QUESTION: What would happen if some causal agent outside the universe planted a brand new electron in the air six inches in front of your face? This event would be, of course, in complete contradiction to the law of conservation of matter-energy. Would the universe come to an abrupt end? Would a logical contradiction be created that means no such electron creation can, even hypothetically, occur? Or would the universe be thrown into a state of imbalance and careen out of control, wrecking all matter and energy as we know them?
I have another idea: Nothing special would happen. There would just be one more electron in the universe than there was before. So what? You and I wouldn’t even notice. And if, before this electron insertion, the universe had a total electromagnetic charge of zero, then it would now have the negative charge of a single electron. Again, so what?
Conservation of Energy
The “Law of Conservation of Energy” is not actually a law of physics. It’s an observable, average effect of the laws of physics that do govern this universe. In other words, the actual laws that govern the behavior of particles in this universe are such that their interactions do not create a total energy greater than or less than they had before the interaction.
A good analogy is a poker game. There is no explicit rule of poker that requires the total amount of money in the game to stay the same throughout the playing of a hand. But the rules of the game are such that any time one player loses some money, another player, at the end of the hand, will acquire that same amount of money. The rules do not provide for the printing of new money right there at the table, nor do they provide for the burning of money either. The money just moves around. As long as there is no outside interference with the players at the table, the total amount of money will remain constant.
What would happen if the poker game included a money-printing machine that could create endless amounts of money? Then the money would be worthless and there would be no point in playing the game at all. What would happen if the game included the regular destruction of money? Then the players would be doomed to run out of money and not be able to continue the game.
Similarly, whatever entities made the rules of our universe in all likelihood purposely designed its laws so that a “law” of conservation of matter-energy (actually an effect of the laws) would exist. If the laws allowed for an increase in energy as particles interacted, then the universe would quickly accumulate so much energy and/or matter that the meaningful, predictable environments and chemical processes on which life depends would be impossible. And if the laws allowed energy to be destroyed by particle interactions, then the universe would quickly run out of matter/energy and contain virtually nothing, or have no activity.
The interpretation of conservation-of-energy as a single law, rather than an effect of multiple, designed laws, typifies, I think, the desire among the past several decades of scientists to avoid design conclusions. This desire springs from:
worries over what will happen to the project of science if religion is taken seriously by influential and powerful people,
the belief that science is inexorably destroying all even vaguely religious concepts, and
the possibility that if this universe is all there is, then human scientists eventually will be able to explain everything.
The first of these, at least, is perhaps a reasonable fear — but, as I’ve noted before, has nothing to do with figuring out what’s true and what isn’t.
Osmosis is popularly described as driven by water’s “tendency” or “want” to cross a concentration gradient, from areas of high water concentration to areas of low water concentration. But in reality there is no such tendency or desire built into water or the laws of physics that control it. Any truly scientific explanation of osmosis, such as I have attempted here, must be based entirely on the essentially Newtonian collision of water (and other) molecules with each other, and with the membrane across which the osmosis occurs.
One of the effects of Newtonian collisions between gas molecules is that when a body of air and a vacuum (empty space) are brought into open contact, the air rushes into the vacuum, filling and thus eliminating it. This effect was canonized into law as “Nature abhors a vacuum.” But, as Galileo(?) wryly commented, nature abhors a vacuum only up to 30 feet — in other words, in its attempt to fill a vacuum above a column of water, nature will push the water up a tube 30 feet, but no higher. And of course, if nature really abhorred vacuums, then all our technologies based on vacuum tubes (early amplifiers, all CRT displays) would have been impossible.
I once saw this effect-law confusion nicely illustrated in a snippet of a classic comic book, in which a villain trapped Superman in a special bubble that resisted all his attempts to break it. Superman’s solution was to suck all the air out of the inside of the bubble with his super lungs, and since “nature abhors a vacuum,” the bubble then ruptured. Alas, a bubble that can withstand superhero blows far in excess of 15 pounds per square inch wouldn’t have much trouble resisting outside air pressure. Apparently the bubble wasn’t even as strong as a common TV tube.
