The distances between the stars are so vast that they can make your brain melt. Take for example the Voyager 1 probe, which has been traveling at 35,000 miles per hour for more than 40 years and was the first human object to cross into interstellar space. That sounds wonderful except, at its current speed, it will still take another 40,000 years to cross the typical distance between stars.
Worse still, if you are thinking about interstellar travel, nature provides a hard limit on acceleration and speed. As Einstein showed, it's impossible to accelerate any massive object beyond the speed of light. Since the galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, if you are traveling at less than light speed, then most interstellar distances would take more than a human lifetime to cross. If the known laws of physics hold, then it seems a galaxy-spanning human civilization is impossible.
Unless of course you can build a warp drive.
Ah, the warp drive, that darling of science fiction plot devices. So, what about a warp drive? Is that even a really a thing?
Let's start with the "warping" part of a warp drive. Without doubt, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity ("GR") represents space and time as a 4-dimensional "fabric" that can be stretched and bent and folded. Gravity waves, representing ripples in the fabric of spacetime, have now been directly observed. So, yes spacetime can be warped. The warping part of a warp drive usually means distorting the shape of spacetime so that two distant locations can be brought close together — and you somehow "jump" between them.
This was a basic idea in science fiction long before Star Trek popularized the name "warp drive." But until 1994, it had remained science fiction, meaning there was no science behind it. That year, Miguel Alcubierre wrote down a solution to the basic equations of GR that represented a region that compressed spacetime ahead of it and expanded spacetime behind to create a kind of traveling warp bubble. This was really good news for warp drive fans.
The problems with a warp drive
There were some problems though. Most important was that this "Alcubierre drive" required lots of "exotic matter" or "negative energy" to work. Unfortunately, there's no such thing. These are things theorists dreamed up to stick into the GR equations in order to do cool things like make stable open wormholes or functioning warp drives.
It's also noteworthy that researchers have raised other concerns about an Alcubierre drive — like how it would violate quantum mechanics or how when you arrived at your destination it would destroy everything in front of the ship in an apocalyptic flash of radiation.
Warp drives: A new hope
Credit: Primada / 420366373 via Adobe Stock
Recently, however, there seemed to be good news on the warp drive front with the publication this April of a new paper by Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martre entitled "Introducing Physical Warp Drives." The good thing about the Bobrick and Martre paper was it was extremely clear about the meaning of a warp drive.
Understanding the equations of GR means understanding what's on either side of the equals sign. On one side, there is the shape of spacetime, and on the other, there is the configuration of matter-energy. The traditional route with these equations is to start with a configuration of matter-energy and see what shape of spacetime it produces. But you can also go the other way around and assume the shape of spacetime you want (like a warp bubble) and determine what kind of configuration of matter-energy you will need (even if that matter-energy is the dream stuff of negative energy).
Warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested.
What Bobrick and Martre did was step back and look at the problem more generally. They showed how all warp drives were composed of three regions: an interior spacetime called the passenger space; a shell of material, with either positive or negative energy, called the warping region; and an outside that, far enough away, looks like normal unwarped spacetime. In this way they could see exactly what was and was not possible for any kind of warp drive. (Watch this lovely explainer by Sabine Hossenfelder for more details). They even showed that you could use good old normal matter to create a warp drive that, while it moved slower than light speed, produced a passenger area where time flowed at a different rate than in the outside spacetime. So even though it was a sub-light speed device, it was still an actual warp drive that could use normal matter.
That was the good news.
The bad news was this clear vision also showed them a real problem with the "drive" part of the Alcubierre drive. First of all, it still needed negative energy to work, so that bummer remains. But worse, Bobrick and Martre reaffirmed a basic understanding of relativity and saw that there was no way to accelerate an Alcubierre drive past light speed. Sure, you could just assume that you started with something moving faster than light, and the Alcubierre drive with its negative energy shell would make sense. But crossing the speed of light barrier was still prohibited.
So, in the end, the Star Trek version of the warp drive is still not a thing. I know this may bum you out if you were hoping to build that version of the Enterprise sometime soon (as I was). But don't be too despondent. The Bobrick and Martre paper really did make headway. As the authors put it in the end:
"One of the main conclusions of our study is that warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested"
That really is progress.
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Quantum theory has weird implications. Trying to explain them just makes things weirder.
- The weirdness of quantum theory flies in the face of what we experience in our everyday lives.
