With thanks to Runamokisay
is everything…yes, really!
March 17th, 2007
The New Scientist ran an interesting article recently
about the apparent structure of the universe when viewed at enormous
scales. An Italian research team, looking at maps of the distribution
of galaxies throughout space, has decided that the universe is fractal.
That is, it displays patterns that repeat at various levels of magnification,
just like the Mandelbrot Set and this rather kickass vegetable.
Whether you look at the universe on a map covering 200 million light
years, or 10 nanometers, there will be elements reflecting the same
This is just about as far away from standard cosmology
as you can get. For decades scientists have all been under the assumption
that matter is more or less evenly distributed throughout space,
and any patterns we see are just local clumps caused by…..gravity?
All of the equations we use to describe the universe (including
those of general relativity) are based on this more or less even
But this whole fractal view throws the whole thing
into question. What if the universe doesn’t work anything
like we think it does? What if we are just an infinitesimal part
of a mega-pattern that has existed as long as time, doing nothing
but propagating itself endlessly, playing host to countless smaller
systems that all reflect their mother? What if all the fractal-like
patterns we observe in nature (like snow flakes, mountain ranges,
some clouds, our circulatory systems, that cool broccoli) exist
because they are in fact little components of a mega-fractal? What
if the quantum world behaves in a fractal-like manner (whatever
that means) and that is where all of this comes from? The New Scientist
article actually mentioned a little-known grad student who came
up with a theory to explain the quantum world in fractal terms,
which he called scale relativity. What if we need to change the
way we think about the world? Is this why fractals and everything
that involves fractals are so aesthetically beautiful?
Even more interesting in view of all this is this
article that I stumbled across a few weeks ago. Neuroscientists
were able to observe the way that networks of neurons fire, in real
time, and saw that
“Intriguingly, each frequency-specific brain
wave looked like all the others did, although it operated on a unique
scale. Biological patterns that repeat in this way over different
scales of measurement are known as fractals.”
Yup. The brain works in fractal patterns. Is this
why we are so smart? As the Oxford physicist David Deutsch noted
during his wonderful TED Talk , humans seem to be the only creatures
that can walk around with working models of the entire universe
in their heads.
“Billions of years ago, and billions of light
years away, the material at the centre of some galaxy collapsed
under its own weight towards a super-massive black hole. Intense
magnetic fields directed some of the matter and gravitational energy
of that collapse back out into narrow jets travelling near the speed
of light, illuminating surrounding lobes of gas with the brightness
of – I think it’s a trillion suns.
The physics of the human brain could hardly be more
unlike the physics of that jet. We couldn’t survive for an
instant there. It would be a bit like facing a supernova explosion,
at point blank range, for millions of years at a time. And yet that
jet happened in precisely such a way that billions of years later
on the other side of the universe, we can accurately describe, and
model, and predict, and explain what that jet really is. So the
one physical system, the human brain, contains an accurate working
model of the other, the quasar. Not just a superficial image of
it (though it contains that as well) but an explanatory model that
embodies the same mathematical relationships and causal structure.
And if that weren’t amazing enough, the faithfulness
with which the one structure resembles the other is steadily increasing.
That’s the growth of knowledge. So the laws of physics have
this special property that physical objects very unlike each other
can sometimes have the same mathematical and causal structure embodied
in them – and that this can become more so over time.”
Are we so smart because the structure of our brain
and the patterns it exhibits are somehow in tune with the overall
structure of the universe as a whole? Are our brains the pinnacle
of biological evolution precisely because they have reached the
point where they behave in the same way as every non-biological
thing in the universe? Is everything everything? Are we just another
manifestation of some incomprehensibly beautiful, ever-changing
meta-pattern of space-time?
Probably yes. I do have a tendency to draw connections
where they may be unexpected. That is an overwhelming thought, isn't?