Another example of interpreting an effect of laws as a law is the treatment of the discovery that light refracts in the exact direction required to get it to any target in the shortest possible time. This is commonly treated as if it is (or at least is suggested to be) a law that light mysteriously follows. Actually, it is a simple effect of the way waves propagate across mediums of different propagation speed, and is not actually a property of light in particular, but rather of all waves. (See detail here.)
Yet another example — if my strong suspicions about the nature of this universe are correct — is to be found in the whole farce of “non-Euclidean geometry.” The belief that there is such a thing as a truly non-Euclidean geometry springs from the confusion of effects (e.g. the pythagorean theorem; parallel lines) with laws (e.g. each particle has multiple, discrete-state values behind it). (See my prior article on this subject.)
What ancient mathematicians thought of as the “axioms” (i.e. laws) of geometry, may actually be effects of the real laws that govern a geometric system. Try to create a computer simulation of a geometric world in which waves can propagate and particles can interact, and see if you can give it a “non-Euclidean” nature, in which the “axioms” of a classical non-Euclidean geometry will be observed. I suggest that you will have a very difficult time indeed creating such a simulation, and even if you succeed, you will find that the bizarre hoops you had to jump through to create it serve no useful purpose other than to satisfy the arbitrary requirement of matching the axioms of a classic non-Euclidean geometry.
And Euclidean or not — will your axioms be explicitly coded into your simulation as laws of the system? Answer: No. They are effects of the laws, not laws themselves.
And, the strong differences between the way subatomic particles move around (quantum theory), and the way large objects like billiard balls move around (Newtonian mechanics) can be similarly reconciled. What Newton thought of as laws were actually average effects of a very different set of laws that govern particle behavior. (More about that in just a minute!)
Relativity of Motion
Which brings us to Einstein’s relativity. Einstein declared that there is no such thing as absolute motion through space; rather, objects move only relative to each other. How did Einstein reach this conclusion? We can’t read his mind (even if he were still alive), but we can reasonably surmise that it went something like this:
1. The Michelson-Morley experiment, which attempted to determine the Earth’s absolute velocity through space, gave results that indicate the Earth is not moving at all.
2. Since it is highly unlikely that our planet is absolutely still — not least because we have strong evidence that is is orbiting our sun — something must be sabotaging the Michelson-Morley experiment. That sabotage is caused by Lorentz contraction and time dilation.
3. Why would our universe have Lorentz contraction and time dilation, and have them to the exact degree required to perfectly spoil the Michelson-Morley experiment? Because it has to, since there is actually no such thing as absolute motion. The relativity of motion is one of the laws of our universe.
4. Step 3 seems to be contradicted by the observable centrifugal effect caused by spinning an object. To resolve this, we will propose that the existence of all those zillions of stars out there somehow causes these forces, and that the centrifugal effect would not exist if we spun an object in an otherwise empty universe.
5. Since all motion is relative, light must not actually travel through space (i.e. a wave-propagation medium), but must instead have the spooky, virtually incomprehensible property of being able to get from emitter to receiver without actually propagating in the interim. (The plausibility of this idea was subsequently boosted by quantum theory and the spooky results of some of its experiments — although quantum theory and Einstein’s relativity have actually never worked together particularly well.)
The mistake is Step 3. What if Lorentz contraction and time dilation are not required to exist in order that all motion be relative, but rather exist for some other reason having to do with the way motion in our universe works, and they happen, purely as a side effect, to ruin attempts to determine our absolute velocity through space? (At least by the means Michelson and Morley used, anyway.)
We certainly have precedent for this: Notice, in my above-referenced refraction discussion, that refraction, necessarily caused by the way waves propagate through mediums, just happened to produce the side effect of waves reaching any target in the shortest possible time, when traversing boundaries between mediums of different propagation speed. It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that there is some legal requirement that light reach any target in the smallest possible time, and then from that idea to extrapolate that light “knows” what it is doing; that it is somehow testing infinitely many paths and selecting the fastest one. But stop for a second, go back and notice that the refraction of light is exactly the same as the refraction of all other waves (e.g. sound waves) — then you suddenly realize that there is no law requiring light to use the fastest path, nor a need for light to know what it is doing, etc. It takes the fastest path simply because it’s a wave, and all waves do that, as a consequence of the way they propagate.