- Quantum weirdness quickly created a split in the physics community, each side championed by a giant: Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr.
- As two recent books espousing opposing views show, the debate still rages on nearly a century afterward. Each "resolution" comes with a high price tag.
Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, two giants of 20th century science, espoused very different worldviews.
To Einstein, the world was ultimately rational. Things had to make sense. They should be quantifiable and expressible through a logical chain of cause-and-effect interactions, from what we experience in our everyday lives all the way to the depths of reality. To Bohr, we had no right to expect any such order or rationality. Nature, at its deepest level, need not follow any of our expectations of well-behaved determinism. Things could be weird and non-deterministic, so long as they became more like what we expect when we traveled from the world of atoms to our world of trees, frogs, and cars. Bohr divided the world into two realms, the familiar classical world, and the unfamiliar quantum world. They should be complementary to one another but with very different properties.
The two scientists spent decades arguing about the impact of quantum physics on the nature of reality. Each had groups of physicists as followers, all of them giants of their own. Einstein's group of quantum weirdness deniers included quantum physics pioneers Max Planck, Louis de Broglie, and Erwin Schrödinger, while Bohr's group had Werner Heisenberg (of uncertainty principle fame), Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, and Paul Dirac.
Almost a century afterward, the debate rages on.
Einstein vs. Bohr, Redux
Two books — one authored by Sean Carroll and published last fall and another published very recently and authored by Carlo Rovelli — perfectly illustrate how current leading physicists still cannot come to terms with the nature of quantum reality. The opposing positions still echo, albeit with many modern twists and experimental updates, the original Einstein-Bohr debate.
Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, two giants of 20th century science, espoused very different worldviews.
I summarized the ongoing dispute in my book The Island of Knowledge: Are the equations of quantum physics a computational tool that we use to make sense of the results of experiments (Bohr), or are they supposed to be a realistic representation of quantum reality (Einstein)? In other words, are the equations of quantum theory the way things really are or just a useful map?
Einstein believed that quantum theory, as it stood in the 1930s and 1940s, was an incomplete description of the world of the very small. There had to be an underlying level of reality, still unknown to us, that made sense of all its weirdness. De Broglie and, later, David Bohm, proposed an extension of the quantum theory known as hidden variable theory that tried to fill in the gap. It was a brilliant attempt to appease the urge Einstein and his followers had for an orderly natural world, predictable and reasonable. The price — and every attempt to deal with the problem of figuring out quantum theory has a price tag — was that the entire universe had to participate in determining the behavior of every single electron and all other quantum particles, implicating the existence of a strange cosmic order.
Later, in the 1960s, physicist John Bell proved a theorem that put such ideas to the test. A series of remarkable experiments starting in the 1970s and still ongoing have essentially disproved the de Broglie-Bohm hypothesis, at least if we restrict their ideas to what one would call "reasonable," that is, theories that have local interactions and causes. Omnipresence — what physicists call nonlocality — is a hard pill to swallow in physics.
Credit: Public domain
Yet, the quantum phenomenon of superposition insists on keeping things weird. Here's one way to picture quantum superposition. In a kind of psychedelic dream state, imagine that you had a magical walk-in closet filled with identical shirts, the only difference between them being their color. What's magical about this closet? Well, as you enter this closet, you split into identical copies of yourself, each wearing a shirt of a different color. There is a you wearing a blue shirt, another a red, another a white, etc., all happily coexisting. But as soon as you step out of the closet or someone or something opens the door, only one you emerges, wearing a single shirt. Inside the closet, you are in a superposition state with your other selves. But in the "real" world, the one where others see you, only one copy of you exists, wearing a single shirt. The question is whether the inside superposition of the many yous is as real as the one you that emerges outside.
To Einstein, the world was ultimately rational... To Bohr, we had no right to expect any such order or rationality.
The (modern version of the) Einstein team would say yes. The equations of quantum physics must be taken as the real description of what's going on, and if they predict superposition, so be it. The so-called wave function that describes this superposition is an essential part of physical reality. This point is most dramatically exposed by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, espoused in Carroll's book. For this interpretation, reality is even weirder: the closet has many doors, each to a different universe. Once you step out, all of your copies step out together, each into a parallel universe. So, if I happen to see you wearing a blue shirt in this universe, in another, I'll see you wearing a red one. The price tag for the many-worlds interpretation is to accept the existence of an uncountable number of non-communicating parallel universes that enact all possibilities from a superstition state. In a parallel universe, there was no COVID-19 pandemic. Not too comforting.
