Revelation

Some nights I wake up in the middle and can not easily go back to sleep. So I’ll often get up and crack a book. The other night I was nearing the end of Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe.” I was downstairs in my recliner, tablet on my lap, and slogging away at yet another few pages. This book was not light reading for me. I often only made it a couple of pages before I had to put it down and do something else for a while.

This night I was wide awake, and the literary juices were flowing pretty well. I got through quite a bit of the book when I had a revelation. Gosh, these things don’t happen very often, but when they do, they sure do perk a person up.

“The Elegant Universe” attempts to explain string theory to physics novices such as myself. The author goes to a lot of trouble talking about the math involved, and the fact that the 3 dimensions we are used to dealing with in our daily lives are joined by 7 more in string theory. While math exists to explore these additional dimensions, we are helpless when we try to visualize more than the normal three. On and on Brian Greene would work through the concepts that were barely at the edge of my comprehension.

A couple of concepts finally made sense to me that night. First, that black holes, as far as we know, have only a few attributes, and once they are known, black holes with the same attributes are identical to each other. Second, there is no size requirement for a black hole. All that is required is for matter to be packed densely enough. And third, I made the intuitive leap that we are living inside a black hole. That our universe is a string in a larger universe, and that the many strings that make up our universe are all universes in themselves. That when a black hole forms, the matter in contains compresses to the point where it tears the fabric of space/time into a new dimension where a new universe is created. Whew!

After that I was able to fall asleep, and by morning, the revelation adrenaline that had pumped through my veins that night had settled down somewhat.

My mind veered away from black holes and towards system 1 and 2 thinking. That concept came from a previous book I’d read called, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. He suggests that we humans prepare a model of the world (system 1) which we hold in our brains, and when a decision needs to be made, we consult the model. This requires a minimal amount of energy. When we determine our model is not sufficient, we have to up the energy our brain uses, and “learn” something new (system 2). We are better at this when we are young, but pretty pathetic at it as we get older. We dislike spending the energy, so we live our lives inside our system 1 model, and avoid situations when we have to learn new things.

Slogging my way through “The Elegant Universe” made me realize why it was so difficult to get through very many pages of the book at a time. And it also made me understand where the revelation came from. Unless we make the considerable effort to learn new things, insights will escape us, because all the insights from the system 1 world model we’ve constructed have all been worked out. But if we make the necessary effort to exercise the system 2 side of our brains, the revelations should follow.

With knowledge doubling every 12 months or so, it can get discouraging enough that we just throw up our hands and say forget it. Let’s just live inside the comfortable model we’ve built up over our lives. Or we can keep going, especially in the fields that interest us. I vote for keeping going.

One Response to “Revelation”

  1. Carolyn C Peterson says:

    Great work, Ted! You are certainly a life-long learner!!! I rejoice in the generations that follow ours, the youngsters who are unafraid to embrace new ideas. May we old-timers have the courage to be led by them!

Leave a Reply