Layers of reality
Since the invention of microscopes and telescopes some four centuries ago, our view of the world around us and the universe in which we live has changed markedly.
What we used to believe about how our bodies worked, how stars and planets moved, and the very nature of reality have been repeatedly disrupted by new knowledge thanks to scientists and their steady improvement in developing technologies and experiments that uncover deeper and deeper layers of reality.
As a result, we have come to be more in awe of our own brainpower even as we lose (or should lose) some faith in our five senses.
We used to say “seeing is believing.” Perhaps we haven’t rejected that completely, but we no longer believe that what we see with our naked eyes is all there is.
Let’s start with what we see when we look at our own skin. We now know that a trillion or more bacteria live on each person’s body, feasting on the dead cells our skin constantly sloughs off. Even if they’re friendly, it’s a good thing we can’t see those little buggers, right?
Speaking of what’s invisible to us, think about our old transistor radios and television sets, and today’s cell phones and Wi-Fi. The air all around us is filled with electromagnetic waves that are transmitting the sounds and images of millions of radio and television programs, streaming movies, personal calls and GPS instructions all at once.
Imagine what our lives would be like if our eyes could see such waves or our ears could pick up all those sounds. We would be unable to function!
Sometimes I think back to my seventh-grade science class. That’s where I first encountered the periodic table and learned that all matter — living or dead, organic or inorganic — is made up of atoms, and that those consist of protons, neutrons and electrons, all of which are in constant motion. It always made me wonder how anything apparently solid exists.
I find myself even today sometimes contemplating ordinary items in my daily experience — my desk, my car, a fly on the wall, this copy of the Beacon — and trying to imagine how they can all be composed of the same, constantly moving subatomic building blocks, only in different combinations.
Speaking of the periodic table, does it make sense that one additional proton distinguishes atoms of the metal lithium from those of the gas helium, or the gas nitrogen from carbon, or mercury from gold? How do so many characteristics of different forms of matter arise from such a seemingly small change?
At the age of 12, I guess I took all this in stride, like just about everything else I learned in school. But the older I get, the more amazed I am by such facts — and by the many additional layers of understanding that physicists now have to explain what lies at the root of our daily reality.
By that, I mean much of what we were simplistically taught in grade school has been completely transformed by quantum physics and its ongoing discoveries. (These took a few decades to trickle down to school textbooks.)
We now “know” that gravity is (probably) caused by the stretching of space-time, and that electrons don’t literally orbit nuclei, but are jumping around in “clouds” that surround them (but defy observation).
We are also told that what Einstein derogatorily called “spooky action at a distance” has been proven: That when two quantum particles interact once, they continue to affect each other even when they are so far apart they can no longer have any way to communicate.
Oh, and by the way, did you know researchers have identified about 200 or so subatomic particles to date, thanks to experiments in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN?
Perhaps even deeper beneath these discoveries are so-called “strings,” which are hypothesized to be the vibrating energy underpinnings of subatomic particles, and hence of all nature.
One of my favorite lines from the theater is when the son Chris in Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons explains that he reads the book reviews in the newspaper because “I like to keep abreast of my ignorance.”
That’s how I feel about my occasional reading about contemporary science or the YouTube videos I often watch for the same reason.
Our understanding of the universe — like the universe itself apparently — is ever-expanding and endlessly full of wonder.
I don’t pretend to really understand anything I’ve talked about in this column. But the more I learn (well, hear) about the many layers of what we call reality, the more I find myself agreeing with Trudy, Lily Tomlin’s character in Jane Wagner’s Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, when she says, “Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it.”
Maybe I would amend that to say, “amongst those attempting to stay abreast of our understanding of it.” It’s challenging, mind-bending stuff. But it also continually fuels our sense of wonder and awe at the multi-level reality in which we live.