08 January 2008

Warped Passages

I’ve long been interested in contemporary and recent physics, part of my curiosity about how existence does it’s thing.

I read a book of Heisenberg’s which left me uncertain but principled. Various commentators and elucidators of Einstein made the uncertainty and the principles relative (this does not mean they had anything to do with my cousin). String Theory lost me in a strange entanglement, and M-theory seemed to require more branes.

Warped Passages was far better. Lisa Randall's overview of the last 100 years' research and the major features of the Standard Model is the clearest, most accessible writing I've found on the subject. Of course, all reviewers are likely to say that, to give the impression that they understand this stuff.

Of course, "stuff" is what it's all about, or more accurately, what and how is the space in which stuff occurs formed, and the possibility that the structure of space itself gives rise to the particles of the Standard Model. Lisa describes her own experience as a "model builder", suggesting ways things might be, how dimensions may be arranged in ways that would be consistent with what's observed in high energy experiments.

Some aspects of these models have implications for experiments using the Large Hadron Collider, the start of which has been delayed. Some aspects of these models of the nature of dimensions will be tested.

What I'm most grateful for, and what made this book, for me, significantly superior to anything else I've read on the topic, is Lisa Randall's honesty.

Most of what I've read presents information about the Standard Model, String Theory and other scientific theories as if theories are "facts" and the elegant and frightening mathematics involved is something accurate, nice solid numbers that agree with what's measurable.

There's a 13-digit fudge required for the Standard Model to work. Theories of 11 dimensions have to roll dimensions up or warp them so as to explain their apparent absence in the 3D world of our regular experience. The accuracy with which we can measure the very very small is, at a certain size, very limited indeed. Projected experiments are likely to support some models (Lisa's personal speciality is Model Building) and refute, or require revision of others. There's also not necessarily any absolute certainty about what exactly "dimensions" are, or "where" they are when there's more of them than we're familiar with.

Now, this is a Tantrika's blog article, not a physics book review, and I'm coming to (hopefully) some sort of useful point. From here on in, I'll mix my (mis)understandings of Ms Randall's ideas with a few of my own and will probably commit other intellectual crimes as well.

The more we know, the more we realise there may be more to know. Sure, Einstein's version of how space, time and gravity work is fundamentally different from Newton's. They also apply, and both give accurate predictions of real , measureable consequences for the range of regular human experience. Newton's mathematical analogy is a good enough fit to "what is" that it can calculate all necessary energies involved in getting to the moon. Einstein's approach, however, is required for the accuracy of GPS. String theory, and Lisa Randall's models of branes are analogies which may apply to the extreme energies of coming experiments.

I'm suggesting that no theories or models of the nature of what we call "reality" are, or ever will be "factual". Not that they are lies, just that they are always going to be analogies, descriptions that apply (can be tested) to various scenarios and scales.

An example from alchemy:
Mixing the essence of speed (the dried sweat of a horse) with an element typical of hell (brimstone) and the essence of fire (chimney soot) makes a fast burning powder, which explodes violently if strongly contained. This description of gunpowder manufacture works fine, is understandable, and was once therefore, useful.

A chemist 100 years back would have used a different analogy, one of oxygen being freed from the potassium nitrate (horse sweat) and reacting violently with the sulphur (brimstone) and carbon (soot). The chemist's analogy, or story of how things seem to work, would likely be more useful, particularly when extending the idea to predict other reactions, or determining the ideal proportions for the most powerful reaction, or at least a tight range within which to experiment.

This investigation into reality, stuff, substance – that which stands beneath, and gives rise to the universe of phenomena that we perceive – is a very old one, and has been the subject of much human thought and investigation for at least as long as there have been humans on this planet.

The investigatory tools, approaches, starting premises and paradigms of Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Sufi, Jain, Baul and other mystics have been very different from those used by modern physicsts, but their analogies, their stories of how existence works, are often applicable to experience.

There's been historic crossover between these apparently unconnected disciplines, Science and Mysticism-Philosophy. The genius Nikola Tesla, who had no peers qualified to review his work, and no language which adequately expressed his understanding – even to himself – found useful language in the Hindu Vedas, which contain, along with "spiritual" descriptions of the world, accurate instructions for making electric batteries.

More recently, Gary Zukav more than hinted at a possible convergence of ancient Eastern and modern Western ideas on the nature of reality. There's also been the (bad science, worse mysticism) "What the Bleep" movie, which has been surprisingly helpful to many people, giving them new "stories of how it is" to try out, or just freeing them from the righteousness of the rigid world-view they'd been educated into.

