“Normal adults don’t stop to think about such concepts as space and time. These are things children ask about. My secret is I remained a child. I always ask the simplest questions. I ask them still.” — Einstein
That quote comes to my mind especially today, reading the headline: “Discovery of New Particle Could Redefine World”
So let us be like children now, just for a moment, and take time to think a bit about time, and space, and everything. Particularly, let us pause and consider this unimaginable fact: gravity, the most powerful thing in the universe, this inconceivable force that has the power to crush space and time into nothingness; let us pause and ponder the power and mystery of this monster at the center of our galaxy, the black hole that eats space, and time, and everything.
Once upon a time, when Einstein predicted that such a monster must exist, no one could believe it. How could anything stop the flow of time? How could anything be so powerful as to crumple up space itself like a measly wad of paper? Surely you must be joking, sir!
But by the time this monster had been conceived, the unthinkable genius of Einstein’s general theory of relativity had already accurately predicted and described what no other theory, not even Newton’s, had been able to describe before. And now this theory predicted this: a monster beyond anything that any man had ever conceived before.
But still, we needed proof (as we always do) so we went looking for this monster, and the amazing thing, the incomprehensible thing – we found it!
The theory is true: black holes exist! And because we know about black holes now, because we have a precise measurement of how gravity bends space and warps time, we have GPS.
But one thing is connected to another. And another. And another… so it is that this theory is connected to ideas that go back to Aristotle, nearly 3000 years ago. And to mention but one of the ideas that formed the building blocks of this cathedral of understanding, one of the theories that came first, just before Einstein’s, was one that James Clark Maxwell first wrote down. The mathematics of his field theory, which describe the electro-magnetic force – this is why we have radio, and cell phones, and “Angry Birds.”
And likewise, because Richard Feynman, after Einstein, wrote down the mathematics of the QED (quantum electro-dynamics), we can now fully explain the colors and shapes of rainbows, the sound of a jet engine, the feel of sandpaper, a droplet of water, the waves on the ocean, why ice floats, and why the sky is blue. In fact, the QED is the most successful, accurate theory mankind has ever produced. It explains the material universe because it explains the very heart of physics, which explains chemistry, which explains biology, which explains psychology and consciousness itself (have we left anything out?)
In fact, these theories, which have combined to become what is known as “The Standard Model of Particle Physics,” describes and explains every single phenomenon in the universe from the Big Bang, to the warmth of the sun on your skin, to the transmission of this email, to the neurons firing in your brain, and the giddiness scientists around the world are feeling right now.
This theory describes every phenomenon in the universe, that is, except for gravity.
Because, although Newton calculated its effects and Einstein unveiled its power over space and time itself, no one has ever been able to actually explain it! As difficult as it may be to believe, we have never had an explanation of gravity.
Yes, we have been to the moon and yes, we have GPS and have sent satellites to Saturn, but what we don’t have, what we have never had, is an explanation – not one that had been tested.
A body in motion stays in motion until acted upon by an outside force – but why?
We call this fact (the very first law of the universe) “inertia” (thank you, Newton) and we say that it is a consequence of “mass.” But naming something – even describing its effects – does not explain it, not really.
Newton admitted that he was clueless to explain what was behind his observations, what explained the calculations. In fact, we have known all too well of our own ignorance for quite a long time now. And for a certain kind of person this ignorance is an irresistible temptation.
You know this type of person. As a child, they asked, but why? … but why? … but why? … but why? And they always tried to reveal the magician’s tricks at birthday parties. These are the type of spoiled brats that no business executive in his right mind would hire, the type of stubborn individual who would never dream of working for a business executive anyway (thank goodness for that).
Because for a certain kind of person The Mystery is the ultimate business of the universe. For a certain type of person, mysteries are like women: seductive and challenging, coyly hiding their true nature, waiting for one who is worthy, a champion who can discover their secrets.
The Mystery cries out to be solved and so, for a certain type of person, a courtship ensues: a dance begins between Man and Nature. This is how we communicate with her. This is how she reveals herself to us. This is how it works: the universe, and everything.
But The Mystery, she is a flirt, and this is what makes the dance so very delightful. Einstein knew this. And he knew that children naturally understand this. Because curiosity, and romance is in their nature. And if it is so, then it must also be in ours, somewhere deep inside, in the part of our eternal soul that is untouched by time. Somewhere in our hearts there is this universal desire, this romance that will not die.
And this is the romance you read in the headlines today. This is the romance we are in now.
Einstein (God love his soul) he went to his grave scribbling equations in his notebook, calculating and computing in his hospital bed to the very end. He searched for answers until his last breath, trying to crack the mystery that would explain gravity. Einstein was a very religious man in his own way, and he had faith that there was an explanation, one explanation that could explain it all – a unified field theory of the universe, and everything – he said he was seeking “the mind of God.” This was his response to the universal religious sense: to know the creator. He was drawn, as we all are, to the Ultimate Source of the Universe, and Everything.
So fast forward to yesterday: we have four forces of nature in all and three of them – the strong force, the weak force, and the electromagnetic force – solved. But the most basic, most obvious force of them all, the very force that keeps our feet to the ground, still remained elusive. There simply was no explanation for it. Measurements, yes, observations, yes. But nothing more than this. Neither Newton nor Einstein, the two greats, would crack the code. Ultimately, this Mystery would prove itself too big for any one man, or woman. It would take the cumulative efforts of generations of curious, stubborn child-like romantics to get at this secret, the deepest secret of the universe that science has ever pondered.
Why do things have mass? Why, how, does matter bend space, warp time? How does the black hole at the center of every galaxy in the starlit sky capture light itself?
These questions about the mysteries of gravity, no man has ever been able to adequately answer.
Ultimately, it would take the effort of governments, and thus, the combined capital of tens, even hundreds of millions of men adventurous enough to put it all on the line and go for it. This is what separates science from philosophy: an experiment would be be needed. And no small thing, this experiment. This would be an experiment that would separate the boys from the men. Tens of billions of dollars, decades of effort…
That experiment, mankind’s largest, most expensive yet, has now been deemed a success. The Standard Model is complete.
Imagine: on this day, the universe has officially evolved to the point at which it has produced a consciousness sufficiently sophisticated as to have become aware of itself in a new way – a profoundly deep way.
That awareness has happened, is happening, in us – right now! In this moment we are in, this unique moment in the history of the universe. A first has happened in the world today. Through the efforts of many, many generations of men and women the universe has accomplished in our generation something quite special, something that no other generation could have ever possibly conceived. For thousands of years we have asked the question, and only now, today, have we found the answer.
To all the men and women throughout the ages – Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Maxwell, Feynman and all the thousands of others who all contributed to this quest – we congratulate you. Today we are all like children – for a moment at least – when we read these headlines and we take a moment to marvel at space, time, the universe, and everything.