Unseen dimensions of reality. Trillion year cycles of cosmic birth and rebirth. Laws of nature utterly unlike ours. Mysterious connections between the physical universe and other realms.
These sound like the airy-fairy notions of mystics who have been smoking something stronger than tobacco in their hookas.
But they're all serious hypotheses of modern physics.
Their cosmological implications are described by noted physicist Brian Greene, author of "The Hidden Reality," in a Hovering Universes in Nearby Dimensions chapter I read this morning before meditating.
Inspirational stuff for my churchless non-soul. Having written (plug alert!) a book about mysticism and the new physics back in 1995 -- "God's Whisper, Creation's Thunder" -- I've kept up my interest in what science can tell us about The Big Questions of Life.
However, there's a big difference between the 1995 me and the 2011 me: now I'm much more inclined to stick with the science and not infer far-out mystical conclusions from scientific theories.
After all, physics and cosmology are plenty way out there all on their own. If someone is longing for a big dose of blow-your-mind conjectures about the nature of ultimate reality, modern science has the goods.
Here's some Greene quotes from the above-mentioned chapter:
-- "The more precise methods rectified this failing, revealing a string/M-theory universe with ten dimensions of space and one of time, for a total of eleven spacetime dimensions."
-- "Like strings, higher-dimensional branes can be big...To grasp what I mean, picture first a long string, as long as an overhead electric cable that runs as far as the eye can see. Next, picture a large two-brane, like an enormous tablecloth or a gargantuan flag, whose surface extends indefinitely."
-- "If a three-brane is enormous, perhaps infinitely big, the situation changes. A three-brane of this sort would fill the space we occupy, like water filling a huge fish tank."
-- "Space, at least the space we directly inhabit, would be far more corporeal than generally imagined. Space would be a thing, an object, an entity -- a three-brane. As we run and walk, as we live and breathe, we move in and through a three-brane. String theorists call this the braneworld scenario."
-- "Some braneworlds might be much like our own, filled with galaxies, stars and planets, while others might be very different. On one or more of those branes there might be self-aware beings who, like us, once thought that their slice -- their expanse of space -- was the entirety of the cosmos."
-- "In string theory's braneworld scenario, we would now recognize this as a parochial perspective. In the braneworld scenario, our universe is just one of many that populate the Brane Multiverse."
-- "Our reality could be a floating slab in a higher-dimensional expanse, but we'd be permanently imprisoned, unable to venture out and explore the grander cosmos... Another braneworld could be hovering millimeters away, but because light can't travel across the gap, we would never see the slightest hint of its presence."
-- "In a braneworld scenario, then, gravity provides our only means of probing beyond our three-dimensional spatial expanse."
-- "Like particles and strings, branes can surely move through the surrounding environment they inhabit. And so, if the universe we observe and experience is a three-brane, we could very well be gliding through a higher-dimensional spatial expanse."
-- "Perhaps, then, when two branes collide they wipe out whatever structures may have coalesced during either of their histories, from galaxies to planets to people, while setting the stage for a cosmic rebirth."
-- "The essence of this cosmology thus involves worlds that repeatedly cycle through time, generating a new variety of parallel universes called the Cyclic Multiverse."
-- "Steinhardt and his co-workers estimated the time scale for a full cycle of the colliding cosmic tango -- birth, evolution, and death -- and came up with about a trillion years. In this scenario, the universe as we know it would merely be the latest in a temporal series, some of which may have contained intelligent life and the culture they created, but are now long ago extinguished."
-- "In this scenario, all of our contributions and those of any other life-forms our universe supports would be similarly erased."
-- "And if you ask about the beginning of the entire cycle of universes, the answer is simply that there was no such beginning, because the cycles have been repeating for eternity."
-- "The braneworld scenario, and the multiverses to which it gives rise, is one resulting area of investigation with the capacity to profoundly remake our perspective on reality."
Well, that's for sure.
Currently there's no experimental or observational evidence that substantiates the existence of braneworlds. Scientists are searching, though. If gravity is found to subtly leak away beyond our universe, this would point to a higher-dimensional space where it leaked to.
Regardless, I love how physics is coming up with theories that are as "out of the box" as any mind-expanding mystical musings. Even nicer: science has reasonable reasons for its far-out hypotheses, whereas mystics, by and large, don't.