Wherefore Universe?

Today, as I sat around idly ruminating, a question which has often troubled me bubbled back up in my mind: why does the Universe exist? What is it about the laws of physics that somehow magically cause a Universe to come into being.

I’ve thought long and hard about this problem, and the other day, I believe that I may have hit upon a possible solution. Here goes.

We think of the Universe as a fairly orderly place. Even when we deal with really peculiar theories like the Standard Model and Quantum Mechanics, the Universe is orderly. Cause and effect always, always applies. Well, not quite. Imagine a cloud of gas floating in interstellar space. Now, imagine that you have some sort of super-microscope, and you zoom in on part of the cloud. Eventually, you can see the gas molecules, and then, the individual atoms. As you zoom in yet further, the nucleus of a single atom becomes visible, then the quarks and gluons that make up the interior of a single nucleon. Keep zooming in. It’s going to take a while, even at this rate. Your ultimate goal is to reach 10-35 meters, the so-called Planck length, which is 10-20 times the diameter of a single proton. This is it: the bottom of the Universe. There is no meaningful distance smaller than the Planck length. I know that seems nonsensical, but bear with me.

You see, to measure the position of anything, you have to bounce something off it, whether that be a photon, an electron, a proton, whatever. In order to determine the position with greater accuracy, you have to bounce the particle — let’s assume it’s a photon for our purposes — with a higher energy. The angle at which the photon returns to you allows you to determine the position of the target particle. Well, as it turns out, there is a theoretical limit to this precision. Once you know the particle’s location down to an error of less than 10-35 meters, such measurement requires so much energy that the measurement would produce a microscopic black hole, which would trap the bouncing photon, and prevent the information on the particle’s position from ever reaching you. So, it’s not meaningful to talk about any distance smaller than the Planck length, since nothing can interact with anything smaller than that.

The peculiarities at the Planck scale are legion. Not only can you not measure anything smaller, but space itself becomes unpredictable, twisting and warping and bubbling. Particles appear from nowhere and then swirl away into nothing. Energy is created and destroyed. And the important thing, causality does not seem to apply. Events can occur on the Planck scale without any cause in the Universe.

You might — if you were brave enough to actually read through that long, drawn-out description — be wondering what this has to do with the cause of the Universe. Well, I’m just getting to that.

You see, our current physical models of the Universe cannot actually tell us what happened before about 10-45 seconds prior to the beginning (that number, incidentally, is the Planck time. There is no meaningful time interval shorter than the Planck time, as there is no meaningful spatial interval shorter than the Planck length). That is because, before 10-45 seconds, the baby universe was smaller than the Planck length, which means that our traditional notions of space, time, and causality do not apply.

So, perhaps this is the answer to why the universe exists: there is no cause, or if there is, we cannot comprehend it, because causality is different or nonexistent at such tiny scales. Perhaps at such scales, where causality is so flexible, events can cause themselves. Or perhaps, even more paradoxically, effect can precede cause. So, perhaps, the origin of the Universe and the laws of physics were one and the same thing: the Universe itself.

Think about it.

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Hugh Laurie Sings!

I’m a huge Hugh Laurie fan. My fandom began, as I’m sure it did for many people, with House, but in the few other roles I’ve seen him in, he was very good. So, he’s a good actor. What I didn’t know was that he can sing, too! Thanks to the Firefox plugin “StumbleUpon” (don’t get it if you don’t have it, it’ll suck all your free time away. It’s like a black hole for leisure! It’s hypnotic.), I ran across this video, courtesy of a blog called “TheScene.” See Hugh Laurie sing!

Beware of The Ministries

It’s a common theme in dystopian fiction, from Orwell’s 1984 (and probably before that) to the present day (for example, the Half-Life series): in a terrible future (or present), society is controlled by an interlocking network of “Ministries,” and in some instances, a single omniscient Ministry. This Ministry (or Ministries) are responsible for the provision of all food, entertainment, news, et cetera. The citizens are so utterly dependent on these Ministries, and so blindly trusting of them, that they are completely and utterly unable to operate without them, which is why it inevitably requires a grizzled action hero to rouse them from their mental slumber.

By this point, readers are probably wondering what the point of all this is. Well, here it is. You think all these Ministry-based plots are fiction? Think again.

