“We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.” – Albert Einstein
We humans, we're a clever lot. Though it might take us awhile, we always somehow manage to come up with some rather "grand feats and impressive accomplishments". The Egyptians had the pyramids, the iron chariot, and the Lighthouse at Alexandria; the Greeks, the Colossus statue at Rhodes, Greek fire, the "Antikythera Mechanism" , and that theater-in-the-box thing; the Romans, their grand network of Aqueducts, Roman concrete, factory complexes, and vermillion, etc. Not to be outdone, we tossed our hat into the ring with a few of our own "grand feats and impressive accomplishments", including harnessing the miracle of electricity and the power of the atom, powered flight, instant wireless global communications, miniature semiconductor circuitry, virtually anything written by Rachmaninov, cures for a host of diseases that once killed millions of people at a time, and the whole landing a man on the Moon and bringing him safely back again thing. Of course, none of these feats would likely have happened had it not been for the ideals, beliefs, and culture that fostered seminal moments that gave us "Tabula Rasa1", "Novus Ordo Seclorum", and Democracy. No doubt all of these things would make any grand list of "who's who", assuming anyone's counting.
In the process of working through all of that, we also managed to learn a great deal about the fundamental forces of nature that makes all of these things work – not to mention life itself. These four forces of course are Gravity, Electromagnetism, and the Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces.
Any honest assessment of our progress thus far however, tells us that what we have managed to learn and achieve across several millennia of "Rise and Fall" cycles, only barely scratches the surface. Among the things we've come to believe science has figured out, we find there still remains some very noticeable lacunae or “gaps” in that knowledge (i.e. among the “known unknowns”). What's more, many of the things they taught us in school were first invented or discovered in our time, we actually only "re-invented" or "re-discovered". In fact many of us geeky types are surprised to learn that such things as the first computer (originally thought to have been first invented by Charles Babbage in 1823), was actually invented around 2000 years ago ; or the "Fast Fourier Transform" (thought to have been invented in 1965 by Cooley and Tukey), was actually invented by Carl Gauss over 200 years ago; or the whole transatlantic discovery of America many centuries before Columbus, complete with a set of remarkably accurate maps of Antarctica published in 1532 – nearly three centuries before we "first" discovered it ; and though most text books will tell you that the first atomic fission reactor was fired up in the 1940s, it turns out that claim is off by more than a few … thousand years; in fact, the first atomic fission reactor was up and running well before the pyramids were built, and before mankind had even invented the wheel or discovered fire (see Chapter Five), etc.
As for the gaps in our understanding of the fundamental aspects of how the universe works: we've figured out, for example, that there are these tiny little electrical charges everywhere we call electrons, but what are they? An electron isn't really a particle (i.e. a hard little sphere), but it's not really some spread out wave-cloud thing either; it's sort of “both, and yet neither”. Each has a location, and each is in some state. The fact that we may not know either its location or its state is on us, not on the electron.
The universe is what it is. Whether we understand it or not is completely irrelevant to the universe. It does not wait for us to understand it, nor for us to look at it before it takes on any specific state. The belief promoted by some that it somehow does (i.e. the “Copenhagen interpretation” of Quantum Physics), seems more than a little self-absorbed, not to mention, sharply at odds with the facts. However, there are now those out there who've ran with this notion, determined to build it into some new dogma they claim is the new “Tao of enlightenment”, despite being little more than a "spun" gimmick to sell books. As we shall see, that kind of deliberate skewing of the facts has been, and still is, a major source of the kinds of problems that we tend to create for ourselves (see Chapters Eight through Ten). As we work through this material, we'll find that the search for truth is far better served through the application of fact-based reasoning, rather than "spin".
Okay, so that's the electron. How about light? Is it a wave, or a particle? Again, somehow both, and yet neither. Light has been around since, what, the first day of Creation. It's as ubiquitous as it gets, and yet we still haven't figured out what it is? If your knee-jerk reaction is to mechanically recite “it's electromagnetic field energy”, then we note that that's not really an answer either. It's really little more than a canticle, or perhaps a placeholder than an actual definitive answer. After all, what exactly is this “field” thing? And no, it’s not energy, no more than your car is energy as it moves down the highway.
Likewise, what is gravity? How is it that one mass next to another (e.g. two bricks, two planets, etc.) can make the other accelerate and thus generate energy in it simply by being “nearby”? Why do gravitational sources (masses) only attract, and yet electromagnetic sources (charges) both attract and repel? They both can be modeled using very similar equations, and yet they remain dramatically different forces. Why is gravity so dramatically different from all the other forces that are fundamental to how the universe operates?
As for the universe itself, what exactly is it? What exactly is “in-between” all the tangible “stuff” that we think of as making up the universe? “Empty space” may not have a lot of molecules floating around in it (by definition), but even in the empty vacuum of space, the space itself is not nothing. It is something. We can actually apply a voltage across it and extract other “stuff” (e.g. electrons and positrons) out of an “empty vacuum”. What's more, we're told that the “empty” space between galaxies is very different from what was here before the universe moved in and started trashing the place. And if the universe is constantly expanding as we are told, what exactly is it expanding into if not empty space?
