Monday, November 28, 2011

Strings, Branes, and the Quality of Magic

Over the past few weeks, the PBS program, NOVA, has been presenting a series of shows hosted by Brian Greene, a brilliant physicists who has written several popular science books explaining the new string theory (The Elegant Universe, 2000) and its implications for the way the universe is constructed (The Fabric of the Cosmos, 2005; The Hidden Reality, 2011). All of these attempt to explain the path modern physics is pursuing toward a "theory of everything" (TOE) that encompasses Einstein's special and general theories of relativity, quantum theories, cosmology, and everyday behavior of objects, as well as strange things such as the possibility of multiple, parallel universes (multiverses), or actions that synchronize across vast distances.

It's tough to boil the theory down into words the average person might understand; the mathematics in which it is spoken by physicists is so esoteric that many of them don't understand it either. But it has a number of implications for us in the practice of magic that I think it's worth trying to spell things out briefly here. For a better look at the material, I strongly suggest you watch the NOVA programs I mentioned, if not read Brian Greene's books.

We are generally used to thinking of the world in three dimensions: backward and forward; left and right, up and down. This view is consistent with Newtonian mechanics, the traditional form of physics most of us have absorbed as our natural idea of the subject, even though it was developed over 300 years ago. Einstein added a fourth dimension, time, to what he called the "time-space continuum" in his special and general theories of relativity almost 100 years ago. To most people, this is where a vague understanding of modern physics stops; they've heard the equation, "E = Mc**2," but have no real idea what it means or implies, which is that matter and energy are completely interchangeable.

Quantum theory is off most people's radar entirely, including (famously) Einstein's who couldn't accept its uncertainty and the statistical description of reality at the smallest scales it presents. Still, without quantum theory, most of the modern world would not exist; while we decry its presence in atomic bombs, we forget that every silicon chip in our hand-held devices, cars, planes, and other items depends on quantum theory for their operation. Physics is not all theory and gigantic supercolliders; it also has practical significance and use, or it would be rejected as philosophy.

String theory, the latest attempt to bring the physics of the very large (cosmology, Einstein's relativity) into accord with the physics of the very small (quantum theory), and everything in between. Strings are incredibly small vibrating forms that generate everything that exists, including the infinitesimal particles, quarks, that make up the electrons, protons, and neutrons of atoms. As the ancients said, everything is vibration! Strings also affected the early formation of the universe, because their vibration shaped the plasma into thicker and less thick areas, promoting the eventual formation of stars, planets, and galaxies. Ultimately, strings helped to create beings who could think about strings, and handle the gory mathematics—strings act in 11 dimensions, most far too tiny for us to ever see. We can only infer they exist from seeing their effect on the reality around us.

For instance, one problem that has bothered cosmologists has been the rate at which our universe appears to be expanding from its starting point at the Big Bang. The universe seems to be moving at a much faster rate than it should be. String theory predicted that a form of energy would be found whose addition to the material universe would explain the rate of expansion; the recent discovery of dark matter and dark energy supports this conclusion. Cosmologists now believe that there may be more of the universe that we cannot see than the stuff we can see, which has its own set of staggering implications.

String theorists have also found from their analysis of the mathematics of strings that two strings brought into vibration with one another will continue to vibrate in synchrony with one another even when subsequently separated by great distances. This implies that action at a distance, or the kinds of attunements we do in our ritual spaces, can actually be having a real effect on the world around us. At some point all of us wonders whether we're not playing games with our heads, but that the theory might give support to our experiences is a useful development. In any case, physicists who study atomic particles have found that some of the particles, synchronized with one another, continue to affect each other when widely separated, just as string theory would expect.

But moving to the 11-dimensional world of string theory has weirder implications than action at a distance. For one thing, it makes it likely that ours is not the only universe in existence, but that it is one among many in a large multiverse. Normally these different universes do not interact; however, the potential is there for such interaction to occur. For most of us, though, if we did encounter a sudden interaction with a different universe, we would immediately reject it as not consonant with our beliefs in the "normal" 3-d or 4-d world around us. But I strongly suspect that it happens more often than we're willing to admit.

In trying to understand how string theory generates the multiverse, theorists have developed the concept of membranes of strings, called "branes," to which gravity ties things that exist in a given universe. Like strings, though, branes are constantly vibrating, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they can interact. In fact, that is cosmologists' best explanation to date for what set off the Big Bang. Otherwise, it's nearly impossible to even discuss what happened before the Big Bang—a situation that doesn't sit well with physicists.

