Astronomer Bob Berman

Astronomer Bob Berman at IdeaFestival 2015

Image: Michael Stevens

“What do we know about the universe?” asked astronomer Bob Berman to a crowded room at IdeaFestival 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. “Why aren’t the answers satisfying? Where do they go wrong?”

There’s a lot of hard and fast data, he says, but it doesn’t always give us the right answers. “It’s important to know when science is working,” said Berman, “and when it’s not.”

Berman offered four reasons that our scientific approach to understanding the universe doesn’t work, and what we can do about it:

1. Limited data—Most of the universe is dark energy and the rest is dark matter—and we don’t know what that is, said Berman. “We only know what’s in our vicinity.”

2. Limits to our dualistic logic system—There are two ways we get information, Berman said. Directly and indirectly. In science, the indirect method can work sometimes. But not for everything. “Unless you experience love,” Berman said, “you won’t know what it is. If you’re blind, you won’t know the color blue. You need experience. And when it comes to the universe, we run out of symbols.” The universe is growing larger, he said, “but what does that mean? We can’t picture infinity.”

3. Space/time framework—“Space actually is not real,” said Berman. “We all have an image of space and time, a framework, but when we look, that space and time may have a questionable reality.” Of time, Berman said it’s also not real. It’s merely “an ordering system that we animals created. And it changes.”

4. Consciousness—”Consciousness is the greatest unsolved problem in all of science,” said Berman. “In every experiment, we’re seeing, thinking, concluding—and it happens in our consciousness. Experiments go differently if we measure them and how we measure them. Where we measure makes a difference. It depends on us as observers.” And while we “continue to study the brain and how it works, this doesn’t answer the question of human experience,” said Berman.

Berman believes that science is not approaching the universe from the right angle. We continue to study the Big Bang, he said, but it “doesn’t compute with us. In our everyday lives we don’t see puppies and lawn furniture popping out of nothingness. A universe out of nothingness? How could that be? How could we possibly know what things were like before the universe was the size of a grapenut?” And even if we pin down the Big Bang, we still can’t comprehend the infiniteness of the universe, he said. “We are representatives of the universe. We have the universe inside of us.”

“We are representatives of the universe. We have the universe inside of us.” Bob Berman

“We’re working on the assumption that studying the parts will give us the whole,” Berman said. “That may not be true.”

So what’s the answer? “If our thought process doesn’t work with the macro-universe,” Berman said, “the answers don’t make sense. It means we’re asking the wrong questions.”

In terms of what we can ever know about the universe, “we’re not really making progress,” Berman said. “We’re not knowing more and more.”

The secret, he said, might lie in recognizing that the thing we are looking for is obvious rather than hidden; present rather than absent.

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We don't understand the universe: Scientist at IdeaFestival explains how science is failing us