Why it’s so hard to understand the cosmos

(Flickr/Hartwig HKD)

There are some things humans never seem capable of understanding — consciousness comes to mind, along with the scoring of ice-skating competitions. But we all want to understand the universe. Toward that end we use science, whose reputation for reliability is hugely appealing. The speed of light in a vacuum really is 186,282.4 miles a second. Earth really is 7,926 miles wide at the equator. We can take these things to the bank.

But starting a century ago, physicists realized that the universe is uncertain in unexpected ways. All the atoms in our bodies have electrons, and you’d think that at any given instant each one exists somewhere. But, turns out, subatomic particles are usually a blurry, shimmering sea of possibilities rather than actual entities in specific locations. To use the official term, they each have a wave function. And it’s not even a wave of something tangible the way an ocean wave is a swell of water. Rather, it’s a probability wave, whatever that means. When observed, the potential electron leaves its blurry probabilistic state and “collapses” to be an actual enduring entity. This means you the observer and the so-called external world are correlative. You and nature are indissolubly linked. That’s why the celebrated Princeton physicist John Wheeler said, “No phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it’s an observed phenomenon.”

Even without all this quantum strangeness that even physicists are still getting used to, science is dominated by generalizations, a kind of “rounding off” that renders established truths into mere approximations or even downright falsehoods. We say Jupiter orbits the Sun. Actually, it circles an empty spot next to the Sun, where its gravity and the Sun’s balances. We assume photons of yellow light from your lawn’s forsythia flowers pass through your window to hit your eyes. Actually, each photon stops at the glass. It does, however, stimulate an adjacent molecule of silicon dioxide to create and release a similar photon, which nudges yet another to continue the chain until some photon reaches you. But it’s not the same light that left the flower.


 Is the entire cosmos (not the smaller, nearer one we call the ‘visible universe’ ) an enormous entity we can picture in some way? Forget it. First because it’s probably infinite and nothing infinite can ever be visualized. Secondly, Einstein taught us that the cosmos bewilderingly changes its dimensions depending on your speed and the gravitational field you’re in so that it possesses no specific size to begin with!

If you want to say something true about it, you could declare that the universe is sizeless. But good luck picturing that. And good luck making sense of cosmology’s other basics. Much evidence convincingly shows the universe popped out of nothingness as a marble-sized ball containing every ounce of what it weighs today. But nobody can explain how this was possible or what the antecedent conditions might have been.

After a lifetime of studying and teaching astronomy, I’m quite sure the Moon is 2,160 miles in diameter and the Martian day is 24 hours, 37 minutes, 23 seconds long. There’s much that is certain. But I’m even more certain I don’t know beans about cosmic fundamentals, especially since they’re deeply entwined with consciousness which itself is mysterious. At our present point, instead of picturing the universe as an energy-matter ball that sprang into existence 138 billion years ago, it might better visualized as a sizeless self-awareness, an eternally existing consciousness that manifests as an unending parade of experiences.

Our human logical-mind system, which operates through symbolic language, seems inadequate to meaningfully probe such a cosmos. We all know that the word ‘ice’ is not actual ice. But most seem unaware of the profound degree to which the universe is unrelated to our thoughts about it. We need a different tool for the job. Surprisingly perhaps, such a truth-revealing mechanism actually exists: the so-called mystical state, a perception process also appropriately known as cosmic consciousness.

Great, except lions seem to guard that portal too. But that’s a topic for a different venue.