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Saturday, April 3, 2010

22. The Universe and all that: from the very large to the incredibly small

It's called Brigg's Elevator. It's a thought experiment.

Imagine an elevator that could not only carry you out into space, but that can also carry you INTO matter. You'd climb aboard, and the elevator would start rising - to Level 2 (10 to the power of 2 metres - or 100 metres above the ground). At level 1 you'd be up among the tree tops.
Level 3 would be 1000 metres above the surface of the earth (or 10 to the power of 3).
At Level 4 you'd be 10000 - or ten thousand metres up. That's about the height of Mt Everest (I think); it's about the height that jet planes fly at. I recall flying to Darwin and looking down at 'the map of hills and rivers' that 'mocked my small wisdom with its vast design'.
[I'd imagine that this would be the cue for the Music Hall comedian running the trip to laugh and say: "You ain't seen NOTHING yet!"
And so on you'd go until you reached the outer extent of the Universe - Level 27 - at which point you could look out the window and see the whole of the universe in one image.
[That's 10 to the power of 27 - or 10 followed by 27 zeros. That's approximately 13.5 billions Light Years of travel! That's a bloody long way!]

That's hard enough to comprehend, but the next part of the thought experiment is even harder. Brigg's Elevator is now 'Going Down'. At Level -1, the goldfish in the bowl now seems to be virtually human size. Go a little deeper into matter - say to Level -5 (in other words, where 'things' are .000001 of a metre in size; now look out the window of the Elevator, and you are looking at a cell in a human body, and it looks as large as a 'normal person' at Level 0.

A few levels further down - around Level -11 - you could observe a sphere surounded by a 'cloud' of whirring 'things'; that's the nucleus of an atom you're looking at. To see electrons whizzing around it (that cloud of whirring 'things' - you'd need to go down a few more levels.

Brigg's Elevator is a metaphor - an analogy - that a scientist named Maxwell invented to try to explain the incredible complexity of the Universe. In Outer space - the universe we call it - you can get out as far as Level 26; in 'inner space' - the space WITHIN matter - scientists reckon you can go down an amazing 36 levels.

I first discovered this analogy in a book almost 20 years ago. There are one or two mentions of Brigg's Elevator on the www - but none are very helpful.

Now, Briggs’ Elevator is a creation of Maxwell who devised the idea as a means of helping us to better understand the notion of relativism, the notion of standpoint. It brings us directly into touch with the one of the post modern dilemma.

We are accustomed to experiencing our surroundings, the Earth, the universe from the standpoint of beings that stand roughly 1.7 - 2 metres tall. We experience our ‘world’ as being of ‘human proportions'. We are smaller than elephants, bigger than ants.

But what it we were the size of a goldfish; how might we perceive the world then? The 1960s film and television series, Fantastic Voyage, explored this thought-experiment. In the series, human beings were miniaturised; they became so small that they could journey through the body of another – normal sized - human being. Travelling down the arteries and veins – the bloodstream - in their tiny spaceship-like vessel, they faced showers of meteor-like objects: red and white blood cells. These blood cells were almost as large as their innerspace ship.

During the 1960s, human beings were first able to view the planet Earth in its entirety. Human beings were able to voyage into outer space in space ships, to a sufficient distance that they could see – and photograph – the earth.

In a sense, both of these voyages – into inner and outer space – were journeys on Briggs elevator. The elevator can travel either up or down. It enables us to ‘see’ – or perhaps ‘envision’ or ‘imagine’ different ‘levels of reality’. At ground level – level 0 – the world is as we know it, it’s a world of human proportions. Elephants are large animals; worms are quite small; mosquitoes are even smaller, and we can look at bacteria and amoeba only if we use a microscope. Further, if we want to explore distant planets and stars and galaxies, we can do so only with the aid of powerful telescopes.

Take the elevator UP one level – to the level of 102 – and it is as though we are 100 metres in the air, looking down. The horizon has expanded – we can see more of the earth’s surface. At this level, we are truly giants; we are as tall as very large trees. Other, normal sized humans look the size of a goldfish. Normal goldfish seem no bogger than a mosquito as normal ground level.

