Posts Tagged ‘Einstein’

So the small end of the universe was in view at the start of the 20th century, except, as I said, for that zoo of featureless fundamentals, but what of that large end?

Is there a universe?

Such a question!

But seriously, what we are asking is whether there is a meaningful totality of interacting material reality — or is there not? If the universe is infinite, then it cannot be fully interactive: Olbers light paradox and Bentley’s gravity paradox made so much clear. An infinite supply of interacting material would burn up or collapse.

So, instead, people toyed with the idea that the universe was infinite but not fully interacting. If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry; you are in very good company. “Infinite” and “material” are themselves incompatible.

But if it was not infinite, how could it have an edge?

At the end of the 19th century, with several other star parallaxes in hand, and some other ways of estimating star distances, the great physicist Boltzman suggested that there were multiple universes suspended fully 10100 meters apart. That would mean that the galaxies were separated by several times the diameter of our own universe as we presently know it.

What could such a distance possibly mean?

Clearly Boltzman intended to solve the gravity and light paradoxes by placing things at such a distance that the sources of light and gravity would burn out and disperse before their effects were infinitely stacked up. But what would keep these sub-universes apart?

And were they really there?

The larger universe was definitely known only out to the farthest reaches of our Milky Way Galaxy; beyond that, all was theory. The thinking at the beginning of the 20th century was that the Milky Way was the universe.


If there was “a” universe.



In 1917, things changed abruptly. Albert Einstein very simply addressed the need to stop talking about space as a void in which anything could be imagined, including infinity. Infinity and the void do not have properties that can be talked about in a scientific way, because they cannot be measured and weighed, any more than God can. Einstein defined space as:

the network of all possible paths of motion.

Paths of motion… possible paths… Such a simple definition! But it changed everything, because it answered Bruno’s riddle. Yes, the arrow will go up for a while as long as you aren’t standing on a planet like Jupiter where intense gravity deprives you of the strength to bend your bow; but anyway the arrow will return – because of gravity. Even light responds to gravity. So “the network of all possible paths of motion” does not extend to infinity, and Einstein certainly did not think the universe infinite. It does not have a fence at the edge, such as the crystalline sphere of fixed stars, but the limit is just as surely set by gravity.

Meantime, a different argument had come to a head about whether the little nebulae all over the Milky Way were inside it or, in fact, outside. Some were clearly inside; others seemed to be outside – and if so, very far away.

Edwin Hubble resolved this question in 1925, showing that many of the nebulae were entire galaxies having their own proper motions; furthermore, they were receding from our galaxy, already having achieved distances of millions of light years — nothing approaching Boltzman’s suggestion, but very far removed. Once again, the universe was stupendously larger than had been conceived.

1027 * 1024 * 1021 = galaxy size * 1018 * 1015 *

1012 * 109 sun size * 106 * 103 * 100 =1 people size

10-3 * 106 * 10-9 molecules * 10-12 * 10-15

(You may think that infinity is larger, but, being non-specific, it does not challenge the imagination. “Larger” has no meaning before infinity.)

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Most Incomprehensible

According to Jaki, Einstein’s favorite personal saying was that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

For this pithy word, Jaki gives him vast credit, because although he did not have the tools to consider the philosophic ramifications of his remark, he had the intuitive sense to love this great mystery: that we can know the universe.

What does that mean?

Is it accidental?

For the Darwinian who sees mankind as accidental, and for a man like Whitehead who sees the universe as going through all possible forms, this mystery can be only one accidental event among quintillions of quintillions – nothing worthy of note. This accidentalist approach to reality became increasingly pervasive through the 20th century, even working its way into the arts, though it was never totally triumphant.

Einstein challenges this world-view that keeps layering accident upon accident, in a campaign to bore the human heart out of its natural wonder. He correctly observes that of all the wonders we meet in this stunning universe, the possibility of man knowing the universe is the most stunning.

