One of the motivations for the late Richard Feynmann learning to draw was so he could represent, artistically, the beauty he found in math and physics. Math and science does not reduce the beauty of the world around us. I can fully appreciate the beauty of a double rainbow. (And I’ve seen the occasional triple rainbow–glorious.) And I can also appreciate, the nature of the wave equations, how dispersion, the differential propagation speed of different wavelengths of light through a medium, separates the white light from the sun into different colors and how total internal reflection in spherical water droplets magnifies the effect to create the arc of color in the sky.
Knowing the science doesn’t take from the beauty. It adds whole new dimensions.
And so, the following guest post from Jason Fuesting.
I’ve been told before that because of who and what I am, I could not see the beauty in the world around me. That somehow, being a hard science and math type, a technologist, and a conservative amongst other things, that somehow those things have rendered blind me to the world while they themselves held superior vision and only they could appreciate what lay around them….
Why is it that the people who claim superiority never actually are? Why is it those loudest in their proclamation of the faults of others are nigh universally declaring their own faults and casting them upon others?
As a compulsive learner, I have never been in a position where at some level I did not ask myself “Why?” I’ve never been in a position where I did not try to answer that question and then question the answer, and then question that answer, ad infinitum. Only time has limited my search for knowledge and understanding.
When I step out on my front porch, I see beauty. Everything, everything is beautiful. Every. Last. Thing.
I see the trees… Their structure? The structure they have grown in to was dictated in real-time by localized conditions that skew protein expression, whose skew is in turn determined by its own set of rules encoded in each tree’s DNA, which is in turn dictated not just by inheritance but the subtle, fickle hand of the universe… The way they move in the wind? The interplay of time-variant, fluid dynamic forces fleeting variations of pressure density tugging with drag one moment, pushing the next as the cellular structures they affect bend and twist under their influence. The grass, no different.
I see the squirrels, the birds, the insects, every last living thing, and they’re all this time-slice’s ultimate expressions of their phylogenetic heritage. They are the tip of an unbroken chain reaching backwards in time all the way to the first organic structure that somehow managed to encase itself in hydrophobic proteins, thus preventing its immediate dissolution by the polar solvent we know as water. Yet, that same structure’s function is wholly dependent on the very things that will ultimately dissolve it anyway: water and oxygen.
I see the people. Our fates, our beginnings, they are no different, neither from each other’s, nor from those of the animals.
And yet, the unbroken chains of every living being I see represents is but a minuscule part of a larger chain, one that will remain unbroken, pushing forward through the barrier of time that drags us along. That chain stretches out toward a horizon none of us will ever directly experience in our current form, to a destination wholly unknowable and mysterious.
I see the sky, blue as it only appears to be, and marvel at the trillions of trillions of photons streaming into the atmosphere above me at any given moment. I see the blues from Rayleigh scattering that hide the blackness of space during the day, the Mie scattering that gives us the whites of the clouds, all the subtle scattering influences that give the world color, hue, verdant warmth, and chill pallor.
And when the sun has gone down, I see the universe laid bare before me. I see the moon looming overhead, tidal locked to the irregular spheroid I stand upon, with its linear and angular momentums, forced by the warp and weave of spacetime into an apparently circular path, much as our path circles the sun. Yet even that isn’t static, for as we move the moon, so must it too move us, and the same between us and the sun, and so forth for everything in our solar system, an endless precessional and processional dance of n-body orbital dynamics.
But that chain of influence does not stop there. I see the endless, unfathomable black stretching out, interrupted only by the twinklings of a past that took millions, if not billions of years to travel directly to my eye. I see the endless spheres, the endless layers of influence, our solar system and countless others orbit a central point, which in turn orbits something else, and so forth, each larger system influencing and being influenced by its children and its peers, a nigh limitless cosmic choreographing to a Great Song so beautiful we only experience it as the flow of time.
And yet, by seeing the vastness of eternity laid out before me, I see, hear and feel the infinitesimal, vanishing smallness that eternity is composed of, seemingly ignorable yet omnipresent and omnipotent in ways so easily missed, so easily misunderstood.
At human scales, one can see, touch, and feel without ever knowing of this smaller realm nor its rules. Yet knowing the rules, as ill-defined as we have suffered in our quest to define them, one stumbles upon uncomfortable truths. One does not ever touch a thing for the electromagnetic force stops you long before you come in contact with anything. In fact, the act of seeing is not seeing, nor is the act of hearing actually hearing. They are all electromagnetic interactions.