Bohm's team would say take things as they are. If you stepped out of the closet and someone saw you wearing a shirt of a given color, then this is the one. Period. The weirdness of your many superposing selves remains hidden in the quantum closet. Rovelli defends his version of this worldview, called relational interpretation, in which events are defined by the interactions between the objects involved, be them observers or not. In this example, the color of your shirt is the property at stake, and when I see it, I am entangled with this specific shirt of yours. It could have been another color, but it wasn't. As Rovelli puts it, "Entanglement… is the manifestation of one object to another, in the course of an interaction, in which the properties of the objects become actual." The price to pay here is to give up the hope of ever truly understanding what goes on in the quantum world. What we measure is what we get and all we can say about it.
What should we believe?
Both Carroll and Rovelli are master expositors of science to the general public, with Rovelli being the more lyrical of the pair.
There is no resolution to be expected, of course. I, for one, am more inclined to Bohr's worldview and thus to Rovelli's, although the interpretation I am most sympathetic to, called QBism, is not properly explained in either book. It is much closer in spirit to Rovelli's, in that relations are essential, but it places the observer on center stage, given that information is what matters in the end. (Although, as Rovelli acknowledges, information is a loaded word.)
We create theories as maps for us human observers to make sense of reality. But in the excitement of research, we tend to forget the simple fact that theories and models are not nature but our representations of nature. Unless we nurture hopes that our theories are really how the world is (the Einstein camp) and not how we humans describe it (the Bohr camp), why should we expect much more than this?
Like Fox Mulder, people have a lot of strong opinions about UFOs.
- Extraordinary claims, such as that UFOs have visited our planet or that aliens exist, require extraordinary evidence.
- Personal testimonies are simply insufficient to conclude that UFOs and aliens are real.
- Good luck having a rational conversation about it with anyone on Twitter.
If you were hoping, based on the title, that I was going to describe the time I saw strange lights moving at inexplicable speeds across the sky, then I am about to disappoint you. This column is actually about my experience in the public spotlight talking publicly about the connection between UFOs and extraterrestrial life. It was quite a ride.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
On May 30, 2021, I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled "I'm a Physicist Who Studies Aliens. U.F.O's Don't Impress Me." I don't get to write titles for the op-ed pieces that I write for the Times — or most other places for that matter — but, as provocative as it was, I think it captured the essence of my point. As a scientist involved in the search for life and "techno-signatures" on exoplanets, I think a lot about what constitutes a good data set for that search. In other words, what kind of data would allow me to make the extraordinary claim that my colleagues and I have detected life and a civilization on another world?
The answer had better be "some really damn good data." By that, I mean we would need to take measurements that gave us strong and unambiguous evidence for the conclusion that a particular signal comes from a technologically advanced civilization. My main point in the op-ed was that no matter how intriguing those navy UFO sightings may be — and they are interesting — they don't provide the extraordinary evidence that we need to conclude that aliens are visiting us. My arguments are in the op-ed if you want to see them. What I want to focus on here is what happened after that argument appeared in the press.
The UFO brigade
Within an hour or so, my email and Twitter feed began to light up. By the end of the day, I was getting more messages about the piece than almost anything I had ever written before. Some of the messages affirmed the argument I was making. The majority, however, wanted me to know how wrong I was. These fell into two categories.
There was a fair amount of "the-government-knows-but-won't-tell-us" kind of narrative. Lots of these messages were pretty mean.
Some people wanted me to know that UFOs — or as the government calls them, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) — didn't need to be connected to aliens for them to be of interest. I had however made this exact point in my piece.
I have no problem with people wanting to have those navy sightings (and others) studied scientifically and openly. My colleagues on the NASA techno-signature grant made this point in an excellent Washington Post op-ed. I think the process of vetting those sightings would greatly help show the public exactly how science works. These days, we have a real problem with science denial, and anything that lets folks understand "what science knows and how it knows it" would be helpful.
Credit: IgorZh / 280582371 via Adobe Stock
But many folks (on Twitter and elsewhere) held that the connection between UFOs and aliens had already been made. I got floods of links to one video or website after another, the vast majority of which were people describing something they had seen in the sky. As I said in the op-ed, there really isn't much science you can do with personal testimony. One can't get accurate measurements of velocity or distance or mass or any of the other basic data that a physicist would need to tell if something really was moving in a way that's impossible for human technology.