It is also one of the most instructive. Why is the universe knowable – and by one of its constituent parts? That is the key to one vast part of the question: Is there a Universe? It is a philosophic key, not a scientific one, but it is important: Yes, Linde, consciousness is part of the universe. Consider, Mr. Whitehead: not every possible form of physical universe would allow consciousness, and whatever form forbids it is not part of this universe.

Give that some thought. This universe is the physical totality that allows a self-reflective entity to develop within its boundaries and subject to its laws yet free to evaluate their meaning. That’s the kind of universe it is.

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So you are probably thinking: what’s this all about? How did Einstein ever get to talking about clocks and dice anyway? I thought that relativity was about everything depending on everything else so nothing is just itself.


What time did you say it was just now? And how fast are you moving? And in what direction are you moving relative to me? Because I need to know that or your “time” doesn’t really tell me anything.

See how messy it is?

The original problem was very specific. (It’s always worth knowing what was the hold-up at a specific moment in physics. One man will have an insight that is brilliant, and he’ll run with it and then one day, it just loses steam. He meets a problem that can’t be solved with his bright new tools, and everyone has to sit back and re-think everything to find the place where one of their assumptions could possibly have a leak.)

The problem Einstein had is not difficult to understand, and you’d be asking about it too, if you had thought about it a little.

Think about the ripples in a pond. How beautiful they are! If you stand up, and if the pond is very still, you can close your eyes for one minute and your friend can throw a stone in the pond, and when you open your eyes, you know just where the stone went in. The ripples tell you. You can study waves all day and learn all the principles of wave motion right there by the pond.

Then you can go home and study sound, and the waves are all following the same rules, so you are ready to be very insightful about the way sound works. Sound is carried by air and wood and metal – by lots of things. It ripples outwards just like the ripples in a pond. Sound is carried – it makes waves in — practically everything except emptiness – that is, except a vacuum. When we look around the galaxy, we see some gas clouds that have waves in them. What a sound there must have been where that exploded! But the sound does not reach us because sound waves have to wave in a medium. You can’t have a wave without a medium – like the Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire cat having a smile without a face. You can’t have a ripple without a pond. Something – some thing – has to be rising and falling, squeezing and puffing, expanding and contracting, so that a wave can travel through it.

You know this; it’s easy.

So then, how does the starlight reach us? Light is a wave, and it follows all the rules of waves, but what does it wave in? Space doesn’t have anything in it to wave. It’s empty.

Isn’t it?

Well, for hundreds of years, it was thought that there had to be something out there – it was called ether. Or aether. Ether was the last remnant of the concept of quintessence, that perfect solid of the heavens. It had to be out there because otherwise light would have nothing to wave in. It had to be very subtle, too, so you could see through it, but it had to be there, perfectly elastic and completely filling all the cracks so that the slenderest beam of starlight could wave it.

Funny to be so solid, and so elastic, and so utterly invisible… How could anything have all those qualities?

But if there’s no ether, what is the light waving in?

Is the ether really there or not? That was the question everyone was wrestling with.

To be continued.

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Notice that this idea of a world shaped by the throw of dice actually goes back to Democritus, the first atomist. Democritus is often portrayed as the amazing philosopher-scientist who lived 2,000 years before his time and proposed an idea that the rest of the benighted world, (including most of the Greeks, including Aristotle), were just too timid to accept. In fact, part of the difficulty with Democritus’ concept of the atom, an idea substantially different from our own, was that he believed that all reality was formed by the chance interactions of these hard little pellets that rained about and bumped into each other at random, sometimes clumping into more interesting stuff until they formed the whole universe, or at least the rather smaller world known to the Greeks.

The concept of Darwinian evolution is tame by comparison. At least it starts from something.

Or does it?