Hearing? Particles in the air move because other particles push on them. The structures of your ears focus this movement into a chamber where, in their moving, they disturb other particles, which in turn sets off a chain reaction that generates electric arcs that spiral deep into your brain. Those currents are what you eventually interpret as sound, and the quietest sound one can hear without undamaged hearing involves the movement of particles whose distance travelled is smaller than the diameter of a hydrogen atom.
Touch? Little different. The feeling of touch is merely the influence of other particles that excite certain nerves into firing their own currents that feed to different parts, different processing centers of the brain. Feeling heat? The same with the only exception that instead of long-term compression sensitivity, those nerves are sensitive to short term energy transfer, because heat is precisely and only the transfer of energy. It’s exactly the same thing as the energy transferred when a thrown ball strikes a wall, except the ball is a particle and you are the wall.
Sight? Sight is subtly different. One does not “see” the object. What one “sees” are photons emitted by the object. Much like hearing, structures in the eyes focus these photons onto sensitive tissues that trigger currents when struck, and those currents are passed into yet another neurological structure for interpretation.
Even our idea of what constitutes a thing doesn’t apply at this scale. One grips a ball and knows the ball is solid, but one does not know the ultimate truth. Particles are not solid. They are distributed into a cloud whose shape and perturbations are determined by the sum of influences at every given point of the cloud, and the influences are what most think of as forces. And yet, the shape and perturbation of one cloud dictates the sum of influences it has against neighboring clouds and vice versa. Thus, some clouds become bound to others so long as they contain less than a certain amount of energy. When one holds a ball, the electromagnetic force keeps the particles of your hand separate from the particles of the ball. When one squeezes the ball and it feels solid, the clouds that comprise the ball compress to a minimal volume as allowed by their joint sum of influences, beyond which the force so applied cannot compress further, and that incompressibility is fed into the sense of touch.
But more subtle than that, and lost on many, the particles that compose one’s skin do not form a uniform surface, much less a flat barrier. Much as one can grip a ball of sand and the sand emerges from between one’s fingers, so too do the particles of the ball, but on the quantum scale. As such, the particles of the ball necessarily squeeze into those gaps, and given the shape and density of all the clouds are dictated by the sum of influences, during this compression one will necessarily see some small number of clouds pass through others into places solid objects could not go. And in releasing the compression, not every particle, nor every structure of particles bound to other particles, will return to its original placement. Some of the particles of your skin will be left on and in the ball, just as part of the ball will be left on or in you.
And the apparent weirdness persists because that description only largely applies to what we have defined as bosons, as matter, as things. There are things that are not things in the way we think of things being, not even a little bit. Those? Those are gauge particles like photons.
Photons are things and yet not things. They are events that propagate like waves, yet their effects resolve like particles. They are the means of interaction, the ultimate expression of the electromagnetic force. And much like their cousins, gluons, who fill the same role for the Strong force, they carry momentum and energy yet have no mass. In being so, in being so they teach us the first of so many lessons: the universe is under no compulsion to make sense to us. We are the students, not the teachers. Just as students do not dictate the lessons, we must not presume to dictate terms to the universe when we are but motes of dust if we hope to learn from it.
And all that is just what I see before me as a man and physicist. My perspectives are many. The interactions between the people are laid bare through my explorations on Liberty and economics. Motives, actions, reactions, all are part of a consistent set of rules that explain every last knowable thing. The technology I can see, the cars, the street lights, power lines, all of them are expressions of humanity to manipulate the environment using the rules we know to achieve results we want using the resources we have, all of which are ultimately dictated by the influence of Liberty and economics. Everything mentioned, they’re all systems and those systems are fed by smaller systems while simultaneously themselves feeding into larger systems. They are a long, unbroken, spiral of chains of influence stretching from the smallest scales to progressively larger ones, each link influencing the link before, the link after, and the link beside it.
Even our own bodies and the neurological structure with which we parse the world beyond for us is not an exception this. We, however you want to define ‘we’, are embedded in running-state-based self-programming organic computers which in turn are embedded in a larger organic structure we use to manipulate and observe the world around us.
And here I am, gazing upon it all in biblical awe, and, in bearing witness to the same, I am not afraid. Instead, I want to know more. I want to know it all.
