Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Lewis Carroll
One of my favourite retirement pleasures is the opportunity to read and learn more about whatever my mind fancies. And one of my life long fancies has been reading about theoretical mathematics and physics. I LOVE stretching my brain to read at least one impossible thing a day …
For the past five months my ‘impossible reading’ has focused on this book by Max Tegmark. Although it deals with some pretty deep cosmological theories he has done a good job of differentiating the reading options for scientists and for regular folks who are interested.
My reading journal is full of notes and questions and I’ve spent many hours surfing the web trying to better understand terms, ideas and concepts. If I was to boil it all down I’d say I’m most fascinated by the use of mathematics to formulate theories about the nature of things we can’t yet measure – but can deduce through their relationships to those things we can measure. It is exciting to be able to read about science experiments catching up to mathematical predictions. And his explanations of how multiple universes can exist … well – there is a prime example of a brain tingling impossible thing to believe!
Reading Tegmark’s book has also set me onto other authors like John D. Barrow. I was curious about the term ‘constants of nature’. I knew about things like the speed of light (c), and the basic electron charge (e), and Planck’s constant(s) … The discussion of numbers that exist on their own … with no dimensions attached … meaning no speed values, no mass values, no length values … intrigued me. I can grasp that pi (3.14….) is such a number. It is a mathematical constant. When you divide a circle’s circumference by its diameter you’ll get pi. But pi shows up in many other situations too … for example it is part of the physics that describes sound waves and light waves. It is useful in predicting how a river will begin to bend and twist and meander. And of course there are oodles of ways it is useful in measuring scientific phenomena related to circles from measuring far away planets to measuring spirals like in a DNA helix.
I’ve yet to get a real grasp on this impossible idea but the gist is that there are some twenty six fundamental constants that scientists/mathematicians have discovered so far. They relate to things like how electrons are held together (the strength of the electromagnetic force is constant …) and how protons and neutrons pair up (the strength of the strong nuclear force is constant …). The masses of the 15 fundamental particles (ever heard of muons, or gluons, or quarks or neutrinos?) seem to be constants. How quarks mix, and how neutrinos mix are detailed by constants. And there is a constant that is used to ‘measure’ the accelerating expansion of our universe.
It’s pretty magical … in a purely awe inspiring way … to know that there are numbers that show up again, and again, and again, and again … in these areas that range from the teeniest tiniest speck of reality to the humongous gargantuan distances and time spans of the universe (and beyond!). And there are people who daily work with these ideas and the tremendous hefty mathematical equations that pop out of their observations.
It seems to me that there are still wizards working among us. And how fun I find it to try to read their impossible explanations of their impossible ideas! 😉