The human mind likes things to be neat, orderly, symmetrical, balanced, complete, and tied up with a bow. Our logic and mathematics reek of symmetries, equivalences, and balances. They assure us that the world is stable, strong, secure, and not likely to collapse anytime soon. And they’re wrong.
In algebra, and in all the math and science calculations that follow from it, one side of the equation must, by definition, always equal the other in all respects and in every detail. There are no loose ends, no factors unaccounted for, no missing participants or forces. And if the mathematician or physicist should find some factor or force he can’t quite explain, he is allowed to add a constant—what schoolboys would call a “fudge factor”—that makes the numbers balance anyway.
Although constants are usually numbers whose values do not change despite circumstances—the most famous being π or “pi,” the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference, always 3.1416…—some constants are not so obviously derived nor easily calculated. Einstein famously added to his original theory of general relativity the “cosmological constant”—Λ or “Lambda,” equivalent to an energy density in empty space. He did this because the pull of gravity otherwise skewed his assumption, which was everyone’s assumption in those days, that the universe was in a steady state of unchanging dimension, neither collapsing nor expanding.1
A business ledger maintained under double-entry bookkeeping matches every penny of assets—cash on hand, daily receipts, invoices awaiting collection—with some equal and opposite liability—investor funding, bank debt, salaries and rents, bills waiting to be paid. While the amounts vary from day to day, every entry must balance some other entry in the overall picture of the company. And here too we find a fudge factor: “good will,” which usually arises in negotiations for selling or buying the company. Good will is a totally intangible asset, presumed to represent the value which customers place on a brand or the esteem in which they hold the company itself. Good will as an asset balances actual cash outlays for things like non-product advertising, donations to public charities, and “corporate citizenship” programs.
If you think about this too much, your head starts to hurt. What, if anything, in the world we know and the universe beyond it is actually in balance, so that all forces cancel out and every debt is paid?
Look at the Sun or, for that matter, every other star. The Sun represents a state of stability and balance upon which we depend not only for our daily lives and the ultimate source of all the energy our civilization uses, but also for the continued existence of the Earth as a working proposition and human beings as a species.
Stars are a wonder of apparent balance. As the minute perturbations within a cloud of interstellar dust and gas shift the molecules this way and that, gravity takes hold and begins to draw them together. Given a big enough cloud, gravity will eventually take over and pull all the molecules into a ball. They might ultimately collapse right down into a dense solid, or even to a mass of collapsed atomic nuclei called neutronium, or—with enough mass doing the pulling—into a black hole … except that, along the way, the friction of those jostling molecules creates heat, which pushes back against gravity. Eventually, the compression at the center of the mass forces the lighter molecules to fuse into heavier molecules, a nuclear reaction that creates even more heat. When the pressure of gravity pulling down ignites a fusion reaction in the central core, creating a huge amount of thermal energy pushing outward, a star is born.
But stars are not stable and immutable. Some stars are so unstable that they cycle their energy output in a matter of days or weeks. Although humans have always assumed that our Sun was stable and immutable, astronomers are finding out more and more about our own star, and it’s not a simple picture.
Temperature variations within its layers give rise to convection cells, and their roiling of the plasma in turn creates a magnetic field. This field has the shape of the big loops around the ends of a bar magnet, with a positive pole at one end, negative at the other. Because of the star’s spin and the resulting alignment of those convection cells, the magnetic field usually sits on top of the axis of spin. But a magnetic field is a real thing, not an imaginary force, and sometimes one of those convection cells will capture a loop of the magnetic field and drag it outward and down, away from the slower-spinning axial regions toward the faster-moving equatorial regions of the star. The result is disruption in the star’s surface layers which appear as dark spots, called sunspots.2 These misalignments rise and fall in recognizable eleven-year cycles. Solar astronomers and climatologists are now detecting that even these shorter cycles seem to strengthen and weaken in longer cycles of perhaps two to four centuries. We live under a long-duration variable star.
From our observations of other stars, we know that every star has a life cycle and a destiny, governed by its mass. The life of a star is dictated by the amount of fuel it contains and the mass pressing on its core, forcing it through various cycles of fusion reaction: from hydrogen atoms to helium, helium to carbon, carbon to oxygen, and on up through neon, magnesium, silicon, and iron in the most massive stars. Eventually the readily available fuel comes to an end. Oh, the star still might have traces of lighter elements lingering at its core, but they are not enough or are too widely separated to fuse efficiently, and there is not enough gravity pressure to force them to react. The star reaches the end of its balancing act. Gravity wins, and the star collapses in a nova or supernova, blowing off its outer layers and compressing its core.
If stars are ultimately unstable, holding to only a temporary balance, so is the universe itself. If the Big Bang theory is correct, the universe in which we live was born in a messy explosion that left variable densities of matter that formed galaxies, galaxy clusters, and deserts of relatively empty space in between. Not only was the distribution of matter in this universe asymmetrical, it’s also becoming apparent—at least in some theories of cosmology—that the types of matter in the universe are also asymmetrical.
