AN INTRODUCTION TO THE UNIVERSE
By Roland Watson
In the first article in the series, I gave an overview of the nature of life. Now, I want to shift the focus and consider various aspects or attributes of the universe. I implied that life appears to be evolving with the goal of achieving some higher purpose. This must be viewed in the context of the universe, of its characteristics and its purpose.
The universe is a highly complex phenomenon, and physicists and mathematicians have approached its study in a variety of ways. My review will utilize the following structure:
- What does the universe contain? What are its contents and composition? And, what are the forces, laws and principles that govern them?
- What does such material occupy? What is the nature of space and time?
- What do we know about the universe as a whole, including its beginning, growth characteristics, size, and prospective development? Indeed, how many universes are there? Or, can we even say with certainty that one universe, our universe, exists at all?
- What additional questions does this lead to regarding time? What is time's deeper nature? Why does it, seemingly, progress in only one direction?
- What further implicit questions does this reveal regarding the nature of infinity, and of the boundaries between forms?
- And, what other issues exist which are related to all of this, and which conventional physics, for a variety of reasons, does not consider?
Roughly speaking, the first question covers the field of study known as quantum mechanics; the second, relativity theory; both questions together are considered in the approach known as string theory; the third, cosmology; the fourth, for want of a better term, time theory; the fifth, certain mathematical fields, particularly topology; and the sixth, issues which are considered in metaphysics, and spiritual exploration.
Also, such a structure is in a sense artificial, since - one - numerous connections already exist between the various fields; and - two - our goal is actually a total, consistent, interconnection. We are seeking one overall theory that explains everything. Further, my intention is not only to present different physical and mathematical theories, and the links that exist between them, but also to highlight the problems and paradoxes that are still unresolved, and their philosophical implications. Therefore, you should not be concerned if from time-to-time it all seems a bit confusing. No one, not even the most brilliant physicists and mathematicians, understands the complete nature of "reality."
The components of the universe
So, in declining scale, the universe contains the following:
- Seemingly empty space, but which is actually full of dust, gas, small objects like asteroids, and a wide range of frequencies of electromagnetic and other radiation, starting with the background radiation that is believed to be left over from the universe's origin, the Big Bang.
- Galaxies, each with some one hundred billion stars, and which are often grouped in clusters and superclusters.
- Stars, of many different types and sizes, and also including such things as quasars and "black holes."
- Planetary bodies, including moons.
- Living organisms, which are composed of cells.
- Molecules and chemicals, which are the constituents of such cells and also of inanimate matter.
- The atomic elements of which the chemicals are composed.
- Basic or "elementary" subatomic particles, which form atoms, and which initially were considered to be limited to protons and neutrons, in the atomic nucleus, and electrons "orbiting" around - or somehow maintaining contact with - this nucleus.
- Other subatomic particles - such as the photons of which light is composed, dozens of them, actually, which have been discovered in the last sixty or so years, and which have some relationship to the other three.
- "Antiparticles," which have the same mass as normal particles but opposite characteristics, such as electrical charge, and which in turn make up "anti-matter."
- "Virtual" particles, which are created by particles and anti-particles for very brief time spans, and which have the same characteristics but seemingly no substance. Gary Zukav, in his book Dancing Wu Li Masters - An Overview of the New Physics, described them as "being so in effect or essence, but not in actual fact."
- Quarks - and anti-quarks, which are even lower-level particles, of which protons and neutrons themselves are composed. (It seems the former are not elementary after all.)
- Superstrings - and anti-strings, which are even smaller - much smaller - theoretical components that may comprise the basic "stuff" of the universe.
- "Dark matter," which is theoretical matter required to make certain calculations of physics related to gravity and the expansion of the universe come out right, but which we have not been able to observe and hence which is missing. Without dark matter there is not enough observed mass in the universe to hold things together, to keep galaxies from flying apart.
- And finally, "dark energy," which is a substance or force that has been proposed to account for the fact that the rate of universal expansion may be increasing. It is presumed to be in opposition to gravity, perhaps even a type of "anti-gravity."
In addition, and as I inferred, at the micro level the components of the universe have certain basic characteristics. Subatomic particles have mass, force charges, and "spin" - what is known as angular momentum.
These, then, seemingly, are the constituents of the universe, and their characteristics. It is an extraordinary array of forms, and whatever else we may know or think about it, one thing is clear. The universe is an extremely complicated jigsaw puzzle!
Forces and principles
The matter of the universe is also subject to or governed by various laws, principles and forces. For the last, there are four basic forces, as follows by strength:
The first is the strong force. This holds the atomic nucleus together. All protons have positive electrical charge, and particles with the same electrical charge repel each other. The strong force counteracts this tendency of protons to separate. It binds them, and the neutrons - which have no electrical charge, and also the quarks of which they are made, together.
The second force is electromagnetic. This is electrical charge. It holds electrons to the nucleus - electrons have negative charge, and are attracted to the positively charged protons. In other words, it also helps hold atoms together; and, it further allows multiple atoms to combine to form molecules.
The third force is known as the weak force. It enables radioactive decay, which is a set of subatomic particle interactions within the atomic nucleus, and which take longer to occur than strong or electromagnetic force interactions. Indeed, the stronger the force, the faster the interaction.
