The Gravity Well of Hyperspace
My love affair with science began (and hopefully will never end) long before I was probably even aware of what it was. The natural world fascinated me as a child, from my backyard biosphere to reading books about dinosaurs. The shift from a general fascination with science and nature to a career choice all started with a book by Michio Kaku called Hyperspace.
I think I’d consider Hyperspace to be the first “difficult” book that I read. I started reading the book as a freshman in high school on the advice of a senior who I knew through our school’s Quiz Bowl team (Aaron). A few of my friends joined me in reading Hyperspace (actually, we took turns reading my copy of the book). It took me the better part of a year to get through it.
The book was geared towards “the general public.” By that, of course, I mean a very, very small subset of intellectually-oriented and intelligent folks who can get through a book on advanced physics and an intro to the mathematically complex String Theory. Is that “Joe the Plumber”? Most emphatically not. But the book wasn’t written for physics grad students either. So while the topics were mind-bending in their conceptual complexity, the language was carefully constructed so as not to require any mathematical background for understanding the material. For this, I give Kaku credit for communicative clarity. (Sorry, couldn’t pass up that alluring alliterative opportunity).
By the end of reading Hyperspace, of course, I had forgotten many of the details in the book – only really digesting some of the main ideas and theories presented. But what really stuck with me was the fantastically different world of advanced physics. And I use the word “fantastically” here on purpose: the world Kaku describes with advanced physics (especially in String Theory) can really seem to be a fantasy world; a real life “Alice in Wonderland,” if you will.
It wasn’t as though I was ignorant of particle physics; I learned a lot from science classes, as well as years of Nature and NOVA programming on PBS. I had checked out a few books from the public library on particle physics (and learned of such cosmic oddities as leptons, bosons, and other quanta of interest). But what was significant about Hyperspace was the sheer scope of the conceptual gestalt. It really was a complete paradigm shift in thinking from the classical world with which we have evolved to interact. (See Richard Dawkins’ “Queer Universe” TED presentation for an interesting argument for how evolution has shaped our concept of the universe. The video can be found here).
I was learning about a world in which the fundamental forces of nature could describe much of the natural world in terms of particle interactions. The universe was a bizarre place in which dimensions came in packs of 25 that “condensed” down into 10 or 11 by way of mathematical manipulation. The ultimate fate of humanity and life in the cosmos was determined by the curvature of space-time. Symmetry-breaking left us with a world in which we see four fundamental forces (electromagnetism, strong nuclear, weak nuclear, gravity) that were once a singular, unified force at the time of the Big Bang. The ‘big crunch’ and ‘big freeze’ were outlined as potential obstacles for future generations of humans (if that is what we could still be called billions of years from now) to overcome. It was truly a complete break with any previous mode of thought I had ever encountered.
What kept my interest in the long term wasn’t just the wide-eyed awe in which I thought about the implications of Hyperspace. (Or as the recommender of the book told me about his experience, “reading that book lead to sleepless nights just thinking about it“). It was the idea that learning about the “true” nature of the universe and physics would be an important and meaningful venture. This last step, equating a degree and career in physics with a meaningful pursuit, was perhaps the critical point in which my short term future (the subsequent 5 years of my life) was in large part determined.
I’ll get into the question of the “meaningfulness” of a career in physics (and/or astronomy) in a future post; to talk about it here in a paragraph or two would be to discount its significance. But I will say that the logic of my thinking at this point was to make the assumption that “knowing the true nature of the physical universe around us” was a meaningful venture. I do not (even now) think that such a venture cannot be meaningful, but my assumption of it actually being meaningful (without having much of a clue about “meaningfulness” in life aside from some vague idea garnered from social norms and the beginnings of intellectual interests) may have been probably was premature.
Hyperspace was the ‘narrative hook’ that got me into physics as a career choice. At this point in the story, however, my actual involvement with physics was reading a book about interesting topics in physics written for the lay audience. Heck, I hadn’t even taken a physics course yet in high school . . .
Until next time, bonnes pensées.