Saturday, 4 December 2010

Life is change

A chap called John Webb has recently shocked the physics world by challenging Einstein (Which is perhaps one of the coolest things a physicist might ever do in his life!). One of Einstein's ideas known as the equivalence principle stated that the laws of physics are essentially the same everywhere. This idea has been called into question before and may be a big reason why Einstein (like literally everyone else in the world) struggled with quantum theory. The idea that the rules are different for small things is pretty baffling. Webb's discovery is that the rules may also be different for really big things too, it turns out that alpha (a fundamental constant that represents the strength of electromagnetic interactions) seems to change across the universe. I take a great deal of personal pleasure in the fact that a universal constant changes. T paraphrase the late comedian Bill Hicks 'Its irony on a based level, but I like it!'.

Personally I have always seen change as the only great universal constant! (My own little Zen koan for you). If I could say one thing with certainty (although I am open to changing my mind), it is that everything changes. I may be a humble biologist and therefore biased by my observation of life which cannot sit still for a second! Yet, the idea that everything changes all the time, not just life seems almost a given. Well physics and maths buffs will probably turn round at this point and say,

'Ah ha! Of course THINGS are changing all the time, its the RULES underneath that don't change. That is why the universe is the way it is, that is how we figure things out.'

In an ideal world I would of course blast back immediately with the comment

'So RULES aren't THINGS are they?'

whilst simultaneously delivering a kung fu slap (unfortunately university etiquette largely prevents kung fu slaps as a means of rebuttal). Because, that is exactly what rules are, rules are things, they are abstract little models that we use to separate out all this changing stuff to try to make sense of it.

Rules change all the time, when we get things wrong, when we discover new things and most importantly when we shift perspectives. The rules that are important at the heart of a neutron star are very different to those of a biological cell. Time plays a factor as well, the rules in play a femnto second after the big bang were totally different a full real second after. Now it seems that space as well plays a part, alpha varies across the universe. Now this has caused consternation for some, notably physicists who were attached to seeing the world in a certain way.

The nice thing about having the opinion that existence is all about change and transformation is that you don't really get wrapped up in it so much. If you thought something was a certain way and you turned out to be wrong, no big deal, things change. Understanding change is central to Taoist practices, and I personally think it is a great angle to view the world. Being able to see all of reality as a constantly changing interconnected web, rather than rules set in stone is immensely liberating. It is primarily through this method that Taoists aim reach a state of detachment and calm that Buddhists and Hindus called enlightenment. The more that one is able to experience the changes in yourself and the world the deeper the connection between these things seem.

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