Lastly, there is gravity. It is the weakest force of all - by far, but, counterintuitively, it is the one that holds the most massive objects - galaxies and solar systems - together.
Physicists are attempting to unify these forces: to find an underlying structure of which they all are parts. For instance, at very high energies the weak and electromagnetic forces are unified; they are the same. They only appear to be separate to us since we personally do not experience, and cannot easily observe, such high energies.
The universe is also subject to a number of principles, starting with the Uncertainty Principle. This forms the basis of the view - which I will explore in more detail later - that particles are not really particles! Specifically, it tells us that it is impossible to know both the position of a particle and its momentum - this is the product of its mass and velocity - at the same time. If one is known, the other necessarily is uncertain. As an illustration of how such a thing might be possible, consider a photograph of people on a street. The photo tells you exactly where they are, but even though they may appear to be walking, you cannot be sure of it, nor of how fast they are going. More deeply, though, the uncertainty principle reflects not only a problem of measurement. It is not the case that particles have both position and momentum, and we simply can't see or measure them - as in an experiment - at the same time. Rather, such characteristics do not even exist simultaneously. There is only a vague, uncertain, quantum state.
The uncertainty principle is one of the defining statements in the theory of quantum mechanics, and it is also the source and technical definition of what I have termed universal chaos, along with certain other mathematical concepts. It is the basis for unpredictability, the chance or probabilistic element in existence, both at the macro - meaning people, and micro - or particle, levels.
Moving on, the next principle is the Exclusion Principle. It says that two particles cannot be in the same state - have the same position and velocity - at the same time, within the limits defined by the uncertainty principle. As Stephen Hawking wrote in his book A Brief History of Time, "If matter particles have very nearly the same positions, they must have different velocities, which means they will not stay in the same position for long." However, in certain circumstances, as in collapsing stars, the exclusion principle actually takes on the characteristics of a force. In situations of great gravitational density, exclusion causes particles to repel each other.
Quantum mechanics is the study of the motion of quanta, or indivisible units, of energy. Furthermore, matter is energy. At the subatomic level they continually change into each other, and are in fact different forms of the same thing. For example, particle masses are measured in units of energy. Indeed, it is for this reason that it is common to speak of matter-energy, rather than matter and energy. Similarly, and as a consequence of one of Einstein's theories, that space and time form a continuum, it is generally accepted to speak of space-time, rather than space and time.
There are a range of sizes of quanta. Energy comes in small chunks, the sizes of which are the energy frequencies times what is known as Planck's constant. Quanta of blue light, which is very hot - it has a high frequency - are larger than quanta of red light, which is less hot and of a lower frequency. Also, the other characteristics of particles - force charges and spin - also are "quantized." They exist only in discrete levels. Because of this quantum nature, matter-energy is said to be "discontinuous."
Quantum physicists study, among other things, the behavior of subatomic particles, which are really very small pieces of energy. And, they have learned that they can predict the probability of this behavior, "statistically." This means that for every one hundred particles of a specific variety and in a specific situation - such as in a collision in a particle accelerator, they can predict the transformation of these particles into other particles. For instance, sixty times particle "A" will decay into particles "B" and "C," and forty times it will decay into particles "D" and "E."
The major unknown of quantum mechanics is that it cannot say for certain what will happen to any specific particle. There is no equation to make this determination. It cannot say that this time, particle A will transform into particles B and C. It can only predict the probability that this will occur. What actually happens depends on chance. Even more fundamental is the unknown of why energy is discontinuous, and what "chance" is.
The standard explanation for quantum chance - part of it, at least - is that particles are not really particles. We just call them particles because it is easy to think of them this way, and because in some experiments they actually do behave this way: like small pieces of matter moving around. But, in other experiments they don't act like this at all. They act like "waves." Quantum uncertainty derives from this: from the wave aspect of subatomic particle nature. However, a wave as physics describes it is not like an ocean wave - although it behaves like one! An ocean wave is composed of particles, of molecules of water. A physical wave, such as of a specific frequency of electromagnetic radiation, is not. But, it can do what ocean waves do, including diffract, or bend around corners, and interfere, such as when two waves come together and cancel each other out - and the water at that spot is calm.
Each physical wave has an associated particle, but it is not composed of these particles. Rather, if we look at it one way, it behaves like a particle, but if we look at it another way, it behaves like a wave. This is called particle/wave duality. However, in no case does it look both like a particle and a wave. This is another aspect of exclusion. Such characteristics are never present simultaneously. But, you should not be concerned if you can't picture this, particularly waves. Quantum physicists can't either. No one can say what a wave is a wave of, or what is waving, other than - in some unknown way - energy. Stephen Hawking calls it a "fluctuation," but what is fluctuating? A wave is actually a mathematical conception, fundamentally removed from our normal - via spoken language - process of description.
The underlying duality of quantum mechanics derives from the fact that, as Brian Greene stated in his book The Elegant Universe, "the energy of these particles is determined by a wave-like feature - frequency." Also, duality in a general sense is used, to quote him again, "to describe theoretical models that appear to be different but nevertheless can be shown to describe exactly the same physics." Finally, quantum mechanical waves, which are used to capture or somehow characterize the most essential aspects of matter-energy, basically refer to probability. They describe patterns of chance.
I will continue in the next article with a closer look at subatomic particles.
© Roland Watson 2015