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Strings and roundabouts

A Goldilocks Zone of space and time.

Photo courtesy of Sophie del Rae via Freepik.com/Pikisuperstar

by Jake Roslin & Millie Jones

The distance a which a planet circles its host star, among other factors, determines whether life as we know it can take hold. Like proverbial porridge-purloiner Goldilocks, too hot or cold is not a happener. Could a similar idea apply to space and time laws themselves?

On the micro-level, Thomas Norton described the “attom” in 1477, though he had already suspected an indivisible building block of matter--except it wasn’t. Victorian J. J. Thompson’s trusty cathode ray tube identified the negatively-charged electron in an atomic “plum pudding”, paving the way for Rutherford's model of the nucleus. Still, scientists dug deeper. The quirky quark was next, not just one but several flavours of the fractionally-charged nuclear particle with distinctly odd raisons d’etre. And, in recent decades, it’s all been about the string, a kind of shimmering filament morphing into any particle necessary, while quantum entangling with another particle half a universe away—no strings attached. Einstein had longed for a “theory of everything” but now that we can peer into unimaginably tiny worlds, his long revered laws start to falter. However, nobody really agrees--even string king Dr Brian Greene thinks it’s only a “50:50” chance that strings exist. And what are they made of, and if nothing further, why not?

And at a macro scale, the laws of physics also become looser. We’ve long known of black holes, awkward magnets of light and stretchers of time itself. Nowadays, there’s also dark matter, a concept arising from observing the strange, spiral characteristics galaxies seem to possess, which counter how we’d expect them to behave: their rotation indicating around 20 times more mass than observed. Stars at galaxial edges don’t rotate slower than those nearer the centre but, like a wheel, turn at the same rate at every point--something is giving them momentum and yet holding the galaxies together. Dark energy, meanwhile, is the reason the universe is expanding exponentially rather than slowing down.

However, as the names suggest, we’re pretty much in the dark as to the nature of both, and some scientists remain skeptical of the theories. We know so little about the enigma of gravity, they say, and it is this that will eventually account for the missing matter and energy in our universe. Meanwhile, we haven't even considered the really mind-boggling stuff: parallel or even backwards-running universes, speed-of-light defying wormholes, and indeed extra dimensions, a generous ten or eleven being required by string theory.

Time, too, only acts meaningfully in our centre ground. Einstein taught us to treat it as another dimension. Others say it’s an illusion of consciousness. Some posit the reason we’ve never heard from extra-terrestrial life is that their lifespans are simply unimaginably brief or painfully slow-- perhaps taking a billion years to say “Hello”. Infinite time is just as much a brain ache as infinite space: can it really only have begun with the Big Bang? Perhaps at a sufficiently unimaginable magnitude, maybe through the subtlest curvature, both space and time could return back on themselves? Could our round, flat universe be in reality tracing a path of a gargantuan celestial torus, or doughnut? That would be at least a way of dealing with the notion of infinity, although even that would pose the question of what happens “outside” of such a time or space pastry?

When proofs elude us, we philosophise, or just turn to sugary baked goods for comfort. Perhaps all that humans can ever truly understand let alone experience is science within parameters of space and time at least on broadly a human scale. Even without the conspiracy-like zoo theories (are we someone else’s experiment?) or frankly terrifying Boltzmann Brains (is a single consciousness more likely than the universe existing?) there could be fundamentally non-breachable limits of understanding, answers too exotic for a brain of only three dimensions of space and one of time to comprehend. In the same way that we could terrify a two-dimensional being by picking it out of its “flatland” for a brief excursion through our 3D one, entities of four spacial dimensions might think our ponderings on our own outer limits hopelessly simple. But then they’ve probably got delusions about their own “world” which only the five-dimensional could answer. It seems it’s only when we stick to our own neck of the woods of space and time that we don’t dissolve into a porridge of exotica, and perhaps eternal speculation.

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