As it turns out, the universe is totally out of its mind. Not that we don't love the universe with all its bizarre eccentricities and flagrant violations of its own physical laws — we do! There's lots of cool stuff out there. However, we simply can't ignore that the science describing the gritty true nature of the cosmos all inevitably leads to one conclusion: the universe is completely crazy pants.
To help sort through the giant logic purée that is our universe, we have picked out five of the most counter-intuitive, hair-melting scientific ideas for closer inspection. Come join us as we try our best to machete through the dense jungle of formulas and brain-sizzling conclusions and clear the path to comprehension. Or something approaching it.
Wish your brain "good luck and safe travels." It's going to need it.
1. Multiple Dimensions
For decades, "other dimensions" have been a go-to plot device for writers in need of big scary monsters to harass their heroes. And why not? It's easy enough to just have some beast meander on over from another dimension; which, as we all know, are crammed full with all manner of wacky creatures. Bam. Paycheck, please.
But what exactly are these monsterful other dimensions?
Let's start with the basics. There are, of course, the four dimensions we're all aware — three spatial dimensions plus time. This is where high school geometry lives.
However, according to some researchers who spend their time sharpening physics' bleeding edge, the universe consists of no less than eleven dimensions. According to these theories, these other dimensions are all around us, but our puny monkey brains are not capable of perceiving them.
What's The Proof: Despite what any number of straight-to-DVD sagas have to say on the matter, scientists have never demonstrated concrete proof of these other hidden dimensions.
What researchers have done is created complex mathematical models of the universe that incorporate multiple dimensions and work out elegantly on a chalkboard. Multiple dimensions are not only acceptable, but necessary for certain takes on string theory to function.
Approachable Metaphor: Physicists often describe these "extra" dimensions as being "curled" up into the spatial world we are familiar with. When the physicists say "curled," they're saying these dimensions may be small "realms" where only a limited amount of variability is allowed.
It's somewhat like on the old arcade version of Pac-Man. As Pac-Man travels in one direction, he eventually returns to the other side of the screen. The Pac-Man labyrinth — complete with all the vengeful Easter-hued ghosts of fallen Pac-Men — could be described as a curled-up two-dimensional plane.
Just One More Thing: Some schools of string theory have called for multiple dimensions of time. Wrap your head around that. We can't.
2. The Multiverse
Our universe may not be all that universal. Everything we can observe may just be one little jellybean inside an infinite carnival jar known as the "multiverse."
Most of us are familiar with the concept of an infinite universe, so an infinite multiverse isn't that huge of a conceptual jump. But you may want to sit down for this next part — if there is a truly infinite multiverse, then there's also another you out there somewhere, in fact, there's lots. And not just you, there's numerous facsimiles of me, your mom, Jimmy Carter, Derek Jeter and the cast of Night Court. The multiverse is doppelganger-galore.
What's more, some interpretations of quantum physics (see more later) demand that every possible reality actually does take place. So, not only is there another you out there, there's one who ordered an iced tea instead of an iced coffee this morning, one who got a B on that Geography test instead of an A, and one who just scratched his elbow just now, and the one who didn't. The same goes for every person and also for every particle. Everything that can happen, does.
This all sounds crazy of course. But there are mathematical models which facilitate this weirdness. Furthermore, as you'll see below, scientist may even have discovered some physical proof of these other worlds.
What's The Proof: While this all may sound like drunken meanderings of someone who watched Stargate one too many times, there is some scientific data to suggest there is something substantial beyond the barriers of our universe.
Orbiting observatories such as NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) have given scientists an unparalleled survey of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the oldest and farthest remnants of the Big Bang that wallpaper every corner of the cosmos.
According to the standard model of the universe (a Big ol' Bang followed by a slow ever-expanding death) the CMB should be smooth and uniform. But it isn't. One interpretation of this non-uniformity is that they are "bruises" in the CMB where our universe "bumped up" against other universes beyond its observable borders (not that anyone knows what a cosmic bruise would look like exactly).
Beyond this bumper car multiverse model, there is also the idea of our universe is but one heart beat in a constantly churning Big Bang-Big Crunch continuum. Oxford Professor of Physics Sir Roger Penrose recently published a paper noting that he has found "concentric circles" of varying temperatures within the CMB, which he argues hint at a cyclical universe: one that expands and contracts. According to his findings, the Big Bang we know was not the first for our universe, and will not be the last. And it still may be one blinking universe within the greater multiverse.
Approachable Metaphor: It's like that movie Groundhog Day. Bill Murray becomes stuck in a quantum loop where he continually jumps between alternate realities in the same day and location. And then for some reason, spending the night with Andie MacDowell puts everything back to normal. So, perhaps it's unsatisfying logic from a physics standpoint, but still a funny movie.
Just One More Thing: Our own Big Bang was a result of the laws of physics that govern our universe. If another universe was "banged out" ever so slightly different in the beginning, it might be governed by completely different laws of physics.
3. Quantum Entanglement
Quantum entanglement (or QE) is one of the most whackadoo properties of the whole whackadoo-tacular enterprise that is quantum physics. Even Einstein famously dubbed QE to be "spooky."
Basically, the theory states that when two or more particles (such as electrons, photos, etc.) have become entangled (meaning they've interacted and then separated), they will continue to effect one another instantaneously regardless if they are separated by a few microns or are chilling on opposite sides of the Milky Way. If you alter one of these entangled particles, the corresponding particle — no matter how far away — will respond instantly.
This also would mean that the speed of light is less a law of physics than a suggestion. If you alter the spin of one entangled particle on one side of the universe, the other will change at the same exact time. There is no way for these two disparate particles to send information to the other in order to create this instantaneous transition — even if the "hey, I just changed" message was sent at the speed of light. They just do it somehow.
