Nature's Ultimate Joke


© 2013 by Fernando Caracena

The challenge of scientifically establishing fundamental units

Suppose that in the future we make contact with a distant, extraterrestrial civilization. After we are able to determine each other’s numbering system, how can we communicate to each other our fundamental units of measure? First of all, we do not know if we both have considered the same set of units to be fundamental. For example, an important dimensionless number in quantum electrodynamics is the fine structure constant, which is defined as follows and is dimensionless:

α = e2/(4πe0ħ c)


The reciprocal of α is also a dimensionless number,

α-1 = 137.035999074(44)

where the bracket error notation (44) above= +/- 0.000000044


α-1 = 137.035999074+/- 0.000000044.

The fine structure constant Current appears in quantum electrodynamic theory as the strength of the electromagnetic filed interaction, and the theory predicts the value of the fine structure constant, which is in agreement with observations to within the limits of experimental error.

High energy physics use the following natural units




in which case

α = e2/(4π),

in natural units.

If the aliens are a very advanced civilization, we will first have to learn each other’s physics very well before we can be able to communicate about how to convert each other’s units of measure.

What our researchers are trying to do in defining our system of units, is a way of constructing the standards of M (mass) , L (length), and T (time) in any good, terrestrial, physics laboratory. If we ever contact an advanced extra terrestrial civilization then they will really have their hands full to do the same. The SI system of units is defined in terms of three, above standards of measure under conditions that exist on the surface of planet earth. In an extra terrestrial laboratory, such conditions may have to be reproduced in a special chamber.

It would be worrisome to find, after many hours of computation on supercomputers, that we were midgets compared to our alien friends. We would be very hopeful that they were peaceful giants.

The Ultimate irony

The Ultimate irony of all this, as Ecclesiastes says well, is that it is all:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises..."

Modern physics finds that mass itself is an emergent property [see the blog entry, Emergent Properties and Physics], all the fundamental particles of physics having emerged from the Big Bang with no mass, as streaming radiation. That means that there could be no objects at rest from which to be able define a standard of length. And without a standard of length, no standard of time could be defined. The implication of modern physical theories is that mass, length and time are not at all fundamental properties, relative to which we can define fundamental units of measure. Mass, length and time are emergent properties that developed rapidly after the Big Bang as a result of physical processes. For this reason, the ultimate laws of physics may be so remote from us, that we may never be able to formulate them. And the idea of defining fundamental units prove to be vanity.


So far science has defeated religion and philosophy when challenged on its own turf of observations and measurements. People viewing this long history of consistent victory, since Galileo, have therefore embraced the methodology of science as the only way that leads to ultimate truth, i.e., scientism.  The mistakes made by theologians and philosophers in this struggle with science is to narrow their focus to the material world and the evidence of the senses. The thoughts that they deal with are transcendental (beyond our space and time world). The reason that humans can soar into these realms is because the mind also extends into and is a part of this transcendental realm. The big mistake was not the choice of turf, but the going to war of these branches of human thought.

The ultimate irony is that the development of physics supports the truth of the above. Quantum Physics was made possible by recognizing the necessity of human consciousness in projecting events in space and time out of the elementary potentials that exist in our world as wavelike propagations. Without the presence of human consciousness nothing really happens on the level of elementary particles. And human consciousness itself relies on the action of synapses that tap into the quantum level. Historically, the role of human consciousness has been to project possibilities perceptible only on the level of human thought into the physical world, and thereby make human life much easier. Quantum physics suggests that there is a nebulous realm of possibilities that exist in a realm beyond the physical world, but which can become manifest in the physical world. This makes invention and human material progress possible.

The philosophical message of physics is for us to take the transcendental realm seriously, and end the senseless war between the different levels of thought. As the prophet Isaiah said,

"… The LORD will strike Egypt, striking but healing; so they will return to the LORD, and He will respond to them and will heal them. 23 In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrians will come into Egypt and the Egyptians into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. 24 In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth,…"



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