Physicists Uncover Beauty in Nature

By I. M. Oderberg

It is a widely accepted view that our present universe began with a Big Bang when a primeval, highly-impacted ball of matter exploded. It could no longer hold within its control substance that had been bonded together so tightly that the inner tension resulted in a tremendous outburst of energy that scattered its components in all directions. It would seem that microseconds after the initial explosion there were germs of life inherent within the original fireball, to manifest later and proliferate. Biological research indicates that cells are well-organized entities, and we may assume that the initial ball of substance was in many respects like a single cell, and that it, too, was innately well organized.

Many people believe that there is something more to the realities of everyday life than appears on the surface: that the phenomena in which we participate are like waves and ripples moving upon the ocean, for the depth supporting individual variations is a wholeness. If we collate what we have learned about cosmic forces, it becomes evident that there must be some kind of universal intelligences regulating the eruptions and conflicts of energies and the apparently anarchic flare-ups of repulsions and attractions. Wherever we look everything points to a general harmony of interlocking forces, and where a local disturbance occurs there appears to be a natural tendency at work to restore or achieve a balance.

The idea, held generations ago but later discarded, that there is design guiding or influencing the happenings around us is being rediscovered. What is observed is an overall perfection of design or "symmetry" in nature. One has only to look at the molecular structure of metals, each with its individual geometric design, to realize how deeply ingrained is the principle of symmetry, even in the most minute portions of matter. In the first chapter of Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics [Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1986; 322 pages, illus.] Dr. Anthony Zee, professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, states that "aesthetics has become a driving force in contemporary physics. Physicists have discovered something of wonder: Nature, at the fundamental level, is beautifully designed. It is this sense of wonder that I wish to share with you" (p. 3).

Using as keynote William Blake's famous poem "Tyger! Tyger!" and its "fearful symmetry," Dr. Zee directs his appeal to the lay reader "interested in the intellectual and aesthetic framework within which fundamental physicists operate" (p. xii). He describes how some theorists, in a drive toward simplicity, postulate a kind of "supersymmetry" and "argue for matter and light having a common origin" (p. 271). There is also speculation about the "superstring" concept in which two strange ideas are amalgamated: a) that the universe has numerous hidden dimensions. This can relate to the ancient concept that the boundless universe is full of energies of varying wavelengths/frequencies which implies a limitless number of universes operating within the various energy spectra; and b) that subnuclear particles are in reality strings of energy.

So the earlier picture of a universe of solid material, with energy a "something" acting upon it, has given way to a paradigm ushered in by Einstein's famous formula showing the interchangeability of energy and mass: a universe that is all dynamic energy in varying grades of manifestation. And further, evidence is beginning to accumulate that while we observe many forces at work around us, these appear to be the operations of one energy, the "variations" being due to the requirements of local conditions.

How is one to find the aesthetical aspect of nature's physics? Of course, there is an intrinsic beauty as well as an extrinsic, as Dr. Zee expresses it:

When I find a chambered nautilus at the seashore (or more likely in a shellshop), its beauty captivates me. But a developmental biologist would tell me that the perfect spiral is merely a consequence of unequal rate of shell growth. As a human being, I am no less enthralled by the beautiful nautilus knowing this fact, but as a physicist, I am driven to go beyond the extrinsic beauty that we can see. I want to discuss the beauty of neither the crashing wave nor the rainbow arcing across the sky, but the more profound beauty embodied in the physical laws that ultimately govern the behavior of water in its various forms. — p. 4

If we turn to quantum mechanics, we find the proposal of random behavior in the area of subparticles. Einstein rejected this view even though he was one of the fathers of the quantum concept, because it did not describe how individual particles behave. He pointed out that statistics could be applied only to numbers of particles or to the systems to which they belong. To illustrate: a television picture of freeways at night shows a long stream of lighted cars traveling at speed in one direction with a car or two occasionally breaking away and branching off. Seen from a distance, the lights look like a flowing river, and it would be impossible to predict which of the lights will speed away from the main stream. Such apparent randomness applies to particles: we do not see the natural laws at work because we do not enter mentally, either in imagination or through experience, into the realm of the microcosm, the miniature universe.

Dr. Richard Morris, a theoretical physicist and author of seven books on current discoveries in various disciplines, explores in his newest work a much-debated topic: Why do electrons act as particles in one context and as waves in another?

It isn't the electron that "decides" whether it will appear as a wave or as a particle, but the observer. It is the experimenter who must choose by setting up one kind of apparatus or another — what characteristics the electron shall have. — The Nature of Reality (McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1987; 249 pages)

This point has been stressed in recent years by many scientists, notably Dr. John A. Wheeler, formerly of Princeton University. He urged researchers not to describe themselves as mere observers, because they do influence the results of their experiments.

Another big question mark concerns the missing mass — surely there must be more substance in the universe than optical instruments reveal. This becomes increasingly apparent if we take into account the possibility of varying spectra of energy in space. Dr. Morris, who is a poet and publisher as well as a scientist, conceives of an infinite number of universes existing in the hidden dimensions now being considered. He concurs with the accepted estimate that at least 90 percent of the mass in the universe consists of a mysterious "dark matter" for which there is no explanation, "a kind of matter that we cannot see, whose makeup we do not know" (p. 138). It is precisely in the area of the "Invisible universe" that some astrophysicists are probing the frontiers of research to determine the nature of galactic haloes, whether "cold matter," "dark matter," or what.

Dr. Morris speculates:

The dark haloes could conceivably be made of shadow matter. Since shadow matter interacts with ordinary matter only through the gravitational interaction, it could not be seen. Furthermore, there is no reason why it could not exist in greater quantities than ordinary matter. Although the possibility can't be considered to be especially likely, at least not until we have better reasons for thinking that there really is such a thing as shadow matter, it does seem to be possible that we live in a shadow matter universe which contains relatively small amounts of matter of the "ordinary" visible variety. — p. 138

These and other developments indicate symmetry and design in a cosmos pulsating with life. Not only does this apply to the macrocosmos, but also to the microcosmos of the infinitely small, and to all in between, including the inhabitants of our planet. In recent years scientists, researching in the area of biology and observing the interlocking nature of various species inhabiting the planet, coined the term biosphere, globe of life. Environmentalism was born — at least, on a scale larger than previously recorded. Nowadays, the term used is ecosystem and while it does not have quite the flavor that biosphere has, the new term may serve to accentuate the economy of nature which can only function truly as such if all the components have an intimate connection with each other. Does this not suggest some kind of intelligence operating behind the scenes?

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1987; copyright © 1987 Theosophical University Press)


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