The world is a deep place.
It’s not just a big place – everybody knows that the world is a big place. You can look up at the stars. I’m talking about the world’s depth.
The rules of reality are simple – somewhere far, far below us. Our world looks to be governed by animals and bodies, by metals and gasses, by cars and boats and tools and obstacles. But all of these are built from minuscule molecules, which dance the electrochemical dance which gives rise to the beautiful complexity of engines and weather and cells, which in turn gives rise to the incredibly complex wonder that is life on earth.
And all of those molecules are carrying out the dance of the elements, which in turn arise from the dance of the quarks, which in turn arise from… well, we just don’t know yet.
But we do know that our world towers far, far above the bottom.
Then we look up to the stars to see the galaxies themselves spinning in the sky above. We watch black holes eat entire solar systems. We watch the universe expand out from under us, stealing away the most distant light. We see hints of entire realms of matter that doesn’t interact electrically, completely dark to our senses but dominating the universe.
And we realize how small we are.
But it’s not just smallness – it’s narrowness. When we look up to the stars, we realize that we don’t have access to anything moving relatively fast. We don’t have sensors for non-electric matter. We can’t survive very much acceleration at all.
Sure, we are small compared to the stars and large compared to molecules. Everybody knows that. But what really made human discovery weird was the narrowness of our domain.
Things act very differently in places that humans can’t see. The elementary particles in our body are vibrating ridiculously fast. If you slow our particles down just a little bit (from the perspective of the universe), if you take the barest step outside our narrow range, then we die of cold. If you keep dampening the vibrations, our bodies can shatter into dust.
The actions of elementary particles are far easier to understand when they’re not bouncing all over the place. The rules are more elegant before you make everything start bouncing around with vivacity that literally sustains life. But we didn’t get to discover those elegant rules first. We didn’t get to start with the easy rules and build our way up, watching how the complexities of earth emerged from deep foundational rules.
We didn’t get to start from the top, either. When we first looked up at the sun, we didn’t know how it burned. We couldn’t imagine a process that kept it burning for billions of years, and so the earth seemed young. All our complex elements were directly forged in the furnace of the stars. But we didn’t get to know this. In the beginning, we didn’t even get to know that the heavens follow the same laws as the earth.
We thought the earth itself was the ceiling of existence, the stars pinpricks in the velvet chamber in which the earth hung suspended. Again and again we were shocked to find that our entire concept of existence was naught but a speck in a greater whole. Our earth is not the center of things, it is a planet orbiting the sun. Our solar system is not the thole of things, it is but one traveller in this grand galaxy. Imagine our surprise when we first discovered that our galaxy is not alone in the night sky.
When humans started figuring out the laws of their surroundings, we didn’t get to start from the most basic and work our way upwards, and we didn’t get to start from the most general and work our way down. We only ever got to see this tiny narrow range in the middle.
We took a garden path. Everything we thought fundamental turned out to emerge from something deeper, and everything we thought was everything turned out to be naught but a spec.
It’s no wonder our science seems convoluted. It’s so hard for us to start from the actual beginning, because the only part of reality that we’re familiar with is this teeny narrow band in the middle.