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The Unbearable Lightness of Being


In his new book ‘But What If We're Wrong?’', The New York Times bestselling author Chuck Klosterman asks questions that are profound in their simplicity: How certain are we about our understanding of gravity? How certain are we about our understanding of time? What will be the defining memory of rock music, five hundred years from today? How seriously should we view the content of our dreams? How seriously should we view the content of television? Are all sports destined for extinction? And perhaps most disturbing, is it possible that we’ve reached the end of knowledge? An excerpt…
CHUCK KLOSTERMAN | Issue Dated: October 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Chuck Klosterman | Pythagorean Theorem | Newtonian principles |

If I spoke to  one  hundred   scientists  about  the  topic of scientific wrongness,  I suspect I’d  get one hundred slightly different  answers, all of which would represent  different notches  on a continuum of confidence.  And if this were a book about science, that’s what I’d need to do. But this is not a book about science; this is a book about continuums. Instead, I interviewed two exceptionally famous scientists who exist (or at least appear to exist) on opposite ends of a specific psychological spectrum.  One of these was Tyson, the most conventionally famous astrophysicist alive. He hosted the Fox reboot of the science series Cosmos and created his own talk show on the National Geographic Channel. The other was string theorist Brian Greene at Columbia University (Greene is the person mentioned in this book’s introduction, speculating on the possibility that "there is a very, very good chance that our understanding of gravity will not be the same in five hundred years").

Talking to only these two men, I must concede, is a little like writing about debatable ideas in pop music and interviewing only Taylor Swift and Beyoncé Knowles. Tyson and Greene are unlike the overwhelming majority of working scientists. They specialize in translating ultra-difficult concepts into a language that can be understood by mainstream consumers; both have written best- selling books for general audiences, and I assume they both experience a level of envy and skepticism among their professional peers. That’s what happens to any professional the moment he or she appears on TV. Still, their academic credentials cannot be questioned.  Moreover, they represent the competing poles of this argument almost perfectly. Which might have been a product of how they chose to hear the questions.

When I sat down in Greene's office and explained the premise of my book—in essence, when I explained that I was interested in considering the likelihood that our most entrenched assumptions about the universe might be wrong—he viewed the premise as playful. His unspoken reaction came across as "This is a fun, non-crazy hypothetical."  Tyson’s posture was different.  His unspoken attitude was closer to "This is a problematic, silly supposition."  But here again, other factors might have played a role: As a public intellectual, Tyson spends a great deal of his time rep- resenting the scientific community in the debate over climate change. In certain circles, he has become the face of science. It’s entirely possible Tyson assumed my questions were veiled attempts at debunking scientific thought, prompting him to take an inflexibly hard-line stance. (It's also possible this is just the stance he always takes with everyone.) Conversely, Greene’s openness might be a ref lection of his own academic experience: His career is punctuated by research trafficking on the far edges of human knowledge, which means he’s accustomed to people questioning the validity of ideas that propose a radical reconsideration of everything we think we know.

One of Greene’s high-profile signatures is his support for the concept of "the multiverse." Now, what follows will be an oversimplification—but here’s what that connotes:  Generally, we work from the assumption that there is one universe, and that our galaxy is a component of this one singular universe that emerged from the Big Bang. But the multiverse notion suggests there are infinite (or at least numerous) universes beyond our own, existing as alternative realities. Imagine an endless roll of bubble wrap; our universe (and everything in it) would be one tiny bubble, and all the other bubbles would be other universes that are equally vast. In his book The Hidden Reality, Greene maps out nine types of parallel universes within this hypothetical system. It’s a complicated way to think about space, not to mention an inherently impossible thing to prove; we can’t get (or see) outside our own universe any more than a man can get (or see) outside his own body. And while the basic concept of a limited multiverse might not seem particularly insane, the logical extensions of what a limitless multiverse would entail are almost impossible to fathom.

Here's what I mean: Let’s say there are infinite universes that exist over the expanse of infinite time (and the key word here is "infinite").  Within infinity, everything that could happen will happen. Everything.  Which would mean that—somewhere, in an alternative universe—there is a planet exactly like Earth, which has existed for the exact same amount of time, and where every single event has happened exactly as it has on the Earth that we know as our own . . . except that on Christmas Eve of 1962, John F. Kennedy dropped a pen. And there is still another alternative universe with a planet exactly like Earth, surrounded by an exact replica of our moon, with all the same cities and all the same people, except that—in this reality—you read this sentence yesterday instead of today. And there is still another alternative universe where every- thing is the same, except you are slightly taller. And there is still another alternative universe beyond that one where everything is the same, except you don't exist. And there is still another alternative reality beyond that where a version of Earth exists, but it's ruled by robotic wolves with a hunger for liquid cobalt. And so on and so on and so on. In an infinite multiverse, everything we have the potential to imagine—as well as everything we can't imagine— would exist autonomously. It would require a total recalibration of every spiritual and secular belief that ever was. Which is why it's not surprising that many people don’t dig a transformative hypothesis that even its proponents concede is impossible to verify.

