Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Fourth Dimension


I read another book.  So once again I've got stuff like time and space and the nature of the universe rattling around my brain like a dried pea in a maraca.  This one was called A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing.

It explains the Big Bang to lay people.  Sort of.  I got lost a lot in the specifics, but all I can say is that there are a whole lot of really smart physicists and astronomers who have figured out a lot of really amazing things.  I'm glad they're there, doing what they do.

To astrophysicists, this is like 2 + 2

One amazing thing I learned is that the evidence we have of the Big Bang is only temporary, and as the universe continues to expand, eventually all the stars in the sky will be too far away for us to see, and in 5 billion years or so, any other astronomers on other planets (our solar system will have blown up by then) will not have any evidence there ever was a Big Bang.  We are living a very unique time in the universe's history where we can figure these things out.  

See, it's all very clear.  Now.  

The quick answer to the book's central question (Why is there something rather than nothing?) is that nothing is unstable.  That is to say, nothingness can not sustain itself-- it needs something-ness to balance it out.     

Mind = blown


I remember when I was a kid hearing a "wild theory" that time was the fourth dimension! It totally blew my mind. Time?  A dimension in space?  

[WARNING: I may be talking out of my ass here.]

But today when I read books on astrophysics and the nature of the universe, they seem to take it for granted that time is the fourth dimension.  It's not some wild theory but a scientific given.

It makes sense when you consider that in order for two objects to intersect, not only do you need space coordinates, but a time coordinate as well.  When two cars collide, it just means they are occupying the same space (3 dimensions) at the same time (4th dimension).  If one car appeared in that space a second later (or earlier), there would be no crash.  So time is a crucial element in determining an object's location.

Of course, time is unique (to us) in that we are moving through it at a constant rate and we have no control over it.  Within the first three dimensions, we can move up and down and side to side, but you can't do that with time.

Here's how our journey through time was first described to me in a metaphor from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five:

But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

This was only the beginning of Billy's miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn't know he was on a flatcar, didn't even know there was anything peculiar about his situation
We move through time at a constant rate.  But as we learn more about the universe expanding, on a grand scale we don't really have control over where we are in space, either.  Our ability to move through space is quite minuscule on a universal scale. We (our planet and solar system) are all moving apart from the rest of the universe the same way we move through time.   We can't control that, either.


Believe it or not, I can even tie this fourth dimension stuff into my job as a librarian.  One of the main components of evaluating sources that I teach students is to always look at the publication date.  When something was written is just as important as who, what, or where it was published.

The when has always been a vital part of information for me.  Whenever I read a book, or watch a movie, or hear a piece of information, I want to know how old it is or what time period it represents.  Whether a story takes place in 1870 or 1970 or 2005 or 2013 will be just as important as whether it took place in India, Italy, or Iowa.

When is intertwined with where.



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