We Have No Idea
We have no idea (about many things in general, but also a book review), Piled Higher and Deeper, Advaita Vedanta, Six Means of Learning, Mandukya Upanishad, Mahavira Jayanthi, Seven Truths and Distributed Systems and 42.
I read this book “We have no idea: A guide to the unknown universe” by Jorge Cham (author of the wonderful comic series “Piled Higher and Deeper”) and Daniel Whiteson, a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UC, Irvine.
We have no idea by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
If you have not checked out PHD comics, please do - it’s hilarious and nicely done. If you were wondering why it is called so, the general theory seems to be that B.S. is Bullshit, M.S. is More Shit and when you get to Ph. D (aka Permanent Head Damage) the levels (of shit) are Piled Higher and Deeper.
I loved this book because it is a book of questions rather than answers. Don’t get me wrong, I love all types of science books and the ones that explain from the fundamentals and explain it in a fun intuitive way with an IRL (as the cool kids say, which I only recently learnt stands for “in real life”) connection. The book goes on chapter after chapter picking up very important topics and states many open questions on that. It is a hard core Physics / Astronomy / Science book and not philosophical although the line does blur when you ask that deep.
Let’s get to the few big topics, shall we? Strap on your seat belts, get ready for the ride. There is no unseeing this or going back after you read!
What is the Universe made up of?
The Greeks thought of four elements: Earth, Wind, Water, Fire. The Hindu system uses five : and adds the subtler Space to the mix. Hence PanchaBootham. Everything is made up of a combination of these five. And then at some point we got to Atoms (literally meaning that which cannot be broken up). But break it up we did and turns out the whole universe is made up of just a few things: Protons, Neutrons, Electrons and Morons. (okay, I made one of those particles up).
Turns out we could do deeper. In turn, what we now have is called a Standard Model which if we think of has a periodic table has 12 items. 6 quarks and 6 leptons. Up and Down quark to make up Proton and Neutrons and a lepton for the electron. All good, right?
So if we take an exam on the Universe and answer everything perfectly, we would score a grand 5%.
Turns out we have evidence of the rest being 67% Dark Energy and 28% Dark Matter.
How cool is that? We don’t know what 95% of the stuff is.
Think of a merry-go-round, if it spins around at normal speed as we see in parks and we sit in it, we don’t fly off. Now if you place ping pong balls and spin, they will fly off. So you need a certain mass for the spin to not throw you off. Scientists find out that Galaxies are all spinning at high speeds. But all the stars and planets don’t seem to fly off (as models predict). Hence there is some “matter” that has mass that is the reason. We don’t know what it is or can’t see (hence dark). What forces it has, whether it is floating around us or clumped somewhere. We just know it is there. (cue Stephen King movie music).
Okay, Gravity - it just attracts. What is keeping the Universe from expanding and that too incredibly faster and faster? Let’s call it Dark Energy. Dark because we can’t see it or know anything about it.
The 12 particles we know of is what we have so far. WE have used only three of it (up and down quark to make up protons and neutrons and electron/lepton). What about the other nine? Not much clue either.
Furthermore, protons are made up of exactly 2 up quarks of 2/3 charge each and 1 down quark of 1/3 charge giving it +1 positive charge. And neutrons are made up of 1 up quark (2/3) and 2 down (1/3 each) making it net zero. Electrons - son of a gun turns out at exactly -1 charge. If any of these are not what they are, it wouldn’t be stable. Why do they have these exact values? File this under “cosmic coincidence” - just like how insanely bigger the Sun is compared to the Moon, and how insanely far away it is too but somehow the ratios of size and distance match up to make up for spectacular solar eclipses.
If so, what is dark matter made of? something a combination of this? who knows?How does dark energy even interact? We have four forces: gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear force. Is that all there is? We don’t know.
What gravity acts - that is gravitational mass. What causes an object to not move or resist movement - inertial mass. Turns out that they are the same. They need not be .. but here is a fun thought. Let’s say I start splitting you and further splitting you : it will start out as the cheap serial killer scene but eventually go down to cells, then to molecules, then to atoms and then to p/e/n and finally at somewhere around 10^23 pieces roughly - you will be down to the quarks. If we add up all the weight of the quarks, it turns out it will be roughly 1% of your weight you see on the scale. Nope - don’t write 2lbs in the “weight” column in your next health check up. The energy required to hold all this up together also makes up the mass. You thought you were mostly space, right? turns out your are completely space. Again, how does this constitution work? No idea.
You know what they say about Gravity, right? “It just sucks”. Rather it attracts. It is the only force (among the four) that does this. Everything else has a positive and negative component to it. Gravity depends on mass. There is no negative mass. (or maybe because of it we don’t? who knows).