But branes colliding forcefully are not the only thing that can occur. It is possible that branes could brush against one another, or form contacts that move together for a time, potentially allowing movement between them. And it is here that I think many of our magical experiences may be occurring.

Take clairvoyance, or seeing distant things and events. If we were looking across into the unfolding of things in a different universe, we would certainly be able to "see," but the result may or may not be actually happening in our own universe. Divination would be based on seeing ahead into a universe that might be based on our own—or might not.

But the possibility of moving between the universes is where the implications get the most vital to us. For instance, who is to say that the realm of Faery was not once vibrating closely with our own and allowing people to move both ways between them? It would make sense of stories that are all to consistent around the world, but which have been dismissed as myth because there's no "evidence" such a thing had ever happened. Now that the brane on which Faery resides has moved away from ours, it is much more difficult to make the crossing, although some still manage to do so.

Similarly, people in shamanic trances may actually be going to an "otherworld," just one that lies on a parallel brane that sometimes interacts with our own. If that were not the case, then our perceptions of that otherworld would likely all be radically different, like the parable of the "blind men and the elephant," all trying to describe it based on the part they hold, rather than being able to see the overall picture.

We could easily argue that it's not contact with another brane that's causing these consistencies, but the fact that human brains are all much alike, but I think that begs the question. Yes, we all have basically the same sets of neurons, perception sensors, and overall processing, but many of us also have "senses" that don't fit in with the pattern of the 5 external senses psychology focuses upon. And we've had enough experiences with those senses that we're either entirely crazy, or there is something going on that just isn't described in the psychologists' working theories.

Science works on the principle that "If you cannot measure it, it doesn't exist." But the converse of that is also true, and largely ignored by science, " If you do not believe something can exist, you cannot imagine a way to measure it." The theory that has given rise to the idea of branes is so new scientists are focused largely on finding ways to measure whether things in the general universe around us confirm the existence of strings and brains, rather that spending time on things they've already dismissed as fantasy.

But some of us can remember actual experiences that might tie into this idea of branes in contact allowing passage between them. For instance, I have had innumerable experiences where I saw myself get hurt badly, die, or otherwise face a life-and-death situation. Most of the time, when that has occurred, as soon as I see what has happened (and experienced it, including the pain and fear), I feel a snap of releasing tension and am suddenly in a place where it didn't happen. And while I have a good imagination—and genuinely suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—this effect does not feel anything like most of the experiences I've had in life that I know of.

One example occurred in a bad car accident in 2005, when I was driving and hit a patch of black ice. The car was spinning around on the Interstate, and had just bounced off the guard rail when my partner and I saw a pickup truck about to hit us. It took a couple of weeks for my partner to work up the nerve to ask me if I'd seen it, and when I admitted I had, to confront the idea that we had momentarily "blinked out" while the truck passed through the space where we had been. Then we blinked back into the middle of the accident, which we both walked away from almost unscathed.

Did I do something to make us "blink out?" I have no idea, and if I did, it wasn't at the level of my conscious mind, which was too busy being frightened and in pain from the collisions that did happen. However, unlike my partner at the time, I've had this happen so many times over the course of my life that I've become rather blasé about it. It just happens around me, and sometimes affects people in my vicinity. I seem to leave a lot of very freaked out people in my wake, although that has never been my intention.

But we don't talk about experiences like this because of our fear of being "different," or worse, "insane." Since psychology doesn't admit that such experiences can exist, they can't possibly determine whether they exist or not. And rather than honestly admitting they don't know, they label someone who experiences these contacts as schizophrenic. But true insanity is when you are no longer able to function in the world and your life at all; when the disastrous course of your mind's beliefs degenerates into behavior that harms yourself and others. I'm still eminently rational; I'm just weird in that I accept things that happen without stressing too much over their so-called "impossibility.'

So think a bit about the implications of strings, branes, and magic, and how they may actually be entangled. Watch the NOVA programs; despite discussing very difficult topics, they are very accessible and well-made. And give yourself the gift of speaking to those around you about your experiences—you may find you have more in common than you realized.

Science has many advantages for us, but it also has some staggering limitations and blind spots. I don't recommend you run off and discuss your otherworldly experiences with a psychologist or psychiatrist, unless they know you well enough to discern whether you're actually crazy to the point of harm or not. Fortunately, for my own part, I do have an open-minded therapist who doesn't condemn me for talking about off-the-wall things; I suspect he's been through a few of his own. When we support each other's memories and beliefs, the world will be a better place.

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