Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


The Theory of Everything
Brendan Harris & Elvir Zulkic


Summary by Lauren Howland

Theory of Everything

The topic of discussion for this week was String Theory and if, as a theory, it can pull together all our other universal theories into one to describe how the universe works in all totality.

Elvir and Brendan led the discussion with Elvir starting off by explaining the basic premises of the two universal theories and four forces.

With one swift motion Elvir pulled an apple out of his pocket. He explained that an apple, like the green one that had come to call his jean pocket home, had been the object that united the heavens and earth, according to a story how Newton arrived at his theory of gravity. An apple is made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. At the subatomic level protons and neutrons are made of quarks, and below that are strings. These strings pervade everything around us, including ourselves. Of the four supposed fundamental forces, modern quantum field theory ends of unifying three, the electromagnetic, the weak, and the strong. But currently the best theory of gravity we have is General Relativity, which is not easily unified with Quantum Field theory.

At this point Professor Moebius interjected to ask, simply, what was the unification that was made possible by the apple?

Elvir went back to his prop—the jean pocketed apple. He explained that Newton saw the apple fall from the tree, but didn’t exactly understand how gravity worked. He could describe it, but couldn’t explain how it happened. This is where Einstein came in and explained general relativity. This universal force is just that, universal, and its strength is why we are falling towards the sun, the moon is falling towards the earth, and the apple falls towards the ground. Elvir gave the example that if the sun disappeared the planets would slowly go off into space. In Newton’s theory of gravity the Earth would start to drift off immediately, while in Einstein’s theory of gravity the Earth would only start drifting off 8 minutes later, when the gravitational wave of the Sun’s disappearance has reached the Earth.

Professor Moebius again interjected to point out that the unification he was pressing for was a bit more humble. For Newton this tale with the apple, whether it happened or not, had a point behind it. It was that this was one of the first times that it was realized that this force was universal and all things were bound by it. He explained that the weightlessness that one experiences when going down a really fast elevator or, as Kalika pointed out, by going over a bump in the road, is the sensation of falling freely under the influence of gravity.

Professor Davis then asked to go into more detail about how Einstein’s gravity theory explains why an apple falls—and that just saying space is curved would not be a sufficient answer.

Brendan tried to answer. He revealed that the concept of gravity is amorphous. It’s kind of like energy; in the way that we use it to compute things, but it’s not something within our logic to understand. He also used the analogy of time as a somewhat inconceivable fourth dimension. We understand the first three dimensions, X, Y, and Z as forward and backward, up and down, and side to side, but when we say that time is another dimension that is perpendicular to all these, its hard for one to visualize it. To make it easier we have come to the analogy that space-time is a flat sheet and when you put the earth on it, it bends the actual space-time and this causes light to bend and also causes objects to attract by the actual curvature of that space. He stopped by saying our minds just have a hard time wrapping themselves around that idea.

Professor Davis replied that he could imagine this curvature around the earth and an object following that path, but that an apple doesn’t do that.

Professor Moebius was saddened by this misunderstanding, and wished he had brought his rubber-space-time sheet. When you pull this sheet down and put a rubber ball on it, it bends down on all sides and you can see a beam of light shoot in and curve around. In the same context, if you put another small marble on the rubber-space-time sheet it will travel the shortest distance to get next to the big ball.

Professor deVries managed to get a word in, claiming that the ball makes a dent in the rubber-space-time sheet because of gravity; therefore the experiment is defining gravity in terms of gravity.

From here the unnerving statement was made that we don’t really know what gravity is. We can describe it as a central force pulling smaller objects towards any object with mass and that it distorts space-time but even at a quantum level, we can’t get past just the narrative.

