Like Dylan’s alien, Dick (right) is a visitor in the world of scientist Mary (left) in 3rd Rock from the Sun. (NBC/Getty Images)
An alien walks into a bar and orders a Coke, a particular drink he has somehow heard of. Next to him sits a person relaxing at the end of their workday. ‘Greetings!’ the alien exclaims, ‘I’m new around here. Would you mind helping me with a few questions?’
Not expecting conversation, the person is startled into polite compliance and nods. The alien widens his facial muscles into an expression which is called a ‘smile’. ‘Thank you. Can I ask, what is it you do?’
Surprised at the personal question, but amused by the interest, the person responds, ‘I work for CERN. Um … I’m a scientist, basically. I work with atoms, that sort of thing.’
‘Fascinating! Please tell me more. What do people of this world know about this stuff?’
‘Uh, okay. Well, I’ll try and explain this in layman’s terms—’
‘And, please, be elaborate. I’m a student of these matters myself!’ The alien cuts in.
‘Oh, I see! You must be an aspiring scientist. Here goes … What we understand is that the world is made up of things, and what we’ve seen is that these things comprise smaller constituent parts. My job is to take things and smash them together with a machine called a particle accelerator. From this, we are able to discern even smaller bits that make up the world. Of course, technically, all the bits are the same, but they behave differently, so we call them different names. To use an example, it’s a bit like studying water. It can be ice, it can be steam, but it’s fundamentally the same stuff. Science is the study of how this stuff behaves, working out how the world works.’
‘Why can’t you just look at it? Why do you have to smash it apart with machines?’
The scientist grins. ‘That is a great question. Let me put it this way. In the history of human knowledge of the natural world, we can divide our investigation into three aspects. One, how we perceive the world. Two, what we know about the world. Three, how the world really is. We started off acquiring knowledge based on how we perceive the world, and thus assuming that this is just how the world really is. But, as we got better at scientific inquiry, we came to realise that the gap between perception and our knowledge of the world was getting wider. How we perceived the world with our senses was getting farther and farther away from the results we obtained from experimentation using increasingly advanced equipment and improved methods.
‘This told us two things. Firstly, that our perceptions aren’t that great at telling us about the world, and there was a good reason for that. Our minds only needed to tell us their best guesses, the best story or version of the world that would keep us alive, and it has no real evolutionary drive for grasping how the world actually is. We knew, therefore, that we needed to remove the human element from our methods to deal with our biases. Secondly, this hinted that we were getting closer to how the world really is. But there is no way of telling how far there is to go, though we are farther along than before.’
‘You mentioned that all stuff was fundamentally the same. What do you mean?’
‘Well, thanks to a little someone by the name of Albert Einstein, what we’ve theorised is that all matter is an expression of energy acting in a certain way, and we’ve come to acknowledge that the differences between things can consist in how things behave at higher levels as well as in what they are fundamentally. But the Universe began with only one set of ingredients; all things subsequently arose from complications of the very same ingredients we started off with.’
‘So, does that mean your people have figured everything out?’
Laughter erupted. ‘Not even close! We have ideas, but we don’t yet understand everything as it is—we cannot. We don’t even know what we don’t know about. The things we look for are very, very small, and the descriptions we have of how things work at tiny levels are perpetually being limited to our current knowledge and imagination. We have difficulty working up from the smallest scales we have to describe how big things work. Correspondingly, we might have great explanations of how big stuff works, yet we can’t seem to work down from that to the smaller stuff. Something is missing between to make the puzzle fit together. When we have that, we may just have the theory of everything.’
‘Does anything exist other than stuff?’
‘Hmm. There’s stuff we don’t know anything about like "dark matter".
'Many of us used to think that non-things like space and time independently exist too, that you could define a point in space and measure the passage of time in absolute terms. But then we decided that these two, space and time, are better defined by descriptions of how stuff is in relation to itself.
