5 Scientific Theories That Will Melt Your Brain
People think science is all tedious testing and complicated calculations, but those only happen after someone points at the Sun God and screams, "I BET I CAN TURN THAT INTO MATH!" (We did!) Or they point at the Moon and shout, "I BET WE CAN JUMP UP AND DOWN ON THAT THING!" (We did!) Science basically points both middle fingers at the infinite wonder of existence, but the first bit always starts with a ridiculous-sounding idea. Behold, five scientific suggestions so spectacularly silly that they'd make The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy say, "That can't be right."
If you enjoy spectacular science silliness, Luke has launched ZERO POINT COMEDY on Patreon. See the SCIENCE JAEGERS, read about the SCIENTIFIC WONDERS OF THE WORLD, and enjoy EVEN MORE ARTICLES!
Existence Can Ripple
Throw a stone into a pond, and the water ripples. Smash two black holes together at half the speed of light, and existence ripples. They collide so hard that you don't need to hear anything, because space itself is screaming and shaking up and down in a detectable way. But you've got to expect something amazing when 60 octillion tons of spherical singularities slam together like Galactus twerking. Einstein predicted these "gravitational waves" over a century ago, and their banging is so hard that reality is jolted.
Smashing spacetime so powerfully that it wobbles like an old VCR tape sounds like a fresh, steaming plate of hyperbole. But we've already detected it. Two singularities slammed into each other like the ultimate subwoofer, blasting bass notes through the fabric of reality. Three entire solar masses were converted into gravitational wave energy -- a process over 50 times more powerful than the entire visible universe. It was so spacetime-staggering that we felt the effects over a billion light years away. On September 14, 2015, every cell in your body was gently squeezed by black holes getting it on.
Spacetime so kinky, it's got holes going into other holes.
The measurement was made by LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory -- aka the most impressive anything on the surface of this or any other planet. It's a pair of set-squares for spacetime, two vast L-shaped installations four kilometers long on each arm, and every micrometer is in an ultrahigh vacuum. And they're on opposite sides of the country, so that they can use almost the entire North American continent as a 10-millisecond timing delay. In each, LIGO lasers bounce back and forth between mirrors more carefully isolated than Kanye West's sense of humor. The result is a ruler so accurate that when its reading varies, it's the universe that changed.
Detecting gravitational waves is so staggering that even working out the idea that it would one day be possible earned someone the 1993 Nobel Prize for Physics. And now we've done it. This is the metrological Moon landing. Oh, and then we detected some more a few weeks ago. Because that's science -- "the most impressive and amazing thing we've ever done as a species" quickly becomes "something we can do, so let's do it more. Then see what comes next." Wooo!
Antimatter Is Matter Travelling Back In Time
Antimatter is utterly ridiculous: the evil opposite of matter which annihilates it on contact, with spectacular explosions. Did this stuff escape from a Star Trek episode, and do the anti-bosons have little evil beards and eye patches? The thing is, we've not only detected antimatter, but we can also now churn it out of particle accelerators and hold it in magnetic bottles for 15 minutes. Labs can hold antimatter longer than I can hold a pint.
When these collide with me, I also get annihilated.
Antimatter's most famous application is annihilating matter to release 90 million billion times as much energy (c-squared is a hell of an exchange rate). This spectacular factor might be because antimatter annihilation is everyone losing at a game of time-travel chicken. The Feynman-Stueckelberg interpretation treats antimatter as matter going backwards in time. So when it hits regular matter going forward, it's not just two objects touching; it's a head-on collision in the fourth dimension. It's only one of several ideas, but it's the one most likely to make The Doctor finally install seat belts on the TARDIS.
The best bit about this idea is that it already works in the equations. Antimatter inverts all kinds of important quantities, but instead of inventing a new mode of matter, you get the same effect by multiplying time by -1. After all of our science-fiction and magical fantasies, it turns out the real time traveler was inside our state-of-the-art particle accelerators all along. Though, uh, that's probably where we would have expected to find them. When you tell Doc Brown, break it to him gently.
The One-Electron Universe
Sometimes, you get high with friends, and after you gloriously rediscover the taste of pizza, you ask questions like "What if we were all, like, just one being?" The most successful physicists in history did the same thing, but they did it with quantum mechanics, and came to even more amazing conclusions. Because when they say "high," they mean "imaginary gravity times Planck's constant squared." Which may have a little more weight to it than a session of mediocre joints and a binge watch of Aqua Teen Hunger Force season three.
Though that can also cause serious time dilation.
John Wheeler was the physicist responsible for little things like neutronic reactors, neutron moderators, the word "wormholes," and noticing that black holes maybe had something to do with gravity. The man was a living Star Trek episode, except his technobabble wasn't bullshit. He also came up with the idea of the "one-electron universe," in which every electron in existence -- in your brain, in your ass, in Donald Trump's brain/ass -- were all the exact same electron, which travels back and forth in time to be every single electron. The same negative charges chemically conducting these words up your optic nerve are the ones in the heart of Alpha Centauri, Benedict Cumberbatch's dimples, and Milla Jovovich's skintight zombie-fighting suit (whichever you think is the hottest).
That sexy hydrogen-on-hydrogen action.
Wheeler discussed this idea with Richard Feynman, and when Feynman doesn't call bullshit on the universal electronic reincarnation idea, it's a real mind-blower. Feynman didn't call bullshit so hard that he discussed the idea in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, crediting it with giving rise to the time-travelling antimatter from the previous point. One of the most decorated physicists in history supports the idea that existence is even more electronic masturbation than the internet -- the same particle simultaneously interacting with itself in every possible way.
