Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Noodly Universe

I was reading Scientific American tonight (November '07 issue) and they had an article on multiple universes, string theory, and "branes" ("The Great Cosmic Roller-Coaster Ride"). The article is available online, but it unfortunately lacks the illustrations that inspired me; you'll have to go to the library and look at the paper copy to see the artist's rendition of a "Calabi-Yau space." There's a picture of one here, and also in Wikipedia, along with many mathematical formulae; but the picture in SciAm had long stringy appendages sticking out of the central mass. It looked familiar; it looked strangely familiar, and then I realized:

It's the Flying Spaghetti Monster in disguise! These scientists are covert Pastafarians! "String theory" indeed - what better to make strings than spaghetti? The Universe is a physical manifestation of the FSM and the cosmic strings are His Noodly Appendages. All is now clear.

Actually, I've been reading the cosmology articles in SciAm for 30-odd years now, and as time has gone on they've gotten farther and farther out, to the point that I ask myself: do these people have any work to do?? I realize this is a serious branch of science, but the basis of science is that you establish a theory, and then you make a prediction, and then you create an experiment to test the prediction, after which you either declare victory and start writing up the article for Science, or you go back and tinker with the theory some more. (The scientific method in a nutshell.)

The trouble with cosmologists, and especially string theorists, is that they've been trying for 20 years to devise experiments that would validate their theories, and they can't do it. They'd have to create the conditions that existed within nanoseconds after the Big Bang, and then be able to stand back outside the inferno and analyze the process. I don't know why they think the experiment wouldn't incinerate the experimenter. They plan to work on very small scales, of course: just a minuscule inferno.

As I read about strings, and branes, and scalar fields, and dark matter, I get a whiff - just a whiff - of the "ether" which filled interplanetary space only about 125 years ago. The scientists of that day could no more sample the atmosphere (or lack of it) in interplanetary space, than today's cosmologists can collect a piece of dark matter in a test tube and weigh it. But they were just as convinced that it was there. Today's scientists have much better equipment and much better experimental data. But until they can verify a prediction, they're no better off than the people who believed in ether. They'll tell you the mathematics makes it work; maybe it does. Mathematics is a language I never mastered, and this is a pretty esoteric dialect. I'd still like to see a verified prediction.


  1. Anonymous5:20 PM

    Going where empirical science cannot - at least as yet - take us, and where traditional tribal religious avenues fail utterly to take us.

    OK, so it requires assuming a cosmos with cosmological mysteries which can be fathomed if one understands the language of the cosmos.

    I do think your case for the FSM is genuinely compelling. But then I have discovered that I am, after all, a Pastafarian, at least on the days that I'm not a Crustaceanist (a white sports coat and a pink crustacean...).

    Anonymous David

  2. I have mastered math, but these theories require a level of mathematics that is well beyond my abilities. I've heard lots of physicists criticize string theory in the same ways you have - as something impossible to verify because of the immensely tiny scales involved.

  3. I decided years ago that I would read everything in Scientific American, whether I understood it or not; it's amazing how much you do pick up over the years, even though I still couldn't read a formula if it came up and bit me in the ankle.

    My major complaint with the cosmologists is the way they invent new stuff to explain the observations that don't match their predictions, and the classic example here is "dark matter". They can't observe enough matter in the universe to explain the way it appears to behave, gravitationally; so the explanation must be some new kind of matter that they can't observe except by its gravitational effect on the stuff they can observe. Wait a minute. As far as I can tell, "dark matter" might as well be called "ether"...

  4. Anonymous9:22 PM

    It's Onward through the Fog, at least according to Oat Willy, who owns a bar somewhere in Texas. At least that's what it says on a box of matches I have from back in the 70s.

    Somewhere in Guns-a-Blazin', Texas, a man fell off of a bar stool near my brother (this actually happened is) after being shot for some reason unknown to my brother, who have dived into the sawdust when he saw what was unfolding, a shooting about which he knew nothing and saw/didn't see, the pointlessness of attempting to participate in anything resembling justice-based law enforcement in Texas having been impressed upon him - and pretty much everyone in the other 49 states. Apparently the majority of Texans still think the justice part of the Texas criminal justice system has actual, dictionary-based meaning. But my brother knew better. He'd seen them in action before, and wanted no part of wherever this cosmologically insignificant event was headed.

    Oh, yeah, my actual point: Texas is proof of the existence of dark matter, and Austin is proof that even in the darkest of times and places.... Did I mention that I haven't a clue whether or not the cosmologists know what they are talking about, but I do stand intrigued, and I'm kind of in hedera's corner in that it's still fascinating to read. And since I knocked out the entire King James Bible in the ninth grade on a whim, then moved on, at least I think I'm reading minds that are actually at work as minds worth being at work. Well, ok, they can be pretty pig-headed at times, and perhaps they are using their nether orifices as sources of some of their ideas, but at least it's fun to read, unlike much of what is in the tribal religious cosmological texts.