So — what if Lorentz contraction and time dilation are necessary consequences of the way objects move through space?
In the classic experiment, an astronaut bounces a light pulse between two posts and measures the time it takes the pulse to make a round trip. If his ship is translating through space then the round trip should take longer, and just how much longer should reveal just how fast the ship is translating. But the astronaut observes the light to take the exact amount of time it should if his ship was not moving at all. And he observes this even if the ship really is moving, because the Lorentz contraction of the entire ship (including the light-bouncing equipment), and the time dilation of the clocks with which the astronaut measures the pulse’s trip duration, all conspire to perfectly neutralize his ability to notice the increase in that duration.
Why would the astronaut, and his ship, and his clocks, and his light-pulse-bouncing posts, be contracted and time-dilated by translational motion through space? Simple. They are composed of particles which maintain their solid-object orientation with respect to each other by a process of constantly interacting via forces that travel at the speed of light. So the exact same distortion of the pulse-bouncing process that the astronaut wants to observe, is also distorting the shape of the astronaut and all objects in his ship, and is distorting the rate at which chemical reactions and other ship-local motions can occur. The coincidence that Lorentz contraction and time dilation exactly ruin the Michelson-Morley experiment is really no coincidence at all — the effect Michelson and Morley were hoping to observe did occur, but it occurred also in the bodies of Michelson and Morley, and in all their equipment, and thus cancelled itself out in their experiment’s results.
Or put another way: Trying to measure with a clock the effect of your ship’s motion on light pulses’ trip times, is in the same category as trying to measure with a ruler the Lorentz contraction of your ship. The ruler is also contracted, and thus the contraction won’t be revealed by such measurements. And it’s not a startling coincidence that demands some explanation (e.g. Step 3 above). When the same contraction effect is applied to ship and ruler, it’s no coincidence at all that the effects will perfectly ruin attempts to use the ruler to measure the contraction of the ship.
Here’s possibly an even better way to explain it: Suppose you mix chlorine and sodium in a container. The result is salt (sodium chloride). Now, if you did that experiment again, but this time the whole experiment was Lorentz-contracted in some direction to some degree, and the rate at which the reaction could occur was slowed (i.e. time-dilated), would you expect a different compound to be produced? Of course not. You would still get salt, only more slowly, and of a distorted (contracted) shape.
Likewise, suppose an astronaut does an experiment in a spaceship, and at the end of the experiment says, “Hmmm — these are the results I would get if my ship wasn’t moving at all.” Would we expect the astronaut to say something different if the whole sequence of events was Lorentz-contracted and time-dilated? No, we would expect him to say the same words, only more slowly, and with his body in a Lorentz-distorted shape. And this logic applies regardless of the degree of spatial contraction (or even spatial expansion!), and regardless of the degree of time-dilation (or time-compression!).1
When scientists try to observe something, and can’t figure out a way to do so, they experience a strong temptation to declare authoritatively that that something doesn’t exist. The logic is that if we can’t observe it, what harm can come of saying it doesn’t exist? And besides, any idea that it does exist is antithetical to science, since science is about things that we can observe. It is upon this logic that Einstein’s relatively of motion is built.
The flaws in that logic are:
A. Just because we can’t figure out a way to observe X today doesn’t mean we won’t figure out a way to observe it tomorrow. People are always thinking of new ways to observe; and the technology by which they can attempt observation is steadily advancing.
B. In the absence of a way to observe X, the correct scientific declaration is not that X doesn’t exist, but rather that we don’t know whether X exists or not.
Declaring X to be nonexistent is not harmless — it impedes discovery of new ways to look for X, and can lead to potentially false extrapolations based on the supposed nonexistence of X. For example, deciding that all motion must be relative led Einstein to conclude that we must live in a “wraparound” universe, in which space itself is expanding to accommodate the Big-Bang-initiated expansion.
