Quantum gravity discovery: explains a lot about our brains (as well as the universe)

Quantum Gravity signature image from BICEP2

“The answer is… 42”


Yesterday, the news channels all over the world were filled with something. A story of wonder. A story of profound importance to our understanding of the basic nature of the cosmos, perhaps of reality itself. Scientists announced that they had observed data that appears to prove the (previously theoretical) concept of “cosmic inflation”. It is, even given my extremely amateur understanding of cosmology, a massive deal. However, on a cognitive level, the story is even bigger. Why?

Because there are only a handful of people in the world, relatively speaking, who’ve got even the slightest clue what it really means. That makes it the first news story I can remember that has hammered the airwaves and made the headlines, where the people reporting it and the audience watching, have both got virtually no idea why they’re reporting it or why they’re watching it. It’s a paradox. A real, live example of news reporting for our unconscious minds.  And also, great news for Star Trek fans… no really, it explains the concept of warp drive too.

It’s a proper geek out… and your brain is wired to do it.  It’s evolution.

Here’s the crux of the story:

In a discovery that has profound implications for our understanding about the beginnings of the universe, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics this morning announced evidence of so-called primordial B-modes in the cosmic microwave background (CMB). These B-modes directly show quantum gravitational waves originating during the inflationary period of cosmic evolution, from about 10-36 to 10-32 seconds after the Big Bang, and give us a direct view of physical processes taking place at 1016 GeV – a trillion times more energetic than particle collisions at the Large Hadron Collider.

Errr… okay then.  Whoa.  Awesome!

No, wait.  What the hell does that mean?

For those of us less gifted than Einstein, what this means is for about a trillionth of a second, the universe expanded at what appears to be faster than the speed of light.  It also means a whole other bunch of things like the quantisation of gravity (the stabilisation of the force we call gravity into the predictable physical affect we know today) and shows us how much energy the Big Bang produced and so on.

But the light speed bit is the most important.  As you may know already, nothing with physical mass can travel faster than light.  That’s because we observe that the faster you go, the slower time moves.  As you get closer to light speed it slows down exponentially until, at the speed of light, time stops all together.  To put that another way, consider that for a photon of light (a discrete package of energy, like a ball of wavy insubstantial brightness, with no physical mass) coming from the sun to the Earth, we can measure the time to be about 8 minutes. That’s a perspective of its speed, its ability to travel from there, to here. It’s a basic observable phenomenon. But from the photon’s point of view, it is on the sun, on the earth and all points in between on it’s journey all at the same time.

That’s hard to grasp, but that’s how the (relativity) theory goes.  So, you can’t go any faster, because speed is a measure of time and distance, and seeing how, once at the speed of light, you’re already at the beginning, middle and end of your journey all at precisely the same moment, there is no time or distance.  It’s the logical equivalent of hitting the brakes on a parked car.  Meaningless.

Now, suddenly, that orthodoxy has a problem it can’t accommodate.  If nothing can travel faster than light, how did the universe, just after the big bang, expand so quickly?  The Answer is theoretically possible, they had that back in the 1920s, when the first proponent of inflation theory, William de Sitter, suggested the idea that actually space time itself was expanding faster than light, nothing within it was actually moving faster than light.


Warp factor awesome

Okay, so Space Time is near enough what we know to be the physical nature of existence.  It’s quite literally the two things we need to exist in three dimensions, space (up, down, left, right, backwards, forwards) and time (a physical property of existence that means we can understand what we are as opposed to living and dying and doing everything in between simultaneously).  Space time itself has no mass.  Any more than the time your watch measures has mass.  Or space (as in outer space) itself, has mass.  The stuff in it has mass, sure, but the space itself doesn’t.  No mass means no cosmic speed limit.

The problem, however, is de Sitter’s space time theory was purely theoretical, at least, it was until they observed the primordial gravitational waves at the BICEP2 observatory and announced it yesterday.  In fact, many great minds like Stephen Hawking has published papers showing it to be, mathematically impossible.  Except now it looks like it isn’t.

That’s good news for Star Trek fans, because it means if a bubble of space time can travel faster than light, then if we could build an engine to do make a bubble of space time, like they’ve got on the Starship Enterprise, then we can fly off round the galaxy and do cool stuff like have kung fu battles with guys with lumpy heads and get it on with hot green chicks in 1960s swimwear.  Cool, huh?


Brain factor less awesome

Where all this comes together, for mere mortals, at least, is… er…  okay I have no idea.  So we know the universe was an infinitely dense, tiny little blob of stuff that should have been so sense it collapsed into itself, like a black hole, and fell out of the universe or snuffed itself into nothingness.  We can theorise that maybe, we were like a tiny little blob of stuff in another universe, which got all excited (with quantum fluctuations) and burst out into the universe we call home today.  Maybe, similar universes are popping out of this one, just like that.  So what?

We can’t go outside our universe, so nothing really changes.  So we know more about where we came from, maybe.  Great.  I had a great Uncle, Samuel Turner, apparently, who disappeared up the Amazon and was never seen again.  Fascinating stuff, but not really something I can use in my every day life to do anything with.  So this news, although hugely important, is also, hugely irrelevant compared to more pressing news items.

But it’s on the news.  More than that, it’s on the news being reported by people who don’t really know what it all means.  Some of them might, like me, have a rudimentary grasp of the physics involved, same as some of the audience, but for many people who aren’t geeks, it’s all a bit mysterious.  Sure, everyone is interested, but compared to Strictly Come Dancing or the mystery of the missing plane in Malaysia, or the Russians in Crimea, it’s all rather vague.


So why the news coverage?

Because of an unconscious cognitive bias we all have to understand the nature of things.  Because this question, maths and physics to one side, speaks directly to our unconscious minds, it’s the question all higher forms of intelligence are aware of:

“Why am I here?”

It’s the crux of everything we do.  Why do people live like they do?  Why do we create music, art, machines.  Why do we have money.  Why do we have politics.  Why do we bother to get up in the morning and get dressed.  There are many practical, physical reasons we use to explain those questions, but ultimately they’re all driven by our basic unconscious need to define our own reality, to understand our own existence.  It is the question of “What’s the point?”  The question that we ask ourselves on our deathbeds, wondering how all that struggle for money and possessions was worth it, we ask ourselves about relationships past, about decisions we made and lived to regret. It’s self-reflection.


It’s the loneliness of the soul, without time, without space… dude

Heavy stuff, right?  No, it’s the basic unconscious process that explains one aspect of what your brain is for.  Not just yours either.  Pretty much everything that has a brain and doesn’t just float about absorbing nutrients has a little spark of that inside them.  It’s the mechanism of problem solving.  It’s the way that feeling hungry = eating something.  It’s a biological imperative.  That is the basis of problem solving.  In more advanced brains, like ours, this problem solving allows us to build impossible scenarios in our heads, we call them “abstract concepts”.  Our ability to create complex, rational arguments to explore things we can’t simply see, smell or touch. It’s driven by an unconscious process called a Theory of Mind, which means we understand that other living things (other than stuff that floats about absorbing nutrients) do things because they have their own mind making them do it.  It’s special.  Some creatures have hints of it, the ones who use primitive tools to perform tasks (like chimps cracking nuts with sticks, or birds bashing snails on rocks, or octopi in labs teaching new arrivals how to get food out of a box) but only humans have got the capacity to puzzle about the nature of their existence.

It’s such a strong motivation, it also makes journalists nod and smile at boffins on the news, using terms like “quantum gravity” and “cosmic inflation” without any idea about what the words they’re using really mean.

It also makes us watch, eyes wide, trying to puzzle it out.

It made me write this, too.