Then again, that's way out there somewhere. We can't possibly be expected to be responsible for what goes on “out there”. Okay, then what about right here? What about the whole geo-political-stability-back-on-the-brink-of-WWIII-thing, again. That's most definitely on us. Which really begs the question, how smart can we possibly be if we keep ending up back at the brink of nuclear holocaust again? Considering the nearly ubiquitous “Rise and Fall” pattern written (in blood) throughout human history, one cannot help but ask how many times do we have to collapse civilization, before we eventually “get it”. Or is it that we are just incapable of learning anything from our past mistakes? Seriously? My dog is smarter than that.
And while we're on the subject of grand mysteries of the universe, how does all that goo in a chicken's egg know how to turn itself into the various parts of a chicken? Where exactly is the McNugget part of the goo, as opposed to the beak part, or the drumstick part? How does a caterpillar turn itself into similar but very different goo inside a chrysalis, only to then as goo somehow transform itself into a dramatically different creature in the form of a butterfly? What's that all about? How does goo know how to do anything?
If that hasn't sent your running through the streets in your bathrobe shaking your fist and screaming “Why?!” at the top of your lungs, how about the grand and completely undefined depth of all those things we have yet to even notice, i.e. the “unknown unknowns”. If you thought defining an electron was difficult, try just listing everything you don't know about a near infinite number of things we haven't yet discovered are out there. DNA has been around since even before there were people, and yet everyone was completely oblivious to the fact that it even existed during all that time – until that is, someone recently noticed it while staring through a microscope and said “Huh. What's this?” (or something no doubt very close to those profound and immortal words). And it's not like all these people had to go very far to find the stuff; it's right there at the end of your pricked finger, or in that puddle of drool next to your Cheetos.
Speaking purely hypothetically... if you found yourself one “dark and dreary night” walking through a dimly lit hallway of some abandoned building in Area 51 (purely hypothetical), and you passed a doorway partially illuminated by a small flickering light bulb down the hall (next to a puddle of something under a leaky pipe... shaped not unlike one of those Cheetos), all you would know about that room would be what you could see illuminated at the edge of the doorway by the dribble of light coming from down the hall. With so little light, you wouldn't even know if the room was 20 feet deep, or 1,000 feet, let alone wrap your head around any of the curious objects it might... or might not contain. You would have no idea how much, or how little there is in there you've never even dreamed could be possible, because by definition, it all represents an unknown degree of unknown unknowns.
Intrigued by that convoluted thought (not to mention the prospect of being able to best Donald Rumsfeld's unknown ability to pack as many unknown unknowns into a single unknown sentence as humanly unknown...), we press on. That, coupled with some apparent “history repeating itself” in the whole “pride goes before a fall” thing – it seemed worthwhile, at the very least, to highlight some of these... unknowns. After all, most people either incorrectly assume we have everything figured out, or they are so completely unaware of the limits of what we think we know that they've never even thought to question any of it. Many seem content just to believe “we know everything there is to know”, and leave it at that. “Don't poke the bear”, they tell you. “Let sleeping dogs lie”, they tell you. “Don't use while operating heavy machinery,” they tell you. All-important principles, “that should never be questioned”, they tell you. So, of course... It's like telling a two-year old not to eat any of the yummy chocolate fudge brownies in the cupboard while you're out, or telling a democrat not to shred yet another cherished American tradition, or not pass yet another hidden tax, or...
If history teaches us anything, it is that when we reach the point where we start getting cocky about how great we think we are, that that is typically the point where we usually end up shooting ourselves in the foot (e.g. the Babylonian Empire, the Assyrian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Mogul Empire, the Spanish Empire, the French Empire...). So, in the interest of trying to stave off any more similar self-inflicted wounds just a little longer, we thought a little retrospection was in order. Of course, there is also the added benefit of helping to deepen one's understanding of the universe through a review of what we've learned thus far, if anyone's keeping track.
The intent of this work is therefore two-fold: 1) to expose the reader to aspects of science that they might not otherwise have known (“everything you always wanted to know about science, but...”, or something like that), while at the same time 2) highlight some of the lacunae that exist in what we think we know about the universe, and “how it all works” – and yet they just somehow “forgot to mention”.
In covering these topics, we've made a concerted effort to make at least the descriptive material as “user friendly” as possible. This includes material that will be meaningful to both those with some technical background, as well as those with only minimal science and engineering experience.
We will tell you up front however, there will be some math. Most of it has been defanged as much as humanly possible, so the prospect of contracting rabies seems unlikely. However, we can't comment about parvo or distemper. If you have concerns, chew around the math and the parvo. Either way, the descriptive details should, at the very least, offer some “food for thought”.
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1 This phrase was first coined by John Locke in rebuttal to the doctrine of the “Devine Right of Kings”, which implied those born as peasants were so cast by God. Locke asserted such a doctrine was a corruption of man; that life and liberty were gifts from God, and that at birth each of us was likewise born with the gift of “Tabula Rasa”, or a “Blank Slate”. Locke obviously had a very strong influence on those living in the US colonies in the late 1700s, and the Founding Fathers in particular. That influence can clearly be seen in both the Declaration of Independence as well as the US Constitution.
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