Thought Experiments

15
Jan

Why We’ve Underestimated Not Only the Size of Our Cosmos, But Also Our Ability to Understand It

The Higgs Boson was predicted with the same tool as the planet Neptune and the radio wave: mathematics. Why does our universe seem so mathematical, and what does it mean? I believe that it means that our universe isn’t just described by math, but that it is math in the sense that we’re all parts of a giant mathematical object, which in turn is part of a multiverse so huge that it makes the other multiverses debated in recent years seem puny in comparison.

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Credit: Flickr/playful.geometer under a creative commons license

At first glance, our universe doesn’t seem very mathematical at all. The groundhog who trims our lawn has properties such as cuteness and fluffiness–not mathematical properties. Yet we know that this groundhog–and everything else in our universe–is ultimately made of elementary particles such as quarks and electrons. And what properties does an electron have? Properties like -1, 1/2 and 1. Physicists call these properties electric charge, spin and lepton number, but those are just words that we’ve made up; the fundamental properties of an electron are just numbers, which are mathematical properties. All elementary particles, the building blocks of everything around, are purely mathematical objects in the sense that they don’t have any properties except for mathematical properties. The same goes for the space that these particles are in, which also has only mathematical properties–for example, three, the number of dimensions. If space is mathematical and everything in space is also mathematical, then the idea that everything is mathematical doesn’t sound as crazy anymore.

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Max Tegmark ponders the mathematical universe.

Thinkers as far back as the ancient Greeks recognized that our universe is “approximately described” by mathematics, meaning that some but not all of its properties are mathematical. When I say that the universe “is mathematical,” I am going a step further, arguing that all of its properties are mathematical, in other words, it has no properties at all except mathematical ones. If I’m right and this is true, then it’s good news for physics because it implies that, if we’re intelligent and creative enough, we can in principle understand all the properties of our universe.

This challenges the common assumption that we can never understand consciousness. It optimistically suggests that consciousness can one day be understood as a form of matter, forming the most beautifully complex structure in space and time that our universe has ever known. Such understanding would enlighten our approaches to non-human animals, unresponsive patients and future ultra-intelligent machines, with wide-ranging ethical, legal and technological implications.

As I argue in detail in my new book Our Mathematical Universe, it also implies that our reality is vastly larger than we thought, containing a diverse collection of universes obeying all mathematically possible laws of physics. An advanced computer program could in principle start generating an atlas of all such mathematically possible universes. The discovery of other solar systems has taught us that eight, the number of planets in ours, doesn’t tell us anything fundamental about reality, merely something about which particular solar system we inhabit: The number eight is essentially part of our cosmic ZIP code. Similarly, this mathematical atlas tells us that if we one day discover the equations of quantum gravity and print them on a T-shirt, we should not hubristically view these equations as the “Theory of Everything,” but as information about our location in the mathematical atlas of the ultimate multiverse.

It’s easy to feel small and powerless when faced with this vast reality. Indeed, we humans have had this experience before, over and over again, each time we’ve discovered that what we thought was everything was merely a small part of a larger structure: our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe and perhaps a hierarchy of parallel universes, nested like Russian dolls. However, I find this empowering as well, because we’ve repeatedly underestimated not only the size of our cosmos, but also the power of our human mind to understand it. Our cave-dwelling ancestors had brains as large as ours, and since they didn’t spend their evenings watching TV, I’m sure they asked questions like “What’s all that stuff up there in the sky?” and “Where does it all come from?” They’d been told beautiful myths and stories, but little did they realize that they had it in them to actually figure out the answers to these questions for themselves. And that the secret lay not in learning to fly into space to examine the celestial objects, but in letting their human minds fly. When our human imagination first got off the ground and started deciphering the mysteries of space, it was done with mental power rather than rocket power.

I find this quest for knowledge so inspiring that I decided to join it and become a physicist, and I wrote my book because I want to share these empowering journeys of discovery, especially in this day and age when it’s so easy to feel powerless. After all, this quest belongs not just to me and my fellow physicists, but to all of us.

The groundhog image above is courtesy of Meia Chita-Tegmark. He’s not really called “Max Tegmark” either, but “Mr Hoggles.”

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Max Tegmark

    Known as "Mad Max" for his unorthodox ideas and passion for adventure, Max Tegmark's scientific interests range from precision cosmology to the ultimate nature of reality. He is a physics professor at MIT and the author of more than two hundred technical papers. Max has been featured in dozens of science documentaries and his work with the SDSS collaboration on galaxy clustering shared the first prize in Science magazine’s “Breakthrough of the Year: 2003.”

    • SHREEKANT

      OUT OF BOX THINKING’ IS ESSENTIAL IN BASIC SCIENCE-Thursday, 20 June
      2013

      We can get success by using different assumptions [like different people find success by following their own god & religion].Present theories are not the only way of success. Success comes because we are thinking more religiously on these theories.

      If we think that by using the knowledge [property] of 4-6%[White (Baryonic) Matter], we have correctly explained or going to explain the 100%, then we are in ‘confusion’.

