Glenn K. Beaton: In understanding universe, we’re like dogs playing shell game |

Glenn K. Beaton: In understanding universe, we’re like dogs playing shell game

Glenn K. Beaton
The Aspen Beat

Dogs can’t understand a simple shell game. Try it.

Let the dog watch as you put two cups on the floor. Under one, put a clean toy (not a treat or a dirty toy because the dog can smell them out). As the dog watches, slowly switch the positions of the two cups.

Then ask, “Where’s your toy?”

The dog will choose the wrong cup. That’s simply because the wrong cup is now in the location where he last saw the toy. He’s unable to grasp the fact that when you switched the positions of the cups, you also switched the positions of their contents. Dog brains are limited.

Human brains also are limited. Humans are unable to grasp some concepts, no matter how hard we think, experiment and data-gather. The following examples may fall into that category.

What existed before the universe came into existence 13.8 billion years ago? Almost as a matter of semantics, your answer must be “nothing” because the universe is defined to include everything.

OK, then how did the universe — everything — come into existence out of nothing? That would seem to require an effect without a cause.

Here’s another. Why do things fall? In other words, what is gravity? We can predict the consequences of gravity, at least in conventional time and space, but we don’t have a clue as to what it is.

How did life begin? This is a biggie. Consider first that life happened only once on Earth. We know this because all life is the same at the molecular level, and so scientists agree that it has one common ancestor.

Consider second that there’s no evidence that any extraterrestrial life has ever visited us. In fact, we have zero evidence of life anywhere but Earth, even though we’ve been searching for a couple of generations. As the great physicist Enrico Fermi put it 69 years ago, “Where is everybody?”

And consider third that our best minds using our best laboratories have been unable to create life in a test tube.

Those who say life happens accidentally everywhere in the universe that holds a primordial mud puddle have a lot of explaining to do about these three considerations.

Oh, I know about the Drake Equation where number crunchers put variables into an equation, crunch the numbers and out comes a calculation showing that alien life is all over except, evidently, hereabouts.

But recent work suggests that there may be many more input variables than we thought. Life requires more than a planet at a convenient distance from a suitable star.

It may require such things as a large moon produced by a freak impact with another planet at just the right distance to intercept most collisions with asteroids. Or a planet with a rocky mantle and a moving molten core to produce a magnetic field to block deadly cosmic rays. Or a bizarre biochemical reaction, or other things that may be rare.

As for the variables that are already in the Drake equation, we now know that they can be rationally assigned values that put the number of inhabited planets in the universe at exactly one — Earth. A recent TED show discusses this.

It’s like the old expression in computer programming. GIGO, or garbage in, garbage out. The Drake Equation is only as good as our guesses about the variables in it.

Bear in mind that it’s not unprecedented for events to happen only once. I happened only once, you happened only once and today happens only once. Why is that?

Here’s one last problem that appears incomprehensible to humans. Scientists say some 85% of the universe is unaccounted for. They call it “dark matter.” It’s everywhere but we can’t find any of it. As Fermi might have put it had he lived longer, “Where is everything?”

Some things just seem beyond our grasp. Maybe it’s not a matter of gathering more information or doing more experiments. In the area of fundamental physics — the science that would tell us what we are, who we are and why we are — we’re like dogs defeated at the shell game.

There’s something humbling and liberating about that. Dogs are happy, right?

All this reminds me of Job. After enduring terrible and undeserved misfortune, a puzzled and angry Job demanded an explanation from God. The reply Job received went something like this:

“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundation? Who marked off its dimensions? On what were its footings set, and who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” Job 38.

It’s good for us to ask the hard questions. But we can’t complain when our brains are too small to comprehend the answers right in front of us. Like the stars and the angels, we sometimes can only sing together and shout for joy.

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