Nature doesn’t care if we understand all the intricacies of things. Nature appears complete, and dynamic, and alive in its own way. If we look closely at a butterfly’s wing, we see these lovely colorful scales. To see finer details we need technology such as a microsocope. That is hard to do without destroying the butterfly. It is up to us as thinkers to put all the details together and and keep the best overall view in mind for ourselves.
There is no need to be dismayed if you only understand some parts and pieces of the world. All the experts know only bits of their own specialty and misunderstand other things. It is true for everyone, including myself. Scientists frequently believe things which later prove to be untrue. The test of a scientist comes when admitting their favorite idea was wrong.
Climate change deniers are paid well for defending their false claims. It takes rare courage to surrender a sweet gig for benevolent reasons. Young Earth creationists as well, deny the observations and thrive on useless controversy. As evidence builds upon itself over time it is available for anyone to check for themselves and as best they can.
Communicating science is a delicate business since we don’t wish to discourage learning. But researchers are focused on the fringes of knowledge where the general audience has little experience. Patience with ourselves and others and tolerance is vital. Mistakes are gradually uncovered and discarded, scientists are sensitive to their reputations. We are all human.
Scientists struggle to get a better picture of how the world really is. The Standard Model of Particle Physics helps us understand the world better. It is completely understood by no one, but the ongoing research is making the picture more clear.
Material objects in our world are made of atoms. The atoms come in many varieties which are listed in the periodic table of chemical elements. Atoms consist of a swarm of electrons surrounding a dense nucleus of protons and neutrons. These atoms are so tiny that they were not generally accepted as real until the time of Einstein. Objects this small are directly subject to the rules of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is so unfamiliar and strange that it can’t be completely understood and scientists continue to debate its validity.
Both protons and neutrons are made of quarks and gluons. Electrons are partnered up with mysterious neutrinos. These particles are interconnected by exchange particles of which the gluon is one.
A simplified table can list these particles. They are considered fundamental objects:
The 36 particles grouped in families, rows, and columns seem to make up everything (except dark matter and dark energy). The standard model quickly becomes more complicated the closer you look at the details. For the sake of sanity, scientists look for a way to keep things simple. The world rarely cooperates.
These particles of the standard model obey the laws of modern physics. The laws are complex and only partly understood. They are written in three overlapping areas of study. These areas are: Relativity, Thermodynamics, and Quantum Mechanics. Experts know them far better than I, but everyone can investigate these things and get a clearer picture of nature.
All these particles are interconnected by many types of force fields. Magnetic fields can be observed by sprinkling some iron shavings around a magnet. Gravitational fields connect our feet to the ground and hold planets in their orbits. Electric fields repel like charges and attract opposite charges to one another. The Higgs field is not a force field but rather a scalar field.
The Higgs field maintains the universe by keeping mass constant, each particle to its specific size. The July, 2012 announcement at CERN of the discovery of the Higgs boson has to many scientists minds, confirmed this standard model. There are still many unanswered questions about it all but the basic framework should suffice to manage the study of physics for a long time to come.
As we look deeper, the details can become intractable. There is so much going on in the world that “best estimates” of events will have to do in many cases. People who want to know everything become overwhelmed by the minute features. I recommend working at your own pace and get the best grip on science you can.
The string theory community is full of people who seek to know it all. The theory of everything is what they are after. But the quantum world of tiny things is so bizarre that it is hard to believe the results. A similar problem arises with the very largest scale of things we see. Can we be sure there really was a big bang?
The mysteries surrounding the forces of nature are here for us to wonder about. Sure, it would be neat to know everything. The ability to wonder is a wonderful consolation though. The standard models—particle physics and the big bang—give us the framework to keep all our ideas together.
There really is so much going on in science that no one can keep track of it all. Anyone who is interested should continue communicating the ideas and asking the questions. Communication of scientific ideas is still lacking momentum in this country. People err by holding onto incorrect ideas and superstitions. The scientists themselves are too busy to explain it all in plain language for the lay person to grasp. That is, if they even have correct results.
With all that is going on in research the world is changing too fast for us all to keep up. Quantum computers in the future might easily out think us and this may be good or not. Quantum entanglement says that the particles are connected together in ways we do not understand. Superposition says particles can be in more than one state at the same time. We know there is built in uncertainty and the experiments continue to baffle us.
Surveys of the Universe show that we understand little of what is out there. 69 percent of what the Universe is made of what we call dark energy because we understand nothing about it. The dark energy just keeps the expansion of space going faster. Twenty-six percent is called dark matter because we can not see it at all, but galaxies are five times heavier than they look like they should be. The remaining five percent of the matter we tinker with and figure out inventions to show how clever we are.
The brilliance of the natural world outshines all the achievements of we humans. The panoramas of galaxies photographed by the Hubble Space telescope make us look tiny indeed. NASA is building the Webb space telescope which should be far more powerful than the Hubble. But Congress is afraid to fully fund the project. They dropped the ball on the superconducting super collider and they feel okay about that.
The majority will probably continue to ignore science because it is hard. I find that the thrill of discovery is well worth the effort. To wonder about the world and all its beauty is the finest endeavor anyone can embark on. The mysteries of nature are ever fascinating and I would never cheat myself by ignoring them. You are doing yourself a favor by exploring the science from whatever starting place you are at. The magnificence in nature is ever unfolding, ever wondrous, and beautiful beyond belief.
Russ Frizzell, an activist in Olympia since 2010, is a graduate of Evergreen where he studied Physics and Cosmology.