Picture of the big bang captured on my Fuji digital camera one dark night after a tip from a cosmologist-friend toward me where to look. Either that, or it’s the metal “sponge” soldering iron cleaner on my desk, blurred and distorted. (You guess which!)

We live by averages. Everything we see, touch, hear, and so on is an average of what’s really going on. It’s like trying to measure the width of a needle with a yardstick. Our senses are just too coarse to give us an accurate read of reality.

Using the yardstick of our senses, we are aware of four really basic things, matter, energy, space and time. Each of these manifests itself in different ways to our perceptions.

  • Matter feels solid (or liquid or gaseous). As a solid, you can pick it up. It has mass and, if you get enough of it together in a relatively small space, it exhibits enough gravity that you can feel it. The Earth has a lot, the Moon less, and thus Neil Armstrong and a few others “felt” the Moon’s gravity as about 1/6th that of Earth’s.
  • Energy does things. It makes your car go. You can feel the acceleration. Also, your body senses energy in the sun’s rays and sets your circadian rhythm accordingly. Those who travel across many time zones know that “getting some sun” will help reset their body clocks at each end point of their trip.
  • Space has dimension. It has up to down, left to right, and front to back. You can measure the space for a broken piece of glass, scribe and break a replacement to those same dimensions and then put the new pane in that same space.
  • Time passes. It marches on. It is inexorable. What was, is in the past; it’s gone. Let it go and move on. The seconds tick away. It’s 11:21 and 31 seconds Sunday morning. Now it’s 43 seconds. And now 57. … …

Einstein gave us a formula that made two of these interchangeable, matter and energy. You could say they are different manifestations of the same thing, matter-energy.

Later, he came up with an even better mathematical formula that did the same for space and time. When you read about the “relativistic effects” near the speed of light, you are learning about the laws of nature described by that second formula.

We live at a scale where certain measurements of each are common. Terms such as grams, foot-pounds, watts, inches, feet, miles, seconds, hours and years are some of the common units we use each day.

But these are all averages. Every one of them.

Before we get too deep, let’s talk about averages for a moment.

If you draw $100 from an ATM and go to a gambling casino and play one dollar per minute at a slot machine, at the end of sixty minutes you’ll have at least $40 if you lose every time ($100 – $60 = $40). But, more likely, you’ll occasionally win. How much depends, of course, on the return rate that the casino has dialed-in to that slot machine’s computer.

Camera on Curiosity’s Arm as Seen by Camera on Mast (Image courtesy JPL and NASA)

The same operating system that recently orchestrated Curiosity’s complex landing on Mars through the “Seven Minutes of Terror” is the same operating system you’ll find in some slot machines in casinos.

That operating system, VxWorks, is 100% deterministic. JPL uses it in spacecraft because they can program the computer to do what they want exactly when they want it to be done. And slot machine manufacturers use it for the same reason: it is deterministic. They can predict what will happen.

All those blinky lights and fun noises from the slot machine? They’re all there to entice you to insert another coin. Pulling the crank or pushing the button has nothing to do with winning or losing. That’s already been determined. It’s guaranteed!

And, on average, you’re going to lose more than you get. The immutability of the average that keeps the casinos in business is just as absolute as the one that makes the floor beneath your feet feel solid.

Both are averages, but they are very solid averages because the bigger the population over which you compute an average, the more accurate the answer.

Roll two dice and you’ll get a number between 2 and 12. Because there are six combinations that total seven (4+3, 5+2, 6+1 and then 3+4, 2+5 and 1+6) but only one combination (1+1) that results in 2, seven is the more likely sum.

But on any one roll of those two dice, there are 36 possible combinations and so the chance of the number not being seven is higher than the chance it will be. Odds are, it won’t be seven.

If you then bet on that (not seven) number coming up again before a seven is rolled, we’re back to where we started and the seven is (much!) more likely to come up than your number.

You lose.

Or to be very precise, on average, you will lose.

Everything in the casino works this way. On average, the house — the casino — is going to take your money.

