The Most Astounding Fact About the Universe
Commentary by Jim Walker
Originated: 10 April 2012
Additions: 13 May 2013
The astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, was asked: "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe." Tyson responded, "When I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, 'cause they're small and the Universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars." (source) (video)
Tyson is restating what Carl Sagan used to poetically say years ago: "We are stardust," meaning that the atoms in our bodies came from stars, and the elements heavier than iron came from the explosions of supernovas. The physicist, Lawrence Krauss, overstates this by claiming: "Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded." This is not a fact. Most of our atoms did not come from stars that exploded.
Hydrogen accounts for the most common element in the human body (63% atomic percent), but hydrogen atoms were created shortly after the big bang, long before stars came into existence. Although many if not most of the hydrogen atoms may have been in stars does not mean that stars created them (the hydrogen may have also come from hydrogen clouds that never existed in stars). Of course the heavier elements in our bodies were created in stars, and are essential to life, but most of our atoms were not created by stars. Because of this I do not think that it deserves the title for the most astounding fact about the universe.
The fact that some of our atoms came from stars and that life could not exist without them is, indeed, an astonishing fact but I think there is at least one other fact about the universe that is even more astounding. It is older than stars and a few hundred-thousand years older than atoms, and in fact, make up part of the atoms: Electrons.
Electrons are older than stars and heavy elements because, according to theoretical physicists, electrons were created in the Big Bang after the universe cooled sufficiently to allow energy to be converted into electrons (and the other subatomic particles), but they can also be created through transmutation from other subatomic particles.
Our direct perception of reality depends on electrons which includes electric forces and fields and the entire electromagnetic spectrum which stem from electron interactions. To put it more bluntly: consciousness consists primarily, if not entirely, of electron interactions.
Everything we touch, taste, smell, see, or hear (the five traditional senses) and all the other senses which include balance, acceleration, temperature, pain, etc. are communicated to us through electron interactions. Even our enteric nervous system (a kind of second brain with neurons and neurotransmitters) in our gut that senses gastrointestinal movements, involve electrons. Not only our senses, but everything we know comes to us through electrons, including our consciousness.
To put it in Sagan's terms from an excerpt from "A Pale Blue Dot," but paraphrased to apply to the electric field:
Everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species derives from electron interactions.
To understand why I think electrons are more astonishing than atoms, consider the underlying existence of computer programs and virtual realities. If you learn how computers work you will realize that every program derives from the bit level. A bit (a contraction for a binary digit) forms the basic unit of information for computers and telecommunications. These binary bits are usually expressed as a 0 or 1 in binary code which represent low voltage and high voltage in semiconductor logic gates. In other words, the reality of computer programs depend on bits and how they interact with other bits. Claude Shannon first used the word bit in his seminal 1948 paper, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" to describe the most fundamental unit of information.
The basic unit of our reality
So what describes the bit level for humans? Electrons. I don't mean to say that protons and neutrons which make up part of atoms are not important. Of course they are, they make up our structure, but we do not detect protons or neutrons directly. In fact in order to understand everything outside the electronic field, including all the other subatomic particles, including protons and neutrons, and even the other forces (like gravity), we must use electrons as our primary source detectors. Our conscious reality comes directly from electron interactions, not protons or neutrons.
An electron is a little more complicated than a binary bit however. An electron appears similar to a bit but it can be either a 0, 1 or a superposition of both. Electrons also have a property of spin, and they behave according to the Pauli exclusion principle that states that no two electrons may occupy the same quantum state.
Similar to a computer bit, electrons have no known substructure. They are thought to exist as elementary particles. They have an intrinsic angular momentum (spin) in half-integer values. Electrons also do not persist. By that I mean that they only exist for a short time before blinking out and then blinking back on again. In fact, the frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum can be thought of as electrons blinking on and off.
Also astonishing is the fact that every electron "appears" identical to every other electron, just as every bit in a computer appears the same. Electrons all have the same mass, the same electric charge, and the same spin. No one has yet been able to identify one electron from another. This identity problem is a mystery in physics and has even led some to suggest that all electrons in the universe are actually the same exact particle forever traveling backwards and forwards in time. Although this solves a lot of the big mysteries, it is usually considered as complete nonsense (I agree).
For an interesting video of electron identity and the Pauli Exclusion Principle, watch this video.
Note that nowhere do I describe electrons transferring energy through photons or quanta traveling through space with a trajectory. Photons describe a classical description that conflicts with quantum physics only because trajectories have no meaning in the subatomic world. Electrons do not travel or move up and down like waves but rather like a blink here and then a blink there (quantum jumps) which, of course, can be thought of as a wave and even expressed as a wave function, but these wave functions are used by mathematicians because they are simpler to understand that way. In fact Matrix mechanics was the first formulation of quantum mechanics that described how quantum jump matrices evolved over time. These matrix calculations are difficult to calculate but the solutions are equivalent to Schrödinger 's equation, a method which uses wave functions and, mathematically speaking, has the advantage of being easier to solve.
