Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cosmology... Wow! its like so.... Cosmic

Cicero has a fairly humanities driven brain. Although I enjoyed science as a kid, I had to make a choice fairly early on, and thus while I kept on with Physics, I had to drop Chemistry and Biology as subjects at 14 in favour of subjects like History and of course Latin, which I was frankly much better at.

Nevertheless, though I do not feel that I have an intuitive feel for Maths, I have always enjoyed reading popular science books and reading through the occasional copy of New Scientist.

The latest book I have been reading is written by the Cosmology consultant of New Scientist, Marcus Chown. The title, "The never-ending days of being dead" is perhaps a clue that the ideas in modern Cosmology are beginning to ask some very fundamental questions about the nature of the Universe.

In the end the questions that Cosmologists are asking end up sounding very much like the Question that was posed to the Deep Thought Computer in Douglas Adam's "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy": What is the Ultimate Answer? Even more extraordinary is that the existence of life on Earth may be inexplicable unless we see the Universe as having a purpose. One theory is that Universe can in some sense be part of a plan that instead of suggesting that the Universe is created by a God ends up with the conditions for the knowledge of infinite information, which itself would be omnipresent and omniscient.

Even more mind boggling is that the existence of the laws of physics as we known them may be entirely artificial. Whereas Douglas Adam's suggests that the Earth was a computer designed to find the question for the Ultimate Answer; Modern Cosmology suggests that there may indeed be an ultimate answer- Omega, an irreducible number that can not be generated by a computer programme shorter than itself - and that the Universe exists to calculate this.

As shocking and challenging as these ideas are conceptually, the fact is that these are implications that are supported by Scientific method. The laws of physics and even of mathematics, from Ockham's Razor to E=mc2 to the ratio of Pi all can support arguments in favour of this spectacular almost metaphysical version of physics. These are not invented as much of theology clearly seems to be, they are instead deducted, discovered ideas.

As we discover so much more about the Universe, Cosmologists are beginning to understand that there is much that is unknowable about the Universe, but from what we do know, there seems to be an order on a truly vast scale.

While it is a long way from the physics equations (s=ut + 1/2 at2) of my teenage years, I still see the connection and while I have no real regrets about following the Humanities, I wish I had a more intuitive feel for the pattern of numbers, then I might be able to appreciate not just the concepts explained in Chown's book, but the high mathematics that underpins the form and structure of the entire Universe.

Nevertheless I was lucky. An illiterate school leaver would struggle to even understand the first principles of this amazing and awe inspiring Universe that we find ourselves in.


AA said...

"The never-ending days of being dead"
I sometimes feel a cold chill when I ponder those never ending days. But then I remind myself that this is an absurd thought. Being dead is not like endless wet Sundays because the notion of "never-ending" can not be thought because you're, like, dead.

For the horrifying truth click here. If you dare!

Newmania said...

I wish I had a more intuitive feel for the pattern of numbers

If you did you would see that its all a tautology and cannot underpin anything . You will not find the answers you want in New Scientist.

Tristan said...

If this is the Omega I'm thinking of I don't see how this can work.

Omega is deeply non-computable. Its defined, but you cannot generate it. You can generate the beginning of it, but at some, unknowable, point this stops being accurate.

Its a really bizarre number (or rather family of numbers).

There's a good introduction to it (and the limits of my knowledge) at Good Math, Bad Math:

My Favourite Strange Number

(a great blog for maths)

Cicero said...

Newmania, not sure what you mean here. The point I am making is that the proven truths of Science and even more so the conjectures are pretty astonishing already- I find this quite exciting, even as a layman.

Tristan- Yes Chown is talking about Omega and suggesting that there is a certain way in which the Universe can create an Omega point which implies infinite calculating power. Even the idea is fascinating.

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