The idea works because electrons are utterly indistinguishable. We think of subatomic particles as tiny billiard balls, but billiard balls can be told apart. Every electron is exactly the same. They're not built, they're not carved -- they're tiny jewels of solid physics popping out of the fundamental constants of reality. This isn't an obscure point. Huge swathes of the quantum mechanics (aka "reality") running the computer (and brain) you're reading this with are based on this indistinguishability. The only reason this isn't a scientific theory is that it can't be disproved. You can only accept it or ignore it. Man, science, you give the coolest ultimatums.
Spacetime Is A Liquid
General relativity controls the bigger picture. Quantum mechanics takes care of the tiny details. But when they meet? *Record scratch! ... Record scratch doesn't stop, continues up through ever higher frequencies, ultrasonic. The record burns red, white, ultraviolet, x-rays, gamma rays, a blinding light feeding virtual pair-production from infinite energies as it tears the Grand Unified Theory asunder.* Yes, "Grand Unified Theory" is a super-science romantic comedy full of wacky misunderstandings -- which destroy everything you thought you knew about space and time!
*studio audience laughs as it bursts into everything and nothingness at the same time*
We've got two amazingly effective theories for explaining the universe, but they absolutely hate each other. The quest to merge general relativity and quantum mechanics (or find something else to replace both) makes finding the Holy Grail look like finding a quick place to pee. It's given rise to more physics theories than there are Transformers, and with crazier names. And more astonishing abilities. There's geometrodynamics, Twistor Theory, M-Theory, Spin foam, and countless more -- and like all good Autobots, they really are working until all (forces) are one.
One such attempt is superfluid vacuum theory. It does exactly what it says in the name, modelling empty space as a friction-less fluid. In this model, all of reality as we understand it is like the waves on the sea -- it looks like all kinds of action on a smooth surface, but that surface is really the result of lots more particles acting in a particular way. So maybe empty space is just some simpler stuff doing its own thing, man.
Making the Enterprise the ultimate surfboard. And you're now picturing Scotty in a wetsuit. Sorry.
It's a mind-melting theory which turns even an utterly empty room into a Hellraiser Lament Configuration box of superstring-snapping ultra-science. So of course we're trying to see it. That's what we do. Studies of high-energy x-rays and gamma rays from the Crab Nebula have already refined the theory, confirming that if space is a fluid, it must be utterly friction-less. So even the most advanced scientific theories take time to look at those pretty lights in the sky. It's just that they might redefine that time in the process.
Reality Could Break Without Warning
Buddhism says that emptiness is things not having an inherent nature. Physics says that emptiness could be a ticking time bomb of omni-annihilating, universe-rupturing doom. Which would also bring all things to one in peace.
The idea is that even empty space could break. Sorry, there's no way of talking about this which doesn't sound like a 17-year-old goth after a bad breakup. (Note: All goth breakups are bad breakups, but that's good gothing, so it's hard to say if it's good or bad.) We think an empty vacuum is the lowest energy state of existence. But if there is another, lower-energy state below it, then our entire reality is thin ice over a frozen lake. Just one puncture would cause the whole thing to sink. An entirely new universe would radiate from the reality fracture point, known as a "vacuum metastability event".
But, uh, light probably wouldn't even exist after that, so here's another picture of that explosion.
Since even changes in the laws of physics have to travel at lightspeed (they have to obey the laws until they replace them), we wouldn't even see it coming before it hit. And we wouldn't exist afterwards. We could lose all that exists if even the darkness between our stars is only false vacuum (there is NOTHING more goth than physics). The multiple-universe version of the idea is even more fun: It says that existence is a bubble bath of entire universes constantly popping out of existence, and at any moment, ours is just one which hasn't yet chaotically annihilated itself. Yet.
This thought sounds like it was screamed from a street corner rather than developed in a lab. But it's been tested by the most advanced machinery ever made. When the Large Hadron Collider found the mass of the Higgs boson, we were able to calculate whether our universe is stable. And the answer is ... "-ish." The required minimum Higgs mass for "Universe NOT popping like an old birthday balloon" is 129.8 GeV. The measured Higgs Boson mass is 125 GeV.
Please take a moment with this more relaxing measurement.
But in physics, a number without error bars is a knife without a handle. The error bars on that minimum mass are plus or minus 5.6 GeV, so the safe value should be somewhere between 124.2 and 135.4 GeV. We've measured 125.1, plus or minus about 0.2 GeV. So what that confusing mess of gibberish-sounding numbers means is ... we're, uh, maybe okay? At the outer edges of probably not disappearing? To narrow down those existential error bars, we need to make better measurements of something called the top quark pole mass. Listen: Just pretend The Doctor or Data said that and accept it. We're working on it.
In the meantime, what's a little "reality randomly shattering without warning" between friends? Look at it this way: The next time you're wondering whether to enjoy another donut or beer, physics says YES.
Enjoy less scientific total nerdery with 6 Hilariously Nerdy (Surprisingly Epic) Wikipedia Wars and 5 Much Better Alternatives to Famous Board Games.
Subscribe to our YouTube channel to see someone who doesn't get science at all in What Biology Class Didn't Want You To Know About Water, and watch other videos you won't see on the site!
Also, follow us on Facebook, because it's a great way to make 3.8 million friends, and then later discover how they're strangely racist.
Every year, we're inundated with movies that are based on true stories. We're about to get a Deepwater Horizon movie in which Mark Wahlberg will plug an oil spill with his muscles, and a Sully Sullenberger movie in which Tom Hanks will land a plane on the Hudson with acting. But we think Hollywood could do better than this. That's why Jack O'Brien, the Cracked staff, and comedians Lindsay Adams, Sunah Bilsted, Eli Olsberg, and Steven Wilber will pitch their ideas for incredible true stories that should be made into movies. Get your tickets for this LIVE podcast here!