Elvir then moved on to trying to explain quantum mechanics and the probability factor. Professor Moebius talked about fringe or interference patters: if you send an electron through a slit it will spatter like light, showing it to be possible to be a particle and a wave at the same time. He explained that on this microscopic level we have to “swallow the fact” that nature plays tricks on us and that an electron can be either/both all at once.
Brendan then helped to lead us into a more concentrated discussion. The point of the “Theory of Everything” is to show the interconnectedness of the universe within a single framework. All these different theories are different chapters in the book of the universe and they’re really only good to describe certain parts. Yet, ultimately the universe is one thing and the idea is that, by showing this mathematically, we can logically see that these theories are all different parts of the same thing. In other words, as Professor Moebius pointed out, the mantra is “simplify, simplify, simplify”.

Brendan moved backwards a little and gave us some history of the discovery of these universal laws. He briefly went over Isaac Newton, James Maxwell, Einstein, the Advent of Quantum theory, Hubble, Inflation, and the birth of String Theory. He also explained The Copenhagen Interpretation that states, “There exists no objective reality other than that which is revealed through measurement and observation.”

Brendan wanted to bring the conversation into a more philosophical light by asking how truly objective can a person be? He explained that according to Quantum physics, the universe is not deterministic, and all parts of it cannot be known simultaneously. He then asked the class what impact consciousness had on our universe and what, “consciousness has to say to physics and physics to consciousness.”

He posed some thoughts on consciousness for the class, including: Quantum theory and Relativity said something profound about the subjectivity of the universe, perhaps it's time to take this to the next level; when we look at the world through human eyes, we must understand that it is a human “doing the looking” (Copenhagen interpretation). Even something as “objective” as a data assume subjective aspects when it is interpreted. Or to clarify, only the decision, which observation (e.g. measuring either the arrival of individual photons with a detector or observing the intensity pattern on a screen) is subjective. Yet it has an influence on which (ultimately still objective) data set we obtain; and all our laws are based on the perceptions and interpretations of an evolved conscious mind.

Professor Moebius asked then if our physical theories should be viewed as subjective and, if that subjectivity is culturally dependent or human dependent? Brendan replied that it is higher than just culturally, because our brains make us work in a certain framework. If we were to interact with an alien species their laws of physics may be different because of the way their minds evolved and changed to interpret reality.

He talked about a paradigm shift that may be taking place, similar to the ones that happened under both Newton’s and Maxwell’s discoveries. As we evolve our consciousness grows and gains a deeper understanding of the world. Professor deVries made the claim that we are not just evolving in consciousness, but also in technology and that this technology allows us to understand the universe more in depth. Brendan pointed out though that although we are evolving technologically, we are still using our minds to interpret this data, so we are not really moving away from subjectivity. We cannot step outside of the universe, because we are fundamentally connected to it, but we can find out how our brains our bounded. Brendan used the example of seeing this bounded structure as a balloon, and constantly pushing on the edges of this balloon to expand our consciousness.

Tim Hafner said he didn’t really agree with the idea that our consciousness is evolving because of the immorality growing on this planet. The discussion was clarified as not being about morality and we were not trying to figure out if expansion of consciousness was leading to more immorality or morality.

Professor deVries asked to possibly use a different word to describe expanding consciousness other than “evolving” because for him, evolving means “the school of hard knocks” or Darwinian. Kristyn said that it was not necessary because evolution was a term long before Darwin and does not have to be seen solely through his definition.

Brendan ended with posing the question that if our brains run on electromagnetic signals, and we have the evolution of consciousness happening over the course of millions of years, how may the magnetic field around the earth effect this? Electro-signals and Magnetic fields are two sides of the same coin; one makes the other happen, therefore, is it possible we have some kind of conscious connection with that magnetic field?

Professor Moebius commented that we at least know the magnetic field shields us from cosmic rays. He asked the class what the “Theory of Everything” meant to everyone. Professor Davis said that as far as we know, there is no clear understanding of how intentionality could come out of molecules, so the theory does not explain that, and therefore is not complete. I agreed in that science is like looking through a really narrow set of glasses and not getting the whole picture of what’s really going on. A few others commented briefly and the class ended on that note.