Until a few decades ago, we might have felt that the world was more or less understandable, and we could lean on the unquestioned certainties of three-dimensional space, solid matter, and fixed time. Twentieth-century physics, however, has led us astray and looking at an open book, the reader is not sure whether he is reading from a science fiction story. At the end of the twentieth century, it was clear that the universe was a far more remarkable place than we could ever have suspected, that things were far more complex than everyday experiences suggested.
With the development of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, it became apparent that only a tiny fraction of dimensions behave reasonably and customarily: the world at minimal and vast distances is very different. It acts very differently from the world we grew up in, the world of our spaces. The certainties have broken down for us: the masses are full of empty places, the room has all kinds of strange twists and turns, and the clocks always point differently in different areas. Everything is different! A solid mass and, at small distances, boils, and bubbles; most of all, it resembles a stormy sea or
boiling foam. The black holes are somehow encapsulated in space, space can be torn like a sponge for washing, and there are many more dimensions than our usual four. My hands, which are now writing this text, are not material but bundles of dancing strings. Man on Earth suddenly seems like a settler who emerges from his comfortable cottage, where he is warm and light, and finds a storm raging outside and angels flying and dancing fairies. The world is very different from what we imagined! We live in a quiet bubble of space-time: at high speeds, great masses, and distances large or small, everything is different.
I think contemporary physics has vastly outstripped the imagination of science fiction writers: reality is more interesting than the best science fiction story. The more physicists investigate the Big Bang Theory and the initial parameters of the universe, the more unexpected they come to. If just one of the many constants had a slightly different value than it does, neither galaxies, stars, nor we would ever have come into existence. The probability of the initial parameters being “correctly” set is so tiny as almost zero. Except that’s precisely what happened. To somehow avoid the problem, astrophysicists define the so-called anthropic principle. One and its form says that the universe must be so we can live in it. Maybe there are many universes where the constants are set. Nobody will ever know because life cannot exist in them (at least in that form as we know it). Because we are here, the universe must look like this. It’s strange: because of people on a tiny planet, a small galaxy, the universe looks the way it does.
Since the Middle Ages, our cosmic self-consciousness has somehow faded. It was generally assumed that the center of the universe was the Earth, around which everything revolves, figuratively and literally. Galileo Galilei and Nicholas Copernicus made it clear that the center of the universe is the sun. In 1750 Thom as Wright discovered that the Milky Way in the night sky is our view inside the galaxy of which we are a part. Today, we know that we and our solar system are stumbling somewhere on the edge of this galaxy. It was probably the philosopher Immanuel Kant who first 1755 wrote that at least some of the nebulae we see in the sky are circular disks about the same size as our galaxy. Today, we know that there are millions of galaxies like ours in the universe, that galaxies form clusters and superclusters of galaxies that are also in the universe very irregularly distributed as if they were imaginary walls of some unimaginably large spatial cell. We know the universe is not infinite, but we can hardly imagine its size.
To Immanuel Kant, who marveled at the starry sky above him, with whom he recalled one clear night at the opposite end of the planet, in Antar …on the other side of Antarctica. I wish you could experience the feeling of the limitless depth of space when, on a solitary walk, I suddenly had the impression that I was standing upside down and seeing the starry sky below me, looking into the endless depths of a universe that had no bottom. For our healthy humility, it is sometimes a helpful warm-up to try to look at our galaxy from somewhere very far away until it looks like a blurry speck in space: then, we can more easily grasp the comicality of all dictators and our lust for power. In his play the Life of Insects, Karel Capek develops a battle of ants in a poisonous scene: they fly with orders and big words about glory as we are used to them from our human wars. Only later does the viewer realize that the whole war is being fought over a piece of forest land, over a single blade of grass. Too bad Capek didn’t live to see the Hubble telescope.
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