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Light Fantastic

December 18, 2010

I just watched a four hour BBC documentary about light.  The BBC makes some amazing television programs.  When I watch films like this, I’m completely inspired.  Right after it was over, I grabbed my physics and visual cognition books off the shelves and will be studying all night long.  Surely I can’t be the only one.  🙂

The series ends with the weird nature of light and how Einstein’s relativity led to very weird conceptions of space and time.  Einstein showed that humanity’s intuitive conceptions of both time and space are wrong.  I end up jumping out of my seat and think, “It’s time to figure this out!”  What could possibly be more fascinating?  Time, space, the universe, the beginning and fate of everything, the nature into how our mind works… I love it.  This series is amazing.  If you want to watch all of it, right click on the video and click ‘Watch on Youtube’, and then go to the user’s channel.  You’ll find the entire Light Fantastic series there, broken into ten minute videos.

And if you think the idea of curved space-time is too weird to believe in, well, I share the opinion of Richard Feynman in this next video.

Yesterday I was writing a little about truth.  These days I don’t think much about philosophical inquiries into “truth”, which I think amounts to linguistic meandering.  The universe is.  I’ve spent far too many hours with philosophers like Hegel, and Heidegger, and Hume, thinking about the nature of human knowledge and truth, struggling to understand their pedantic quibbling over what truth and knowledge are.  I eventually got frustrated and nowadays I hold a much simpler ideology.  Feynman here explains how scientists come to knowledge and truth about our universe.  Nowadays I don’t like to idly reflect on definitions and sit back in my armchair speculating.  I want to actively engage with the world, constantly inquiring, constantly testing, constantly researching, digging out the truths of this world.  I think the universe is likely infinite, therefore there are an infinite number of truths, and there is no universal principle, idea, or law which can describe everything.  There are always laws which can be broader and include more things, but you can’t put boundaries on something that’s infinite.

And as for absolute truth, I don’t think any man has that kind of knowledge.  The pursuit of truth is more akin to falling down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole.  The deeper you go, the weirder it gets.  I don’t think the “deep” truths of our universe leave you with a warm, cozy perspective.  If they do, I think you should probably think again.  I think, by necessity, you have to experience deep truths as strange and weird because our brains and bodies have evolved to exist under certain conditions and circumstances here on planet Earth at this time.  When an experience is very foreign to us (different from the conditions under which we evolved), we feel uncomfortable.  That feeling of uneasiness is a life preservation instinct, protecting us as we tread into unknown territory.  Also, our sense of awe comes from our instincts to understand our world and gain control over it.  That too is a survival instinct.  The more we can control the universe, the less subject we are to fate, and the more likely we can survive and flourish.  We feel both awe and reverence for our universe – we’re curious, but also respectful and fearful.  All of these emotions are important to our survival and development as a species.

I think the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey nicely captures the fear of going beyond where mankind evolved to exist.  The space pilot goes through an alien wormhole and ends up being warped into some crazy dimension that was nothing but random colors and nonsense.   This is all assuming that his space ship could survive traveling through the wormhole.  Our universe may be beautiful and comprehendable to us, but I feel that’s because we have evolved in this universe.   If there is an infinite multi-verse, I don’t expect alternate universes to be intelligible to us at all.  That becomes more apparent to you the more study what your brain is actually doing and how it processes information.

Joseph Campbell describes the process by which we develop and discover new knowledge in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.   He spent his entire life studying the mythology and religions of this world, and he identified common threads and principles in all of them.  They all follow the same three step process:  1) The separation and departure, 2) the trials and initiation, and 3) the return and reintegration with society.

“…whether presented in the vast, almost oceanic images of the Orient, in the vigorous narratives of the Greeks, or in the majestic legends of the Bible, the adventure of the hero normally follows the pattern of the nuclear unit above described:  a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.”

– Joseph Campbell, A Hero With A Thousand Faces

I think the modern three step scientific process described by Feynman in the video below is very similar, but if not properly interpreted, lacks the emotion and vigor which religious narratives teach the same lesson.  At first you get an idea in your head, or start stumbling onto something.  The viewpoint may not align well with society or what others think (take Galileo for example), and you have to have the courage to pursue the idea and see where it takes you.  That’s when you experience the trials – the refiner’s furnace of affliction.  You start to experiment and run trials.  From there your ideas are purified and refined, tested and tried.  If the idea is able to pass all of your own tests, it must then be subjected to peer review, where experts from all over the world try their best to destroy your idea and find flaws in your thinking.  But if it can make it to the end without anyone finding fault in it, and press on, then it can be brought back to society and be used for the benefit of mankind.  That, in essence, is what the scientific method is all about.  That’s the best method we’ve found on this planet to discover “truth”.

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