    Anonymous David

  5. Anonymous9:30 PM

    Editor's note:
    The is after happened was supposed to be deleted, and Anonymous David has no idea why he typed have where the sentence clearly calls for had. He also cannot italicize when posting. Such is life on dialup on the edge of the Green Swamp.

  6. That's what happens when you post in the wee small hours; I read that time stamp.

    As for italicizing while posting, I can't display it exactly because Blogger will translate it to Italics, but you enclose an "i" in these thingies <>, then you write the stuff you want to emphasize, and then you put "/i" in another pair of <>. You probably knew that.

  7. Anonymous10:34 PM

    When I read about some of this "stuff," in nice books written for the layperson, it somehow,almost makes sense. Then when I try to explain it to someone else, it doesn't even make sense to me. However...

    David Weber has written / is writing a series set in space. (No ray guns. No fuzzy sentient beings.) His description of being in space, of some of the "geographic" events such as grav waves and solar wind, are well done. Sometimes I muddle what I've read of string theory with what he describes, and it makes a kind of sense. (No he doesn't mention string theory.)

    They are also good books if you enjoy politics, sf as a sometimes not so subtle comment on our world weirdness today, and enjoyed the Horatio Hornblower books. (The books... not the composite video.)

    Let the family cats loose with some embroidery thread - now that's string theory.

  8. Anonymous9:19 PM

    Good points, hedera and boggart. No, hedera, I didn't know that trick. But there is so much I don't know...and knowing my cyberluck, it won't work for me. We had a motto when I was in charge of the theatre program at my community college (a motto shared with only a select group of very trusted colleagues): There is no problem so great we can't run away from it, and no job so simple we can't fuck it up. I should have forwarded that motto to the Cheney/Bush administration.

    hedera, I got to make a really quick freebie trip to NYC two weeks ago (1 day up, 1 day there, 1day back). While there I did go over to the New York Public Library, wander about enjoying the magnificent building and the Jack Kerouac exhibition, then up to the third floor to discover they have a copy of the Gutenburg Bible on display. It was a rush similar to walking into the British Museum and seeing a copy of the Magna Carta. There's something special about being in the presence of something that significant.

    Anonymous David

  9. I can't imagine why the "trick" wouldn't work for you, Anonymous David - it's just HTML. And if you put a "b" instead of an "i", it'll boldface.

    I like your mottos, and I'll add one that got me through 19 years of data processing (with no formal degree): In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I may not be male, but I've spent a lot of my life as the one-eyed man.

    I agree with you - I saw the Magna Carta at the British Museum in 1996 and it was staggering. I also saw some scraps of manuscript dating from the approximate period of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Astounding. One of these days I have to drag my husband to New York, he's never been; and we'll make a point of going to the NYPL.

    Boggart, I find myself regularly thinking back to sci fi I've read. The one that comes to my mind on the subject of global warming is the section in Ringworld where Louis Wu visits the Puppeteer planet - which is so overpopulated that the heat from the inhabitants, and from the machinery needed to keep them alive, has made the planet too hot to stay in close orbit around a star. It's loose in deep space (may have been still anchored but very far out) and still comfortably warm. We're a long way from that still, but prove we're not headed there.

    I have no present intention of seeing The Golden Compass, but I just bought the trilogy and am looking forward to reading it.

    Keep your cats out of the string.

  10. Obviously, the "layman" is incapable of following physicists into the realm of mathematical language required to "discuss" the higher levels of discourse by which science grapples with time, matter, light, origins, and so forth.

    I don't necessarily envy them their privilege, but that may be because I don't have a clue about what fun it might be. I DO think they're a lot closer to what religionists attempt to talk about with plain language. The best authority I know of, that aspires to a higher understanding of existence (available to ordinary mortals) is to read, carefully, the logical positivists; and/or particularly the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He occasionally will say something which literally--as Emily Dickinson remarks somewhere--makes you feel as if the top of your head had been removed. Maybe that's what's meant by levitation?

    I too was a regular reader of Scientific American in my 'teens. I had a subscription for about five years. Most of it was far over my head, but it did make me conversant with many of the preoccupations of the various disciplines. John Updike apparently has been a devoted reader of it for most of his life. Back in the 1960's, when I read it, it was a big, thick, glossy affair, very streamlined and technical. I remember feeling quite squeamish reading articles about blood chemistry, or cancer.

