“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.”
Leonardo da Vinci – true Renaissance man (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519)
IT’S a momentous time for the exploration of our universe.
This week it’s half a century since a human was launched into the final frontier. On April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. Tuesday is also the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle’s first mission. The Space Shuttle retires soon.
Next month it’s the 50th anniversary of the first American in space – Alan Shepard – and 20 years since the first Briton, Helen Sharman, went into the great beyond.
Last week Virgin Galactic used the beautiful backdrop of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to showcase SpaceShipTwo – the craft that will take space tourists about 60 miles up and allow them to experience weightlessness next year.
Buzz Aldrin told me space exploration was how we as humans understand ourselves.
Speaking about NASA’s planned mission to colonise Mars, he said: “It’s a way off yet – about 20 or 30 years.
“It will go down in history. It’s too expensive to bring people back so they will have to commit themselves to going there for good. Eventually humans will be born on Mars.”
He added: “We’ve always looked beyond the next mountain as the human race. It’s how we learn about ourselves.”
But while we’ve made many great leaps and bounds for mankind over the past 50-odd years, let us be clear that there is still much about our world and the universe that we don’t know.
There is about 95% of the stuff in the universe we have no idea what it is; so-called dark energy and dark matter. This ‘fifth element’ has been dubbed ‘quintessence’ – a term first coined by Aristotle to describe this pure and pervasive force.
Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope – which the Space Shuttle launched – we discovered that over time, the expansion of the universe has quickened. This is a huge anomaly because the effect of gravity should mean that either the expansion slows or it would stop and then start imploding resulting in the ‘big crunch’. Why isn’t gravity stopping the universe from flying apart?
Could this quintessence be consciousness? And is this why our universe is inexplicably expanding when, according to traditional physics laws it really shouldn’t? Is our increasing collective consciousness driving it?
In the quantum world, the observer is the key component.
The famous double-split experiment, to try and find out whether light travels as waves or particles, found that the same process produces different results depending on whether it’s being watched or not.
In very simplistic terms, when a photon of light is shot through a vertical slit, the pattern that emerges the other side is of a vertical line. If there are two parallel slits, a wave pattern with interference between the photons emerges. That in itself is bizarre. However what’s even “spookier”, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, is that if detectors are placed at the point of exit on each slit, two vertical lines are the result. Thus the act of observation changes the results – it’s as if the photon realises it’s being observed and produces the expected effect.
The Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment also shows how two very different states can exist at once.
A cat is locked in a steel box along with a radioactive atom. If the atom decays a hammer is released, smashing a tube of hydrocyanic acid and killing the cat. What happens to the cat is bound up with the wave function of the atom. While the box is closed we have no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or not; it exists in both states at once. As this is theoretical, thankfully no real cats were harmed!
In essence, everything is in a state where infinite possibilities all exist at once and it’s only with the act of observation (which perhaps carries with it expectation) that the wave becomes a particle. It suggests that we create our world, our universe, our reality, by our observation, our awareness of it.
In new movie Source Code Jake Gyllenhaal plays a kind of human Schrödinger’s cat. The movie deals with the notion of a computer-generated reality as well as parallel universes and parallel realities; the branching off of a new reality depending on the choices you make.
The many-worlds theory views reality as continually branching off, like endless firework waterfalls, each subsequent spark branching off into new universes that correspond to each of the possible outcomes.
Could the mysterious 95% of our universe be forces from a parallel universe, or indeed a number of others, exerting a pull on our own?
In string theorist Brian Greene’s recent release The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos he posits a number of theories including the idea that there are an infinite number of universes, or multiverses.
He told Bloomberg.com: “The math we’re studying today, which emerges from Einstein’s work, suggests our universe may not be the only universe.
“Assuming that space goes on infinitely far, in any finite chunk matter can only arrange itself in a finite number of ways, like cards in a deck.
“You and I are just a configuration of particles, so sooner or later we’re going to repeat. Matter can almost repeat its configuration but not repeat it identically.
“Your physical body may repeat, but your mental configuration can be a little bit different, so there might be an evil version of you, and a version that loves skydiving.”
And in an interview with New York Times Magazine he said: “Some [parallel universes] might have museums and restaurants. Some might have copies of you and me having a conversation similar to this one. Yet other universes would be vastly different. They could involve a gigantic expansive space that might be filled with other forms of matter governed by other kinds of physical laws. In one such universe, when the apple is released by a tree, it might go up instead of down.”
In a parallel universe is the you there still as conscious as the you in this universe and is the you in another parallel universe wondering about the you in this world? Or are they all just simulacra? A copy of a copy? A shadow on the cave wall? Which version is the real one? Are you a simulacrum many times removed from the original? Is there an ‘original’?
Does our energy disseminate to parallel worlds as we take a particular turn in the road? If we take a quantum perspective our energy isn’t weakened or diluted by the branch off because of the way an atom can exist in two places, two states, at the same time. So are there an infinite number of us and does each choice we make in parallel worlds result in a new parallel world ad infinitum? Are we linked to each parallel universe via our energy and thus can we transverse into another universe or is each parallel world completely shut off from each other?
The book also looks at theories that we could just be part of some advanced Matrix-like computer simulation or even be holograms in a holographic universe.
Nearly 20 years ago at the University of Paris physicist Alain Aspect and his team discovered that under certain conditions two subatomic particles separated by any amount of distance could ‘communicate’ with each other; one did the same thing the other did. They are ‘entangled’; they behave holographically, in that all the information that makes up a hologram is wholly contained in its smallest parts. At the quantum level, particles can exhibit this tendency which, along with other anomalies, has scientists wondering if this illustrates that this is a holographic universe.
Einstein said: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
We could be in a similar state to Rachael the replicant in Blade Runner who doesn’t even realise she’s anything but human.
To the father of modern philosophy René Descartes, to be human is to have consciousness: “I think, therefore I am.”
According to the Oxford English dictionary, consciousness is: 1 – the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings; 2 – a person’s awareness or perception of something.
It seems that whatever the reality is of our world and our universe, quantum physics indicates our awareness is a fundamental part of it.
If our awareness is what makes us human does it matter what matter really is made of? Is it not the meaning we take from our world that is what makes it so for us? Is it not the choices we make, the experiences we have and how we navigate within this world that makes us who we are?
We are still exploring our own universe – from deepest space to the quantum level to our own individual consciousness. Our universe is the only one that exists for us. And the beautiful notion that quantum physics gives rise to – that everything is a bundle of endless potential – is truly out of this world.
“The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”
Eden Phillpotts – English writer (November 4, 1862 – December 29, 1960)