‘Space is much more accurately defined as the positional relationship between objects. Positions in space have meaning inasmuch as they are relative descriptions of where things are and how they behave relative to each other. When we say that space is expanding, what we are saying is that things are moving away from each other. In fact, we have recently detected gravitational waves as a result of huge cosmic events in the Universe, proving the Universe’s vast spatial connection, by which big enough events can cause detectable "ripples" between things. All matter—all things—can poetically be said to be connected or related spatially. Einstein told us this as well.
‘Then there is time. There is no "tick-tock" in the Universe to count the seconds. Time is measured in relative changes. Matter moves and vibrates, and our experience of this change gives us time. Not only this, but space and time are intimately related. We move through both simultaneously: space is really "spacetime". The passage through spacetime is malleable, depending on one’s relative speed, compared to other objects, and one’s experience of an attractive force called gravity, arising between objects. We call this effect time dilation. You put atomic clocks on a fast-moving rocket and on a shelf at home, or on top of a mountain and at the bottom, and they will start to go out of sync. They are experiencing the change of time differently, which goes against our intuition!’
The alien pondered all of this deeply, and finally spoke. ‘So what does all of this mean? Are you telling me that all matter merely consists of the same stuff, that we each experience the differences subjectively? Are we imaginations of ourselves?’
Nearly falling off their seat, the scientist raised a hand. ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Well, I can’t say that for sure. It’s a possibility, yes, but it’s bad practice to jump to conclusions quickly. Science progresses slowly and methodically.’
‘What do you do with this context of the world then? What gets you up in the morning and what’s the point?’
There’s a furrowing of eyebrows, ‘That’s not necessarily my expertise, and those are truly questions for the philosophers. But I will say this. I don’t know if we’ll even come close to a complete comprehension of all this. As far as I know, the world is this vast thing. It doesn’t judge, it doesn’t punish and it doesn’t reward. It just is, and we just are, at least for a little while. There’s no compelling reason why any of it or all of it should be coherent.'
The scientist pauses.
‘Maybe there’s comfort in that, maybe there isn’t. The way I see it—and I hope to paraphrase from what I remember of Bill Hicks here—the world is like a ride at an amusement park. When we are on it, we think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. Even when I know my perceptions don’t tell me the truth, I live my days with working definitions of my mind’s best guess. This ride goes up and down, round and round, it has thrills and chills and it’s very brightly coloured and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while.
‘Some people have been here for some time, and they ask, “Is this real, or is this just a ride?” Some people have figured this out, and they remind us, “Hey. Don’t worry, don’t be afraid, because this is just a ride.” But we forget that easily. We get wrapped up in our investments in the ride. “Look at my bank account, my family—this has to be real.” Of course, that it’s not real isn’t really a problem in itself. After all, it’s just a ride.
‘But we can affect our experience of this ride. We have choices. We can express what we feel. Fear makes us want to shut ourselves from others, antagonise, alienate and separate. It makes us jealous, angry, prideful and indifferent. Love instead sees all of us as one, of the same matter. It reminds us that we can choose to be compassionate, decent and kind. We can share and help and care. Maybe when we adopt that, we can have a better chance at exploring space, out towards the Universe and deep within ourselves.
‘We have just one admission to this ride. At some point, we’ll do everything for the last time. We’ll eat our last meal, see our friends for the last time. And here’s the kicker: we won’t know that it is going to be the last time. So, you ask me what the point is. Well, I hope to discover more about the world and my place within it. But when it comes down to choosing how to live—and here’s some advice to remember—we’re not just here for us. We are here to be there for each other, to help each other through struggle until we pass, and that’s all there really is to it. Good people do good things for others—that's it, the end. We have so much to give, and we have to try, even if it doesn’t work out for us ultimately, that’s okay, because we were good enough.’
The alien, nodding in tune with what the scientist is saying, smiles. There is consonance between what he knew of the Universe and the words of the scientist, taken aback by their own outburst. The alien took one more sip of his Coke and headed out the door.