We Have No Idea. Daniel Whiteson and Jorge Cham.

Whiteson D and Cham J. We Have No Idea. Riverhead, New York. 2017. NF;5/17.

When I was a little boy and Disneyland came on in the evening I always hoped for something from “Tomorrowland”. Rockets, space, and stuff like that: what is really out there? This is a fascinating book subtitled A Guide to the Unknown Universe, written by an experimental high-energy physicist (DW) and apparently illustrated by a robotics academic who’s also a cartoonist (JC). It held the attention of my inner little boy in spite of my inner geriatric/grownup occasionally having to turn its head away from a fair bit of puerile silliness.

Whiteson (I assume he’s the main content author) explains current theories about matter, forces like gravity, space, time, and dimensions, Higgs field and boson, the speed of light, the Big Bang, the size of the universe, the Theory of Everything, and of course whether there is intelligent life anywhere else but on earth. But alongside every example of important theories of space-time etc. we find a couple of examples involving pizzas, hamsters, pet llamas, and coffee machines, illustrated by funny cartoons. This seems to be how these authors imagine making their topic palatable.

I updated my understanding of quarks and other basic known bits of matter, the age of the universe (14 billion years), the absolutely but really absolutely inconceivable event called the Big Bang, the nature of space, and so on. I remain astounded at the scale of these things: 10 to the 25th power, or -40th. 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars and 0.000…(insert 40 0s) of a meter width of …. whatever they are… fundamental units of matter.

I revisited relativity. The universe’s speed limit of 300,000,000 meter per second is only the relative speed of light between two points of view. The speed limit just means that nothing can be seen to be moving faster than that. There is no absolute point of view. But breaking that speed limit could result in subsequent events preceding earlier ones which would violate causality. Interesting, of course. I had no idea that our galaxy is one of billions. I understood that quantum mechanics and gravity are incompatible and that this is one of the stumbling blocks to the Theory of Everything, but I had no idea how unreal in human terms the spaces and speeds and fundamental particles’ minuteness are.

At first I was badly put off by the awkward cuteness that candies the exposition. I understand both authors are young middle-aged guys who probably have very young children and teach at university, so I can see why they would couch things in terms people of the elementary school age and science students’ grasp of literature and culture would appreciate. Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, or Antonio Damasio these very nice guys aren’t. But I got over my snittiness because I wanted to find out about the state of the art of the above issues, and that was delivered clearly and with enthusiasm.

I also liked very much the (possibly sadly ironic but maybe not) humility stated in the title. We don’t know, really, what matter, gravity, space and time, the size of the universe and its origin, the most basic fundamental physical laws, and the possibility of intelligence anywhere else is or are. “We are shockingly blind to features of our universe that may be irrelevant to daily survival but are crucial to understanding the fundamental nature of reality.” Our limited perception of size, speed, and three dimensions, even using the most sophisticated technology realistically imaginable (we would need a particle collider the size of the solar system, for example, to break matter down as small as it can probably go) seems to rule out humans ever finally answering any of these fundamental physical questions.

Whiteson says discussing the Theory of Everything, “If we had a correct theory of the lowest level of reality, we could in principle derive the formation of galaxies or fluid mechanics or organic chemistry from that theory (he departs from his usual practice of adding pizzas, pet kittens, etc). But practically, it would be ridiculous, and it’s not a useful way to do science.” (italics mine) And it’s a far far cry from a useful way for someone like me to live a life. Strangely enough, this nerdy and awkward scientific book helps me to deal in my cosmically insignificant mind with Daniel Dennett and the rest of the “brights”: they may be in some physical sense correct, but aren’t they barking up a tree that doesn’t (and never will) meaningfully exist?

“We should be excited about all the things we don’t know” says Dr. Whiteson. I agree completely but not in the way he’s thinking. It is exciting to me to find out reading this book about a lot of the things about the material world we do know. And if I were a young particle physicist I’m sure I’d be having fun working at that cutting edge and maybe writing and selling books with content like this one. But my excitement about what we don’t know involves things like what is the most effective way to enhance and make coherent my life’s experiences, and what’s going to happen to me in the next hour, few days, years? I am never (nobody is ever) going to find out anything meaningful about the unimaginable trillions upon trillions of sub- molecular events or extent of space and time, so if it’s meaning in life we are looking for we are better off focusing non-narcissistically on ourselves, however evanescent and insignificant to the physical universe’s stunning realities we are.

I don’t really much mind that this book’s style is culturally juvenile. It’s okay that our authors aren’t William Shakespeare or J S Bach. Today we are about as likely to meet the mythical Renaissance Person as we are to stumble on the Theory of Everything. But the material universe is monstrously fascinating and there are people who have a wonderful understanding of it. What I find wrong with the materialist metaphysic presumed in this book and in science is that the questions being asked not only can’t be answered but would be useless to us if they were. I have no choice but to default to fascination with my own and other people’s lives and inner lives: human experience.

Drs. Whiteson and Cham have built for me another argument for my solipsistic understanding of what’s important. Thanks guys, I think you just helped me continue to feel justified embracing as fundamental my feeling of what happens, plus my favourite stuffed pet hamster and cup of double espresso.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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