Philosophically speaking, it is simpler to describe electron interactions as a kind of quantum jump but with a delay equal to the speed of light, thus avoiding many of the paradoxes of light. This is controversial but it changes nothing really because even if you think in terms of traveling photons, they still involve electrons because photons are a direct result of electrons jumping from one orbital to another (or jumping from one location to another). It's only important to note that an electron "jump" is exactly equivalent to any mathematical description of a photon. (see: Does Light Exist Between Events?)
So when physicists describe an electron jumping between two energy levels, they say a "photon of light is emitted." But an emitted photon has no meaning unless another electron is influenced. Therefore, one can also say that when an electron jumps between two energy levels, another electron (at some distance) jumps between two energy levels (without requiring ghostly photons traveling between electrons). In other words, one can think of photons existing only at the time of emission and detection, and nowhere else.
When electrons quantum jump from different atomic orbitals, they do not obey sharply defined orbits but rather they appear as a a kind of statistical particle-like cloud surrounding the nucleus of the atom. The fundamental limit of the position and momentum of electrons are determined by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. This principle violates scientific certainty and introduces pure randomness into the nature of reality.
The very idea that electrons make up our direct awareness of reality has important epistemological ramifications. Alfred Korzbyski tried to teach us about our abstractions describing the world (i.e., language, mathematics, etc.) and that these abstractions are secondary to the raw data from which we abstract, namely electrons, atoms, molecules, etc. So by his method the sensory level would be called 1st order abstractions, and any description that comes from the sensory level would be 2nd order abstractions, and so forth. A computer virtual reality at the binary level, for example, might be called 1st order, the program language level, the 2rd order, and the final output program, a 3th order (this is of course from the computer's point of view. From the human point of view the computer's 1st order may be our 3rd order). If you get the order wrong, you can get into all sorts of epistemological problems, especially if you use, say, beliefs as your 1st order of abstraction. This usually leads to some form of falsehood. Note, it can be extremely difficult to figure out the right order.
At the qubit level of elections, everything we know stems from this 1st order of abstraction, including the knowledge about our biological bodies. Since our bodies are made out of atoms and molecules, they can only interact with each other through electron interactions. In fact all of chemistry involves a set of atoms bound together by covalent, ionic, metallic, and hydrogen bonds. These bonds are nothing more than electrons shared by atoms.
Examples of atoms bound by electrons
Electron interactions produce the electromagnetic force, one of the four known forces in the universe. It is the force which holds atoms together). It is the force field where we live. The other forces are the strong force (the force that binds protons and neutrons together), the weak force (that causes the exchange of bosons), and the weakest force of all — gravity. And again, these other forces can only be observed by us through our electric fields, our first order level of abstraction. Those other forces represent, to us, second order abstractions.
When an apple falls off a tree, for example, the molecules in the stem holding the apple lose their electrical bond connections and it falls to the ground. When you touch an object, you are not actually touching atoms or molecules; you are "feeling" the electromagnetic force. This is similar to when you hold two magnets apart with their like-poles facing each other. You feel the magnetic force, which is nothing more than electrons interacting with each other.
When you "see" an object, you are detecting the exchange of electron energy from the object you are seeing to the electrons in the atoms inside your retina. From there, electrons "quantum jump" along the optic nerve to neurological centers in your brain. Your neurons process this electrical information through the synaptic structures that permit the neurons to pass electrical and chemical signals to other neurons. Everything you see, every memory you have or ever will have and, indeed, every thought you have derives directly from electron interactions.
All of our electrical communications derive from the electromagnetic spectrum which is nothing more than electrons transferring energy from electrons to other electrons. The electromagnetic spectrum consists of the range of all possible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. It extends from the very low frequencies used in radio communication to the highest frequency possible for electrons: gamma radiation.
It's also interesting that the highest frequency achievable for an electron, which physicists describe as a gamma ray, is equal to the rest mass of an electron. And remember, these frequencies are described by wave equations which are nothing more than electrons quantum jumping from one location to another (transmitter --> receiver).
When someone sends a radio broadcast, it involves a transmitter that "jiggles" electrons back and forth in a transmitter antenna. The electrons in that antenna then "jiggle" electrons in a distant receiving antenna (albeit, much weaker) where amplifiers boost the signal (using transistors, which involve electron interactions) to a speaker coil (again involving the magnetic force from electrons "traveling" in a metal coil) to the speaker disk. The speaker disk vibrates atoms (through its electrical bonds) and thus vibrates air molecules (again, electrical bonds) to your ear drums, which in turn convert to electrical-chemical signals across the synapses in a complex network of neurons where consciousness emerges.