If we were to take Briggs elevator DOWN one level, and the goldfish is suddenly twice as big as we are. If you’re normally afraid of spiders in the accustomed world, imagining facing a huntsman spider that is now the same size as you. There would be some advantages: you could readily stand up inside a matchbox.

Take the elevator up to Level 8 (108) and you join those first astronauts who could see the earth in its entirety. At Level 13, you’re able to view the whole of what we call ‘our’ solar system: our Sun and the many planets and moons and asteroids. At Level 22, the Milky Way fits neatly into your viewing screen:

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go 'round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

Eric Idle (from the Monty Python team)

At level 26, the whole of the universe fits into our visual field. However, we can see only large clusters of galaxies; we see the entirety of ‘this amazing and expanding universe’. And that being the case, we may need to go to Level 27 or 28 to be able to keep the whole universe in our ‘full view’.

If we take the elevator DOWN, we travel into the fabric of matter. At Level –5 (or 10-5 where we have shrunk to roughly .0002 cm) we are on equal terms with a human cell. At Level -6 we can swim with bacteria that are the same size as we are; it’s at this level that we join the intrepid explorers on their ‘Fantastic Voyage’. At Level -8, we could do battle directly with the viruses that cause us so much discomfort, and in relation to which normal-sized medical practitioners are so powerless. Mind you, at this level these viruses are now as big as we are; we might be even more powerless and more vulnerable to them.

At Level -10 we are in the position to observe the interwoven strands of dna; they are about the size of those plastic strips that people put in doorways to help keep the flies out.

At Level -11 (10 to the power of -11 or .000000000001) the nucleus of an atom, along with its surrounding misty cloud of electrons now fully occupies our visual screen. It’s a little hard to take it in: the nucleus is actually not much bigger than an orange (at Level 0) and the misty cloud extends to a distance of 60 kilometres, so we can’t actually get very close to nucleus. (Maybe if the temperature is low enough – down near absolute zero – the electrons will have slowed sufficiently that we’ll be able to dodge them on our way to the nucleus.)

Down another six levels and we can now observe the protons – they formed that misty cloud around the nucleus of the atom. But we’re still not at the ‘heart’ or matter. Two levels further down – at Level 18 (10-18 ) - we can ‘see’ the quarks that form the proton.

At this point, we’re just over halfway down. Way down inside matter, so the quantum physicists have imagined, is space-time foam and superstrings … whatever they may be.

This astonishing journey has only been possible in relatively recent times. The invention of the microscope and the telescope enabled humans to first board Briggs Elevator barely 500 years ago. Humans managed to reach Level 8 in the late 1960s, around the same time that Watson and Crick dreamed of Level –10.

Eric Idle wryly observes in ‘The Galaxy Song’ that, despite our scientific advances in knowledge, and despite the fact that (to quote another piece of popular culture: Julian Lennon’s song, Saltwater) we are ‘so enchanted by how clever we are’, we are still prone to insecurity and dark fears, and that there is still ‘bugger all’ intelligent life ‘down here on the Earth’.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.

Reductionist thinkers have had a tendency to view the continuum – from the almost unimaginable expanse of outer space to the perhaps even more unimaginable innerspace of matter [that is, from Level 26 to Level –36 on Briggs’ (mind) elevator] as something that could be progressively reduced and reduced until the essence/ the core/ the 'real' reality is reached.

The search for a Grand Theory that would explain everything, from the origins of the universe to its ongoing expansion, everything from the formation of planets and stars and moons to the emergence and evolution of life, everything from Black Holes to quarks and superstrings, has been the goal of physicists for a half a century or more.

Holistic thinkers, on the other hand, have sought to understand the wholes (or holons) that exist at each of a small number of levels. Phenomenologists have sought to explore life as it is experienced by the humans living at Level 0. Neurologists, on the other hand, have sought to journey down a level or four or more on Briggs Elevator.

Behaviorists have sought to deal only with Level 0 – with observable behaviours, with stimuli and responses. Depth psychologists have sought to understand what is going on ‘under the surface’ or ‘behind the screen’.

I can't pretend to really understand all of this. But I find it utterly fascinating. I am in awe of the Brigg's Elevator Thought Experiment - and the complexities it reveals. I plan to write about it and think about it further. I'd love you to join me.

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