Beneath the Intricacies
The observable universe contains enough wonders to satisfy the thirst of human beings to know the unknown, to understand the underlying structure of nature, and to feed the curiosity of minds that seek out the mysteries of the seemingly infinite universe1. As far back as history can date, there is evidence of people seeking to understand their surrounding environment. As we learned more and more about the immediate environment we find ourselves in, we started to look beyond it. Beyond the two dimensions that land and water on the surface of the earth had to offer, into the direction perpendicular to it — up.
Heavenly bodies have always fascinated humans regardless of their intention of looking at them. Be it a scientist looking to discover new and previously undiscovered anomalies in the universe or just someone who has lost a loved one and finds comfort in thinking that they’re somewhere up there in a better place.
But up is not too different from our own surroundings. That is to say, we’re not a separate system from it in any way. Current scientific scholarship likes to think of the universe as consisting of a number of fields2; excitations in which result in the familiar subatomic particles we currently know of and that constitute the standard model3 of particle physics. This suggests that everything that we see (more accurately speaking, interact with) has the same basic underlying structure or composition.
We have theories of the likes of relativity — special and general — and quantum mechanics, that attempt to describe this underlying structure of nature4. You don’t have to look at the math behind these theories to realize how beautiful they are. If you understand some basic principles of physics and don’t buy into the blabber of pseudo-science that are so wide-spread on the internet, I’m confident you’ll be able to feel the same as I do regarding these kinds of theories and what they try to describe and/or approximate.
I say ‘these kinds of theories’ instead of ‘these theories’ because I’m trying not to be specific about these exact theories and/or models. That’s because no matter the number of occasions a theory is proven to hold true, there can always be a better one that can be used to replace the not-so-better ones.
Because scientific proofs aren’t like mathematical ones. In mathematics (another beautiful subject), a statement can either be true or false, unless we don’t know how to prove it to be true or false. In the physical sciences, theories aren’t derived from axioms5, but rather from observations. So we can safely say that as long as people continue to remain curious about how things work in nature, there will always be new models and theories proposed that will eventually rule out the ones that seem redundant in the face of the new ones. However, some scientific discoveries are rigid and the concept of scientific theories changing don’t apply to them. A trivial example would be the earth being round. We like to call these ‘facts’.
What I’m trying to talk about is what we find in the process of discovering these theories that seek to model, approximate, and predict nature up to certain extents6. So, what do we find? Sheer beauty. Let me explain myself. I’ll try my best to abstract away the mathematics of it (which is just as beautiful) and focus on what exactly I’m saying it is, that I find to be so unfathomably beautiful.
Oversimplifying things a little bit, you can think of space as either being smooth and continuous, or discrete and quantized. The former would hold true if general relativity is right, and the latter would be true if quantum mechanics is. The two pillar stones of physics are not consistent when it comes to gravity. Relativity works wonders when it comes to describing truly HUGE behemoths of the universe, but breaks down at the extremely small scales, the likes of the singularities at the center of black holes. That’s where we hope to use quantum mechanics, which reigns at the scales of the EXTREME smalls. But as I mentioned earlier, a theory of quantum gravity (as we know it at present) only works if space were discrete, and not continuous as relativity suggests it is. Other than gravity, quantum mechanics and relativity are used in numerous applied fields of physics at present without any mutual conflicts7. Physicists are working on theories that merge Einstein’s relativity with quantum mechanics to discover a consistent theory of quantum gravity. We would then have a fairly good understanding about the four known forces of nature.
Black holes — invisible monsters that roam the cosmos, detectable only by influence on proximate bodies. Wormholes, predicted to exist according to relativity, are exotic cosmological bodies that connect two different regions of space and time. There’s a lot of speculation around the existence of wormholes about whether or not they’re just a strange emergent conundrum of complicated mathematics. But the existence of black holes was predicted by relativity too, way back in 1916. And we became sure of their existence only recently, 102 years later, when the first image of a black hole was captured by the Event Horizon telescope8 in 2018. So we can’t really dismiss the idea of wormholes entirely as of now. But even if they are found to exist, it’d still be a long way to go before we could traverse them like you probably would have read in works of science fiction.