My opinion is that these areas of understanding, seeker and scientist, are related by the fact that both are, in essence, concerned with the search for Truth.

Seekers have historically used their own awareness, their own consciousness as their laboratory, and have always therefore been intimately, subjectively involved in the processes they've studied. There's a definite awareness that the practices of the path change the practitioner's consciousness. Truth can be hinted at, can be revealed, can be accepted (in the sense of a deep and total submission) and can be experienced. It can't, in any direct way, at least, be usefully described.

Scientists have been concerned to be remote, of no influence on the "reality" they study. Their laboratories have been arranged and equipped to see what happens objectively, without any interference from or dependence on the consciousness or awareness of the observer. Truth is known in the form of theories, which are regarded as "fact" until "disproved" and replaced by peer reviewed and approved new theory, which is then "fact".

Interestingly, from such an apparently different approach, scientists are now saying similar things to the mystics. Things are never absolute. They depend (on large scales) on the relative situations of things, and (on very small scales) on the energy and vibratory frequency, and what one chooses to observe it as being.

We're getting pretty close to Bill Hicks' Positive LSD story: "Today, a young man on acid, realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration. That we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves... here's Tom with the weather."

When the Large Hadron Collider does it's thing, existence may retain an inscrutability, or may reveal some startling surprises. Matter and energy may be revealed as an appearance, due to dimensionality itself, with no substance worthy of the name. What I'd call Maya. Super-symmetry, I'd call Advaita.

My view, from my own absolutely subjective experience is that there is something to this idea of additional dimensions. I believe too that science is going to have to in some way include consciousness in it's models. Osho took a scientific approach to meditation and the "problems" of the human condition. The spiritual world was thereby revitalised. The new science is looking rather mystical lately, with elegant models of warped multi-dimensional branes that are mathematically described by, yet can't be imagined by their authors.

When it comes to this game of suggesting and testing theories, analogies, stories-of-how-it-is, the mystics, philosophers, shamans and gurus have far more experience than scientists. It's nice to see science approaching some of our key realisations:

  • The ultimate Truth is unknowable to mind, on account of it's very nature. This is expressed in the saying "Those who know speak not of it, and those that speak of it do not know". From a teacher's perspective, this is a bit "Fucked if you do, fucked if you don't.", but no matter. The value of this idea is that no matter how much you may enjoy the knowledge, the stories of how things work, no matter how much understanding you have of some things, how deeply held your wishing (be-lief), how deep your devotion to your notion of the divine, or how vivid and lucid your dreams and visions are... none of these things is, or even really hints at Ultimate Truth (in Physicist language: The True TOE)
  • Nonetheless, there are many things that help in the search. Many obstacles to knowing which can be removed, or at least loosened if the right hints and suggestions are given. In recognising that any theory is just an analogy, a story which fits existence's appearance over a limited range, one can drop the concern that theories should agree in all cases, at all scales. They won't. The story of the Higgs' Bosun in Warped Passages really delighted me. Such inventiveness! A theory which mathematically describes the transition from the domain of one theory (of the extremely small) to the domain of another (of the far tinier).
  • The most valuable help one has on the path is one's own faith and trust. Faith is an acceptance of truth as it reveals, not an insistence on a point of view, or belief (wish). Trust as an acceptance of what is, past one's anger, through the underlying fear, beneath the denial of what's happened. The willingness to experience this moment as it is, unclouded by how it "should be" and what it "means for the future". For scientists, this means being willing to countenance Fortean data, and to accept that theories aren't descriptions of "how it is". Also, they aren't political positions requiring a purging of every little datum that disagrees.

There may be a clue in the characteristic shape of the human brain. The image below is the result of fancy software drawing a sphere in four dimensions, with a moderate adjustment to one of the dimensional parameters and displaying the result as a 3-dimensional surface. OK, that's just jargon, but there's something mathematical, fractal and dimensional to it...

Good luck, Beloved Physicsts, and when you've managed to include consciousness, the next step will be to work on the Great Truth .. Love!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:18 pm

    Being equally interested in contemporary physics (for dummies, like me) I greatly enjoyed your article but especially your second paragraph - it had me laughing out loud. Blending the deep sublime with a healthy dose of humour is indeed the sign of a true non-dummy (ok then, genius)