Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries - Neil deGrasse Tyson (2014)




Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure science.

—EDWIN P. HUBBLE (1889–1953), The Nature of Science

Among our five senses, sight is the most special to us. Our eyes allow us to register information not only from across the room but also from across the universe. Without vision, the science of astronomy would never have been born and our capacity to measure our place in the universe would have been hopelessly stunted. Think of bats. Whatever bat secrets get passed from one generation to the next, you can bet that none of them is based on the appearance of the night sky.

When thought of as an ensemble of experimental tools, our senses enjoy an astonishing acuity and range of sensitivity. Our ears can register the thunderous launch of the space shuttle, yet they can also hear a mosquito buzzing a foot away from our head. Our sense of touch allows us to feel the magnitude of a bowling ball dropped on our big toe, just as we can tell when a one-milligram bug crawls along our arm. Some people enjoy munching on habanero peppers while sensitive tongues can identify the presence of food flavors on the level of parts per million. And our eyes can register the bright sandy terrain on a sunny beach, yet these same eyes have no trouble spotting a lone match, freshly lit, hundreds of feet across a darkened auditorium.

But before we get carried away in praise of ourselves, note that what we gain in breadth we lose in precision: we register the world’s stimuli in logarithmic rather than linear increments. For example, if you increase the energy of a sound’s volume by a factor of 10, your ears will judge this change to be rather small. Increase it by a factor of 2 and you will barely take notice. The same holds for our capacity to measure light. If you have ever viewed a total solar eclipse you may have noticed that the Sun’s disk must be at least 90 percent covered by the Moon before anybody comments that the sky has darkened. The stellar magnitude scale of brightness, the well-known acoustic decibel scale, and the seismic scale for earthquake severity are each logarithmic, in part because of our biological propensity to see, hear, and feel the world that way.

WHAT, IF ANYTHING, lies beyond our senses? Does there exist a way of knowing that transcends our biological interfaces with the environment?

Consider that the human machine, while good at decoding the basics of our immediate environment—like when it’s day or night or when a creature is about to eat us—has very little talent for decoding how the rest of nature works without the tools of science. If we want to know what’s out there then we require detectors other than the ones we are born with. In nearly every case, the job of a scientific apparatus is to transcend the breadth and depth of our senses.

Some people boast of having a sixth sense, where they profess to know or see things that others cannot. Fortune-tellers, mind readers, and mystics are at the top of the list of those who lay claim to mysterious powers. In so doing, they instill widespread fascination in others, especially book publishers and television producers. The questionable field of parapsychology is founded on the expectation that at least some people actually harbor such talents. To me, the biggest mystery of them all is why so many fortune-telling psychics choose to work the phones on TV hotlines instead of becoming insanely wealthy trading futures contracts on Wall Street. And here’s a news headline none of us has seen, “Psychic Wins the Lottery.”

Quite independent of this mystery, the persistent failures of controlled, double-blind experiments to support the claims of parapsychology suggest that what’s going on is nonsense rather than sixth sense.

On the other hand, modern science wields dozens of senses. And scientists do not claim these to be the expression of special powers, just special hardware. In the end, of course, the hardware converts the information gleaned from these extra senses into simple tables, charts, diagrams, or images that our inborn senses can interpret. In the original Star Trek sci-fi series, the crew that beamed down from their starship to the uncharted planet always brought with them a tricorder—a handheld device that could analyze anything they encountered, living or inanimate, for its basic properties. As the tricorder was waved over the object in question, it made an audible spacey sound that was interpreted by the user.

Suppose a glowing blob of some unknown substance were parked right in front of us. Without some diagnostic tool like a tricorder to help, we would be clueless to the blob’s chemical or nuclear composition. Nor could we know whether it has an electromagnetic field, or whether it emits strongly in gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet, microwaves, or radio waves. Nor could we determine the blob’s cellular or crystalline structure. If the blob were far out in space, appearing as an unresolved point of light in the sky, our five senses would offer us no insight to its distance, velocity through space, or its rate of rotation. We further would have no capacity to see the spectrum of colors that compose its emitted light, nor could we know whether the light is polarized.

