Michael Gerson says that we are in the “golden age of physics,” which explodes the old common sense materialism and discloses “a strangeness at the heart of all things.”
He gives examples of the weird science that quantum physics reveals, then speculates about the philosophical questions. Read the excerpts after the break and consider: What are the worldview implications of the new physics?
Each of the GPS satellites that allow me to navigate to a new restaurant carries an atomic clock that needs to be accurate in order to triangulate the speed and position of my moving car. But there are a couple of problems. Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity predicts that clocks hurtling through space at satellite speed will appear to tick more slowly than earthbound clocks by about 7,000 nanoseconds each day (a nanosecond is a billionth of a second). His Theory of General Relativity, on the other hand, predicts that clocks farther from a massive object (the Earth), will advance faster than clocks on the ground, in this case by a little more than 45,000 nanoseconds.
If the GPS system fails to compensate for the 38,000-nanosecond difference predicted by an eccentric German physicist, errors in global positioning would increase by about 6 miles each day. In 23 days, my restaurant in Washington, D.C., might mistakenly show up in Philadelphia. This is the oddness of modern physics invading the everyday world. . . .
At the macro level, it was only in the late 1990s that astronomers found, against all expectation, that the expansion of the universe is accelerating instead of slowing down. This led to the postulation of an unseen dark energy in the vacuum of space — a force from the void capable of repelling galaxies. Astronomers have also found that stars on the edges of galaxies move faster than gravitational theory would predict, leading to the theory that (so far) undetectable dark matter keeps galaxies from flinging apart. It is estimated that more than 95 percent of the universe — dark energy plus dark matter — is entirely unseen.
The micro level is even odder. A century of quantum physics still has not fully sunken in. The smallest particles exist not in places but in probability waves that reach across the universe. In the prevailing (but disputed) consensus, they gain a definite position only upon observation. According to Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw in “The Quantum Universe,” we inhabit “a world in which a particle really can be in several places at once and moves from one place to another by exploring the entire universe simultaneously.”
At every level, from top to bottom, we gain knowledge of the world only by cutting our ties to common sense and intuition. The largest things are hidden from our view. The smallest things defy any coherent mental picture. There is, in fact, a strangeness at the heart of all things.