      The knowledge of 76-74% [Dark Atom, Matter & Energy] may not change the process, effects & formula, but certainly changes the basic theory behind it.

      Think why we are reaching iss in less than 6 hours instead of 51-52 hours?

      Why universe is expanding instead of so many types of pulling force?

      We should focus on the new theory based on dark matter, dark atom & dark energy. We can’t ignore these, as previously.

      Our mathematical approach is good, but it is for ‘justifying/proving our assumption & theory’ not always for ‘explaining theory & assumption’.

      Take an example of gravitational force ‘F’=GMm/r²,

      here the value of F depends on certain factors
      only, as shown in the formula. It is also true that this is proved many times.

      But no one claim that the value of F at particular point is only due to above mentioned factor only.

      Let us take Virial theorem, is the reason of particular value of ‘F’ is so simple?

      At earth it is due to some different set of situation & at Neptune or at the ‘planet of other stars’[situated in another galaxy]; it is due to different set of situation.

      ‘GOD IS SIMPLE SO BASICS BEHIND HIS CREATURE MUST ALSO BE SIMPLE’

      I am not claiming that this concept is right or that concept is wrong [in my case, I have not yet given anything, because it is not a platform]

      All the new thought seems GARBAGE at first, but before throwing it in DUSTBIN, we must understand it with full Empathy & zero Halo effect. Scopes of amendment – ALWAYS EXISTS.

      What you say when a SINGLE “GARBAGE TYPE OF CONCEPT” explain/re-explain the following- [using 74-76% with 6-4%]

      Formation Of Galaxy, Regeneration Of Galaxy, Formation Of Black Hole, Formation Of S-Star, Types Of Galaxy, Reason of inter connecting arm, Formation Of Star, Regeneration of Stars, Why heavier metal comes out 1st during Supernova explosion?, Role of Temperature in the birth of Stars, Planet..?, Formation of Planet, Satellite, Asteroid Belt, Kuiper Belt, About Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, About Pluto & Comet, Explain About Dooms Day-21.12.12 Situation, Reason Of Gravity, Why It Is More On Surface?, Why Satellite feels more pull towards the darker side of Moon?, WhyVirial Theorem is very
      near to explain Gravitation?, Why Sun is hard to Hit by?, Why Universe is
      expanding, in spite of so many attractive force?, Why ‘g’ is same for
      all objects?, Why Orbital velocity of planet increases near the Sun?, What is Dark
      Matter, Dark Atom & Dark Energy, where they Are? Why Dark Matter gone,
      which was more in early Earth?, Role of Dark Energy?, Source of Binding
      Energy?, Is number of Elements are only, what we see in Periodic Table?, Why
      water molecules immediately reach the chilled water bottle to lose Energy?, Why
      Oxygen rush to fire, carbon dioxide away, Why Oxygen go inside body, but comes
      out in Plant?, How Dark Matter, Dark Atom & Dark Energy interact with White
      Matter?, Why the value of Energy in E=mc² is more than the Calculated
      Value?, Why Number of Electron is proportional to number of Proton? Or Why
      Electron cloud holds only the same no. of Electron, as Proton in Nucleus? And
      many-many more

      [Above topics are only a main topics, many sub-topics are also studied]

      Biology is also not much away.

      [Regularly checking latest outcome published by/through leading journals/organisations in last 3 months with GARBAGE CONCEPT’S outcome]

      STILL CROSS CHECKING WITH DAILY PUBLISHED NEW PAPERS ON ABOVE TOPICS.

      NEED BIGGER PLATFORM TO CROSS CHECK THE CONCEPT?

      My work is important because I am thinking out of box, I am looking the Universe from another window (of Dark Matter & Dark Energy) while our scientific window is different but on many topic we are drawing the same picture of universe.

    • Patrick Ryan

      I have just ONE question! Has ANYBODY done any extrapolation research/analysis on what the stars and galaxies actually look like NOW!?! I see a TON of junk about them, as they appeared MILLIONS (or BILLIONS) of years ago, based on the light that is reaching us NOW. BUT i have yet to see ANY theories on the NOW (our time) appearance. for all we know, its like JUST NOW seeing a house burning down that happened years or even centuries ago. and if we traveled to it, all we’d find are ashes or maybe even a NEW house! Maybe THATS what all the so-called Dark Matter/Energy is all about!!!! ANY ANSWERS??? NOVA and NASA is useless, all they see is what USED TO BE!!

    • Matt Evans

      Sounds like Mathematical Platonism.

    • gono

      i think what max is trying to say is…buy my book

    • gr8risrael

      Oh yeah, I know that my girlfriend says I am Number 1. That’s like mathematics, right?

    • Brad NOLA

      Duh

    • Stacy C

      *I will argue with the author that we are actually limited by math, in that mathematics is the ONLY way we have to understand the universe at this point in human existence, when it could be about so much more.*

      Excellent point. As a science layman I am so amazed at what humans have learned to do with mathematics, but what if there is some other scientific discipline or method of understanding that we are not yet aware of?

      At any rate, I applaud the great work that continues in the search for understanding. I hope these conversations will become more a part of our public discourse.