Thursday, March 6, 2014

"You think that's air you're breathing?"

Sometimes, learning about physics makes the world feel a lot like the Matrix.  You've seen the movie, right?  If you haven't, that's your homework; seeing the Matrix should be a part of everyone's cultural education.  The basic idea is that war broke out between men and machines; we "scorched the sky," blocking out the sun in an attempt to cut their power supply, and, in turn, they started growing and harvesting humans a

s their new energy source; however, since "the body cannot live without the mind," they trapped our consciousnesses in "the Matrix."  Basically, the world around you is a fabrication created by the machines to keep your mind at bay while they use you like the little battery we essentially are.

It's strange, developing the understanding of the world that my physics classes demand I do because everything starts to look a lot different.  This doesn't happen over night, of course.  First, you start seeing the parabola of a soccer ball after you kick it, then you start dividing it's velocity vector into its dimensional components, then you start to wonder what contribution its rotation has on its trajectory and so on.  But that's just one thing.  The gym is no longer a room full of mirrors with a bunch of sweaty guys and heavy things-- well, yes it is, but it's also Newton's playground.  A slinky is an embodiment of Hooke's claim to fame.  Directions become arbitrary and math becomes noise.  The more I understand the world around me, the less "real" it seems, but "What is real?" Morpheus would ask.  And that's a very good question.  Just kidding, that's a stupid question.  Better questions would be "What is true?" or "What is important?"  Those questions, however, are too big to answer in a blog, and I'm not writing a book any time soon, so we'll just keep exploring the stupid one because, though it's a little too lofty and a little too inviting to the sort of cyclical thinking that I just can't stand, it's still interesting.

Back to the Matrix, so I can tie these ideas together.  So let's make like a Yu-Gi-Oh player and simplify the game-state (a skill which I believe nerds and normal people alike should develop): the Matrix is a program with a bunch of rules and a bunch of players.  Cool, that's easy.  How is our world any different?  And I know what you're thinking: "well of course, Calvin, that's the whole point of the Matrix-- it IS the world we live in, and we DON'T have any way of proving what is and isn't real," and you're right!  But I'm not talking about the laws that govern the prisoners in the Matrix from which the machines are excluded-- those laws aren't tangible, not really, and they're flexible.  I'm talking about the physical laws that God wrote for us, the laws that we credit to Newton, Kepler, Gauss, Faraday, and others that don't just govern the humans in the Matrix, but the machines as well, the laws that can't be bent or broken.  With scientists talking about multiple universes and billions of years, it's difficult to define what is "real" anymore.

The things that we're exploring in modern physics are beyond even our own understanding because, while physicists of the past were just natural philosophers, today's physicists have to go beyond intuition and what makes sense because, honestly, we've already figured out just about everything there is to figure out about the things that make intuitive sense to us.  We're shooting photons at things and hoping for results that will take us somewhere new.  We can no longer say for certain what things will do when they're really small or really fast, so we have to rely on probability to govern our expectations.  We no longer come up with an idea and design an experiment to try and prove it-- well, we do, but lots of times we're really just looking for something that implies correctness rather than something that proves it.  We're reaching beyond what we have the ability to observe, and it's freaking cool.  That being said, it makes me nervous.  Not because I think we're stepping on God's toes-- I plan on dedicating my life to understanding his creation better.  Not because I think we'll discover something too dangerous to trust ourselves with-- we've done that already.  Because I'm afraid that I'll get lost.

Ever tried solving a complex integral with the wrong method and gotten lost in the web of mathematical junk that it spits out?  Ever tried to build something but found that you don't have enough hands to hold all the places you've smeared your glue?  Ever started writing a paper, then struggled to organize all of your words into a well-constructed thought?  That's what I'm afraid of: a confused and jumbled sense of reality that comes from taking on something that's bigger than you are, and believe me, the Universe (Multiverse?  Just kidding, I don't subscribe to that) is much bigger than you are.  But at the same time, isn't it kind of crazy how small things can be?  When you consider the sheer size of the world and the solar system and the galaxy and the Universe, it's amazing that there can be a thing as small as a bug.  You realize this when you try and paint just about anything.  You sit down to recreate the dandelion on the canvas you just bought, and, before long, you realize that the dandelion has a bajillion little petals and that the middle thing is so intricate that you'd rather just make it a blob with lots of lines on it than try and comprehend what's actually going on in there.  It baffles me, the detail that God put into this world.  When he made that dandelion, he didn't throw an arbitrary number of petals and middle things onto it; I know one of my previous posts talked about the arbitrary "nature" of our world, but all of the things I mentioned were things outside of nature-- nature follows the intelligent design of our creator.  Just google "Fibonacci in nature," and you'll see what I mean.  But I'm getting off topic, so I'll just wrap things up and save that story for another time.

So this is the part where I take all of the worries I've just heaped onto your shoulders and whisk them away with a flourish of words.  Except not-- I'm stuck with it, and now so are you.  "Welcome to the real world, Neo."  Sometimes the world seems too big to be real, and sometimes things seem too small to be realistic.  But, somehow, God managed to create a Universe that is both so massive and so complex that even with all of the gifts he's given us we could never hope to understand it all, and, even though that's scary, it's awesome.