Some folks reached out because they had seen a UFO themselves. I totally understand that these people would want someone to take their reports seriously. I would never tell them that they did not have their experiences. What I can say, however, is that there's nothing a scientist can do to transform the description of that experience into data that we would need to reach the extraordinary conclusion that they had seen evidence for extraterrestrial life.
The truth is out there
But a significant fraction of what I saw coming across Twitter and elsewhere was just pure vehemence. These folks were absolutely certain that UFOs were alien visitors. There was a fair amount of "the-government-knows-but-won't-tell-us" kind of narrative. Lots of these messages were pretty mean. I got the sense that, for these folks, no public investigation — no matter how open and transparent — would be satisfying unless it reached the conclusion that they already believed. This, of course, is the opposite of science.
So, it was an interesting week. My brief time in the UFO limelight (I did many interviews on places like CNN, BBC, etc.) showed me a lot about how people view the question. Since I am so deeply involved with techno-signature science, I felt it was important to try to explain how the science of life and the universe works as a science.
But I don't really want to spend a whole lot more time in that limelight. It was kind of exhausting, in large part because of the vehemence of the true believers. I will follow whatever happens after the government's report comes out with interest. But my bet (and every researcher makes a bet when they choose their research topics) is that the data I need to know about life elsewhere in the universe will come from telescopes, not jet fighters.
Asking science to determine what happened before time began is like asking, "Who were you before you were born?"
- Science can allow us to determine what happened trillionths of a second after the Big Bang.
- But it likely never will be possible to know what brought about the Big Bang.
- As frustrating as it might be, some things are entirely unknowable. And that's a good thing.
Let's face it: to think that the universe has a history that started with a kind of birthday some 13.8 billion years ago is weird. It resonates with many religious narratives that posit that the cosmos was created by divine intervention, although science has nothing to say about that.
What happened before time began?
If everything that happens can be attributed to a cause, what caused the universe? To deal with the very tough question of the First Cause, religious creation myths use what cultural anthropologists sometimes call a "Positive Being," a supernatural entity. Since time itself had a beginning at some point in the distant past, that First Cause had to be special: it had to be an uncaused cause, a cause that just happened, with nothing preceding it.
Attributing the beginning of everything to the Big Bang begs the question, "What happened before that?" That's a different question when we are dealing with eternal gods, as for them, timelessness is not an issue. They exist outside of time, but we don't. For us, there is no "before" time. Thus, if you ask what was going on before the Big Bang, the question is somewhat meaningless, even if we need it to make sense. Stephen Hawking once equated it with asking, "What's north of the North Pole?" Or, the way I like to phrase it, "Who were you before you were born?"
To ask from science to "explain" the First Cause is to ask science to explain its own structure. It's to ask for a scientific model that uses no precedents, no previous concepts to operate. And science can't do this, just as you can't think without a brain.
Saint Augustine posited that time and space emerged with creation. For him, it was an act of God, of course. But for science?
Scientifically, we try to figure out the way the universe was in its adolescence and infancy by going backward in time, trying to reconstruct what was happening. Somewhat like paleontologists, we identify "fossils" — material remnants of long-ago days — and use them to learn about the different physics that was prevalent then.
The premise is that we are confident that the universe is expanding now and has been for billions of years. "Expansion" here means that the distances between galaxies are increasing; galaxies are receding from one another at a rate that depends on what was inside the universe at different eras, that is, the kinds of stuff that fill up space.
The "Big Bang" was not an explosion
When we mention the Big Bang and expansion, it's hard not to think about an explosion that started everything. Especially since we call it the "Big Bang." But that's the wrong way to think about it. Galaxies move away from one another because they are literally carried by the stretch of space itself. Like an elastic fabric, space stretches out and the galaxies are carried along, like corks floating down a river. So, galaxies are not like pieces of shrapnel flying away from a central explosion. There is no central explosion. The universe expands in all directions and is perfectly democratic: every point is equally important. Someone in a faraway galaxy would see other galaxies moving away just like we do.
(Side note: For galaxies that are close enough to us, there are deviations from this cosmic flow, what's called "local motion." This is due to gravity, The Andromeda galaxy is moving toward us, for example.)
Going back in time
Credit: Andrea Danti / 98473600 via Adobe Stock
Playing the cosmic movie backward, we see matter getting squeezed more and more into a shrinking volume of space. Temperature rises, pressure rises, things break apart. Molecules get broken down into atoms, atoms into nuclei and electrons, atomic nuclei into protons and neutrons, and then protons and neutrons into their constituent quarks. This progressive dismantling of matter into its most basic constituents happens as the clock ticks backward toward the "bang" itself.
