Is the Univers

a Fractal Space ?

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With thanks to Runamokisay

Everything is everything…yes, really!

March 17th, 2007

The New Scientist ran an interesting article recently about the apparent structure of the universe when viewed at enormous scales. An Italian research team, looking at maps of the distribution of galaxies throughout space, has decided that the universe is fractal. That is, it displays patterns that repeat at various levels of magnification, just like the Mandelbrot Set and this rather kickass vegetable. Whether you look at the universe on a map covering 200 million light years, or 10 nanometers, there will be elements reflecting the same patterns.

This is just about as far away from standard cosmology as you can get. For decades scientists have all been under the assumption that matter is more or less evenly distributed throughout space, and any patterns we see are just local clumps caused by…..gravity? All of the equations we use to describe the universe (including those of general relativity) are based on this more or less even distribution.

But this whole fractal view throws the whole thing into question. What if the universe doesn’t work anything like we think it does? What if we are just an infinitesimal part of a mega-pattern that has existed as long as time, doing nothing but propagating itself endlessly, playing host to countless smaller systems that all reflect their mother? What if all the fractal-like patterns we observe in nature (like snow flakes, mountain ranges, some clouds, our circulatory systems, that cool broccoli) exist because they are in fact little components of a mega-fractal? What if the quantum world behaves in a fractal-like manner (whatever that means) and that is where all of this comes from? The New Scientist article actually mentioned a little-known grad student who came up with a theory to explain the quantum world in fractal terms, which he called scale relativity. What if we need to change the way we think about the world? Is this why fractals and everything that involves fractals are so aesthetically beautiful?

Even more interesting in view of all this is this article that I stumbled across a few weeks ago. Neuroscientists were able to observe the way that networks of neurons fire, in real time, and saw that

“Intriguingly, each frequency-specific brain wave looked like all the others did, although it operated on a unique scale. Biological patterns that repeat in this way over different scales of measurement are known as fractals.”

Yup. The brain works in fractal patterns. Is this why we are so smart? As the Oxford physicist David Deutsch noted during his wonderful TED Talk , humans seem to be the only creatures that can walk around with working models of the entire universe in their heads.

“Billions of years ago, and billions of light years away, the material at the centre of some galaxy collapsed under its own weight towards a super-massive black hole. Intense magnetic fields directed some of the matter and gravitational energy of that collapse back out into narrow jets travelling near the speed of light, illuminating surrounding lobes of gas with the brightness of – I think it’s a trillion suns.

The physics of the human brain could hardly be more unlike the physics of that jet. We couldn’t survive for an instant there. It would be a bit like facing a supernova explosion, at point blank range, for millions of years at a time. And yet that jet happened in precisely such a way that billions of years later on the other side of the universe, we can accurately describe, and model, and predict, and explain what that jet really is. So the one physical system, the human brain, contains an accurate working model of the other, the quasar. Not just a superficial image of it (though it contains that as well) but an explanatory model that embodies the same mathematical relationships and causal structure. That’s knowledge.

And if that weren’t amazing enough, the faithfulness with which the one structure resembles the other is steadily increasing. That’s the growth of knowledge. So the laws of physics have this special property that physical objects very unlike each other can sometimes have the same mathematical and causal structure embodied in them – and that this can become more so over time.”

Are we so smart because the structure of our brain and the patterns it exhibits are somehow in tune with the overall structure of the universe as a whole? Are our brains the pinnacle of biological evolution precisely because they have reached the point where they behave in the same way as every non-biological thing in the universe? Is everything everything? Are we just another manifestation of some incomprehensibly beautiful, ever-changing meta-pattern of space-time?

Probably yes. I do have a tendency to draw connections where they may be unexpected. That is an overwhelming thought, isn't?


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