Without hardware to help our analysis, and without a particular urge to lick the stuff, all we can report back to the starship is, “Captain, it’s a blob.” Apologies to Edwin P. Hubble, the quote that opens this chapter, while poignant and poetic, should have instead been:

Equipped with our five senses, along with telescopes and microscopes and mass spectrometers and seismographs and magnetometers and particle accelerators and detectors across the electromagnetic spectrum, we explore the universe around us and call the adventure science.

Think of how much richer the world would appear to us and how much earlier the nature of the universe would have been discovered if we were born with high-precision, tunable eyeballs. Dial up the radio-wave part of the spectrum and the daytime sky becomes as dark as night. Dotting that sky would be bright and famous sources of radio waves, such as the center of the Milky Way, located behind some of the principal stars of the constellation Sagittarius. Tune into microwaves and the entire cosmos glows with a remnant from the early universe, a wall of light set forth 380,000 years after the big bang. Tune into x-rays and you immediately spot the locations of black holes, with matter spiraling into them. Tune into gamma rays and see titanic explosions scattered throughout the universe at a rate of about one per day. Watch the effect of the explosion on the surrounding material as it heats up and glows in other bands of light.

If we were born with magnetic detectors, the compass would never have been invented because we wouldn’t ever need one. Just tune into Earth’s magnetic field lines and the direction of magnetic north looms like Oz beyond the horizon. If we had spectrum analyzers within our retinas, we would not have to wonder what we were breathing. We could just look at the register and know whether the air contained sufficient oxygen to sustain human life. And we would have learned thousands of years ago that the stars and nebulae in the Milky Way galaxy contain the same chemical elements found here on Earth.

And if we were born with big eyes and built-in Doppler motion detectors, we would have seen immediately, even as grunting troglodytes, that the entire universe is expanding—with distant galaxies all receding from us.

If our eyes had the resolution of high-performance microscopes, nobody would have ever blamed the plague and other sicknesses on divine wrath. The bacteria and viruses that made us sick would be in plain view as they crawled on our food or as they slid through open wounds in our skin. With simple experiments, we could easily tell which of these bugs were bad and which were good. And of course postoperative infection problems would have been identified and solved hundreds of years earlier.

If we could detect high-energy particles, we would spot radioactive substances from great distances. No Geiger counters necessary. We could even watch radon gas seep through the basement floor of our homes and not have to pay somebody to tell us about it.

THE HONING OF our senses from birth through childhood allows us, as adults, to pass judgment on events and phenomena in our lives, declaring whether they “make sense.” Problem is, hardly any scientific discoveries of the past century flowed from the direct application of our five senses. They flowed instead from the direct application of sense-transcendent mathematics and hardware. This simple fact is entirely responsible for why, to the average person, relativity, particle physics, and 10-dimensional string theory make no sense. Include in the list black holes, wormholes, and the big bang. Actually, these ideas don’t make much sense to scientists either, or at least not until we have explored the universe for a long time, with all the senses that are technologically available. What emerges, eventually, is a newer and higher level of “common sense” that enables a scientist to think creatively and to pass judgment in the unfamiliar underworld of the atom or in the mind-bending domain of higher-dimensional space. The twentieth-century German physicist Max Planck made a similar observation about the discovery of quantum mechanics:

Modern Physics impresses us particularly with the truth of the old doctrine which teaches that there are realities existing apart from our sense-perceptions, and that there are problems and conflicts where these realities are of greater value for us than the richest treasures of the world of experience. (1931, p. 107)

Our five senses even interfere with sensible answers to stupid metaphysical questions like, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” My best answer is, “How do you know it fell?” But that just gets people angry. So I offer a senseless analogy, “Q: If you can’t smell the carbon monoxide, then how do you know it’s there? A: You drop dead.” In modern times, if the sole measure of what’s out there flows from your five senses then a precarious life awaits you.

Discovering new ways of knowing has always heralded new windows on the universe that tap into our growing list of nonbiological senses. Whenever this happens, a new level of majesty and complexity in the universe reveals itself to us, as though we were technologically evolving into supersentient beings, always coming to our senses.