For example, hydrogen atoms dissociate at about 400,000 years after the Big Bang, atomic nuclei at about one minute, and protons and neutrons at about one-hundredth of a second. How do we know? We have found the radiation left over from when the first atoms formed (the cosmic microwave background radiation) and discovered how the first light atomic nuclei were made when the universe was merely a few minutes old. These are the cosmic fossils that show us the way backward.
Currently, our experiments can simulate conditions that happened when the universe was roughly one trillionth of a second old. That seems like a ridiculously small number for us, but for a photon — a particle of light — it's a long time, allowing it to travel the diameter of a proton a trillion times. When talking about the early universe, we must let go of our human standards and intuitions of time.
We want to keep going back as close to t = 0 as possible, of course. But eventually we hit a wall of ignorance, and all we can do is extrapolate our current theories, hoping that they will give us some hints of what was going on much earlier, at energies and temperatures we cannot test in the lab. One thing we do know for certain, that really close to t = 0, our current theory describing the properties of space and time, Einstein's general theory of relativity, breaks down.
This is the realm of quantum mechanics, where distances are so tiny that we must rethink space not as a continuous sheet but as a granular environment. Unfortunately, we don't have a good theory to describe this granularity of space or the physics of gravity at the quantum scale (known as quantum gravity). There are candidates, of course, like superstring theory and loop quantum gravity. But currently there is no evidence pointing toward either of the two as a viable description of physics.
Physics' greatest mystery: Michio Kaku explains the God Equation | Big Think www.youtube.com
Quantum cosmology doesn't answer the question
Still, our curiosity insists on pushing the boundaries toward t = 0. What can we say? In the 1980s, James Hartle and Stephen Hawking, Alex Vilenkin, and Andrei Linde separately came up with three models of quantum cosmology, where the whole universe is treated like an atom, with an equation similar to the one used in quantum mechanics. In this equation, the universe would be a wave of probability that essentially links a quantum realm with no time to a classical one with time — i.e., the universe we inhabit, now expanding. The transition from quantum to classical would be the literal emergence of the cosmos, what we call the Big Bang being an uncaused quantum fluctuation as random as radioactive decay: from no time to time.
If we assume that one of these simple models is correct, would that be the scientific explanation for the First Cause? Could we just do away with the need for a cause altogether using the probabilities of quantum physics?
Unfortunately, not. Sure, such a model would be an amazing intellectual feat. It would constitute a tremendous advance in understanding the origin of all things. But it's not good enough. Science can't happen in a vacuum. It needs a conceptual framework to operate, things like space, time, matter, energy, calculus, and conservation laws of quantities like energy and momentum. One can't build a skyscraper out of ideas, and one can't build models without concepts and laws. To ask from science to "explain" the First Cause is to ask science to explain its own structure. It's to ask for a scientific model that uses no precedents, no previous concepts to operate. And science can't do this, just as you can't think without a brain.
The mystery of the First Cause remains. You can choose religious faith as an answer, or you can choose to believe science will conquer it all. But you can also, like the Greek Skeptic Pyrrho, embrace the limits of our reach into the unknowable with humility, celebrating what we have accomplished and will surely keep on accomplishing, without the need to know all and understand all. It's okay to be left wondering.
Curiosity without mystery is blind, and mystery without curiosity is lame.
Today, it's common knowledge, but it took scientists centuries to figure out.
- The simplest questions are often the hardest to answer.
- At first blush, the sun and stars are very different. The former is close and hot, the latter far away and cold.
- We couldn't confirm the sun to be a star until telescopes and spectroscopes were invented.
Sometimes, as a scientist, you forget how much you take for granted about the amazingness of the universe. The other day, my colleagues and I traded stories about how non-scientist friends would often ask us questions that we don't even realize are questions. One of my compatriots related how a friend had been completely amazed that the sun was just another star. I really loved that story because, when you think about it, humans have only figured out what stars are — and that the sun is a star — very recently in our 300,000-year history.
So let's step back and ask that basic question: How do we know the sun is a star?
Of course, the sun is a light in the sky, and stars are lights in the sky. But for someone starting from scratch, they might seem really different. The sun is only "up" in the day, but the stars are only up in the night. The sun can be so hot that it literally burns your skin. Stars, on the other hand, give off no warmth at all. How did astronomers see that the sun and the stars were beasts of the same feather?
