A life of numbers

M-THEORY, or whatever a possible refined future version of it might be called, offers a solution, albeit a rather complex one, to the question of what our universe is made of; we say “our” universe, because the theory offers an almost infinite number of solutions, which in turn suggests there are probably just as many universes.

The whole framework, however, only makes sense as a solution if we accept a fundamental component that is rather difficult to conceptualize – the string, the building block of all that exists.

A string is a one-dimensional, vibrating object about the Planck length (1.616229(38)×10−35 m) in size, which moves in 11 dimensions and from our four-dimensional perspective appears to be an elementary particle, one of the possible 34 (the 17 fundamental particles of the Standard Model and their supersymmetric partners) that make up everything in the universe, and in fact, with the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson, the fabric of the universe itself.

The Planck length is named for the German physicist Max Planck, the father of quantum theory (work for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1918), and is essentially the smallest distance that still makes any physical sense; at less than the Planck length, the time dimension is indistinguishable from the space dimensions, and it is impossible to distinguish two separate points.

The string exists at this almost unimaginably minute scale, but visualizing a string as a very small object is actually inaccurate. A string does not have a physical form, but is rather an energetic vibration. Picture a guitar string, which vibrates in our four familiar dimensions when strummed – the spatial dimensions are side-to-side, up-and-down, and a form of a wave passing along its length, while the time dimension is measured by the frequency of the vibration. Remove the string itself but allow the vibration to remain, and that is essentially what a “string” is: Its existence is only manifested by a mathematical description that predicts its effects, which in turn can only be confirmed by indirect evidence produced by some of the most powerful, complex machines on Earth.

Further boggling the imagination is that in order for the math to make sense of the interactions of strings-as-particles – for one thing, some have mass (expressed as a function of energy, m=E/c2, according to Einstein’s famous equation) and some do not – we have deduced that the medium of space itself is something called a Higgs Field, named for its discoverer, Peter Higgs. The Higgs Field is composed of Higgs bosons; an understandable, although somewhat flawed, analogy for it is the composition of water. The interaction of this extremely short-lived (something on the order of 10-27 seconds) force carrier on different particles imparts their mass, which, after many orders of magnitude, constitutes the mass of everything. Spotting a Higgs boson, which the Large Hadron Collider was finally able to do back in 2012, has been described as being roughly the same as throwing a grenade at a solid wall and identifying a single particle of dust that gets knocked away from it.

Our entire universe and everything in it is, at the most fundamental level where the difference between mass and energy is irrelevant, is composed of a mathematical contrivance of our own making. It’s not that strings aren’t “real,” because this really happens:

Computer-generated graphic of a 14 TeV collision of protons in the Large Hadron Collider, which indirectly shows the presence of a Higgs Boson by way of its decay into four muons. Really. Image: CERN

It’s that the only way we can make them tangible is through the creation of an intellectual model. We have, in effect, created our own reality; everything we know and everything we are is nothing more than a complicated arrangement of numbers.

But is it really our creation, or someone else’s? That, obviously, is a devilish question. All these sophisticated scientific discoveries make a strong case for “intelligent design,” i.e., some form of deity, a Creator with a capital C. There is a compelling school of thought that suggests exactly what that Creator might be.

Famed American physicist John Archibald Wheeler was probably the first (or if not, he was at least the best at it) to collect various notions relating to reality as a function of perception into a sensible form; he described reality as “participatory,” and experiments with his ideas have tended to support his notion that “everything is information.” This gives rise to the idea that, if we have not created the Universe on our own, we may simply be living in someone else’s simulation of it. In recent years, theoretical physicist James Gates Jr. has discovered what appears to be computer code in the complex formulae of supersymmetry – specifically, doubly-even self-dual linear binary error-correcting block codes, which are actually relatively common on our human scale; they’re used to remove errors in computer transmissions, such as in sequences of bits in text transmitted across a wire.

In another sense, though, that doesn’t really answer the Big Question. Our perceptions of evidence pointing to a conclusion that we are living in a big reality simulation are still simply our perceptions; God as a fat, shirtless geek in front of a computer screen in his Mom’s basement, as far as we know and can ever know, is our own creation.

All life and its meaning for us, it seems, boils down to a simple yet maddeningly insoluble proposition: Either we exist because we exist, or nothing exists and we are only figments of our own imagination.