SkyManBob.com

Bob Berman

Bob Berman’s Strange Universe

Bubble Land

Posted Oct. 25, 2008 – Bubbleland. We need a new branch of astronomy. We’ve got solar science, cosmology, spectroscopy, photometry. We’ve got optics, planetary studies, lots of categories. But we need a new one. Let’s call it Bubbleland.

Bubbleland is for things totally outside our understanding, places where we now provide the public with technical-sounding vacuity. For example, what existed before the Big Bang. I get that question a lot from students, and I’ll admit to being guilty of reciting the standard speech. “The Big Bang,” I explain grandly, “created time as well as space. Since there was no time before the Big Bang, your question is meaningless.”

The student is silenced. The class continues. The professor obviously knows something wonderfully profound. But I can’t do it any more. The next time some one asks, I’ll tell the truth: “Nobody has the foggiest idea what happened the Tuesday before the Big Bang. That whole domain is part of Bubbleland.” Then the class will nod, and really understand. Ah, yes, Bubbleland. The realm beyond the present reach of science.

Anyone attending a cosmology lecture can tell when the speaker arrives at Bubbleland. “It’s not galaxy clusters that travel outward,” he’ll say pedantically, “but space itself that grows larger. The galaxies don’t actually move.”

So here I am thinking, wait a minute. Are we at a Daffy Duck convention? Is this guy saying that empty space, nothingness, a vacuum, is capable of growing like a petunia, independently of the universe’s mass and energy? If so, then suppose nothingness alone existed ( – a contradiction in itself). If there were no galaxies, atoms, or even light in the universe, just space, could you still claim that the emptiness was getting bigger? What could that mean? And if you do critically need galaxy groups to define the increasing emptiness between them, why then insist they are not part of the process? (Actually, some Relativity experts, such as Dr. David Nightingale, co-author of “A Short Course on General Relativity,” are even uncomfortable with our exclusion of “local space” from the universe’s expansion.)

Or take singularities at the hearts of Black Holes. When explaining what happens to a massive collapsing star, physicists usually say that it achieves infinite density and zero dimension. When I’ve laid that on students, the funny thing is, they buy it. None make the lusty up and down hand motion some people (mostly men) employ to express incredulity, when recognizing a fish tale. My fantasy is to witness the following scene at a large lecture hall. First, the professor didactically informs the class that a singularity achieves infinite density and no volume. Then, suddenly, all 150 students silently rise and simultaneously make the “c’mon now” hand gesture.

Reality check: nothing can be infinitely dense, except our gullibility, as when we imagine that a politician said something substantive. And “zero volume” has no place in this universe, except as wishful thinking when confronting a teenager’s stereo. Obviously, a process beyond our present understanding must happen with singularities. Perhaps other dimensions come into play, in which case the collapsed star deserts our reality altogether. In truth, we have no clue. We should say we have no clue. But since there is no official category for what happens to singularities, we’ll just say they enter Bubbleland and everyone will understand.

Quantum mechanics has Bubbleland practically reserved to itself. You do the standard experiment and fire electrons or photons through slits onto a background screen, and get the classic interference pattern that proves these items are waves, or at least act that way this afternoon. Now the spooky part. Fire just a single electron at a time at the screen. STILL you get the interference pattern. The electron is interfering with others. Problem: There ARE no others. Only one electron is in the device at a time. With what is it interfering?

Nobody has ever answered this. It defies common sense. This (and many other quantum effects, such as when particles are in “superposition” or when they inexplicably randomize as if to deliberately hide information from us, or when they “entangle” with a distant particle so that act of measuring one instantaneously affects the other) demonstrate that normal logic sometimes fails on the subatomic level. Common sense is apparently the wrong tool – a little like trying to use a hammer to tighten a nut. Our brains created logic to deal with mortgages and cheeseburgers, not electrons. The honest answer is: This is just the way the tiny kingdom works. Yet there prevails a scientific pretense that we’ve got the whole thing covered, and don’t worry we’re really on top of this.
Yeah, right. In science, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and the simplest solution is that electrons live in Bubbleland.

Recently a few maverick physicists have come right out and admitted that the interference-when-there’s-nothing-there business must be confronted. They’ve suggested that perhaps numerous neighbor dimensions exist, alternate realities that lurk so closely next door, perhaps just a hair out of “phase” with our own, that our electrons interfere just enough with theirs to produce these strange interactive patterns. Yes, that’s probably wacky and wrong. But it’s good that some are finally facing the enormity of the antilogic.

We could go on and on. The late Carl Sagan, whom I love and admire, nonetheless said “Now that we’ve explained how life began, there’s no place for God.” Well, let’s leave God out of this and just address science’s explanation of life’s genesis. The prevailing account posits a mixing of organic molecules, the arrival of amino acids on comets from space, some accidental combinations, and then the great denoument: “and somehow life arose.”

Beep! Hold it! That “somehow” may be only one little word embedded among the thousands comprising the “explanation,” but it changes the whole thing to: “We haven’t a clue.” How consciousness or self-awareness can arise from amino acids remains as deep a mystery as it ever was. But since we do not want our experts to stand mute and nonplussed, we have now supplied an out. They do not have to utter the dreaded “I don’t know.”

Finally they can explain our origins.

We come from Bubbleland.

Bob Berman’s schedule

Every Sunday Morning, 9:34 AM: Berman's Strange Universe on WAMC.org, live streaming, or 90.3, 90.9 FM.
  • November 20: Mohonk Mountain House, "Romance in the Sky."
  • December 4: Live one-hour radio appearance, WAMC-FM, 2-3 PM
  • December 5: Talk, "Where is the Universe?" for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Ottawa
  • March 17 and March 24: Two Northern Lights Tours (see Bermanastronomytours.com)
  • November, 2015: Join Us in Chile! Bob's favorite Tour!