You see, we’re currently facing a dreadful trifecta of Ministries that is soon to fulfill all of our basic needs, leaving us so brain-dead and utterly dependent that we’re incapable of independent action or thought. They are:

  • The Ministry of Truth (yes, I’m quoting Orwell again. Deal with it): Google and Wikipedia seem to have pretty much cornered the market on knowledge, as far as your average Internet consumer is concerned. My Science and Society professor just yesterday referenced Wikipedia (a notoriously un-neutral and inaccurate source for something calling itself an “encyclopedia”) in a lecture about the mind-body problem. The mind-body problem! A spiritual topic that is just about as hotly- and angrily-debated as whether evolution should be taught in public schools. And he trusted Wikipedia, of all sources, to be his unbiased provider of information. The encyclopedia that anyone, including (especially) angry zealots (on both sides of the issue) can edit! Now, I must admit that I myself am not innocent in this regard: Google is essentially a sort of personal Deity. I’m not even certain that I know how to find information any other way any more, and when Google the Omniscient fails to provide the answers I’m looking for, I’m about as helpless as an overturned tortoise with Krazy Glue on its back.
  • The Ministry of Plenty: When was the last time you were in a grocery store that didn’t sell every product imaginable? Last week, I went to Target to buy a sweater, and later complained to someone that I’d forgotten to buy some vital food item or other at the grocer’s. This person then gleefully informed me that they do in fact carry that item at Target. I went back later, and, sure enough, Target has a grocery section! Okay. So, in addition to not knowing how to find reasonably unbiased information any more, now I have no idea where to get food, clothing, and novelty erotic items if they’re not all housed in the same store. Terrific.
  • The Ministry of Love: I struggled to find an Orwellian correlate to the ministry in 1984 responsible for torture, but I’m such a committed 1984 freak that I actually found a way. Now, I was going to lump the rapidly-condensing news media into the aforementioned Ministry of Truth, but given the fact that I’ve actually seen contemporary television, I’m convinced that it’s no longer intended for entertainment, but for the torture of people who enjoy independent films and occasional treks off the couch. After all, how many reality shows have cropped up (or spawned like the deformed, demonic, parasitic insects that they are) in the last year or so? I can’t count them, mainly because that would require keeping up with them, which would almost certainly sap my rapidly-waning will to live. And network news? Well, actually, its proper title is “network news crappy hackneyed sob-stories pregnant with thinly-disguised political agendas.” And when I say pregnant, I mean pregnant. Okay, well, maybe services like the BBC, CNN, and NPR are only “a little bit pregnant,” but an outlet like, say, Fox news, is about as pregnant as that enormous and disgusting insect queen, distended with writhing larvae, that the sci-fi hero has to defeat with a grenade, producing suitably disgusting splattery results. I know that’s a long simile, but I take every opportunity to make peculiar and often repulsive cultural references. Anyway, Fox is pregnant with agendas. It’s annoying. Annoying rapidly becomes torture when the reporters actually pretend to be sincere about what they’re saying. I mean, come on! I’m not that bright — the Internet and television have seen to that — but I’m not that stupid (at least not yet; not until I start watching American Idol).

So, we basically have all the non-life-affirming Ministries of 1984, and there is no doubt a Big Brother figure soon to emerge as the “beneficient”, omniscient ruler of them all. But that remains to be seen. In the meantime, we are rapidly becoming (if we’re not already) the dependent Ministry-junkies that are featured in every aforementioned dystopian tale. And I know that I brought quite a lot of sardonic humor to the above descriptions, but I stand by them as serious warnings, too. Think about it. Don’t get dependent. The only thing that will save you is independent thought. Use a real (paper) encyclopedia occasionally (if you can find one). Search with another search engine. And for Google’s sake, don’t find that other search engine by Googling “search engine”!!! Or, even worse, go to a library. You remember libraries, right? Well, you will if you were born before 1988.

More food for thought, as always.

A Joke

In the tradition of my generation, I present to you a dark, sarcastic, and pessimistic joke:

Four politicians were walking around a city. They pass a couple of heroin addicts shooting up in an alleyway.

The first politician points and says “That’s what’s wrong with America.”

They walk along a little further, and they see a rich guy in a Hummer toss a handful of litter out the window.

The second politician points and says “That’s what’s wrong with America.”

They keep walking, and they pass by a broken-down tenement. They look in the windows and see that it’s only the minority citizens who are living in such squalid conditions.