The electric field not only provides us with information about things on earth but also everything we know about the universe. All of our telescopes, including radio, optical, infrared, X-ray, and submillimeter telescopes gather information about planets, stars, and galaxies from the electromagnetic field (which consists of electrons "talking" to each other). In short, everything we know about the universe derives from the interactions of electrons.
Everything I described above is well understood by physicists (except for my "crazy" hypothesis about the lack of traveling photons). Now we enter a more speculative area, that of the nature of consciousness.
There is no consensus about how consciousness emerges from our material brains but the majority of scientists agree that it must stem from our neurological makeup, somehow. Most modern philosophers and scientists think that consciousness is closely linked to intelligence. In fact the science and engineering of artificial intelligence (AI) aims to create intelligence. And so far they have gone a long way to advance AI to such a degree that they can now construct computer systems that beat the best human minds in some forms of intelligence. For example, in chess and fact gathering such as IBM's Watson that beat the best Jeopardy players in the world. These are thinking machines, and thinking means intelligence.
However, none of our super-intelligent computers have remotely come close to achieving consciousness. Some think that once computers can connect their intelligence to feelings and emotions then they would achieve consciousness (I agree).
The basic core of consciousness, in the view of some scientists, such as Gerald Edelman, Susan Greenfield, Jaak Pankseep, simply describe raw sensations, including feelings and/or emotions ranging from fear to pleasure as the basic form of consciousness. Not all scientists agree with this but in my view this seems the most likely.
Note that a person can have consciousness without thinking. For example, a man lying on a hammock on a remote beach enjoying the sun, and the wind. He is isolated from life's concerns. No cell phones, no talking, or thinking. Just relaxing. Or for a more disciplined example, a Buddhist meditating without thought, but still aware of the surroundings.
This isn't to say that thoughts cannot affect consciousness or vise versa (of course they do), but it does show that there seems to be a dualist nature to consciousness. Some, like Decartes, interpreted this dualistic nature in terms of material and supernatural spirit (soul). But it is clear that our consciousness stems from our brains. So the dualism isn't between the supernatural and the material, but rather in the material itself -- the molecular structure of the brain and the electrons that allows these structures to "talk" to each other.
Whatever makes up consciousness, it only takes a few molecules to change its character. A few micrograms of LSD, for example, can have dramatic effects on your consciousness. In fact it appears that the entire range of hormones, neuromodulators and neurotransmitters, interacting with neural structures, determines our conscious state. These transmitter molecules, of course, communicate through electrical bonds. Neurotransmitters are made up of peptides (or neuropeptides). Neuropeptides are made out of strings of amino acids. Not only are neurotransmitters made from peptides but so are the endorphins. Interestingly, all the neuropeptides have a similar molecular structure, differing only in subtle atomic differences where only the frequency and amplitude differ when the molecule oscillates. These oscillations consist of wavelike vibrations of electrons in each molecule.
If feelings and emotions stem from these electrical interactions then they do not come from logical structures that produce thinking, but something else, like random motion, Brownian motion, colloidal behavior, or static movement giving rise to neural oscillations, or something like that. And remember that electrons themselves are limited by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and can behave in the purist form of randomness possible.
"In fact, today colloids may be regarded as an important, perhaps the most important connecting link between organic and the inorganic world."
Remember Pauli? That's the physicist who came up with the Exclusion principle.
These are some of the reasons why I think electrons represent the most astonishing fact about the Universe and our own consciousness.
Some further thoughts:
Imagine if you could control the electrical activity in your brain. If you shut down your brain's entire electrical system, even for a moment, you would have, in effect, killed your consciousness. You would be dead. One way to do this without permanently dying is by using magnetocaloric effect (MCE) freezers. If you entered such an MCE freezer, your body would instantly freeze and every atom would stop "talking" to other atoms. With this freezer, you could explore properties of consciousness while dead (if such a thing exists), and even perform time jump explorations, perhaps jumping years in the future, because freezing on this level means stopping time.
Even better, if an entire non-biological electrical conscious system was invented, with an electrical brain capable of emulating all the functions of a biological brain, then it could live on as a neurobionic conscious being (along with a robot body exceeding the capabilities of a biological one). This opens up the universe for space travel and the ability to evolve and live in space. How?
Because once you can live as a neurobionic being (a neurobiod), you can also regulate your own consciousness by cycling the duration of your brain's "on" states. With duty-cycle timing, you could time travel by using artificial time suspension aboard a starship capable of steering and surviving through star systems. Since all energy requirements on board consist of electrical demands (instead of food, air, and water, etc.), all of it could be obtained, in principle, from starlight alone during suspended animation. To see how such electronic beings might evolve, see Fermi's paradox: a more probable solution.