There’s also the mystery (a truly mysterious one indeed) of dark matter and dark energy, which make up almost 68% and 27% of the universe respectively, where only the remaining 5% is made of ordinary matter (matter whose properties are well-known to us). We know basically nothing about either of these, and only know about their existence because of their effects on ordinary matter. Dark energy affects the expansion of the universe while dark matter makes itself evident through its gravitational potential on the cosmic microwave background9 and its effects on the density and velocity of regular matter. Basically, dark matter acts like matter that isn’t really there. Some like to suggest certain astronomical bodies or certain exotic particles as candidates for dark matter, but we know more about what is not dark matter than what it might be.
And finally, there is the search for a Grand Unified Theory of everything. A theory that includes all of the four forces of nature. We have united electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Gravity is the only force left out for now because relativity and quantum mechanics aren’t willing to play nice so easily. The equation that unifies the three forces mentioned earlier fits in a single page. Imagine that, all that there is to nature (almost), described with a bunch of symbols that don’t go beyond a single piece of paper. I can’t help but get goosebumps at the sheer elegance of this fact. It is true that we still have a long way to go before we actually discover a grand unified theory (or fail to do so), but I think even the unification of three out of the four fundamental forces of nature deserves some serious amount of appreciation.
Alright, so where am I trying to go with this? You might have realized already.
“And how many a sign within the heavens and the earth do they pass over while they, therefrom, are turning away.” (12 : 105)
When talking about the grand unified theory, the grand design, how can the thought of a GRAND DESIGNER not cross the mind? When you think about the sheer scale of the universe, from the planck scale to the size of the observable universe, how many a wondrous entities are there, waiting to be discovered, to be appreciated, waiting to feed the curiosity of a hungry mind that seeks to know what it cannot explain, you cannot help but awe at the EXTREMELY ELEGANT simplicity and beauty that underlies the complex mesh of all that exists in the observable universe. To me, personally, it sky-rockets my submission to the One who is the Creator of all this. How appallingly little we are able to see with our eyes, feel with our senses, fathom in our tiny little minds. But whatever little it is that we are able to interact with, is way more than enough for us to realize the GREATNESS of the GRAND DESIGNER.
- The universe, of course, is nowhere near being infinite regardless of how unfathomable its behemoth size might be to the human mind.
- The concept of fields underlying nature is not the only accepted interpretation, but it is one of the most widely accepted ones.
- The Standard Model is the name given in the 1970s to a theory of fundamental particles and how they interact. It incorporated all that was known about subatomic particles at the time and predicted the existence of additional particles as well. At present, there are seventeen named particles in the Standard Model, organized into the chart shown below. The last particles discovered were the W and Z bosons in 1983, the top quark in 1995, the tau neutrino in 2000, and the Higgs boson in 2012.
- The word, ‘nature’ is used in a much broader sense here. Right now, we’re referring to nature as everything that exists — the universe, its wonders, and ourselves not excluded.
- Axioms are statements or propositions which are regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true. In mathematical context, statements that are regarded to be true without any proof is considered an axiom. However, the whole of mathematics is derived from only a handful number of axioms. It is as if mathematicians agreed on the contents of the first page of a theoretical book that holds all of mathematics, and the rest of the book simply appeared, logically deriving from the very few number of rules written on that first page.
- There are certain limitations to physical measurements at the extreme small scales, because even shining light at something (which is basically how we make microscopic measurements) changes the position and velocity of something at such extremities. Our measurements are limited by something called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that you cannot measure the position (in space) and the momentum (at a certain point in time) of the same particle in the same interval of time with hundred percent precision. If you wish to measure the position with precision, you entirely lose the measurement of its momentum, and vice-versa. Which means we cannot be certain of the velocity and the momentum of a particle at the same time.
- They’re still used in solving many problems involving gravity seamlessly, the only exceptions are the extremities (the extreme huge scales, and the extreme small ones).
- The Event Horizon Telescope is a planetary-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration.
- The CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background) is the faint cosmic background radiation filling all of space. It is an important source of data on the early universe because it is the oldest electromagnetic radiation in the universe, dating to the epoch of recombination, when the universe had finally become cool enough for charged electrons and protons to bind together to form neutral hydrogen atoms.
About the Author
Waris is a highschool senior, bookworm and writer. His interests include Islamic theology, particle physics, cosmology, maths, and computer science. His writings have been published on blogs like The Ascent, The Nonconformist and Deen Over Dunya. Currently, he’s working on a number of writing projects on a variety of topics ranging from the seerah to physics. Most notably though, he’s known for his peculiar habit of scribbling down equations and solving them whenever he finds himself unoccupied.