Gravity is also the weakest of the forces. Do you want to guess by how much?10^30. yup, gravity is 30 orders of magnitude less powerful than the other three.You have a nail on the floor and the entire planet Earth pulls on one side and you have a tiny magnet that can lift it up! But not to dismiss, Gravity becomes insanely powerful at very big masses.
Oh on the same note, also when you weigh yourself, it is again how much Planet Earth’s gravity is acting on you - and one of you is huge.
We can’t discuss gravity without a cite to Einstein. He viewed it not so much as a force but rather a distortion of space itself. So with experiments we see it bend and ripple.
There is Gravity - to keep things together. There is dark matter keeping things in place just enough but letting it move. There is dark energy that is letting things expand fast. But not much to crush everything, not much to slow it down, or not too much to let it all just fly off in all three cases. Somehow there is a balance. How and why? We have no idea.
What is it? Whatever we thought of as continuous thus far have all been quantized. air, atoms, fundamental particles, … etc. Matter is quantized, energy is quantized, forces are quantized. Is space quantized too? we have no idea.
Is there infinite space with infinite matter? Or finite space with finite matter? or infinite space with finite matter? WE have no idea. Where is space? Sadly, it’s hard to ask such questions. Just like asking what happened before the big bang? Stephen Hawking used to get pissed off when asked this question and would retort, “What is north of north pole?”. No matter how you walk from there, you will always go south. It is a property of Planet Earth. Likewise, space-time, universe, …etc all just one big property evolving starting big bang. Or is it not? we have no idea. Space is remarkably flat - just to a degree of 0.4%. Why? No idea.
It takes time to think about time. Okay don’t ponder that too much.It puts things in order in a sequence.Seems to have the causal effect too. What happened causes what happens next and so on. Otherwise, there will be total chaos as we know it.Might as well make sense to ask “Why can’t you remember what happens the day after tomorrow? It’s just two days!”.And why did the Universe start with low entropy? The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy increases with time. Otherwise, would we have time moving forwards and backwards?
How many dimensions are there?String theorists need not answer. :)
See (or pics of) aurora borealis? beautiful particles being shot out by the sun and reflected at the poles. Turns out there are other types of cosmic particles hitting us all the time. Turns out they also have very high energy (but don’t ya worry, they dissipate on their way down). Turns out they also have energy so high that we don’t know of any sources that could produce this! (not the sun, not the bigger stars, not supernovae). What the bleep is producing those?
Is there antimatter?
Why during the Big bang was there a 10^25 expansion within 10^-30 of a second?
How big is the Universe? Why is it expanding so fast?Current estimate is that the Universe has a diameter of about 90 Billion Light years.But the big bang happened only 13.7 billion years ago? Space expansion!
Theory of Everything
Is there a theory of everything? Can we state with the least number of assumptions or arbitrary numbers how it all fits together? We already have 12 standard particles, a few positive / negative charges, four types of forces, then there’s the dark matter, dark energy and a partridge in a pear tree. How do we put all this together?
Turns out they did try to put some numbers together to come up with what’s called Planck’s length : 10^-35 metre. Our electron microscopes could only do 10^-10. The max we can go is about another 10 orders. But we are still 15 orders of magnitude shorter. Imagine you have a ruler, the smallest thing you can see is - okay, let’s switch to something big for it to make sense to use - we can only see something that is 100 times the size of the Solar system (about 90 billion kilometers). That is the granularity we see now comparatively speaking. And String theory and a few others keep making up mathematical stuff that works at Planck’s length - so there is no experimental way to verify this.
Are we alone in the Universe?
We don’t know yet. Either we are or we are not. One of the answers is true. Both of them are mind-blowing.
Needless to say, I loved this book. What a great time to be alive that we can ponder all these mysteries and to have come this far and be even in a position to know how much we don’t know and still relish the wonder that is everything. Blessed.
Okay, what has all this got to do with Advaita Vedanta? Not much at the outset.But let’s indulge because of a funny correlation that I did with an illustration in my previous frivolous fb post. Of course, it’s easy to get in on the comedy(?) front as the comments would divulge. But I believe there is a deeper connection. Sadly(?), this is how I can answer. This might seem as my way of saying f-you to all those who refuse to read long form. But bear with me and read, and you will likely get answers. Seriously, curiously only with an intention to learn and unlearn and hopefully to the point. If I had more time, I could’ve written a shorter article (Hemmingway). More importantly, rather than stopping (and understanding) with my ramblings, please follow through to the sources and get your own understanding. You will be rewarded, infinitely!
