At some point in your life you have, at some completely random moment, stopped what you were doing and just thought, "Man, what am I doing here? How does any of this even exist? What is reality, anyway?"
Then you usually forget about it and go back to playing browser games until lunchtime rolls around. But those big questions, starting with the nature of the universe and leading all the way up to why you're sitting there reading boner jokes on a website, are being answered by science as we speak. And the theories they've come up with will leave your brain feeling like it has been drop-kicked over a goal post.
5The Universe Is a Hologram
Let's start from the beginning: the entire universe and all life as we know it.
Of course we've all heard about the big-bang theory (even if we keep picturing it wrong), but just like the show bearing its name, the science community has gotten tired of that old shit and wants to talk about something else. Like, "What if all reality is just a gigantic hologram projected on a 2-D surface?"
Come quick! World War II is on!
For the moment, we're going to pretend that we actually have the ability to explain this in a way that is not insane.
Back in Einstein's day, Big Al and his colleagues discovered a problem: The laws of physics didn't seem to work once you got on a subatomic scale. In fact, even today, no one has been able to marry Einstein's theory of relativity with quantum physics, and not for lack of trying. One attempt you might have heard of is string theory, which simply suggests that once you get smaller than an atom, everything is a string. Specifically, a 2-D unit called a quantum string. So far, so good? FANTASTIC.
Above: String theory. Apparently.
Now. String theorists think that everything we see, feel, hear, touch, taste and screw is nothing more than the vibration of those strings, a theory so far out there that string theorists are known as the Cheeches and Chongs of the physics world. Holographic universers took that theory further by suggesting that maybe, just maybe, everything we feel, hear, touch, taste and screw could be a 3-D projection of cosmic data encoded on a 2-D surface.
Kind of like the hologram you see on a credit card, if that hologram had entire civilizations, all of human history and the entire universe living inside it.
"Mind you, don't smash the Romans when you swipe it."
And believe it or not, people are putting money into proving this bong hit of a theory. A million dollars, to be exact. Craig Hogan, a physicist from Illinois, is building two holometers. Their job is to monitor the smallest spaces in our universe and look for pixelation in the fabric of space and time. In the same way that people can identify digital quality by spotting the pixels, Hogan thinks he can spot the blurriness in reality by finding Planck units, theoretical units of space, time and mass so teensy that they're pretty much impossible to detect. Here's what Hogan says:
"What we're looking for is when the lasers lose step with each other. We're trying to detect the smallest unit in the universe. This is really great fun, a sort of old-fashioned physics experiment where you don't know what the result will be."
Holometer work requires a good deal of cramped plastic cubes and surgical scrubs.
So if we're reading that right, as we speak, a scientist from Illinois is gathering data to determine whether the entire universe has been Photoshopped.
A competing group of researchers say they aren't finding this theoretical pixelation so far, which would suggest maybe the theory isn't right after all. But holy shit, just the fact that there are multiple teams all taking this seriously enough to try to get precise measurements on it kind of makes our heads hurt.
4Heavy Metal Albums Accurately Depict the Beginning of Life
All right, so that's the universe. But how did we wind up with this weird, self-replicating substance we call life? Science says that to understand it, you need to dig up some old heavy metal album covers.
Looking back on it now, it does seem pretty weird that metal albums used to have such a big hard-on for lightning ...
... and volcanoes ...
... or both ...
... often with dragons, warrior women or mutilated corpses sprinkled in for good measure, just in case you had any doubts that what you were about to listen to was hardcore. Why musicians thought acts of nature were synonymous with guitar-driven rock, we'll never know. But maybe those metalheads were on to something, because hidden somewhere in that badass imagery are the building blocks of life.
In the beginning, there were volcanoes, volcanic lightning and a few basic chemicals from which all life began. No word yet on the dragons.
But probably yes.
Discovering this took an experiment that spanned half a century. It started the 1950s, when University of Chicago professor Stanley Miller was trying to figure out how inorganic particles could turn into organic life (and eventually Marilyn Monroe's ass). In the most famous version of the Miller-Urey experiment, he combined chemicals that would have been present at the dawn of the Earth -- water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen -- in sterile flasks, then zapped them with electrodes, as if they had been hit by lightning.
After a week of zapping, cooling, condensing and starting all over again, Miller ended up with a couple of amino acids, the building blocks of protein and all of organic life. So no pyramids, just some half-baked bricks. But there was something missing in Miller's theory. Something awesome, like ... an angry volcano.
Fifty years after the original experiment, one of Miller's students found the original flasks and decided to do a little testing of his own. It turned out the electricity simulation experiment was only one of several tested in the lab. Miller had also simulated what would happen if those chemicals were swimming around near an active volcano. That flask yielded 22 amino acids, which were even more likely to become protein over time. Had those amino acids been touched by lightning, which is entirely likely because volcanoes and lightning go together like peas and carrots ...
MODIS Rapid Response Project
.... Miller might have actually been able to get his Frankenstein on. By the way, we found a picture of him and one of his assistants while conducting their experiments. You're welcome.