When you read more deeply about Democritus, you get the feeling that was here, not on the Galapagos Islands, that the concept of accidental evolution took its origin. It’s so similar it’s eerie. It’s the same unreasonable idea that a shuffled pack of monochrome cards will yield an elephant if it’s large enough and if you shuffle long enough; only for Democritus it had to yield the sun, moon and stars as well as yogurt, oregano, rivers, elephants, and men who think about the First Cause, all alongside enough apparent causes – such as: dog barks; Dad wakens — to slow the acceptance of accident as a total cosmology.

This causeless cosmology is the soul of Darwinist biology, and it was in competition for the soul of chemistry for a long time. Our present idea of atoms is, of course, quite orderly: the Periodic Table has about 100 elements, give or take a few depending on how long something has to hang around to be considered an active part of the universe. The list is tidy, orderly, predictable in its outlines, specific in its causes, and yet full of merry surprises whose cause is tucked in to a corner you weren’t looking at.

Meantime, the assertion of ultimate randomness has had to back up a step. The modern physics text now says that the atom is quite real but the electron is not an entity, just a cloud of probability, the same philosophical randomness rearing the same ugly head for no good reason except that the electron can’t be photographed with a sparkling trail coming along behind, as it orbits the atomic nucleus.

Einstein was not happy about this. He correctly understood that just because you can’t see, or even measure something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Even if the only thing you can be sure of is an average or “probable” behavior, still, there may be things doing the behaving.

But physics got stuck as the home of the Uncause, and it’s going to take a battle to unstick it.

To be continued.

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Einstein 101

If Tom Bethel and his mentor, the physicist Petr Beckman, are to be believed, the principal difficulty in understanding Einstein is much more accessible that has been commonly understood. The basic idea of relativity is this:

Because you move, my watch slows down.

It is an outrageous idea, and so stated, it leaves a trail of insurmountable chaos. Because you move, my watch slows down? Not because I move, which would be bad enough, but because you move? People and stars and systems are moving around me all the time. The Earth moves around the Sun and the Sun moves around its little locus in the arm of the Milky Way, which is spinning around its center and also responding to the gravity pull of the Andromeda Nebula. Never mind that my daughter is out for a run and my husband is driving his truck into the meadow and a tree is falling. If all those things make my clock wobble, why even have one?

The relativity answer would be that only things close to the speed of light change your watch enough to matter – i.e. be measurable.

But this is not satisfying. Don’t you feel it? Because you move, my watch slows down is not a principle that allows anything orderly to take place. We are all of us no more than fluttering leaves in the storm of reality!

It’s one thing to say that everything is connected by gravity; this is an orderly idea even though the complexities are potentially quite intricate. In fact, our universal gravity connection does suggest that movements of things, movements which change the distance and direction of a whole series of gravity interactions, could pull us about some; still, that’s not so bad.

But relativity theory goes so far beyond gravity that the chaos is intractable. It is not just difficult to calculate — in fact, the calculations are not particularly difficult if everything would just sit still a minute – but the imagination simply stops. It can’t go down that road.

If the whole universe stood still,

only excepting my watch,

and if you and I looked at each other

across the darkness of space,

and if you started walking,

my watch would slow down;

not yours, mine.

Petr Beckman rejected this idea — promptly, spontaneously, and permanently — when he first heard it – and he heard it as a student of physics. For the rest of his life, he looked to see how such an idea had taken hold and he saw that it needn’t have taken hold. He even saw the Einstein had been dissatisfied and had pointed the way out of his dilemma, but this time he could not attract a following.

Why not?

Beckman, perhaps wisely, does not really answer this one. You must recognize that there is a philosophical issue. The idea that the universe is fundamentally unreasonable is dear to the heart of the atheist, and Einstein seemed to offer an incredibly powerful support for this. When his idea became part of a synthesis that we may call “the cosmology of accident,” he was famous for saying, “God does not play dice with the world,” but he couldn’t turn things around.

For physicists, Petr Beckman wrote a book called Einstein Plus Two. For the rest of us, he wanted to write a simpler book, but died quite unexpectedly, and his good friend Tom Bethel, not a physicist, sought another mentor to help him write things out.

I’ll tell you more about it.

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