Monday, 11 March 2013

Striking the knowledge barrier: what next?

One spiral galaxy, a small part of our universe
 A recent edition of the New Scientist (2 March 2013) is a special issue with the cover story WE’VE RUN OUT OF EXPLANATIONS FOR THE UNIVERSE: what’s next?

The editorial refers to ‘a cornucopia of awesome ideas: hidden dimensions, shadow particles and an infinity of parallel universes, to name but three.’ It points out that 'our understanding of the universe is stuck in a bit of a rut'.

Some of these ideas depended on space-time being like a quantum foam; but a recent observation of a gamma-ray burst 7 billion light years away indicates that this is highly unlikely and that, as Einstein always envisaged, it is continuous. This conclusion was reached because three photons which had travelled this distance to reach us were not displaced by any discontinuities in space-time.
(A gamma-ray burst is the unleashing of gamma rays from a huge rotating star as it collapses. It releases in half a minute as much energy as the sun in 10 billion years.)

Others theories depend on endlessly replicating, eternal universes and these have been shown to be intrinsically non-viable by agreed theoretical criteria. Only three months ago the December 1 2012 issue had as its cover story  Before the Big Bang: three reasons why the universe could not have existed forever. See also The end of eternity.
So the universe must have a beginning. It originated from inside a sphere having a diameter of one trillionth of a trillionth of a hydrogen atom, a sphere so inconceivably small that it is outside of reality. Not only is the observable universe full of inexplicable phenomena but we have in recent decades become aware that it consists almost entirely of dark (i.e. undetectable) energy and matter (NB mass can be expressed in energy units), restricting our concept of the universe to the theoretically detectable part. Most of it is beyond the limit of any telescope or scientific instrument that relies on receiving information at the speed of light. This is because the edge of the detectable universe is receding so fast  that light emitted from beyond the edge  will never reach us. Moreover, the rate of recession is increasing.

Limits on our understanding of the physical and biological world are imposed by the discovery last century that when observing atoms or smaller entities the observer becomes part of the system he is observing (this is a consequence of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle), so that phenomena on this scale cannot be explained by any experimentally testable physical theory. The observer’s consciousness and what he is observing  become one system, so it is not possible to fully objectively observe  the phenomena at the atomic level.

There is also a growing awareness of the extraordinary fine tuning of the universe for life and the inadequacy of neo-Darwinism in explaining its evolution once started. As for how it started this remains a profound mystery. Attempts to mimic biological systems will always be limited since this would involve modelling atomic and molecular processes hidden by Heisenberg Uncertainty.

Does this mean the end of science?

No. This would be catastrophic for the achievement of God's plan for humanity. It just means that we will have to be content with understanding, and continuing to seek understanding, of aspects of the reality within which we exist, rather than the whole of it.

Even if the four forces of nature are unified and a model is found to make sense of dark energy and dark matter,  we need to have the humility to know that there are limits to what we can know or even rationally investigate. For instance, there is no reason we can’t attempt to mimic or simulate processes of life for better health care and biotechnology, or search for new ways of generating energy by copying nature, or find out enough about physics to be able to construct spacecraft that can fly dozens of time faster than existing ones.  In a way it will be like integrating science and engineering.

Just understanding parts of reality can make the real world endlessly fascinating and add to our sense of awe at the Creator's artistry.  But to seek to describe the whole of reality by equations is to embark on a fool’s errand blinded by pride.

author, 2077 AD