“Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think.” – Niels Bohr
“Red is grey and yellow white, but we decide which is right, and which is an illusion.” – ‘Late Lament, Nights in White Satin’, The Moody Blues, Graeme Edge
There is a well-known story about a woman who attended a lecture, and heard the lecturer say that the universe was going to self-destruct in five billion years. The woman fainted immediately. After being woken up she was asked whether the reason she fainted had to do with the five billion years mentioned. She replied with a sigh of relief, saying, “Thank God! I thought he said five million years.”
This chapter is a bit different than the others. No, it does not discuss Italian cooking or underwater sex, but it deals less with God and religions, and deals more with ourselves, or rather – the way we grasp the world around us.
Let’s begin this short journey with a small example: We know that all that’s around us, including our own flesh and bones, is made of tiny molecules, which in turn are built from a collection of atoms. And what makes up the atoms? We were told in school that each atom is made of electrons that sort of circle around a nucleus and that all of these particles are extremely small.
Imagine taking a single atom and increasing its size about a trillion times, so it becomes as big as a large concert hall. When we start to travel inside this imaginary huge atom, we’ll find somewhere in the middle a little nucleus, the size of an apple. What about the electrons? Ignoring some physical facts about how difficult it is to actually locate them, they will still be too tiny for us to see in the hall, even smaller than the head of a pin.
We know the world around us is made of atoms. We now also know that most of the volume of this world is occupied by… nothing. When we press our finger against the wall, we actually press lots of emptiness against more emptiness. However, the wall still feels very rigid, doesn’t it? (You just tried it yourself… I saw you!)
Furthermore, imagine our nice brick wall now being heated with intense flames. We know that this causes the tiny molecules of the wall to move faster. However, when we touch the wall now, we don’t feel any movement of the molecules. At least not the way we grew up to understand what “movement” is. What we do feel is a very hot wall.
Where does this feeling of solidness come from? And how come the movement of small particles is translated into the feeling of heat? It is truly amazing how our brain and mind deal with the physical phenomena around us: Different frequencies of light in the real world are perceived by us as different colors in our world. Certain frequencies are felt as cold colors, while others produce warm colors in our mind. Combinations of sound waves with nice mathematic relations are mapped into pleasant chords of music, while not-so-nice relations are taken for discordant harmonies.
In a nutshell, things that we feel about the world around us, as strong as this feeling may be, represent the way our mind was shaped to understand these things, not necessarily what they really are.
Let’s take this concept one step further. Remember our imaginary concert-hall-size atom? Let’s increase it a bit more until all the protons and the electrons become easily visible. What do you think is the shape of an electron? Is it round like a ball? And what is the texture of a proton? Is it soft or hard?
In reality these questions have no immediate meaning. Shape and texture, just like temperature and elasticity, are characteristics of large objects made of many molecules. They simply don’t apply for electrons and protons. At least not in the simple sense we grew up with. And yet, we find it extremely difficult to think of something we know is there as having no specific shape or texture. For our own complete vision of the universe, we must assign in our mind some shape, texture, color, exact location, and speed to any object out there.
This is to say that our mind is very limited. We have the urge to fully understand what everything is composed of, and we’ll never be satisfied because in our perception of the world there could always be something smaller. Molecules are made of atoms; atoms are made of electrons, protons and neutrons. Those, in turn, are made of quarks and strings… does it ever end? More importantly: Can our mind deal with this question at all?
The need to satisfy our limited mind creates paradoxes and difficult situations for us. We read about the duality of light, being both particles (photons) and energy (waves) at the same time. We may understand the equations, but our mind doesn’t really absorb these facts as a true feeling of what’s around us. Similarly, we find it extremely difficult to deal with death and the loss of a loved one. Our mind can’t accept the fact that someone we know ceases to exist. We manage this loss by completing the picture with the notion of the next world.
Einstein’s theory of relativity produces many more examples that are perhaps easy to calculate, but fall again into this category of “not satisfying our mental wish for completeness”: How can the speed of light always be the same, even if we move towards it or away from it? How can time tick at different rates for persons in different situations (e.g., the twin paradox)? The answer is of-course that the problem lies in the way our mind has been built to interpret the world, and not in the world itself or in our scientific way of understanding it. The problem, if you will, is with us, not with the world around us. The world is complex for our mind.