One key point was understanding that their energy output per time (what astronomers call luminosity) is similar. If stars look dim while the sun appears blinding, it's just because the sun is much closer. The luminosity of an object can be found by knowing how bright it appears to be and its distance. That means once you know the distance to an object, you can calculate its luminosity. The problem, then, of determining if the sun and stars had similar luminosities really came down to figuring out their distances. Clever people as far back as the ancient Greeks started estimating how far away the sun was, but distance measurements to the stars took humanity a lot longer.
The problem of parallax
Credit: JustinWick via Wikimedia Commons
The problem for the stars was the method required for calculating distances. The easiest way is what's called parallax, which relies on how a distant object shifts its position relative to a nearby object when you, the observer, shift position. You can see the effect by putting your finger up against your nose, looking at a picture on a wall, and then closing one eye and then the other. The position of your finger relative to the picture on the wall jumps back and forth as you do this.
But here's the catch. The farther away the picture on the wall, the smaller the shift in its position. Since stars are so far away, astronomers had to wait until they had reasonably powerful telescopes before they could get accurate parallax measurements and, hence, accurate distances. Once these were determined, they found that, yes, the sun and the stars pump out comparable amounts of energy every second.
It's worth noting that big stars can be millions of times brighter than small stars, but for our purposes here, what matters is that astronomers were able to determine that stars and the sun were in the same category of "luminous stuff."
We are all star stuff
The next big step in showing that the sun was a star was to show that both were basically made of the same stuff. People had long imagined the sun to be made of burning stuff for obvious reasons, but what kind of stuff? Was it wood, candle wax, or coal? And what about the stars that seemed to burn so less intensely?
The barcode of the sun.Credit: NOAO / AURA / NSF
The answer to this question came with the invention of spectroscopy, which involves sending sunlight or starlight through a prism to break it up into its component colors (like a rainbow). When astronomers did this with powerful enough spectrographs, they saw that the rainbow was not complete. There were dark bands or missing colors as if something had eaten the light at specific wavelengths. The dark lines were not random but appeared in specific patterns. Remarkably, physicists soon found that these patterns of dark lines were like the fingerprints of specific elements (such as hydrogen, helium, nitrogen, and oxygen) in the gas that the light passed through on the way to the spectrograph.
The dark lines, therefore, seen in light from the sun or distant stars were giving astronomers an inventory of their composition. It was telling them what the sun and stars were made of. Lo and behold, the patterns of dark lines for both were basically the same. The stars were made of the same stuff as the sun, and the sun was made of the same stuff as the stars!
This discovery was the true game changer. With spectroscopy, astronomy became astrophysics, and soon a true science of stars began. In the decades that followed, astronomers would unpack the secrets of the inner architecture of stars, as well as the nuclear energy source that powers their titanic engines.
Through all these steps, the sun was finally recognized as just another star in the late 19th or early 20th century. It was our parent ball of nuclear fusion — neither different nor unusual compared to other stars, but, to us, very special.
Must a religious story be confirmed as a true fact to be effective and inspiring?
- Wu Hsin is an allegedly ancient Chinese sage whose inspiring teachings were brought to light by an obscure character named Roy Melvyn.
- Wu Hsin's teachings have inspired millions of people across the globe — even if all evidence indicates that he never existed and was made up by Melvyn.
- The remarkable story of Wu Hsin and Roy Melvyn explores the conflict between the nature of faith and literal or interpretative readings of religious texts.
Last week, a renowned and highly respected Brazilian journalist emailed me a link to a YouTube video. The video, she said, was about the teachings of Wu Hsin, an obscure Chinese sage that presumably lived about one hundred years after Confucius, some time between 403 and 221 BCE. In a book that collects his writings, translated and edited by Roy Melvyn, Wu Hsin is a teacher of non-dualism, credited with being the bridge between Taoism and Confucianism and what later became Zen Buddhism in China and Japan.
The power of religious faith is not in it being based on established facts but on it being believed and, through the strength of this belief, being effective and inspiring.
My journalist friend urged me to watch the video, especially because "some of the ideas resonate so clearly with yours." The video, in Portuguese and currently with over 700,000 views, was beautifully edited in black and white, with a narration filled with deep and meaningful teachings attributed to Wu Hsin. I was mesmerized. I ordered the book immediately and started researching this enigmatic figure. In the back of my mind, though, was an uncomfortable feeling. If Wu Hsin is so wise and so historically essential, how come I never heard of him?
