Of Cosmic Significance

I spent the greater part of last week delving into quantum electrodynamics, the theory that now forms the basis of our understanding of how the universe operates at the atomic level.

Thanks to solid-state technological advances, through my personal computer I was able to access a number of video lectures on the web—several by Nobel laureates Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe—that enhanced my understanding of quantum mechanics.

Unfortunately, because I lack the mathematical background, I found that I was unable to comprehend both derivations and solutions to complex equations such as the Schrödinger wave functions and the calculations of probability amplitudes.  But then, perhaps even this knowledge might not have served to enlighten me further.  As Feynman pointed out in his 1979 Auckland lectures, “no one understands quantum mechanics.”

According to Feynman, it all comes down to this:  (1) electrons move through space in time, (2) photons move through space and time, (3) electrons and photons collide and separate, absorbing and releasing energy.

Thus far, theoretical physics has managed to integrate quantum mechanics and the atomic weak force. It has yet to meld the nuclear strong force into the equation, and gravitational force is turning out to be elusive as well.

Lately, M-theory, a derivative of string theory, has been proposed as a possible answer to the theory of everything, although we are far from integrating infinity into these equations.

When I made mention of these musings of mine in an e-mail to a good friend, he responded: “My own thoughts about life and the universe have become simpler as I have grown older.  Like the flapping of the butterfly’s wing, an act of love reverberates through the universe in a way that goes beyond the phenomenon of the act itself.”

Electrons, photons, butterfly wings—minute reverberations through a complex universe that extend well beyond our ken.

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever insignificant.

Whitman’s verses come to mind:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

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2 comments on “Of Cosmic Significance

  1. David Hildreth says:

    You are adventurous. My ventures into the unknowable go only as far as trying to understand how Israel and Palestine can ever get together.

    In a simpler age, Kipling mused on eternity with a poem that starts “When earth’s last picture is painted. . . ” and continues “We shall rest, and faith, we shall need it. . .” The painters who pick up their brushes after lying down “for an eon or two” may by then understand quantum mechanics, but will they need to?

  2. DJE says:

    Whitman, like Wordsworth
    “…learned
    To look on nature, not as in the hour
    Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
    The still, sad music of humanity,
    Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
    To chasten and subdue.”

    For me, the poets speak more TRUTH than the physicists. Great poets are rarely wrong; while physicists are just dancing in the dark. Recently, String Theory has come under strong attack — I haven’t followed the noise.

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