If motion is not actually relative, then there is no need to believe in a universe like that, nor to employ obtuse, ad hoc rationalizations of observed centrifugal effects (Step 4 above) or light’s obvious wave behaviors (Step 5 above). Instead, Occam’s razor easily points us to a Euclidean universe in which matter is simply spreading out by the momentum of the Big Bang. Such a universe does, however, as far as our astronomical observations can tell us, result in the conclusion that our planet is very close to the exact center of the universe. Such a conclusion, combined with the existence of complex life on this planet, the low degree of time-dilation in the central area of the universe, and the maximal efficiency of human expansion throughout the universe if we start near its center, is all highly suggestive of intentional setup. The desire to avoid such intentionality, officially mandated as the “Cosmological Principle,” was strongly shared by Einstein. (More about that here.)
One of the direct implications of what I’m suggesting above is that translational motion through space (i.e. Newtonian momentum) is caused by the Lorentz contraction of the object. In other words, a billiard ball translating through space is able to translate by being Lorentz contracted. If the ball was not Lorentz contracted in any direction, the particles that make up the ball would, by their ongoing interactions, simply maintain the shape of the ball, and the ball would be unmoving in absolute space. By being Lorentz-contracted, the particles of the ball are able to (indeed must), by their interactions, progressively advance in the direction of contraction. And the more contracted the ball is, the faster it will translate in such manner.
But which direction? If a billiard ball is contracted to about 70% of its normal width, in a left-right direction, then it will translate through space at about half the speed of light in a left-right direction. But will it translate to the left or to the right? If you took a billiard ball and (via god-like manipulation from outside the universe) instantly repositioned all its particles 70% closer together in a left-right direction, would the ball then start translating to the left, or to the right?
As an analogy, ask yourself what would happen if you, god-wise, arranged the water in a wave pool to have a sine-wave shaped curvature of its surface, along a left-right axis. When you then set the water in motion (i.e. allowed it to continue normal processing of its physical laws), would the sine-wave propagate to the left or to the right? Neither — it would collapse and chaotically disperse. To achieve a translating wave, you would have to pick a direction (say, left), then arrange not just the location of the water molecules, but also their Newtonian velocities (some to the left, and others to the right, in different parts of the sine-wave), to mimic the instantaneous state of a water wave translating leftward.
Likewise, I suggest that if you paused physics, repositioned the particles comprising a billiard ball 70% closer together along a particular axis, then set physics in motion again, the ball would probably explode, or otherwise cease to be a recognizable billiard ball. To set up the ball to translate nicely in a particular direction would require the highly coordinated arrangement of both particles and light-like forces in a manner intentionally designed to achieve smooth translation in that direction.
Further suggested here is the idea that fundamental particles do not have velocities at all, but rather are repositioning themselves semi-randomly, under the influence of nearby propagation waves (e.g. light waves). In the case of light propagating through space, the light is in fact a wave, propagating through a Euclidean wave-propagation medium we call “space,” and photon particles semi-randomly track a peak of that wave, riding it until they are captured by some object. (See description in Mechanism, Chapter 5 starting with the “double-slit” discussion.)
1 This is not meant to suggest that humans’ experiments will never be able to measure velocity through space — merely that a light-bouncing experiment will not, since it does not include any critical events that cannot be Lorentz-contracted and time-dilated without affecting the experiment’s outcome. See paragraph A.
Update 2009.01.02 — Added two paragraphs: “Here’s possibly ... (or time-contraction!).”
Update 2009.01.04 — Removed “with each other” from before “via forces” and “progressively”
Update 2009.01.05 — “time-contraction” changed to “time-compression”. Step 5, endnote 1 added. “or light’s obvious wave behaviors (Step 5 above)” added.
Update 2009.01.16 — Here’s an article that suggests there may yet be a way to do what Michelson and Morley were trying to do.
Update 2009.11.12 — Although of course I wouldn’t expect the creators of this page to agree with what I’ve written above, it’s still awfully interesting that the best tests are indicating a cartesian (i.e. “flat”) universe.
Update 2016.04.07 — Another article on the “flatness” of our universe.
Waves With Particle-Like Properties
Theory As Simulation