Ancient Atomic Logic Shows Reality Is Relational, Not Objective.

Loop quantum gravity gets the ancient atomist back into the loop, showing how black holes might explode, and that the Big Bang might be a Big Bounce. 


Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

1. Objective physics “misled” us—“reality is relational,” so says Carlo Rovelli in Reality Is Not What It Seems. We must loop back to a 2,300-year-old idea (perhaps humanity’s “greatest”) to stop cutting against the grain of the universe.

2. Democritus’s ancient logic of atoms says you can’t divide things ad infinitum—below some cutoff you can’t cut anymore. Reason shows reality is “atoms, and the void” ("atomos" means uncuttable).

3. Uncuttableness seemed to resolve recursive puzzles like Zeno’s you’ll-never-get-there paradox, and it cast the cosmos as an “endless dance” of the invisible and indivisible.

4. Ancient atomists saw writing as a “visible model” of invisible cosmos-organizing processes: Text made language visible, illuminated its workings (parts + combination rules), and provided new thinking tools.

5. Greeks had the “first true alphabet”: a “universal” writing system that used a few letters to encode the infinite variety of all possible utterances. Similarly, all matter is written in a "language… of atoms."

6. Rovelli extends Democritus's atoms-are-matter’s-alphabet metaphor by characterizing physics as the  “grammar of the world,” describing its parts and combination rules.”

7. But other syntaxes dominate science, per Plato’s belief that mathematics is the best world-grasping language. Math brings its own grammatical forms/rules. (Plato’s predecessor Pythagoras believed “numbers were literally gods"— expressing immortal patterns.)

8. Science’s Platonic-math lust has produced powerful results, but also “pathological situations” of unclear, even absurd, meanings. For instance…

9. “Quantum field theory… is full of mathematical absurdities” (routinely computing infinite values).

10. Mysterious “meanings” still surround 100-year-old quantum mechanics equations (e.g., between interactions particles exist only as a “cloud of probability”).

11. And particle physics equations work only in “absurdly convoluted” ways (yielding nonsensical infinities).

12. Reusing Democritus’s infinite-recursion-evading trick, Rovelli works on taming these plaguing infinities. “Loop quantum gravity” atomizes the void. Space itself has indivisible grains.

13. Therefore you can’t compress things ad infinitum. Approaching the space-grain size a “quantum pressure” resists. That suggests aging black holes might explode in possibly detectable ways, and the Big Bang might = a Big Bounce.

14. Philosophy might be “footnotes to Plato,” but physics hasn’t finished footnoting Democritus. (He lived before Plato’s formative math-morphism.)

15. Lost in our lust for math-structured thinking are useful subtleties of Democritus’s atoms-as-letters vision. Beyond the grammars of geometry and algebra lies a domain of not math-like but text-like compositions and meanings (of semantics beyond mathematics).

16. Here the ancient fallacy of composition has math-specific applications: Some traits combine and aggregate in math-friendly ways, some don’t. You can’t grasp the meaning or function of text or DNA by counting letters or measuring lengths or quantity of ink. Their meaning/function/grammar is relational and sequential and word-like. The information encoded in matching sequential text-like compositions matters (DNA—>RNA, letters—>“social cartesian” lexicon).

17. Word and world both have grammars that don’t fit our available mathematical rules.

18. Reality is relational, and not entirely objective. Subject and object aren’t separable, they’re entangled, inescapably. “Objective” is always relative to some other system/observer. 



Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Study helps explain why motivation to learn declines with age

Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.

Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.

Keep reading Show less

Scientists discover why fish evolved limbs and left water

Researchers find a key clue to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.

Surprising Science
  • A new study says solar and lunar tide impacts led to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.
  • The scientists show that tides created tidal pools, stranding fish and forcing them to get out of the water.
  • The researchers ran computer simulations to get their results.
Keep reading Show less

Optimism may be dangerous in a pandemic, say behavioral psychologists

Most people believe themselves to be less at risk from COVID-19 than others similar to them, according to a recent UCL survey conducted in the U.S.

Scroll down to load more…