if some unexpected new evidence turns up. New evidence can always bring “new truth” that replaces “old truth.” This has in fact happened many times, the big three examples being Copernicus’ sun-centered universe, Newton’s planetary orbits and Einstein’s relativity. Lots of closed minds disagreed with Copernicus and Newton but they’re all dead now, and those still disagreeing with Einstein are aging fast.


That’s science. In this respect, not only do scientific explanations usually differ greatly from those of religious mythologies, but the realities of universe-life’s evolving change, as science so painstakingly uncovers it year after year, are more fantastic by far than the old stories of miracles innocently accepted and innocently passed on as undeviating “truth” by oh-so-slowly evolving religions. Truth is stranger than myth. Truth:  John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the last surviving founding fathers, died within a few hours of each other on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years to the day after adoption of the Declaration of Independence which those two, more than any others, had mutually caused to come into being. No work of fiction could possibly imagine as grandly as the reality.


              Now my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.                                  -J.B.S. Haldane


So the idea of a big bang is based on a thought experiment, the same mental method Albert Einstein used when creating special and general relativity. Never mind that relativity turned the older scientific paradigm on its head and changed our mindsets about the world forever, scientists generally regard thought experiments as mushy and do not much like them. The scientific establishment likes predictions that are based on observed evidence and, preferably, are subject to treatment by mathematics. It likes predictions that can be tested by carefully calibrated instruments, and quantified, and repeated, over and over – and see if you get the same results every time. If you don’t, something’s probably wrong. (How many religions test their dogma that way? Dogma: the root of “dogmatic.”) Yes; scientists love measurement and arithmetic. Their reputations are safer that way.


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…to be continued in one week…


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