Today happens to be Mahavira Jayanthi, the birth of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. So let me pay a quick homage.
Jainism has seven truths. They are as follows (from Wikipedia):
Arguably, it (that is, some object) exists (syad asty eva).
Arguably, it does not exist (syan nasty eva).
Arguably, it exists; arguably, it doesn’t exist (syad asty eva syan nasty eva).
Arguably, it is non-assertible (syad avaktavyam eva).
Arguably, it exists; arguably, it is non-assertible (syad asty eva syad avaktavyam eva).
Arguably, it doesn’t exist; arguably, it is non-assertible (syan nasty eva syad avaktavyam eva).
Arguably, it exists; arguably, it doesn’t exist; arguably it is non-assertible (syad asty eva syan nasty eva syad avaktavyam eva).
On the soul front, I have a lot of work to do to get there. But I am reminded of all these when working with Distributed Systems / NoSQL Databases.
There are other faiths as well. There is Buddishm - which has four noble truths.Very roughly - The Four Noble Truths are:
There is Dukkha (suffering)
Desire is the causes of dukkha
There is a way for cessation of dukkha
That way is the eightfold path leading to the cessation of dukkha
To continue from the previous distributed systems reference, yeah, right, every time I code, I can realize truths (1) and (2). I hop along hoping that there is (3) and (4). Much harder to find those.
Then there is Sanatana Dharma (Eternal dharma) - which is roughly called Hinduism - and I will use that short form - but it would be better not to confuse this with religion or further religious practices or the modern day conventions, customs and common understanding.
Very briefly, the ancient system was codified into four vedas (Veda Vyasa). Each veda itself is classified into four. Each for different stages of life or different levels of understanding - whatever you want to make of it. The fourth stage is called Vedanta - standing for Veda-anta. End of the veda - in the literal sense that it is the last section. Or to the philosophical sense that it is all there is - the ultimate truth. Not to reduce the truthiness of the other levels/layers - just that it is in a different form.
Just like if you want to calculate the trajectory of a basketball, you can use Newton’s ideas, a single line of math, a parabolic equation and solve it. Or you can also go the quantum mechanics / dynamics way, consider the interaction of the 10^25 particles and figure it out. If you did it all right, both should give the same answer. But for all practical purposes, the former is much more feasible and good enough!
Back to Vedanta, it is made up of what are called Upanishads. That which removes darkness (upa ni shad). Or that which is taught / learnt by a student sitting next to a guru. There were supposed to be 1100+ of them. We now have barely a couple of hundred left. 108 of them are popular Upanishads. (check out Rama/Hanuman story for that). Out of the 13 are Principal upanishads since Adi Shankaracharya wrote commentaries on those 13.
Amongst these 13, the shortest is Mandukya Upanishad - it has just all of 12 shlokas. In a moment of madness, I thought let me read it and be done quickly. But it is also one of the hardest. It is profound. I don’t claim to know much but with the help of various other texts, I am able piece enough info together to get a high level idea that the Upanishad is talking about something that is beyond our ways of learning.
There are six ways of learning something. Called Pramanas. [From Wikipedia] : Pramāṇa literally means “proof” and is also a concept and field of Indian philosophy. Hinduism identifies six pramanas as correct means of accurate knowledge and to truths:
Upamāṇa (comparison and analogy)
Arthāpatti (postulation, derivation from circumstances)
Anupalabdhi (non-perception, negative/cognitive proof)
Śabda (word, testimony of past or present reliable experts)
What is the ultimate thing that the Mandukya is talking about? It is the Atman or Brahman (local or global, rather universal context) of the one truth that is. Everything else being a manifestation of it. Is it a sound? the fundamental particle? its energy? the life force? the chi? Is it silence? Well, those are some ways to talk of paradoxical stuff to figure out the rest. Like the zen koan trying to hear the sound of the one handed clap.
Theory of Everything
Now going back to the “We have no idea” book, there was this brilliant illustration in the section about the “Theory of Everything” (ToE). Where as I explained above, we want something to cover everything fundamental with least abstraction and least assumptions. The book is loaded with amazing thought-provoking illustrations and so many fun clever jokes. Anyways, the ToE wants a simple answer / formula. Mandukya is succinct as it gets - at least the answer that there is just this “one thing”. Its punchline of “just one more thing” is that there is only one thing. ;) But then again how do you get to ToE? How do you get to Mandukya? All good questions and important ones to ponder about. It’s a lifetime’s work.
“We have no idea” is my 42nd book for this year. 42 is supposed to be the answer to the Universe and everything else (Hitchhikers / Douglas Adams ref) and this book listed all the things that we have no idea about. How cool is that? How is that for a cosmic coincidence?