To understand the history of our universe – and its future – we must understand that humans have only been in it for a fraction of a fraction of its history, says one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.
Professor Brian Green He is chair of Columbia University’s Center for Theoretical Physics, and he is the co-founder and president of the World Science Festival.
Author of six bestselling books, most recently, Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving WorldHe explains the universe and our quest for meaning in the face of this vast expanse.
Even for someone immersed in the mysteries of the universe as it is, the first look at a black hole recently was a big moment, he says.
“It was a great moment, for sure, as a physicist, I’ve been studying the mathematics behind black holes since I was a graduate student in the ’80s.
“And when we can finally see these things, literally, through the images taken by the radio telescopes, the Event Horizon Telescope, it’s very exciting to see the math written down big across the night sky, where you’re really seeing the edge of a black hole, you see the properties of black holes, aligning really well. Amazing with the mathematics that finally came to us from Albert Einstein.”
For many of us, it’s impossible to understand the vastness of the universe, but we should try, he says.
“If you really want to understand the place of the human race in the cosmic order, you have to understand this cosmic order, or at least you have to make great strides toward understanding it.
“Because when you realize that we are not distinct from the universe, that we are made of the same physical components, that we are subject to the same mathematical laws that govern black holes, that govern planets, that govern stars, you realize that there is a beautiful continuum between the fundamental laws, and the fundamental components and structures that we define We are ourselves, and the thinking structures we identify as the gray brains inside our heads that we use to define who we are as individuals.”
We are nothing but highly organized collections of different components that make up everything else in the universe, he says.
“It shows a deep connection and also strongly suggests that to understand ourselves, we need to understand the basic structure of the universe.”
There is almost certainly life out there, he says, the more subtle question being is there intelligent life?
“I don’t think we have any information at all. We don’t really know what it takes for matter, not just to organize itself into a living structure, but to organize itself into a living structure that can think and feel and can have a sense of self and curiosity about the universe that kind From the organized material – I don’t know how likely or likely that is.
“So there is probably a lot of life outside [there], but even if there is, how intelligent life is there in the sense of being able to communicate with us, that to me is the greater unknown. And I have no insight. I don’t think anyone else does that either.”
He says the universe is 13.8 billion years old.
“If you focus on the universe to which we have direct access, there may be others. But let’s keep the conversation simple. If you focus on this universe, it appears to have started about 13.8 billion years ago, in this rapid bulge of space that we call the Big Bang.”
But the next natural question is what was before the Big Bang? What started the Big Bang? How did it become the material that eventually led to the expansion of space itself? There are a lot of unknowns about the origin story of the universe, and the best we can say is that something really interesting happened 13.8 billion years ago.
“And this appears to be directly related to the expansion of space that we are currently observing, and the formation of structures such as stars and galaxies that we can see dotting the night sky.”
He says that humanity’s role in the universe is minimal.
“If you take the history of the universe and crunch it in one year, on this scale, we humans appear at 11:50 p.m. a few minutes before midnight on December 31 of the calendar year.
“Imagine that the entire history of the universe is confined to one calendar year, and we don’t even show up until the last few minutes. That’s how small our footprint is on the cosmic timeline.”
He says it is mathematically possible for there to be parallel universes.
When it comes to ideas of parallel universes, I need to stress that this is a very speculative idea. We don’t know if this is true. But our mathematical theories suggest that there may be other worlds separate from our own that should rightly be called their own.
These other universes could have different properties. It can be inhabited by life forms, and it can be filled with particles that follow different laws relative to the laws we know.
“And one way to think about it is to ask how old our universe is and you’re talking about 13.8 billion years, which is when we think the Big Bang happened.
“Some of our mathematical theories strongly suggest that the Big Bang was not a one-time event. There are many Big Bangs, and one of those Big Bangs gave rise to our world.
“But the math suggests that these other big things happening in faraway places throughout the broader expanse of reality, those different Big Bangs will give rise to different universes.”
If this is a mind-boggling concept to understand, he suggests thinking of it as a giant “cosmic bubble bath.”
“Our bubble is our universe, but there are other bubbles in the cosmic bubble bath, which will be other universes inhabiting this realistic landscape.”
Professor Greene says humanity has never had more knowledge, and yet the human condition is dragging us down.
“We have overcome many challenges, if you look through the history of the species. And when you analyze and look at what is happening today, you can’t help but say how could it be? How can we still be fighting and killing each other?”
“How can we still be so selfish, that we can’t see that there are things we need to do for everyone, so that we can all survive, thrive, and reach human potential?
“So yes, it is tragic, but at the same time, I must say that I am optimistic. I think that in general, we will be able to overcome the challenges that we face, and it will be painful, and there will be disasters, and there will be tragedies that, unfortunately, we see unfold, At least here in America, now almost on a daily basis.
“So, it’s absolutely amazing what we do to ourselves. But I like to think that these are temporary glimpses, temporary challenges, temporary setbacks in the grand scheme of human progress, because there are so many upsides.”
He says that the positive achievements of humanity give him hope.
“Look what we’ve done; we’ve been able to manipulate matter, we’ve been able to travel to the moon, we can look into deep space, we’ve been able to unravel the fundamental laws that govern particles.
“I mean, this is an amazing achievement. Collectively, I can’t help but believe that we will be able to overcome the challenges we face.”
When he looks up at the night sky, he still feels a great sense of amazement, he says.
“You see the deep richness of the sky and all the radiant glory, filled with all the wonderful points of light that are there.
“And you can’t help but feel the thing we started our conversation with, you feel connected to this universe, you feel like you’re immersed in it, and you’re a part of it.
“And this is a real feeling, because this is actually the human condition. We are not separate from the universe. We are part of it.”