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Levels of Abstraction

Published by marco on

The universe is, apparently, quite big. This is made all the more amazing in light of how small its constituent components are, since it clearly takes quite a lot of them to make up something so mind-bogglingly huge as the universe. Brian Cox at LIFT Conference (LIFT07) gave a brilliant talked aimed at the layperson—if the lay-person happened to be versed in the basics of particle physics. Dr. Brian Cox explains nuclear physics is another, wider-shot video of the same event, on which you can actually see the things he’s constantly gesticulating at and referencing to in the first version of the video.[1]

The talk goes on for perhaps 20 minutes, with question & answer taking another 10. Cox starts small, working up from the smallest particles, stretching analogies and metaphors to the breaking point in an effort to get across just how brobdingnagian the dimensions truly are. Many of us don’t look up from our daily lives – our small, local worlds. Perhaps we hang on to the edge of our seats every night, wondering which lucky contestant walks away with two rectums thanks to Simon on American Idol or perhaps we think ourselves above the hoi-polloi because we take part in—or, at the very least, follow—local politics. Perhaps we’re computer savvy or savvy about national or even world politics, knowing the ins and outs of suffering peoples everywhere and the exacts steps necessary to solving the Middle East, if only someone would listen.

And then, there’s Brian Cox, on stage, telling you how the image you’re looking at is the equivalent of a dime held up to the sky at a distance of 75 feet from you and, that within that speck of sky are a hundred thousand galaxies, each of which holds a hundred billion stars[2]. And then, like magic, there’s time-lapse footage from the Hubble telescope—the greatest data-gatherer ever created by man—showing two galaxies crashing into each other and proving the existence of dark matter.[3]

His explanation of gravity sweeps even the most stalwart listener away to the fantastical 11-dimensional landscape of string theory, which posits an actual universe much stranger than the observable one. A universe in which the strong forces are strong compared to gravity only here, in the limited 4-dimensional space that it is our lot to be able to observe. He first cordones off gravity as the odd-man out of forces because of its extraordinary weakness (1040 times weaker), proving it by reminding you that you can pick up a piece of paper, despite the entire planet pulling on it in the opposite direction. He then uses the piece of paper to represent our paltry 4 dimensions, in which the other forces are so strong, within the auditorium, which represents the universe’s 11-dimensions, throughout which the force of gravity is dispersed.

And, for just a minute, you’re in his world, and making the particles—and the Greek letters that represent them—get in a row and dance the Conga is all that matters. Purely Earth-based problems and issues seem trite and small in comparison to converting 4 million tons of hydrogen to pure energy per second[4]. It’s easy to be seduced into thinking that it is more important to know what happened one billionth of a second after the Big Bang, that if we can only find the Higgs Particle, we can finally know that the incredibly elegant theory we have[5] for everything—everything, from the very big to the very small, from the very fast to the very slow, from the very strong to the very week—is correct. But, then come thoughts of the many people that don’t have the luxury of caring more about the universe than where their next meal is coming from or where their next billet will be. But, it’s good that the Brian Cox’s of the world can clear these things up and, hopefully, make all of our lives better in the long run.

The audience was either over- or underwhelmed, making the responses in the q&a session much more pedestrian, focusing on the technology used to store and process all of the data from the LHC. This kind of talk generally pulls different people in different directions: for the unindoctrinated, it can sound just as much like a fairy tale as the Bible. This is an unfair conclusion because, where the Bible is made up out of whole cloth (more or less), theories of the Higgs particle and strings are built on gosammer lattices of logical thought, with each piece strengthening and reinforcing the whole. In science only the fittest of ideas survive, not necessarily the most entrenched. More understandable is the response of “who cares?” from those who see enough life-threatening problems to solve close by. But humanity—since the enlightenment—has always been dragged forward by science, which tells it what is and isn’t possible.

Watch the video; it’s a half-hour well-spent.


[1] If you want to get up-close and personal with Brian Cox, go with the first video; if you want to follow along and don’t quite know instinctively what tau or mu look like, you’re better off with the second one.
[2] I may, quite honestly, be missing a zero here or adding a zero there, but I’m sure you get the point. Unfathomably, mind-numbingly, incomprehensibly, pants-shittingly huge. Or small.
[3] The movement of the bits of luminescent matter—made of the same stuff as we, and detectable by our instruments—that make up the galaxies cannot wholy be explained in terms of the other bits of luminescent matter. That is, they seem to be, at times, reacting to unseen forces; more specifically, responding to the pull of masses that we can’t detect, except through devious means like noticing its there because of how it affects the bits we can see. It’s kind of like knowing the invisible man is just around the corner because he casts a shadow.
[4] As he explains our Sun does, which is a middle-class yellow star and only one of hundreds of billions, each of which is converting the same incredible, awesome amount of energy and flinging it into the endless, scythian depths of space.
[5] One that can be expressed so succinctly that even the ancient Greeks could have done it using only their alphabet, had they invested their time and energy into creating a 27km long tunnel 100m underground to fling protons around 99.999% of the speed of light, giving each tiny, tiny, tiny—infintesimal, really—particle the momentum of a freight train, then smashed them together and examined their aftermath for clues—shadows—of missing clues.