Returning to the slot machines, if you delve deep within the source code of those slot machines, you’ll find something called a “random number generator” — and that is probably one of the most closely guarded secrets of the slot machine’s manufacturer.

To say this correctly, I should say it is a pseudo-random number generator and therein lies the reason that part of the program is so carefully guarded.

It is pseudo-random. That is, the numbers are not truly random. If you knew the algorithm, you could guess calculate exactly what’s going to happen next. Armed with that knowledge, you could then know when to bet big or when to let someone else spend their buck instead of yours.

Quantum-mechanics, the “microcode” of the Universe, is sort of the same thing. If you dive down deep enough, there are rules for how things work. And while they may be statistical just as that “random number generator” comes up with a statistical average to decide when the casino will occasionally give you back a little money, the quantum-level rules are also just as immutable.

But down at that quantum-level, that is where “reality” bubbles up and becomes manifest. It is at the quantum-level that matter, energy and, yes, even space and time are assembled.

There are three categories of things at this level, quarks, charged leptons and neutrinos. In total, there are six kinds of quarks, three charged leptons and three neutrinos. A nice even dozen.

Every manifestation we know of is made up of combinations of these things — and I’m italicizing that word because these are things that appear to us as mass, or energy, or space or time.

But the quantum level things are, each one of them, some-thing else entirely.

So, when you read that objects traveling at or near the speed of light have strange properties such as increased mass and decreased time, what you are actually learning is that, when mass/energy move through space/time at some rate, the formulas for what happens to those properties of these quantum-level combinations of things come out with some numbers that seem very strange to our expectations.

We’re just not used to those kinds of speeds.

But the manifestations, the flow of that some-thing stuff between the categories we call mass, energy, space and time, that flow is very real. Whatever it is that’s down there in the quantum realm really is showing up in different forms.

But the constituents of space and time and matter and energy don’t change. They are still made up from these quarky, leptonic and neutrionic things just as before. The problem is that we can’t see beyond them to what’s determining the laws of nature that we see expressed in the physicist’s master formula.

Visualize, if you will, a pot of boiling water with steam rolling up in the air. To an airborne microbe, each of those highly agitated water molecules floating in the air is huge and, as the space around that microbe is twisted this way and that by the rising turbulence, the microbe is similarly carried along. The microbe’s reality is manifest in the steam cloud rising up from the boiling pot full of water. The steam cloud in which the microbe lives twists and turns according to the physical laws of thermodynamics as well as how high the vent-a-hood is turned up or down.

But the microbe knows nothing of the water or oven burner below that create that rising column of steam.

Our reality, our universe, is manifest in the matter, energy, space and time cloud rising up from the boiling pot of quantum particles. It, too, twists and turns according to the physical laws of the universe.

And while we are beginning to understand the quantum world, the “boiling pot of water” that accounts for our universe, we have no clue as to what’s driving it.

Historically, where science ends, theology begins. The same is true today because while most scientists will agree that everything seems to have begun with a “Big Bang” about 13.75 billion years ago, none of those scientists can do any more than hazard a guess as to what caused it.

At a quantum level, we would have to say that our universe — all the matter, the space, the energy and the time — all began in that Big Bang. Asking what happened before that moment is a contradiction in terms because the “time” by which we measure when the Big Bang occurred is, in actuality, created by the quantum-realm since the Big Bang. Before the Big Bang, there was no matter, no energy, no space and no time.

Whatever it was that caused the Big Bang to happen was “there” (where?) “before” (when?) it went “Bang!” (What?)

Or, did it just happen and, voila, the universe?

Whatever it was, I don’t think it’s gonna be 42, or even 8 times 7.


* Note:
This speculative essay was inspired by “Why Does E=mc2” by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, an excellent exploration for the layman of Einstein’s Special and General theories of relativity, quantum mechanics and, ultimately, the nature of the universe. But I openly admit to giving my imagination considerable free rein in this essay. Your reality may differ.

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