Hello universe!

Should “universe” be singular or plural? Maybe there is a multiverse and our universe is just one of its constituent parts. That subject is at the bleeding edge of cosmological physics and can’t be answered right now — may never be — but some prominent cosmologists think it might be true.

It is natural for us to wonder about what the stuff around us is. In fact, we should wonder about it. Is the world we see really composed of four-dimensional space-time, with the space part curved and expanding and maybe infinite; of particles scattered sparsely about; of fields of energy? And where did it all come from; how did the Earth get to be this incredibly beautiful place we live in (and are doing our best to destroy) and how did the astonishingly diverse forms of life come to be? How do we perceive all this and comprehend it — and what “perceive”, anyway?

Why should we care? Well, our lives depend more every day on science. Technological gadgetry abounds in our pockets and even under our skin. We may well be at risk from the way we are (not) dealing with climate change, genetically-modified foods and other substances, pollution, nanotechnology, energy sources and all sorts of other things. We should be discussing these issues and deciding about them together. But that requires knowing about these topics. So we are allowing those who make money off them to decide for us.[ref]We will avoid political discussions from here on.[/ref] In order even to begin to understand these things and take appropriate measures for the preservation and improvement of our lives and those of coming generations, we need to know something about science and what these things represent for us.

All that (yup!) is the point of this site– to get ready to assess these subjects for ourselves. In order to get through it all, we will firmly and resolutely stick to the point of view that our best — and most certainly only — means of learning about the universe(s) is through science, by which we mean a specific method developed to help us apprehend “reality” without kidding ourselves. That method is based on incessant questioning and constant testing.

For millenia, men have devised superstitious explanations of things. One far-out one tells how the Hindu god Vishnu was asleep on his coiled-up snake Ananta on the calm cosmic waters, when a lotus plant sprouted from his navel.

Vishnu napping on the serpent Ananta

Vishnu napping on the serpent Ananta. Note the lotus stem and Brahma[ref]Carving on a rock along the Tungabhadra River in Hampi, Karnataka, India. Photo by author.[/ref].

When the lotus flower opened, the god Brahma was revealed sitting on it. Brahma created male and female by splitting off parts of himself. In this way, he went on to create all living things, restoring himself after each split. When Brahma went to sleep at night, everything was destroyed, but Brahma recreated it anew the next morning. Since a day of Brahma’s time is billions of years of human time, no one notices. But even Brahma lived out his life and then the god Shiva Nataraja, the King of the Dance, performed his cosmic dance and everything was completely destroyed.

Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja doing his dance of destruction in front of a kitsch cosmic backdrop[ref]Statue in the Government Museum, Chennai, India. Photo by author.[/ref].

Until Vishnu yawned and stretched and another lotus started to grow out of his navel…

Isn’t that great? But that will be the only such story.

So what does science have to say about the world we live in and about us ourselves?

Many popular books talk about the history of science and scientists, even though their titles may suggest differently. As interesting as such topics may be, it seems to me it ought to be possible to grasp the basic scientific world-view without plowing through all those false starts and errors, tests and experiments, names and dates. Why not simply present current scientific notions without going into the gritty details of why and how we have come to accept them as valid? A simple description. Afterwards, there are lots of books for those who want to know more. (See bibliography.)

That is what we propose to do: Take a look at what we are, where we are and how it works, and all that from the point of view of science. We will try to make it simple and will not go into the math, although one or two formulas may pop up. You will certainly recognize one of them — you might even have it on a T-shirt.

But now we are already into the material of the introductory chapter, so let’s go there.

P.S. There is one more thing. In a month (August 2015), I will have been retired for ten years. Maybe this will convince me (if no one else) that I have been doing something all this time. And a project like this one can go on forever, though I am unlikely to do so myself. Entropy will get me in the end too. (If you don’t understand that, read the little essay on Entropy.)

P.P.S. Actually, the title I wanted for this site was “The universe and I”[ref]As in the name of an old movie, “The egg and I”, or a very interesting anthropology book called “The headman and I”.[/ref], but that was taken. I tried several others — to no avail. The maddening  part was that when I visited the sites with the beautiful name I had thought of, most had not been touched for years. So there is a fair amount of garbage collection to be done by the wordpress.com folks…So I settled for the french version, “L’univers et moi”, except that in french you use the objective “moi”  (“me”) rather than the subjective “je” (“I”). I don’t know, maybe I should have called it “The universe and me”…