The third politician points and says “That’s what’s wrong with America.”

As they come out of the inner city, they see a homeless Vietnam veteran begging for change outside a Starbucks.

The fourth politician points and says “That’s what’s wrong with America.”

Just then, a little boy comes around the corner, sees the four politicians walking around instead of doing their jobs.

He points and says “That’s whats wrong with America.”

The End of the Tunnel

Well, I’ve done it. I finished a 50,000-word novella in thirty days or less. Although For Ardella is hardly pulitzer-winning material, I’m glad I’m still capable of getting so absorbed in my writing that I’m capable of finishing 50,000 words in a fortnight.

Well, finishing is probably far too strong a word. Because what I finished isn’t really a novel(la), but rather the first draft of one. And the editing, as always, is going to prove to be the hardest part. By the time I’m done, maybe (just maybe), I’ll have something publishable at last. Although my NaNoWriMo novel from 2006 (Wormhole, Wormhole) remains almost entirely un-edited, I’m hoping that revising For Ardella will give me the inspiration I need to revise that one too.

Wish me luck!

Obedience

It’s hard to believe that there are many people who have not yet heard of Stanley Milgram’s infamous Obedience Experiment, but given the society that we’re living in, it seems vital that the public be informed on the nature of human obedience. So, as a public service, here is a brief synopsis of the experiment.

Stanley Milgram wondered how so many soldiers in World War II Germany had willingly taken actions that led to the death of so many innocent people. After the War ended, many of these soldiers claimed that they did so merely because they were following orders. Milgram decided to test this hypothesis.

He took a group of test volunteers and told them that they would be taking part in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning. They were introduced to a “learner,” who would be strapped to a device that administered electric shocks. The volunteer was to read a pair of words to the learner. The learner would later be quizzed on the word pairs, and if their response was incorrect, an electric shock would be administered. Each wrong answer would lead to a more severe electric shock. The first shock was 45 volts. The shock machine had knobs which ran all the way up to 450 volts.

The thing was, all of that was a lie. The machine did not administer shocks. In fact, the “learner” was not another experimental volunteer, but a trained actor. Milgram’s aim was to determine how many people would, under the supervision of an “experimenter” who would urge them on, would reach the top of the voltage scale before their morality kicked in and they were unable to administer any more of the supposedly painful shocks.

Milgram estimated that a few percent of the subjects might make it all the way to 450, but most would be morally incapable of doing so. He was wrong.

Sixty percent of the test subjects made it all the way to 450 volts. Even when the “learner” cried out in pain, they went on; even when the learner complained of a heart condition, the subjects continued. Even when the learner fell eerily silent, and gave no response, many subjects simply continued administering the shocks, as instructed. When they complained that they were worried about the learner, the experimenter admonished them that the shocks were “painful but harmless.” When they said that they wanted to leave, the experimenter simply told them “The experiment must continue.”

And they listened. Many of them, who had been ready to walk out the door, sat down when the experimenter said this. And when they complained that they didn’t want to be responsible for causing the learner permanent harm, the experimenter informed them that they would not be liable. With this reassurance, the volunteers continued administering the shocks.

Although it has often been decried as terribly unethical, the Milgram experiment is a chilling reminder of human beings’ tendency towards obedience. Furthermore, it proved what many thinkers and rebels have been saying throughout history: only independent thought can set you free. Only those test subjects who were more willing to consider their own moral principles were able to simply walk away from the experiment.

Think about it.

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The Halfway Mark

I can hardly believe it, but somehow, against all the laws of nature, I have managed to reach the halfway mark (25,000 words) of this year’s National Novel-Writing Month novel. This is definitely a personal record.

That said, I’m incredibly dissatisfied with the result. So far, I’ve got a meandery, trashy, nonsensical, almost pornographic attempt at a romance novel. Somehow I knew when I started that my attempt to write romance would not come off as planned.

It’s certainly been an experience so far, though. And it feels like, this time, even after the arbitrary deadline of NaNoWriMo has passed (this deadline, for some reason, has always been the only thing that could ever motivate me to finish a novel. Go figure), maybe I’ll be able to get started on my next book right away. Yay! Or, perhaps, I’ll finally get around to making the necessary revisions to my NaNo novel from last year, which, it seems, would probably have a much better chance of actually getting published.