"There really are some highly decorated physicists who have gotten angry with me, and with people like me, who have spoken about the multiverse theory," Greene says. "They will tell me, 'You've done some real damage.  This is nuts.  Stop it.' And I’m a completely rational person. I don't speak in hyperbole to get attention. My true feeling is that these multiverse ideas could be right. Now, why do I feel that way? I look at the mathematics. The mathematics lead in this direction. I also consider the history of ideas. If you described quantum physics to Newton, he would have thought you were insane. Maybe if you give Newton a quantum textbook and five minutes, he sees it completely. But as an idea, it would seem insane. So I guess my thinking is this: I think it’s extraordinarily unlikely that the multiverse theory is correct.  I think it’s extraordinarily likely that my colleagues who say the multiverse concept is crazy are right. But I'm not willing to say the multiverse idea is wrong, because there is no basis for that statement.  I understand the discomfort with the idea, but I nevertheless allow it as a real possibility.  Because it is a real possibility."

In the recesses of my mind, where I would not want to be out in public—even though I realize you’re recording this, and this is a public conversation—I do hold out hope that in one hundred or five hundred years, people will look back on our current work and say, “Wow.” But I love to be conservative in my estimates. Still, I sometimes think I’m being too conservative, and that makes me excited. Because look at quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics,  you can do a calculation  and predict  esoteric  properties  of electrons.  And you can do the calculation—and people have done these calculations, heroically, over the span of decades—and compare [those calculations] to actual experiments, and the numbers agree. They agree up to the tenth digit beyond the decimal point. That is unprecedented—that we can have a theory that agrees with observation to that degree.  That makes you feel like “This is different.”  It makes you feel like you’re closing in on truth.

So here is the hinge point where skepticism starts to reverse itself. Are we the first society to conclude that this time we're finally right about how the universe works? No—and every previous society who thought they were correct ended up hopelessly mistaken.  That, however, doesn’t mean that the goal is innately hopeless.  Yes, we are not the first society to conclude that our version of reality is objectively true. But we could be the first society to express that belief and is never contradicted, because we might be the first society to really get there. We might be the last society, because—now—we translate absolutely everything into math. And math is an obdurate bitch.

The "history of ideas," as Greene notes, is a pattern of error, with each new generation reframing and correcting the mistakes of the one that came before. But “not in physics, and not since 1600," insists Tyson. In the ancient world, science was fundamentally connected to philosophy.  Since the age of Newton, it's become fundamentally connected to math.  And in any situation where the math zeroes out, the possibility of over- turning the idea becomes borderline impossible. We don’t know— and we can’t know—if the laws of physics are the same everywhere in the universe, because we can’t access most of the universe. But there are compelling reasons to believe this is indeed the case, and those reasons can’t be marginalized as egocentric constructions that will wax and wane with the attitudes of man. Tyson uses an example from 1846, during a period when the laws of Newton had seemed to reach their breaking point.  For reasons no one could comprehend, Newtonian principles were failing to describe the orbit of Uranus.  The natural conclusion was that the laws of physics must work only within the inner solar system (and since Uranus represented the known edge of that system, it must be operating under a different set of rules).

"But then," Tyson explains, "someone said: 'Maybe Newton’s laws still work. Maybe there’s an unseen force of gravity operating on this planet that we have not accounted for in our equations.' So let’s assume Newton’s law is correct and ask, 'If there is a hidden force of gravity, where would that force be coming from? Maybe it’s coming from a planet we have yet to discover.' This is a very difficult math problem, because it's one thing to say, 'Here's a planetary mass and here’s the value of its gravity.' Now we’re saying we have the value of gravity, so let’s infer the existence of a mass. In math, this is called an inversion problem, which is way harder than starting with the object and calculating its gravitational field. But great mathematicians engaged in this, and they said, ‘We predict, based on Newton’s laws that work on the inner solar system, that if Newton’s laws are just as accurate on Uranus as they are anywhere else, there ought to be a planet right here—go look for it.’ And the very night they put a telescope in that part of the sky, they discovered the planet Neptune.”

The reason this anecdote is so significant is the sequence. It’s easy to discover a new planet and then work up the math proving that it’s there; it’s quite another to mathematically insist a massive undiscovered planet should be precisely where it ends up being. This is a different level of correctness. It's not interpretative, be- cause numbers have no agenda, no sense of history, and no sense of humor. The Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t need the existence of Mr Pythagoras in order to work exactly as it does.

(Reprinted with permission from Blue Rider Press)


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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017