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Senior Correspondent

The third tenet of Distilled Harmony is “distill complexity,” or “keep it simple, stupid.” And yes, I am aware that my last post strayed a bit from that path. So, before moving on to the other dimensions, let me try a brief distillation of that previous post.

First, it seems clear that our "best guess" as to the physical nature of the universe is not a very good one.  While our methods of observation continue to get better, most astrophysicists and cosmologists will admit that we get obtain reliable data from only 4 or 5 percent of the universe. That is the part we can "see," the part under the convenient lamppost. We call the other 95 – 96 percent “dark energy or dark matter” because while we are reasonable sure that something has to be out there, we don’t have a very good grasp on what it is. 

It is not terribly surprising that the scientific community, tied as it is to the notion that one must have data before one declares conclusions, has remained myopically married to the 4 or 5 percent of the universe that we can see; they keep their focus on that which lies below the most convenient lamppost. That is what "is." The rest remains guesswork, conjecture, our "best guess" of the moment – but seeming subject to radical revision by the latest data stream.

Perhaps it is the knowledge that so much remains unknown that keeps the STEMites so focused on the “what” of the universe. What is made of? How do the various elements – the unimaginable large forces of  black holes and galaxies, and the incredibly tiny bits of string theory – work together? Or do they? How do all the puzzle pieces fit together?  So much to learn and seemingly so little time. It really isn't surprising that, comparatively, precious little time and treasure has been spent on the question posed in the last post: what does it mean?

Another analogy: Let's say you have a 5000 piece jigsaw of a Jackson Pollock painting, a frightening thought in its own right, but further complicated by the fact that the picture on the front of the puzzle box shows you only 5 percent of the final image.  After a millennium or so of trying you manage to put 250 pieces together, revealing the 5 percent of the picture depicted on the box cover – or something pretty close to it.  You now slave feverishly over strategies, theories and algorithms that will allow you get the remaining 4,750 pieces put together.

An uninvited stranger walks over to the table and looks at the 250 piece fragment.  You step back and smile with pride.
"What is it?" asks the stranger.
"It is 5% of the whole," you reply humbly.
"The whole what?"
"The whole universe."
The stranger gazes at the fragment for awhile.
"What is it about?" the stranger asks.
"What do you mean?"
“Exactly – what does it mean? What's its story? Why should I care?"
"But it's the Universe!" you sputter.
"So you say. (Pause) Anything else to look at?"
"No. This is what we do. We try to figure out the structure of the universe.”  The stranger walks away and you turn back to the table looking for a corner piece, or at least an edge.

So the STEM community continues to try to figure out how the rest of the pieces fit together.  I fear we are trapped by the unspoken assumption that the remaining  4,750 pieces necessary to complete the picture should fit into a pleasant rectangle illuminated beneath a convenient lamppost. But couldn't the lamppost be a bit more baroque?  Multiple armatures supporting clusters of lamps? String theory, a recent darling of parts of the STEM community, demands as many as eleven dimensions, some tiny, some rewrites of our notion of time. Ah, now there is a lamppost worthy of consideration. But how do we design such a consideration? How do we multiply the paths we might follow? Paths suggested by these baroque clusters of potential illumination?

A pure STEM approach suggests one option. The December 12th, 2014 edition of New Scientist magazine has an interesting article that considers taking a STEM perspective to thinking about these higher dimensions – that stuff we cannot see. We are most comfortable thinking about "reality" in three dimensions length, width, and height – and then we toss in time. The New Scientist article acknowledges that most people have trouble imagining a reality beyond those dimension. But not, it seems, if you are a mathematician: "simply add extra dimensions to your equations, supplementing the standard x, y, z and t with extra coordinates, say w or s. 'In the end there is always mathematics.'"  So according to that model we can "create" new dimensions at will by slapping on extra coordinates and keeping the equations balanced.

Despite the allure of that “fun with numbers” approach to defining the universe, it just feels so wrong.  You can't, it seems, keep pumping the the universe up with abstract coordinates without at least considering the what those additional dimension mean.  Eventually we need to define those "dark dimensions." What mysteries might they measure? What is there beyond length, width, height and time that we may have overlooked simply because they are so hard – seemingly impossible –  to measure? Excellent question and you will hardly be surprised at my initial response: harmony is the dominant dimension.

Remember, Distilled Harmony, this theory of everything I bandy about, has its roots in the very STEMy notion of string theory; in the assertion that the smallest unit of existence is a tiny vibrating string. Those strings, Distilled Harmony goes on to assert, either cluster or repel depending upon their degree of harmony or discord. Everything in the universe then takes all its characteristics from relative states of harmony or discord. Could there be a dimension of greater importance? And, assuming there is not, why have we spent so little time investigating it? I would assert that it remains untouched because it is, at the moment, invisible beneath STEM’s single lamppost. The strings themselves are simply too small for any type of direct observation and strategies for indirect observation lean strongly in the direction of music, art and philosophy. Last time I looked, there were not many calls for research proposals out there that echoed those chords.

The next dimension I would add to this expanded view of the universe is something I call “vitavis” a nicely alliterative Latin compound for "life force." It has intrigued philosophers and physicians for ages, and is there any wonder why?  Leaving belief out of it as much as possible, at one stage of life we have a large cluster of cells, that left alone, will die and decay.  But with assistance – either from the mother in a "normal birth" or from some helper in any variety of c-sections or less invasive assisted deliveries – a breath is drawn and the cluster of cells "lives" and we sigh "Welcome to the world little one.” At the other end of the spectrum. Something stops. Heart, brain, whatever. Something, along the spectrum of physical function and cultural norms, is no longer present, and the large collection of cells "dies." And hopefully there is someone there to murmur "good-bye."

Yet, while medicine can define a series of measurable points that, in theory, distinguish between life and death – brain activity, the ability to “live” unaided, etc., – that proposed line is anything but clear.  Modern medicine can reach beyond the intuitive “beginning" and the apparent “end" of life, sustaining in both "ultra-premies" and those adults in "vegetative states" the potential – however slight – of life.  So what is that “thing" that marks the difference between alive and not? Ah, there is one of those topics that you don't want to bring up when the extended family gathers for a holiday meal. Plainly "the answer" currently lies beyond “just the facts," living much more comfortably in the realm of belief. The medical field has, to its credit, struggled with this issue, bringing in ethicists and religious leaders to advise the healthcare community on the complex issues of both sustaining and terminating entities that possess the potential for life, but exist on the fuzzy edges of what we can recognize as “alive." The conversations go on, but unanimity still lies somewhere far, far away.

Still it is undeniable that differences in vitavis exist.  Stephen Hawking should, according to most medical models, have died decades ago. Yet he lives on, probing the very edges of the dimensions we currently acknowledge. Babies with no discernible maladies “fail to thrive” and die. In my mind, the explanation of those seeming anomalies lie not in the impressive world of modern medicine but rather along the largely unexplored dimension of vitavis. I am enchanted by the notion of “work left to be done” along the vitavis — the life force dimension.  Hawking has work left to be done, as do artists and musicians who seem to expire only after the completion of great works — Beethoven’s works in the face of encroaching deafness, the arthritis-ridden Renoir’s assertion that he continued to paint because “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

These are the echoes of the why dimensions of the universe. They do not argue for a suspension of the STEM-based exploration of the what dimensions of the universe. Rather they ask us to consider what other dimensions may lie beneath the illumination of a more baroque lamppost, and to expend greater time and treasure in the exploration of why.

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