The teachings of Wu Hsin
"Here, we admit the distinction between what is and what appears to be," the video opens. "And so, we must let go of the belief that our imagination is reality." Wu Hsin literally means "No Mind" in Chinese. And, as I dug deeper into the story, the distinction between what is and what appears to be became more and more blurred.
I went back to YouTube to search for videos about Wu Hsin in English. There were quite a few, but none as beautifully edited as the one in Portuguese. Still, between the books and the videos, millions of people are clearly aware of Wu Hsin's teachings:
- The desire for salvation is the elixir of fools. The only "saving" one needs is to be saved from one's imagination.
- Words are not facts but only ideas about facts.
- Whatever one perceives is not one's own. It is merely an appearance in the field of knowing that one is.
- Clarity does not provide answers; it dissolves questions.
- Beyond the mind, all distinctions cease.
- The entire world is merely a play performed on your stage while you are seated in the front row.
- Consciousness is the antecedent condition of all perception.
The appearance of a separate "I" is an illusion of the mind that divides everything into a subject (the "I") and an "object" (the world outside of the "I"). This apparent duality, this feeling of being apart from everything else, is the ultimate source of unhappiness.
I asked my 13.8 partner Adam Frank and my friend, the philosopher Evan Thompson — both experts on Eastern religions — about Wu Hsin. "Never heard of him," said Adam. "Wu Hsin is a fictional character likely invented by Roy Melvyn. No historical evidence of any such person. It's kind of an ancient Chinese version of Carlos Castañeda's Don Juan," said Thompson.
Does it matter if Wu Hsin was real?
I explored a little deeper and discovered some very strange allegations against Roy Melvyn, the man who gave voice to Wu Hsin. There is no Wikipedia entry about Wu Hsin, the Chinese sage. I then found an online discussion platform where people pondered about Wu Hsin and Roy Melvyn. Opinions diverged, with some people stating something that I found fascinating: it doesn't matter whether Roy Melvyn made Wu Hsin up or not; the teachings are still powerful and useful.
A more alarming entry in the same discussion board claimed that Roy Melvyn's name is actually Roy Melvyn Sidewitz in Brooklyn, with a criminal record to boot and offering a link to the court case. According to this link, Roy M. Sidewitz was convicted of illicit trading by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). I noted that the full name Roy Melvyn Sidewitz was never mentioned in the report, only Roy M. Sidewitz. Are Roy Melvyn and Roy M. Sidewitz the same person? I couldn't find out.
The strange story of Wu Hsin and Roy Melvyn goes to the heart of the debate between literal and nonliteral interpretations of religious texts and figures. To what extent is it necessary to attribute real existence to a religious historical figure to be inspired by his or her teachings? A video with more of Wu Hsin's teachings (in English) on YouTube makes this clear: "Whether Wu Hsin is fictional or not and those are Roy Melvyn's writings is none of my concern. I just happen to like them. That's all there is to it."
The YouTube channel belongs to an anonymous "Unself yourself." Could it be another one of Melvyn's outlets, trying to justify his actions? Who knows? We remain lost in the fog of not knowing, the truth veiled under the anonymity of the web. "Seeking ends when the fish understands the folly of searching for the ocean."
Will the real Roy Melvyn please stand up?
Maybe Roy Melvyn had something meaningful to say and knew quite well that unless he invented a story connecting his sayings to an obscure ancient sage no one would listen. The fact is that the real Melvyn never came forward with concrete proof of finding any original writings by Wu Hsin. That simple gesture would, of course, solve everything (assuming the documents weren't forged, but that could be determined by experts).
Although we live in a world where thousands of people believe that mediums can channel wisdom from alien intelligences, the story of Wu Hsin and Roy Melvyn goes much farther. Melvyn is sharing and repackaging inspiring Eastern teachings about finding inner peace through detachment and embracing the impossibility of ever understanding the deepest reaches of reality. "What is known is sustained by the unknown which, in turn, is sustained by the unknowable."
The power of religious faith is not in it being based on established facts but on it being believed and, through the strength of this belief, being effective and inspiring. I think of Dante's Divine Comedy and Michelangelo's David or Moses. If the power of faith redeems so many apocryphal religious narratives, should it redeem Melvyn?