The Other I

February 9, 2011

The more we learn, the bigger the question gets

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

Douglas Adams:  English humourist and science fiction writer, 03/11/52 – 5/11/2001

I don’t actually remember when people thought the world was flat and that the sky was held up by sturdy poles at the four corners.

But the world must have seemed quite simple then.  And it would have explained most of ones daily experiences as one walked around weeding the garden, hunting the rabbits, or starting the fire for the evening meal.

Yes, there would have been a few niggling questions for people who weren’t ever satisfied.  Like why the positions of the stars in the night sky changed in such complicated ways.  Or why it looked as if sailing ships were actually rising out of the sea when they appeared on the horizon, or seemed to be sinking into the sea when they sailed out.

But mostly things made sense for most people.

Then Copernicus and then Galileo came along and answered those niggling questions.  The ships weren’t sinking as they went out to sea:  it just looked like that because the world is round, not flat.  And the stars’ positions aren’t really that complicated once we understand that earth is whirling around the sun, not the other way around, as well as turning on its own axis at the same time.

The problem is that these answers created a whole handful of even more niggling questions.  Like why apples fall from the tree but the stars don’t fall from the sky.  What is holding them up?

Eventually Newton came along with the theory of gravity, which “explained” why things fall or don’t fall to the earth.  Or why, for that matter, we don’t all fall off the earth if it’s whirling so fast around in empty space.

Except that Newton didn’t really explain what gravity is.  What he did was to develop a mathematical theory that enables us to predict with a fair amount of accuracy (although not with absolute accuracy) the conditions that determine when and what will fall to earth and what won’t.   But to this day we don’t really know what gravity is.  We only really know the conditions under which it works.

And then Einstein came alone and answered another niggling problem about the relationship between energy and matter.  E= MC2.

Except that Einstein’s theory made even Newton’s world look simple.  Einstein’s theory demonstrates that time and space – both of which seem fundamentally pretty non-negotiable to most of us most of the time – are relative.  “Time” in outer space runs at a completely different speed than time on earth.  And when time is different, so is space.  Which doesn’t run in a straight line anyway once you get off earth, because space curves which is why parallel lines eventually meet if you go out far enough.

Quantum mechanics is another world of answers that you don’t want to know about if you really just want your questions answered.  Once we get to the quantum level of the super-small, particles don’t seem to obey any of the rules we mortals in the grown-up world have to obey.  Particles go in and out of existence.  And a theory called entanglement suggests that they somehow can communicate with each other across the expanse of the universe at about a trillion times the speed of light.

It goes on and on like this.  The more little niggling questions we answer, the more imponderable the next questions seem to become.

So all in all, I think Adams was right.

On the other hand, I personally agree that we should stop shooting the elephants.  I don’t think it’s all that complicated to figure out.



  1. And the less we learn, the smaller our world becomes.


    Comment by jooliedee — February 16, 2011 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

    • Oh yes yes yes!


      Comment by theotheri — February 16, 2011 @ 8:57 pm | Reply

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