By Oakland Ross
The Star’s Oakland Ross wanted to understand how the universe works. But there was a slight problem: like many people, he was allergic to math. He decided to grapple with the cosmos anyway, reading many daunting books and spending hours on the phone with theoretical physicists. His six-part primer on the current state of the universe first ran in the Toronto Star, and now it’s available as the Star Dispatches ebook The Universe Explained: Guaranteed 99% Math Free. It's a witty, fun ramble through concepts such as relativity, gravity, space-time and other crazy stuff. Well, more fun that if were chockablock with math.
Single copies of Star Dispatches eReads can be purchased for $2.99 at starstore.ca or itunes.ca/stardispatches
The Universe Explained: Guaranteed 99% Math Free
There are few certainties in this relative world, but here is one: The moment that a mathematical equation turns up in a passage of written text, a large number of readers will suddenly realize that it’s time to turn on the TV, or go out and rake some leaves, or here’s a fun idea — why don’t we just poke ourselves in the eye with this sharpened stick?
In other words, a lot of human beings will do just about anything to avoid a run-in with math.
It’s a shame, it’s short-sighted and it’s probably holding our civilization back, but it’s true.
I know, because I’m one of those people.
There are two general methods that humans employ to communicate with one another on this planet. One of them includes mathematics, and the other does not. There is really no in-between.
Unfortunately, for anyone interested in understanding the origin and mechanics of the universe, an aversion to math is a pretty serious handicap.
Over the years, I have wrestled my way through all sorts of books or magazine articles that purport to explain the cosmos. Like a lot of readers, I am invariably flummoxed by the math. Now and then, I’ve toyed with the idea of going back to school and starting all over again — this time by Paying Attention. I might still get around to it, but I haven’t managed to do so yet.
In the meantime, and like a lot of people, I’m still very curious about that vast, all-encompassing mystery known as the universe.
So I decided to focus.
Rather than continue to frustrate myself with the entire cosmic conundrum, at once unbelievably vast and incredibly minute, I decided to zoom in on just one idea, albeit a big idea — Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which he formulated in an article published in 1905. Put in its simplest form, the theory explains the behaviour of objects that are in constant motion relative to one another.
Granted, this is a bit like saying Citizen Kane is a movie about a newspaper publisher. The statement is true, but it lacks a certain oomph.
Citizen Kane is not just a movie — it’s an amazing movie. And Einstein’s special theory is amazing-squared. It represents a direct assault on almost all our common-sense perceptions of space, time, light, energy and matter. Or so I was told.
I went to work, reading dozens of books on the subject. Some included math, and some did not. Eventually, persistence paid off, and I found I could more or less grasp the basic concepts that make up the theory. Here’s the key: contary to his brainchild’s name, Einstein’s work on special relativity is in a way less about relativity than it is about constancy — the constant speed of light.
Once I’d figured that out, I decided to keep right on going, trying to get some kind of handle on other riddles of the firmament from Einstein’s general theory of relativity (the one that deals with gravity), through quantum mechanics, to the origin and fate of the universe. I was able to muddle through a little of the math (a very little), and I did what I could to manoeuvre my way around the rest.
What was even more helpful — in fact, a great deal more helpful was spending hours on the phone with four theoretical physicists, including two Americans and two Canadians, all prominent scientists, all gentlemen of super-human patience and clarity of perception, and all highly articulate. They confirmed or refuted many of my hunches and walked me through several minefields of very complex ideas. Thanks to David Bailey, Lawrence M. Krauss, Robert Mann and Christoph Paus.
The eventual result was a six-part series I wrote for the Star in the summer of 2012, a 99-per-cent math-free primer on the state of the universe today, about 14 billion years after the Big Bang.
I’d like to stress the word “primer.”
Without the math — and without a far more agile higher-brain capacity than I possess — it’s probably impossible to understand these phenomena at much beyond an introductory level.
Consider this brief excerpt from a scholarly article that appears in the December 2012 issue of Science magazine, dealing with certain quantum effects of minute objects: “The ground state structure giving rise to SPT order in the Haldane chain can be generalized to an arbitrary symmetry group after we relabel the spin states with group elements and express symmetry actions using group cocycles ... ”
OK. I’ll stop. You can take that stick out of your eye.
No mathematical equations are contained in this passage rest assured: there are plenty in the rest of the article — and yet it is completely incomprehensible to me and, I assume, to most other people on the planet.
I promise that my rough portrait of the universe contains no passages like that — not even close. On the plus side, this means that what follows will be vastly easier to understand than anything you will find in a scholarly article about complicated physics. On the other hand, if you really do want to know what deeply rooted truth is contained in the phrase “express symmetry actions using group cocycles,” then you’ve come to the wrong place.
But those are the breaks.
Speaking for myself, I now understand a lot more about the universe than I did at the outset of this project — the difference between protons and photons, for example, or the lopsided ratio of matter to empty space in a single atom, or the equivalence of matter and energy — and that must count for something.
With or without the math.