Why is there something rather than nothing? The people who work hardest to answer that question are called physicists. Physics is the study of the very large and very small. The study of physics looks in four directions: expanding out to the large, shrinking in to the small, looking back in time, and looking forward in time.
We can see far, but can we ever see an end to any of these directions? Does time have a beginning, or end? What is the largest object in existence, what is the smallest? During our lifetimes, especially if you are older, how far we see in any of those directions has gotten further and further, and yet we see no sign of an end anywhere or anywhen. Whenever we detect smaller particles, theorists come out and suggest they might be composed of even smaller particles. Before 1929 the universe was the size of the Milky Way galaxy, now it’s billions of galaxies, and scientists are speculating about a multiverse – a reality of endless universes, each a bubble in a sea of infinity. When there was just one universe, many scientists wondered if the Big Bang was the beginning of time, and the final expansion or contraction, the end. If there are multiverses, time might have no beginning or end.
Scientists currently have instruments to see so far, and no further – telescopes and particle accelerators. Beyond those limits lies speculation and conjecture. Long ago, during the time of classical Greece, there were men who speculated that everything was made of atoms, and that the stars were suns. It took many centuries before we could prove those speculations. Today we live in a time when we speculate on strings and the multiverse, whether they will be proven to be true will take time and a lot of money. Building machines that see farther are very expensive.
The question is: Can we see forever? Can we know the ultimate truth? Can we ever answer: Why is there something rather than nothing? How can there be a creator if “creation” is infinite? To tell children that God created everything is like saying the Tooth Fairy left money under the pillow or that a man in a red suit left presents under the tree.
Back in the times we now think of mythic, people were told if they could see into the minds of gods they would go mad. That human minds would burn out with too much knowledge, too much truth. Is that why people prefer religion over physics? Recently Oprah Winfrey challenged swimmer Diana Nyad that a person can’t be in awe of existence and be an atheist. The trouble is no matter how much awe Winfrey can feel, it’s only the smallest fraction imaginable over what science can teach us. And what science can show is is tiny compared to the theoretical size of reality. But from where we can see, science owns awe, and the religious are blind and cannot see.
We can all see far, but we can’t see forever. The question you must ask yourself, do you want to see further? If you are happy living in the fantasy of a Santa Claus like answer, that’s fine, but don’t talk about the awe of existence. Learn some physics and math to understand how far you are looking before you claim too see far. The best tool for the average person to do this is The Power of Ten, the classic film from 1977.
A more modern and stunningly beautiful web site is Scale of the Universe.
This is just a start. Watching it once won’t do. You have to really study it. Powers of ten is a wonderful concept to understand the size and magnitude of reality. Powers of tens work both ways. Humans are at the 1 meter level, or 100. 101 is ten meters, 102 is 100 meters. Just beyond 107 gets to the level of the whole earth. But we can also go small with the negative powers of 10. At beyond 10-9 we’re at the size of an atom. I’m going to borrow some images from “The Rise and Fall of Supersymmetry” at ScienceBlogs to help illustrate.
To “see” the very small requires what used to be called an atom smasher, but are now called particle accelerators. The most famous one at the moment is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It requires tremendous amounts of energy to see small. Here’s another graph using the powers of ten, but this time using energy, to show how much energy it takes to see small. You can click on both pictures to get larger versions.
If you haven’t studied much physics this might not make sense, but between these two tables it indicates how far small we can see, and how much energy it will take to see to the edge of what we’ve speculated about. About the middle of each chart is the edge of the known universe of the small. We know there’s much further to see, but we don’t have the tools to see further – at the moment. And when I say “see” we don’t see directly, but detect.
To understand this better I recommend reading The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin. It’s a rigorous attack on string theory, but it’s also an explanation of how science works, and about the limits of what we can see now via detection, and what we speculate is beyond the edge of the known universe. Smolin worries that we’re in an era of mostly speculation and not enough actual detection. And here is where the title of this essay comes into play.
We can see far, and hopefully we can see further, but it will be expensive. But ultimately, how far can we see? Is there a limit to science and what it can detect? The LHC is huge and costs a lot of money. The LHC was supposed to be a big step up from the Fermilab collider, but if you look at the energy chart, it’s just one magnitude.
The thing is people inhabit a level of perception of around 10-3 to 103. Astronomers might be concerned with 107 through 1027, but few other people. Many scientists, including medical researchers are concerned with the range of 10-3 to 10-9, only particle physicists want to explore smaller. For people who live in the 100 to 103 range, religion is an easy answer, but not a correct one. If you want to know the whole truth, you have to study the known universe, roughly 10-24 to 1027, and beyond, as we speculate and explore further. That’s a lot of territory.
Maybe next century we’ll be speculating that reality is 10-100 to 10100 in scope, but at some point, being just humans on Earth, we’ll come to an end of how far we can see. We might be getting close to that limit now, and just don’t know it, or it might be we’re getting to the limit of what we can afford to see. Our lives are limited in scope. Our lives do have a beginning of time and an end. It’s amazing that humans can see so far, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty, our well known living space is 10-7 to 107 meters in scale. That’s our environment, which offers an almost unlimited possibilities, which could last for billions of years. It’s a damn shame we’re using it all up so fast, and trashing everything. Now that’s something to be in awe of Miss Winfrey.
JWH – 2/24/14
2 thoughts on “We Can See Far, But Can We See Forever?”
Sometimes I’m amazed what man has “seen”, beyond our limited vision. Knowing how stupid people act …. it is truly amazing !
Forever isn’t for human beings, Jim. We can already see so far it just blows me away, and we haven’t gotten to the end of it yet.
I hope we never do. I hope we always have something new to discover. But I’ll never know, because we’re nowhere near the end – if there is an end – yet, and we’ll be nowhere near the end by the time I die, either.
Forever? Who cares? I must admit that I’m not even interested in the question, because you know we’re not going to have an answer. What’s the point of even asking the question? (Except that it does, admittedly, make an interesting blog post.)
And note that, since I’m not a physicist, I don’t know enough about string theory to judge whether The Trouble with Physics makes valid points or is just a bunch of hooey. Even if it sounded plausible to me, how in the world would I know? I’ll let physicists hash it out.