One possible practical application of QE that pops up in science fiction: communication. In Mass Effect 2, for instance, the aptly-named and morally ambiguous Illusive Man uses a QE-powered communications array to talk to anyone anywhere in the universe.
What's The Proof: Scientists are constantly testing this strange, counterintuitive notion of the universe. Originally, it was born out of experiments designed as criticisms for quantum mechanics, but it has continuously held up under nearly 80 years of scrutiny — on the chalkboard and in the lab — and has since become a set principle of the quantum lexicon.
Approachable Metaphor: In The Dark Crystal, the vulturish Skeksis and the adorable retriever-like Mystics were once joined into singular beings, the glowly "urSkeks." When the urSkeks split up, they became the two separate, but entangled species. Whenever something happened to one creature, a corresponding effect would happen to their opposite, no matter their location on the fanciful puppet planet.
Just One More Thing: In theory, all particles were at one time entangled in the Big Bang. Meaning the whole universe — including us — may be entangled. Our fundamental parts may be paired with other particles scattered around the cosmos, where they are being touched and prodded by who knows what.
4. The Quantum Measurement Problem
Are your brains melting yet? Well, get some paper towels ready; we're about to make some gray matter fondue.
Particle scientists have long observed an outstandingly batty principle known as the Copenhagen Interpretation. Let's start with the fact that some particles, such as electrons, can sometimes behave as a wave. When one state is forced, it is a condition known as Wave Function Collapse (WFC). WFC is shown to occur when electrons are being closely observed in a laboratory setting.
Let's go over that again: electrons will either behave as a wave or as a particle dependent on if scientists are taking measurements. Yes. And there are decades of experimentation to back this up. No one is exactly sure how, but electrons appear to react to the fact that scientists are observing them and change their behavior accordingly.
According to the Copenhagen Interpretation of this problem, particles exist in many states and only are forced to choose one state when an observation is made. This is, of course, all nutso. But experimentation bares it out.
What's The Proof: For more than a century, scientists have run various variations of the so-called "double slit" experiment to determine if something is a wave or a particle. In the experiment, a beam of particles or waves is blasted through two vertical slits in a barrier before hitting a sensitive recording background beyond it, leaving a record of their path.
In short, if a particle beam is being fired through the slits they will go straight through and form "a shadow" of two slits on the reactive wall. However, if a wave is fired, it will create two separate waves through the two slits and interfere with each other, creating an intricate interference pattern. Like so:
Sounds fair enough.
Sometimes, however, known particles such as electrons will act as waves. They will actually form an interference pattern in this experiment. This is a mystery in itself, but not nearly the weirdest part. As it turns out, the very act of observing the electrons up close causes them to act more like a particle than a wave. As scientists have fine-tuned the double-slit experiment, they've gained the ability to send one electron at a time through the experiment and are able to directly observe which slit it goes through.
This should have given scientists a more complete understanding of what is going on, but something much more confusing happens. When being "observed" by sophisticated machines that have no direct effect on electron activity, the electrons will consistently behave more like particles. But when they are not being observed, they will behave more like waves. Furthermore, the increased sensitivity of the machine doing the measuring, increases the particle-like behavior of the electrons.
Other experiments shows that if scientists are given (or purposefully lose) any information on the secret lives of sub-atomic particles, they will alter their behavior. When physicist take the double slit experiment a step further and send a single photon through a sort of fun house mirror room complete with special crystals that present a 50/50 path for the photon (so scientists can't know the path with absolute certainty) — in effect, "erasing" the information gathered with the mechanical meters — the interference pattern returns. This proves that it wasn't the readers that caused WFC, as some scientists thought, but the fact that we have any certainty of their path causes the quantum world to act accordingly.
Approachable Metaphor: When your boss is nearby, that Excel document is always up on your desktop, but as soon as he leaves, it's right back to Facebook. Even though he doesn't know how, his act of entering or leaving the room effects what's on your computer screen. As it turns out, electrons and bored employees have much in common.
Just One More Thing: In the "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum physics, there are scientists doing the same experiment in another world where for every electron we cause to act like a particle, there's some doppelgangers causing an electron being to act more like a wave. Every possible outcome occurs somewhere.
5. A Holographic Universe
This idea of the holographic universe has been around for a while. It was born out of top-shelf mathematics about black holes and has been pushed into the public eye by credible physicists and pop-friendly new age gurus alike.
Basically, the concept states that the three-dimensional universe we see around us may be nothing but an illusion, a hologram. According to the idea, everything we see and touch (or we are fooled into believing we're seeing and touching) is a three-dimensional projection of information "painted" on a two-dimensional surface — a shell on the edge of the universe.
What's The Proof: If our universe was nothing but a projection, then we would expect to see some pixelization if we zoomed in really really close. Like looking at a TV or digital image up close. And late last year, some scientists thought they found it. A super sensitive German observatory, which is designed to detect small ripples in space-time at excruciatingly tiny distances announced they had come upon some fuzzy background noise which the researches thought might be proof of this "quantum pixelization."
Unfortunately, for those on Team Universe-Is-An-Illusion, a more powerful ESA Satellite that should have also been able to record this fuzziness has, so far, not been able to detect any it. Meaning that, for now, the idea of a holographic universe goes back to being little more than a curious mathematical idea.
Approachable Metaphor: Basically we're all living in The Matrix. The house you're in, the food you eat, the summertime cicada bug orgy in the tree outside your window, it's all smoke and mirrors.
Just One More Thing: If we are in fact living in a giant hologram, that would fundamentally change our understanding of everything around us. With that understanding — like the awakened populous living outside The Matrix — we may be able to bend and break rules of physics as we see fit. As a species, we will all know Kung Fu.