Thursday, March 03, 2005

Life, the Universe, and Everything-- Literally

Hey I'm back! I have fought off my deeply-ingrained propensity to eventually consider any task to be a hated burden to avoid at all costs...to talk about this mind-blowing development. Apparently, scientists have found two basically identical galaxies sitting right next to each other. Boring scientists say "okay, so there are two really similar galaxies very close to each other-- can I finish my sandwich now?" More forward-thinking scientists, no doubt salivating at the mountain of unsubstantiated tenure-making bullshit they can spin out of this, have a very different take-- that this could be the first observable evidence supporting superstring theory. Superstring theory, as we all know, is, well, some really next-level bullshit. More specifically, it has been for a while the leading "theory of everything" that basically explains how the entire universe is structured. It is one of many things relating to theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, etc., that simply cannot be explained in terms moronic enough for me to get my head around, but that fascinate me all the same (either because they exist just beyond my capacity to understand, or they are simply the most incredible whole-cloth frauds ever visited upon academia-- either way, I am drawn to it all like a chimp to a shiny gas can).

Anyhoo-- the superstring take on the twin galaxies is that we are not seeing two galaxies at all, but a split-screen image of the same galaxy. And the "split" in the split-screen is a strand of "cosmic string"-- basically a rift in (you guessed it) the fabric of space-time. [A quick aside-- I simply LOVE the phrase "fabric of space-time." How much sci-fi mileage has been gotten out of variations of that term?] The big ol' cosmic string, say the cool scientists to their sandwich-eating string-doubting cohorts, causes some light from the galaxy in question to go left, and other light to go right, creating two identical images side by side. If this is the case, it would mean that there could finally be observable phenomena out there that we can poke and prod to explore some of the most fundamental building blocks of the universe and flesh out real-world implications of a theory of everything, which up to now has been a lot of esoteric grab-ass.

One of the implications of superstring theory in general is that the universe exists in 10 dimensions (I could explain the math to you, but I really can't explain the math to you). Among other things, that means that there is a lot of extra space out there that we are not using in our workaday 3 dimensional world (okay, Einstein, 4 dimensions including time). Some scientists think these extra dimensions may explain the troubling observation that the objects in the universe are flying away from one another at an accelerating rate. Something called "gravity" would tend to make you expect that these objects would start slowing down and eventually collapse back upon themselves-- the "Big Crunch" end to the Big Bang beginning. But that ain't happening, apparently. Scientists have speculated that there is an unknown force out there called-- creatively enough-- "dark energy," which, the thinking goes, works against the force of gravity to pull objects apart. These guys, however, armed with 6 additional dimensions and the complete Star Trek DVD library, argue that what is in fact happening is that some of our gravity is leaking into other dimensions, weakening the forces that would otherwise slow down the scatter-shooting universe. Crazy if true.

Bold prediction-- these are not issues that will be decided in our lifetimes. And no, there are not a whole lot of practical implications that immediately flow from any of this. But there is something to be said for knowledge for its own sake. And if you believe, as I do, that intelligent life (in the form of us) evolved for the purpose of contemplating God and the Universe (which, after all, are one and the same), looking for answers to these most basic questions is a big part of why we are here in the first place.

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