On Wednesday, scientists announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets found orbiting a nearby star. According to a Guardian article covering the development, the discovery “has raised hopes that the hunt for alien life beyond the solar system could start much sooner than previously thought.”
We might not be so alone in this universe, after all!
In light of this recent discovery, and the prospect of other forms of life sharing the galaxy with us, IVY Magazine sat down with the astrophysicist Richard Anantua to discuss the scientific underpinnings for our own existence in the Universe. How did we come to be in the world? What are the larger philosophical and existential concerns related to our special place on Earth? Anantua gives his thoughts.
How would you describe your research to a ten year old? What are its long-term implications?
Black holes are dense astrophysical objects often found at the centers of galaxies, where they attract magnetized flows of infalling surrounding charged particles. Spinning black holes can transfer their rotational energy and the magnetic energy of the accretion flow to launch jets such as these:
Centaurus A jets. Retrieved from Outer Space Central.
My research involves making movies of the jets astronomers would see in outer space by instead taking simulations using mathematical equations describing these physical systems and making predictions for what could processes cause the particle emission, as in the frames below:
My movies may help determine what astrophysical processes underlie emission of light seen from astrophysical jets.
If you had to take a philosophical or scientific guess, why are we all here? (In the Universe.)
When thinking about the possible phenomena in our universe, I like to separate them into two broad categories: those that are directly perceivable (or extensions thereof — involving the same kind of stimuli — only out of the range perceptible by humans); and those that aren’t.
What we see, touch, smell, taste, and hear are clearly in the first category. The infrared vision of some snakes, or some dogs’ ability to hear dog whistles, would also fall into the first category: they are natural extensions of human vision or hearing to slightly different frequency stimuli.
In the latter category (i.e., phenomena that are not directly perceivable), are the “magnetic compass” of migratory birds that guide their motion, or senses responsive to stimuli in an alternative, higher dimensional universe comprised of quantum fields/particles mathematically analogous to those of our Standard Model.
Our ideas about what life is and what is possible are deeply anchored in examples of the former; this bias is taken to the extreme in common anthropomorphic descriptions of Universe creator/God figures.
My conception of why we are in the Universe is that sentient life is consistent with the Universe’s physical laws— even if in a form far more highly ordered than that of nearby phenomena in space and time — and that some stochastic (i.e., randomly determined) process enabled the Universe to occupy the part of phase space we inhabit. If sentient beings are the most complex ordered phenomena in sight, it seems natural to me that capacity for self-reflection coincides with their existence in that region. This does not preclude more highly-ordered forms of matter consistent with physical laws in more remote portions of spacetime that have more interesting questions to ask than “Why are we here?”— questions informed by “senses” and experiences beyond our own (in the second category, mentioned above, of the separation between phenomena perceivable and not perceivable by human senses).
I haven’t yet found a meaningful way to formulate the existence of worlds in which even mathematical logic breaks down — for example, in a way that the previously stated dichotomy does not exhaust all possibilities — so I will limit my speculation at this point.
What is the most common misconception people have about our universe? What do people tend to believe that’s completely wrong?
One common misconception people have about the Universe is that all observers perceive spatial and temporal separations between events the same way. Einstein’s theory of relativity has established that observers who are moving or are in the presence of gravitational fields generally perceive space and time differently from those who are not.
Closer to home, another misconception is our misattributing of the origin of seasons on Earth to its elongated orbit around the Sun. The differences between Earth’s seasons are primarily due to the tilt of the axis it rotates about daily, relative to the normal Earth’s plane of rotation about the Sun. (This tilt exposes the Northern Hemisphere more directly to sunlight than the Southern Hemisphere during summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and vice versa during winter in the Northern Hemisphere).
How much do popular movies get wrong when it comes to physics?
Some popular movies get surprisingly little wrong about physics. Whether the physics is conveyed to the audience is a whole other matter, which I generally think could be done better. “The Science of Interstellar” is an inexpensive book that sheds light on far more than was elucidated in the movie.
Modern physics, specifically quantum mechanics and general relativity, have transformed our philosophical paradigm for viewing the world
Are there any similarities between philosophy and physics?
One of my majors at Yale was the (physics and philosophy) joint major. When I enrolled in this major program I didn’t even think to question why they were offered together. However, I have now received the question of what are the similarities between physics and philosophy enough that an explanation is in order.
Modern physics, specifically quantum mechanics and general relativity, have transformed our philosophical paradigm for viewing the world. Quantum mechanics has overturned our view of fundamental particles from points moving continuously in deterministic trajectories, to clouds of probability densities for being measured at one place rather than another.
Is a person who commits a crime and tunnels instantaneously to a remote part of the universe still responsible for the crime?
The prospect of quantum tunneling has interesting philosophical implications for moral responsibility— for example, is a person who commits a crime and tunnels instantaneously to a remote part of the universe still responsible for the crime? What if, instead of tunneling, that person’s molecules were disassembled at one location then reassembled at the other? Should the outcome of the trial of the reassembled person be any different from that of the person who tunneled?