What Are We Seeing?
This is a portrait of our universe based on observations of the microwave background radiation: the remnant heat of the Big Bang from almost 14 billion years ago.
The structures in this image—the rings, dots and spackling—are made up of galaxies and strings of galaxies! Scientists are not sure what they’re seeing, because those concentric rings may be a visual anomaly, an illusion. Until the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite completes a more sensitive probe of the deep sky, science must rely on fantasy.
There are two prevalent cosmological fantasies about our origin that might explain these bulls-eye rings of galaxies.
Roger Penrose and Vahe Gurzadyan speculate that the universe expands toward infinity—and after a very long time, beyond a googol of years (10 raised to the power of 100), all mass has decayed to energy. Because energy has no rest mass, there is no time anymore. And there’s no way to measure distance (because there are no longer any objects, not even atoms, for reference points). In this extreme state of indeterminacy, a new Big Bang spontaneously emerges. That’s because this vast nothingness has no disorder, as there’s nothing much there, and the second law of thermodynamics says that states of low disorder, low entropy, spontaneously move toward higher disorder and so eventually—boom!—another Big Bang.
The other hypothesis of our cosmic origins fantasizes many universes floating around like bubbles in a larger dimension. Occasionally, they bump into each other, and the concentric rings we see in the galactic sky are “bruises” where our universe collided with others. There seems to be evidence for four of these impacts.
Here is an animation of this cosmic bang-up. http://wwwphy.princeton.edu/~steinh/cycliccosmology.html
Watching it makes me dizzy, because there’s such a spectacular gap between this less-than-real animation and the bigger-than-real higher dimension it portrays.
In this split between what-we-know-is-fantasy and what really is, we meet Wigner’s Friend. WF is the observer within the human psyche who dreams us up.
I created this space to hang with WF out here on the internet, which is the mind of our time. There’s a lot going on in the mind of our time, and I wasn’t sure if WF is any part of this moment. So I was ready for silence. Instead, several visitors replied, and their collective comments comprise my fantasy of what WF has to say—
WF: Mayhaps stories are living things, and words their cells. Those cells live inside the people they enter, where they wait to meet other words and make other stories …
AA: That reminds me of Richard Dawkins' concept of “memes,” cultural ideas that replicate and evolve like genes…
WF: Yeah. And perhaps we are just the soil and weather that help them grow.
AA: Humanity, then, is the ‘soil’ for the ‘seeds’ of memes. Our brain generates consciousness as a medium for the ferment of fantasy—of stories
WF: "In the Beginning, there was the Word." And the Word is informative and entertaining. That is the way the Word hugs the World.
AA: That gives me a lot to think about, WF! So, if I understand, you’re saying that our preconscious narratives, the stories of our dreams, are what we try to embrace in the phenomenal world.
WF: Our science fantasies about the origin of the universe reveal less about what’s out there than what we cherish in our hearts.
AA: I notice that the two science fantasies about the origin of the universe both involve eternal cycles. We find this eternal return in many mythologies, probably because homo sapiens evolved in a world of celestial cycles.
WF: That’s why the myth of the solar hero endures: the struggle of light and dark. We can see that today in comic book fantasies, which are the biggest draw at the box office these days and reveal our species’ nascent, childlike acknowledgment that we are all super-heroes.
AA: Sure. In the 21st century, thanks to science, we know that reality is a mystery. Humans are made of fantasy. We can only imagine who we are. By relating directly to the narratives within us, to our dreams and fantasies, and imagining our most heroic ambitions we can profoundly influence how we relate to the phenomenal world around us.
WF: Every inner movement is a prayer that transforms the world.
AA: Very poetic.
WF: Sometimes. Other times, our fantasies are trite, like when authors “hack,” turning out lifeless Frankensteinian pieces to pay the bills. There’s something depraved about cobbling together such undead things.
AA: Depraved because the imagination is endlessly creative and only expediency keeps an artist from tapping into that vital source.
WF: Yes. We are dreaming all the time. That otherness is always rolling. We can feel dreams under the surface when we fall asleep slowly enough. And sometimes publishable stories have been born in dreams. But do we as conscious beings really have responsibilities to our dreams? Is there a handbook or memo for this? ;)
AA: I think that’s what this blog is trying to figure out. What does it mean to be friends with Wigner’s Friend?