    I think that higher physics is, in effect, our contemporary cosmology. When you hear the big guns attempt to describe what they're theorizing in concrete terms, they become very apocalyptic and vague. I.e., all matter is "arrested light" or "if you went fast enough" you'd live longer. The weird thing is that most everything we "see" in the heavens happened long before our earth even existed. That could mean, I think, that the universe is really a much different place "now" than we think it "was." Weird. Hedera, I just used the word weird twice, because I remember that you always had trouble with the ie/ei words.

    Weird, huh?

    As Robin Williams once remarked about Albert Einstein: When you looked into those twinkling eyes, you could tell that "the lights were on and everyone was home." But even Albert struck out--he spent the last thirty years of his life searching for a so-called "universal field theory" and couldn't find it.

    My favorite possible scientific discoveries of the future: Anti-gravity machines. Free variation of recombinant DNA. Unlimited "fusion" energy sources. Outsmarting the bugs (germs). Cats sitting at the dinner table and discussing the news of the day. Risk-free inebriation.

  11. Back in the '70s when I thought I ought to be interested in philosophy, I tried to read some Wittgenstein. Honest: I couldn't understand a word that he said. It wasn't even clear to me that he was saying anything. I tried Noam Chomsky too, with the same effect. If Wittgenstein gives you moments of electric clarity or whatever, more power to you and to him; I get mine in other places. It may be frivolous but I've gotten a lot of insight into the relationship between man and his world from people like Ursula LeGuin (the Earthsea Trilogy and its sequels are just towering) and Patricia McKillip.

    Sure, Scientific American was over my head; there's nothing wrong with stretching yourself a little.

    I did finally get the ie/ei business straightened out ;-)

    As for future discoveries - frankly, I'll be happy if we can avoid killing ourselves off. If we can do that, we'll solve the rest of it some day. Go back and look at some of the predictions from the '50s of what the year 2000 would look like, and be a little cautious about views of the future.

  12. I'm a rare book dealer.

    One great leveling anecdote, which I like to remind people in the trade about, when they get a little too cocky about recommendations:

    Asked who the most collectible and "investible" author was circa 1929, the prevailing rare book experts pontificated that John Galsworthy was their nomination for the honor.

    Today, the most valuable Galsworthy book is worth about $3000. And the great mass of his books are comparatively cheap on the market, relative to other authors from his era.

    It's a demonstration of how short-sighted and blind we are to our own time(s). Especially with respect to aesthetic judgments: We haven't a clue. The obscure, eccentric, half-mad janitor from Chicago, Darger, may well come to be regarded as the "20th Century Blake" whereas our century spent its dollars and attention on the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Norman Rockwell, and so forth. The 19th Century knew nothing about Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, believing that Tennyson and Browning and Longfellow were their literary avatars. Who will posterity think were the heroes of our age?

    We haven't a clue.

    Re: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Try the Tractatus, or Remarks on Colour. If you follow the arguments closely, they'll tie you in knots, but every so often, you'll find yourself on a different plane of thought, one where you've never been before. They often seem like riddles, but riddles with real metaphysical power.

    When my stepfather was born, in 1901, there were no airplanes, no electric lights (at least in common use), no radios, no automobiles (in the present sense), no moving pictures or television, no telephones, no atomic bombs and nuclear power, no computers, no genetic alterations, no indoor plumbing (at least in rural Wisconsin), no universal suffrage, sonar, x-rays, rockets and telemetry, psycho-active drugs, etc.

    If the history of technology teaches us anything, it's that we cannot predict the pathway(s) that science and invention will take us in the future; also we can't even imagine how revolutionary those developments will be upon our daily lives.

    Frederick Sommer: "Reality is greater than our dreams."

  13. Anonymous7:02 PM

    The imagination is one of the greatest consequences of the evolution of the human brain, but I do like the Frederick Sommer quote (it's new to me). Can't resist the notion of imagining reality, which is what I think we do, especially in our arts. Actually, it strikes me as what all knowledge is, at least when we get it right. Of course the imagination can also go god-knows-where, especially with my cousin who is paranoid schizophrenic, and George Bush, who is god-knows-what.

  14. Curtis, I can't argue with any of your statements about the future. You're perfectly right that we have no clue what the future will value, or what turns it will take. My father was born 6 years later than your stepfather and saw pretty much the same changes. For that matter, when I was born, my parents had an ice box instead of a refrigerator, and my grandmother (born in the 1870s) never did get used to (or learn to pronounce) "hojmenized" (homogenized) milk.

    I don't believe the Wittgenstein I tried to read was either of those works (or are they 2 titles for the same?), so I'll keep that in mind.

    As for quotes, here's one from one of my favorite sources, J.B.S. Haldane. You'll find several variants of this out there, but the one I like is, "The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine."