More recent stuff, seminars and notes, Here.
This is an attempt at piecing together a crazy idea I had as a student, again about 24 years ago. The idea follows from some then-recent work on the cosmic microwave background, with a middle section on consciousness and cognition, both of which are fields almost completely unrelated to engineering which I was supposed to be studying.
I think I knew I was just playing with these ideas; I was having an extremely creative fun time doing environmental science and engineering at uni and this was more or less a hobby to me, playing with theories and mathematics, not thinking of a research career, knowing I would not be taken seriously in my second year at a small university. I was, as you can tell, interested in pretty much everything but not trying too hard.
The research I’d picked up on was a map of data from the cosmic background explorer (COBE) satellite. COBE provided the first detailed glimpse of the patterns in the cosmic background, the thermal signature of the early universe or “afterglow of the Big Bang”. Maybe you remember, even if you don’t necessarily read scientific journals it was big news.
As well as all that amazing structure, the map showed a small and gradual variation in temperature from one end of the sky to the other, which was interpreted as a Doppler effect due to the satellite’s motion: the warm end of the sky is spectrum-shifted towards blue because the satellite is moving in that direction, so light frequencies in that direction are slightly higher. The actual velocity worked out at about 600 kilometres per second, which was surprising. A velocity like that (0.2% of the speed of light) had to include not just the satellite’s motion around the Earth, but also the entire relative motion of the Earth, Sun and Milky Way galaxy.
At the time there was an idea that this high velocity indicates that our galaxy and the entire local group of galaxies are falling gravitationally towards a nearby supercluster of galaxies, an immense collection of individually vast objects known as the Great Attractor. The better evidence now is that we don’t actually know why we are moving so fast; possibly it’s part of the extra accelerations associated with dark matter, but it remains an open question. It’s not part of the overall redshift pattern of the expanding universe.
This was never the main issue with the COBE data, rather scientists were and are more interested in the grainy texture of the background, indicating the beginnings of structure in the early universe. It was our first evidence that the background was not perfectly uniform in every direction, there was a pattern in the early distribution of energy and matter, and overlying it almost incidentally there was this 600 km/s relative velocity.
600 km/s is pretty fast, but it was the observation itself that surprised me, that we could detect this velocity at all. We’re talking about radiation from the entire universe at its earliest stage of evolution. It is so smooth and uniform that the structures it reveals can be regarded as almost perfectly homogenous, at a time when the gravitational process had only just started forming the clumpy gaseous regions that later became galaxies, well before the first stars were born. It is a lasting image of the entire universe before its differentiation into the relative motion of objects such as planets and satellites. To a very high precision it is flat, empty and on the large scale almost motionless overall.
With a figure of 600 km/s of the Earth relative to the COBE blueshift, we no longer had to talk in relative terms of our motion compared to the Earth, or the Sun, or the galaxy: we now had a near-motionless reference frame that included the entire universe at its earliest stage. Like the old schoolboy game of writing a street address to include the Country, the Earth, the Solar System, the Galaxy, the Universe, suddenly the ultimate location had a valid postcode, 600 km/s, and it seemed strange.
I had just gotten used to the idea that there is no absolute state of rest or motion in the universe, so you can’t say that we have some specific velocity relative to empty space: according to Einstein’s relativity, there is no such thing as empty space of absolute zero velocity, because there is no universal reference frame, only our individual relative ones.
Through the COBE data it seemed we now had a reference frame whereby we could compare our motion to the motion of any other object (a distant galaxy say) and so determine its motion relative to the background as well. You can do this with anything you choose as a reference frame and it’s always supposed to be just purely relative, but the COBE blueshift, for the reasons of its uniformity and stationarity, as well as its profound originality at the beginning of time, could easily be regarded as a universal reference frame. It’s just that this is not supposed to be possible.
So, like any committed undergraduate trying to understand Einstein I wrote a huge amount of almost entirely incoherent pseudoscience, complete with reams and reams in appendices of mathematical formulation, until I concluded finally that the universe is an expanding spiral onion and quietly buried it while I got on with my engineering career. There’s no call for this sort of stuff and I could not take it seriously. But as well as this one core idea, I explored the realms of cosmology and quantum physics, delved into the problems of consciousness that these subjects have as paradoxes the way dogs have fleas, all the while knowing it had to be wrong.
Eventually though I realised there was one thing that all these ideas had in common, and which made a lot of sense in my “other career” developing as an artist or occasional science fiction writer. This was an idea about perspective, which I saw as an aspect of the human condition and completely bound to consciousness in the way that it limits and conditions our experience of reality. So looking at it now as a problem in visual perspective, a very different geometric idea from Einstein’s, and finally graduating with an engineering degree I had both the aesthetic and the methods: I used 3D technical drawing techniques to dissect a 4D model of the expanding spherical cosmos on paper (see the appendix), I smuggled in what I now knew about dimensional analysis from fluid mechanics, but still I found myself digging uselessly deeper and deeper. Not at all bothered, I abandoned it for a long, long time.
I came back to it again about fifteen years ago, tried to formulate it from an environmental perspective, failed and had to bury it again, but the writing was at least coherent so I took courage and went on to my PhD. Water resources and environmental conservation, triple bottom-line accounting, stakeholder engagement, policy, buzzword after buzzword in which I nearly drowned. Writing a PhD is like climbing an iceberg in the dark, the only thing I can recommend about it is getting it finished – a bliss that lasts for about a year before reality sets in.
Finally though, I had to get this one great, crazy idea of mine out there, so I’ve decided to fess up and tell it like it is: an unfinished, undergraduate unification of quantum mechanics and relativity, which has certain points of evidence that I could look into, IF I was a properly qualified research physicist, and IF I ever take it seriously. I may one day, but not yet.
The real point of this is to finish the essay that I wrote 15 years ago, which can be read as a primer into some very mysterious topics of cosmology, quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence / neuroscience that I was by then reading in my attempt to understand the measurement problem in quantum cosmology. The measurement or observation problem is a technical paradox which among other things requires the existence of conscious observers to explain the existence of fundamental particles, implies multiple parallel universes at the other end of the scale, and generally calls into serious question the nature of observation. I walked from one end to the other of this big idea, setting out my own explanations for quantum mechanics and relativity and all the rest of that strange, amazing stuff, and in the process rediscovered my one great idea for what it is: a profound cosmology, I am not too modest to admit, which makes a kind of strange sense and is actually a lot of fun to think about.
I’m still taking a very personal approach to this, and I’m not worried about academic conventions. I don’t care if it’s right or not, just that it reads well and makes sense. If you’re reading this you may well be trawling through my blog, Backlogue, so welcome and feel free to have a look at the pictures, music and other writings as well.
I explained to a friend just recently, as a child I had two of the great old Time-Life books, The Universe and The Mind, and I’m still trying to read and understand them. This essay, like The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra or almost anything by Paul Davies, tries to explain these mysteries in terms that highlight the paradox and yet allow a deeper way of relating to it: Capra by his eastern parallels, Davies through the sheer clarity of his explanation, and in my case by an idea of the limitations of human perspective, that can be re-imagined to see the mind of a creative universe and to hear, as the source of all energy, the enormous voice of a dynamic space-time.
Philosophical Version: Quantum Cosmology
Serious attempt at analysis: Inertial Flat Spherical Expansion; Correlations with Inflationary Cosmology
NUCLEUS “April Fool” Version: Repeating Spiral Cosmology
Presentation to University of New England and Northern Tablelands Astronomical Society, (UNENTAS) June 2015 in a celebration of crazy ideas in commemoration of the centenary of Einstein’s General Relativity: A Speculation on the Large Scale Structure of the Cosmos
Presentation to the University of New England “Science in the Bush” Schools Program, November 2015: Albert Einstein – What he didn’t know about the Universe
Appendix 1 (1992)
A journey into modern physics could begin with a child asking, “What am I made of?”. As with many innocent questions the complete answer is not easy, but there are clever short-cuts. We could indeed be made of sugar and spice, or slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails, it’s the same carbon chemistry! An updating of the rhyme might be that we are all quarks and electrons, photons and space-time, or that the components are just variations of empty space itself; but to make sense of this we need to return to the beginnings of science and come back the long way. It’s quite a journey, literally to the beginnings of written history or the echoes of oral traditions that preceded history.
[For More…see the PDF Version above]
See also Spiral Cosmology – A Brief Inner History (to be linked only after my death – and please delete this instruction – thanks everyone, I love you)