dentin (dentin) wrote,
dentin
dentin

One Minute Physics

There are two extremely short videos on modern physics in this blog post:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/02/26/what-the-world-is-made-of/

I'm really impressed by the quality of these - not only are they extremely close to correct, but the first one gets across what I'd consider The Most Important Fact about modern physics.

The obvious guess as to the Most Important Fact would be "mathematics is the universal language of the universe". However, this is a cheap soundbite; everyone already knows it and pays it lip service. I seriously don't know anyone who -doesn't- already believe this. It's what we're all taught from somewhere around age 5.

What I consider the important part is mentioned somewhat in passing, because pretty much every physicist knows it, but physicists don't realize that laymen don't realize it. Consider the following quote from the first video:

"Suppose you're ambitious enough to try to describe everything in the observable universe using one single mathematical equation. Done!"

This is the important part. Everyone already "knows" that mathematics is the language of the universe, but few people know what that actually means. This statement hits harder:

1) Mathematics is the language of the universe

2) We know that language extremely well, far better than the layperson might expect

3) Everything in the observable universe can be described using ONE single mathematical equation, which we know and understand.

4) Everything IN THE OBSERVABLE UNIVERSE can be described using ONE single mathematical equation, which we know and understand.

5) EVERYTHING in the observable universe can be described using ONE single mathematical equation, which we know and understand.

6) EVERYTHING in the observable universe can be described using ONE single mathematical equation, WHICH WE KNOW AND UNDERSTAND.

The capitalized words are important to emphasize just how much these statements mean. In short, there's nothing in the universe that isn't explained by math, and we understand the math really well.

The implications of this are far reaching and quite frankly unpleasant for most people. Initially, smart people realize that this makes the universe predictable - which is the essence of the scientific method itself - and some of the smarter ones realize that this implication extends to predicting people as well. People like to think they are special, that the rules don't apply to them, and being described by math goes against our core nature: it effectively says that people are understandable, in every way, and that is extremely uncomfortable to many.

A further implication for smarter people is that this simply rules out most supernatural stuff. The equation does in fact predict what happens out to 12+ decimal places, and once you make those predictions you're only left with less than one part in a trillion where supernatural effects can manifest. So in short, no spirits, no ghosts, no souls, no interfering supernatural gods, no homeopathy, and no magic. Each of these things requires a change to the laws of physics to even be possible on a visible scale, and we see no sign of such a change coming.

That's my true takeaway from the first video, even though I consider it a hidden point that few people will grasp. We really do live in a clockwork universe and we really are just minor automatons operating wholly within well-defined, simple mathematical laws; but so long as the illusion of free will exists, I see no reason to despair.

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As a side note, it occurs to me that each of these realizations requires casting off a previously cached thought, a previously held belief, each level a bit deeper and more abstract than the previous:

- wait, we can predict the universe? [Yes.] (People in ancient times did not necessarily believe that the universe was predictable, but it is a common belief now.)

- what about unexplained things like ghosts and spirits? Are they covered too? [Yes.] (Belief in the unexplained will continue to be a problem due to cognitive defects in the way humans weigh evidence, but with luck the incidence will drop.)

- if spirits are explained, does this explain the soul and everything that people do? Aren't people special? [Yes, it explains everything people do, and no, we're not special or exempt.] (It is unfortunately still a common belief that people are 'special' and somehow exempt from the laws of physics. We're not.)

- if spirits, souls, and people are explained, doesn't this limit the powers of conventional gods such as the holy trinity and Zeus? [Yes. It limits their powers severely.]

- if all of this is explained, where is the magic and wonder in the universe? [There is no magic. But there's plenty of awesome stuff to gaze in wonder at and to try to explain or understand.]

- so what's the point of living? [Whatever you make of it.]


While writing this out, I believe I now understand why most people never make it to the final implications of the first video; it is difficult enough to cast off a single belief, much less half a dozen of them. And some of these are going to be critical support pillars for people; you don't just rip out something like that and rebuild your belief system overnight. Even just looking at my experience:

- in 1997 I obtained an understanding of statistical mechanics that became a critical support pillar as an adjunct to Newtons Laws of Motion for predicting the universe

- in 1998 I obtained sufficient information about biblical stories to discount them fully and believe that the biblical record was at best a minor inaccurate history document that for the most part did not match reality

- in 1999 I was able to remove 'belief in afterlife' as a critical core belief upon which many other things were based

- in 2000 I was able to remove most of my belief in the traditional christian god, but held onto it subconsciously to varying degrees in unobvious places

- in 2011 I finally realized that the universe had no point and that there truly was no god, afterlife, or purpose. This depressed me for two weeks while I reworked my belief system to function completely without these three constructs. I am now quite happy with the change, and it's not because I simply replaced them with other beliefs; I actually rebuilt my belief system such that they are simply not required.


The bulk of my changes took four years, so it seems reasonable (if disappointing) that it would take people so long to change.
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