And there is so much to learn. We start this life unknowing and naïve. We learn the world around us by interacting with it, not knowing that in every interaction, our perspective, derived from our running state, dictates our interpretations. As we learn, we explain unknowns and populate the running state with expectations, gaining perspective in an iterative process where every layer of knowledge builds on previous observation, previous perspective. Eventually those expectations seem feature complete, but they’re not. Most learn only the lessons of the system that exists at the scale we live in, not knowing our system is merely the natural result produced by progressively smaller systems. Similarly, they do not necessarily learn that the results of our scale’s system project upward, directing the ebb and flow of systems ever larger than we are. Vanishingly few bear witness to the unbroken chain from the infinitely small to the infinitely large, an infinite sum of the smallest that ultimately describes the largest in such excruciating detail that the smallest influence is undetectable.
Those influences are all describable in one language: mathematics. Everything you see, everything you touch, everything you hear, from the most mundane object to your very self, they are, at their heart, nothing but math. All of them part of a larger yet unbroken and in this case unbreakable chain. An infinite sum of infinite sums, stretching in infinite directions across an infinite series of scales, connecting both the known and the unknown to a past we do not know to a future we cannot know and then to a future we will never see because all things are fleeting, not just us, but the stars themselves as well.
And despite our efforts and the cumulative efforts of those who have come before us, the unknown still looms, just beyond our notice. And we should, no, we aught necessarily seek to understand because in not knowing we are limited. And in our limitation, we err. On the personal scale, we harm those who should not be harmed, shelter those who should not be sheltered, aid those who should not be aided. We seek peace when we should fight and fight when we should seek peace. We fail to see our desire to heal only produces harm. On nearby scales, we lack solutions for problems that can and should be solved. At scales non-adjacent to our own we fail to find the knowledge that leads back to solutions at other scales, which in turn eventually loop back to provide solutions at our scale.
Those solutions and so much more lie in the unknown, just beyond our notice. We could have them if only we were curious enough, persistent enough to seek them.
But why? In seeking the unknown, what will we find? Why am I, like so many, driven to push against the night, to push the unknown back as our forefathers did before us? What were they searching for? What are we searching for? Why?
From the steps outside my house, looking at the beauty in the infinite complexity around me and the vastness of Eternity, I am find myself curious, as do many others. What do we see, peering forward in time with the tools we have? We know enough to know those predictions will always be imperfect precisely because the scales below us are so innumerable, but what if we could look backwards? The past has already happened, its influence laid bare in its totality around us. What would we see if we could but roll back the hands of time, rewinding the Great Song back to the beginning? What truth awaits us there?
What we see today when we attempt to do so certainly suggests much, but is our understanding sufficient such that by applying what we know, do we find what truly was? Or is what we currently find waiting for us at the beginning merely an expression of our ignorance, a defect in our knowledge? We do not nor cannot know for certain. And so we push forward, as did our forefathers. Standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before us, we are pulled along by the flow of time, searching, hunting for ever more knowledge. We hope to fill in the gaps, perhaps gaps we aren’t even aware exist. We hope, in the knowing of new things, we will recognize ever more subtle details in the picture, the great Infinite Sum, before us. And with that newfound clarity, we seek to forge what we hope is the final link of yet another unbroken chain that spans from the horizon behind us to where we stand today.
As it has in every one of their children since, when the first human gazed upon the stars for the first time so many eons ago, the sight stirred a need in their hearts, in their spirits. The sight before them evoked questions that have no answers and a need to answer them. Who am I? What am I? What does this all mean? What comes next?
And yet, bearing witness to all of this, when my heart aches at what I see, I am told I see not the beauty in the world around me by those who presume the superiority of their perspective. In making that presumption, they commit the gravest of fundamental errors: they presume to dictate to the universe what is and is not. Unseeing, they knowingly turn their back on the unknown and embrace their limited state along with everything that implies.
Not everyone who sees the world differently is blind, for believing so presumes one truly sees. Only in refusing to question what we see are we ever truly blind.
Be the bright mote in the darkness that lights the way for others, not the one who seeks to snuff it out. Be the shoulders upon whom future generations will stand upon to reach even further, not the hand that yanks them back into ignorance. Be the next link in the chain, not the destroyer. All scales affect the others. This need not be the end.