Everything we can see in the galaxy around us—stars, glowing clouds of gas, veils of dust—is apparently the one type of matter which we can detect and with which we can interact. But from the way the stars in a galaxy spin—locked in position, as if they were painted on the solid surface of a phonograph record, rather than freely interacting, like objects floating on the variably spinning surface of a whirlpool—astronomers have surmised that a much larger amount of material must generate this extra gravitational force. They call this extra material “dark matter,” because we cannot otherwise detect it.
And the apparent fact that the galaxies around us—both in our local neighborhood and out at the edge of the universe—are all flying away from each other, not at a steady rate but under some acceleration, suggests that there is a kind of energy in the vacuum of empty space, “dark energy,” that we cannot otherwise detect or measure.
Although stellar collapse, galactic spin, and universal cohesion are forces in apparent balance, these effects are only snapshots over a span of time. That span may be huge in terms of individual human experience, but fleeting on a cosmological scale. And these apparent balances fall apart at the farthest reaches of human understanding.
At the most human scale, too—within the framework of our bodies—we find apparent balance. As we grow from a single-cell fertilized egg into a fully functioning organism, the processes of cellular division and diversification necessarily outpace the processes of cell death by a huge margin. But then we reach a stasis point, sometime in our late twenties to late forties, where cell birth is matched by cell death. New cells are created by replication of the DNA apparatus and bifurcation and division of cell membranes, creating two cells, each with a starter set of materials. Old cells die, wither, and their components are phaged or scavenged away by implanted chemicals, organelles called lysosomes, and other bodily processes. For a time, these processes are in balance. For a time, too, our metabolisms are in balance: our hunger matches our food intake; our bodies either use the energy we consume immediately or store it away against a future time of need or starvation. Life as we know it is a temporary reversal of the ultimate dispersion of matter and energy into chaos that physicists call entropy.
But eventually the human body’s balance breaks down. The telomeres on chromosomes are worn away and replication is no longer possible. Heavy metals and other debris from dead cells are no longer effectively removed from the body and begin to collect and poison the tissues. Bones, ligaments, and connective tissues become worn. Appetites lag or go awry. Cell death exceeds cell birth. The body begins failing. We fall apart.
Nothing stays in balance forever, not stars or galaxies, and not our bodies. We might overcome the asymmetries for a while, but then they reappear. And this leads me to a curious thought—one that goes beyond science and observation and gropes toward the deeper nature of reality.
What would happen if forces were always in balance, if gravity and heat energy within stars remained in stasis, if cell birth and cell death within bodies could be so designed to remain in perfect equilibrium, if the universe were truly a steady-state machine, neither expanding nor contracting? What would happen if the world we know and everything in it were to function like a giant equation, with all the constants in place, or like a massive enterprise run by double-entry bookkeeping, with all the intangible assets fully counted?
I think … nothing. No, I don’t mean a little nothing, in terms of life going on placidly as before. It would be a huge, zero-sum NOTHING. The world as we know it would not exist.
With no unevenness in the tension holding forces in play, from stars to the universe to the chemical processes that we collectively call life, there would be no change, no progress or regression, no creation or destruction. Time would have no meaning, because there would be nothing, no activity, to measure. Probability would have no impact, because there could be no possible alternative outcome in any encounter. The world would freeze solid, like an ice crystal, like a diamond, like a standing wave in a beam of light at a single, everlasting frequency. The universe would hum on a single note, unchanging, forever.
Oh, worse than nothing! With no imbalance of forces, the Big Bang—assuming that’s how the universe really began—would never precipitate. No outpouring of light and chaos, no crystallization of matter, either light or dark, into the clumping of galaxies. The random gravitic swirls in a gas cloud that precede a star’s formation would never budge. The temporary flux of chemical activity that precedes the complex reactions that we collectively call life would never occur.
We owe our existence to imbalances, asymmetries, uneven distributions of mass and energy, fudge factors that were never allowed for in the original equations, and random exchanges that screw up the bookkeeping. The human mind might crave order, balance, and symmetry and want everything tied up with a bow. Thank Finagle or God or Whomever, things just don’t happen that way.
1. After Edwin Hubble detected a red shift in the light of distant galaxies and suggested that the universe was expanding, Einstein abandoned the cosmological constant and called it a mistake. Now, with more recent observations suggesting that not only is the universe expanding, but the expansion is accelerating, the cosmological constant is back in favor—along with the concept of “dark energy” and the notion that the vacuum of space is not nothing but instead a highly structured something.
2. Sunspots appear darker than the surrounding area of the photosphere because the loop of the magnetic field suppresses the convective flow of energy from lower levels to the surface. One would think that being pocked with these cooler sunspots would mean the Sun is giving off less energy. But the suppressed spot transfers its heat into the surrounding area, causing that part of the photosphere to glow more brightly than the cooler spot. The Sun when filled with sunspots actually puts out more energy than the blank-faced Sun.