Mysteries of Physics

Mysteries of Physics

I just read We Have No Idea by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson, a book about all the things we don’t know about the physical universe. These include: dark matter, dark energy, the basic elements of matter, the nature of mass, why gravity is so different from other forces, the nature of space and time, how many dimensions there are, why light has the speed it has, the origin of cosmic rays, the puzzles of anti-matter, what happened before and during the big bang, whether there can a theory of everything, how big the universe is. It appears that physics is rife with mystery. I wrote to one of the authors, Professor Whiteson, and asked if he knew about the work of philosophers and others on the mysteries of mind, notably Chomsky and McGinn. He replied that he did but admitted he didn’t know much philosophy. It seems to me that this is a welcome convergence for the mysterians among us: evidently matter is as mysterious as mind. True, the authors fight shy of declaring irresoluble mystery, but they clearly accept that some mysteries of physics look pretty formidable—especially where dark matter and dark energy are concerned. (This made me wonder if Dark Materialism might be true of consciousness, i.e. the mind is material but the matter involved is of the dark variety; but this is not a theory just a wild speculation.) Most authors who write popular physics books seek to wow us with how much physicists know; this one refreshingly owns up to the depth of our ignorance. I recommend it: it’s probably the best popular physics book I’ve ever read.

11 replies
  1. Mark L
    Mark L says:

    So Daniel Dennett didn’t write it then 😉

    I think we crave mystery, like a moth to a flame. Explanations are so often very disappointing, like when a song is explained or a misheard lyric corrected. Perhaps the mind identifies mystery with itself.

    I shall seek this book out.


  2. paul reinicke
    paul reinicke says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. I did a quick google search and noticed the authors have a podcast: “Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe.” It’s rated 4.7 out of 1.9k ratings on its Apple Podcasts page. Will check it out.

  3. says:

    People around here really get freaked out when they think a hurricane is coming. Ever since, “Charlie”, in 2003, smashed through Orlando, and did a lot of unpredicted damage, the locals have been on edge. Now storming the nearest Wal-marts for water, batteries and such. Hysteria is the mood of the age. In 2003 I simply un-capped a bottle of Southern Comfort and sat in the closet ’till it was over. If this new wretched storm is as fierce as predicted, I shall bide my time in the closet as well, absent the Southern Comfort.

  4. says:

    Ferocious winds last night, though not nearly as fierce as expected. . Yet it was so fricking loud—howling wind and part of my neighbor’s tin roof slamming up and down. At about two a.m. I had had enough and sought recourse in sustenance—a half a glass of wine and two sleeping pills Knocked me out completely—until my cat came a’ about seven in the morning and sat on my face “till I got up and fed him.

  5. Hugh Millar
    Hugh Millar says:

    Here’s a different, and I think neglected, take on the nature of stuff. We grew up thinking everything can be reduced to its components. In my own youth these were protons, neutrons, electrons. We found reducing the world in this way to be rewarding and useful to the extent that we’ve actually come to think of it as explanatory. Complex entities are seen as clever arrangements of simpler components, and we marvel at the cleverness of the arrangement. But we’ might do better focusing our awe on the components. The essence of stuff is that its components have the potency and propensity, unlike Lego bricks or ball bearings, to link up in ‘endless forms most beautiful’, building elements, molecules and ultimately life-forms. That is the true mystery of physical stuff. It’s magic!
    Best regards, HughM.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Yes, it’s the ultimate forces that form the universe–the components themselves are nothing without them. Where do these forces come from, what governs their powers, why these forces and not others, and so on? The mystery of the universe is its dynamic character.


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