Belmont Club

To Count the Stars And Name Them All

Richard Feynman was once asked, “if, in some cataclysm, all scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?” He answered:

I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence you will see an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

The most fertile fields of inquiry often occurs where the data does not fit our ideas of how they should behave. The process of handling exceptions are where new rules come from. Sherlock Holmes once observed that “I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule.” The alternative, Watson should have pointed out, was to create a better rule. Indeed the main reason we create new rules is that the old ones have exceptions.

Mary Madigan links to the video of an experiment which attempts to deduce the nature of the world from the differences observed. The hope, according to Leon Lederman, is that in the differences we will find a new rule; a simpler explanation for why the world is the way it is. One of the things it seeks to explain, to quotes Holmes again, is why the “dog did not bark in the night”;  a simple answer to the problem of where did the anti-matter go? Did something tip the balance in favor of matter or are we not understanding the problem?

For many years, the absence of antimatter in the Universe has tantalised particle physicists and cosmologists: while the Big Bang should have created equal amounts of matter and antimatter, we do not observe any primordial antimatter today. Where has it gone? The LHC experiments have the potential to unveil natural processes that could hold the key to solving this paradox. …

Today, scientists think that the early Universe might have gone through a transition phase in which the thermodynamic equilibrium was broken, when the density of the Universe was very high and the average temperature was one billion or more times that inside the Sun. “Some physicists think that this might have happened through the formation of ‘bubbles’ which have progressively expanded, thus ‘imposing’ their new equilibrium on the whole pre-existent Universe”, explains Antonio Riotto. Whatever the real dynamics of this phase actually were, the important thing is that one particle of matter in every 10 billion survived, while all the others annihilated with the corresponding antiparticles.

In other words, the imbalance may have occurred because things were different then. And in order to estimate what might have happened long, long ago and far, far away, investigators try to simulate the early universe through high energy physics. Humanity has been trying to get to the bottom of things from the beginnings of culture. It is an attempt to discover the way things are, because presumably, things are a certain way. Ironically, the key to discovering the truth lies taking our own knowledge seriously, but not too seriously.

Richard Feynman, who was not a religious man,  described science as the determination to have faith in doubt. It was imperative, he argued, to realize that the quest for knowledge was never ending. Or else it wouldn’t be science. Humanity would never reach a stage of such perfection that all answers were its own to give. Authority would elude man forever. There would never be an End of History. He would never be king; only ever a pilgrim.

“It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.”

It is probable that man’s whole viability depends on a kind of agnostic faith, on the stubborn determination to go over the next hill to a  slightly better approximation of what he will never completely attain. Perhaps man alone lives for what he cannot have. And therefore he lives. Humanity’s existence, indeed its continuation, relies upon a persistent restlessness and a longing.  The day he rests is the day he dies. No fertile valley or restful stream will ever be his home, though he should live out his days in them. Melville put it this way:

But delight is to him who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth stands forth his own inexorable self … And Eternal Delight shall be his, who coming to lay him down can say: Oh Father, mortal or immortal, here I die. I have driven to be thine, more than to be this world’s or mine own, yet this is nothing. I leave eternity to Thee.  For what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?

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