Chapter 1

Section 1: Seeing the Problem.


“Look into nature, and then you will under­stand it better.”
Albert Einstein

“Perhaps what we mainly need is some subtle change in per­spec­tive — some­thing that we all have missed…”

Roger Penrose

Vermilion cliffs. First light on Thanksgiving Day.

Morning dew dripped from the scarce blades of grass, gently filling the air with the nos­talgic aroma of wet earth. In slow motion the atmos­phere danced about us, wafting the pun­gent fra­grance of nearby sage­brush to our nos­trils. The sky reluc­tantly gave up the last of its stars, but it would take another three hours for the Sun to com­plete its climb over the tow­ering rocks that sur­rounded us. Our tents were sprawled within a small field, one that could claim no more than an inch of top­soil. In this thin blanket small ants busied them­selves waging war. Above, two white but­ter­flies errat­i­cally drifted through invis­ible eddies. Crouching down on the ground I saw tiny yellow dots resolve into the four-petaled flowers of the Violet Sagebrush, no more than one cen­timeter in diam­eter. The cool­ness of the night was begin­ning to fade. There was no time to waste.

The tow­ering rocks ripped the sky­line into a jagged curiosity ren­dering us unno­ticed in their for­mi­dable shadows. Our excite­ment built, as we col­lapsed our tents and care­fully bal­anced the sixty pounds of sup­plies that filled each of our back­packs. After strap­ping on our gear we fol­lowed a small sandy foot­path. Within min­utes it led us to a crevasse — a gateway that would begin our journey. Its pro­por­tions betrayed the grandeur it pro­tected, but our hearts quick­ened with the knowl­edge that this four-foot wide threshold guarded a forty-mile maze of twisting rock. Inside, a mag­ical glimpse of Nature awaited us. We paused for a moment and lis­tened to the faint whis­pers coming from the mouth of our trail. Then, with wide eyes, the six of us entered the world’s longest slot canyon.

Our bulky packs had trans­formed us into a single file line of clumsy giants, barely able to squeeze through the rock walls. Petrified swirls of orange and red jutted inward and then out­ward, occa­sion­ally wedging our packs so tightly that we could give our weight to the canyon walls and dangle our feet below. The trail beneath us was sandy and cool to the touch. The echoes of our foot­steps became mal­leable, changing their tone and cadence with every twist and turn. Each sec­tion molded the timbre and atten­u­a­tion of our move­ments in its own way. Desert var­nish dripped down the sand­stone canvas, cov­ering it with oozing streaks of black, a gift from the bac­teria high above who spent their lives basking in the sun­light of the canyon’s rim waiting for the next regen­er­ating rain­storm. Ancient sto­ries of great hunts and per­ilous dan­gers were high­lighted on the walls in the form of pet­ro­glyphs. Foretelling. Warning. This place was a for­gotten rite of pas­sage, a portal into eons long past, a gateway to another set of rules.

Here every­thing was serene. Every step was rid­dled with an unfa­miliar blend of sen­sa­tion. It felt like we were inside Nature’s hour­glass. A steady flow of sand trickled down from the sliver of sky above. Every sound twisted and turned before fading into the back­ground choir of echoes. And at any moment every­thing could be turned upside down.

As the path descended, the walls climbed higher and higher and the world we knew dis­ap­peared. There was no wind, but we could feel the air resisting our intru­sion. There was no direct sun­light, yet we were sur­rounded by bril­liant pat­terns of orange and red. Step after step the walls con­tinued to climb. Overhead we spotted large decaying trees that were forcibly wedged side­ways between the rock walls. They were inescapable omens, not-so-subtle reminders of the flash floods that rou­tinely carved this beauty. They tes­ti­fied of the vio­lent and unpre­dictable power that etched this place and the tow­ering wall of water that could be upon us at any moment.

This was a land­scape in eternal flux. Each foot­print was a first, every vista pris­tine. The rocks smelled of child­hood mem­o­ries mixed with dreams of exploring Mars. The promise of piercing the veil of Nature’s deepest secrets hung preg­nant in the air, waiting for us to round the next bend.

Shadows danced throughout the day, resisting the sun’s attempt to glimpse the path below us. The deepest scars kept the com­plexity of this realm hidden from the prying orb above. The more we descended, the more time betrayed us. Before we knew it the cloud­less fil­a­ment of blue above faded and stars began to reclaim the strip of sky. We lighted our path with head­lamps and pressed for­ward. When we came upon a small sand bar we finally stopped and made camp. Then, as a little sur­prise for the two of us that were Americans, our self-appointed leader, who was also the field guide for our dinosaur expe­di­tions, began to cook prepack­aged turkey and instant pota­toes for a cel­e­bra­tory Thanksgiving dinner.

The one-pound stove per­formed per­fectly, but it was defense­less against the con­stant per­co­lating sand from the world above. Our cook was con­vinced that trying to avoid its inevitable taunting was an unnec­es­sary incon­ve­nience. Although his pot had a lid, he didn’t bother using it. He said that a half pound of dirt would help fill us up and that we wouldn’t even notice its pres­ence if we chewed without let­ting our teeth touch — a trick he learned in Madagascar. Apparently the tech­nique required some prac­tice to perfect.

As we woke, the morning air had such a bite to it that we might as well have been on Mars. The only imme­diate sign that we were still on Earth was a single patch of sage­brush, which was reluc­tantly dou­bling as a makeshift clothes­line. We had draped our socks over the bush late the pre­vious night hoping to air them out. It didn’t work quite as we had hoped. All of our socks were now frozen and shaped like Dr. Seuss pret­zels. Mia, the youngest in our group and an out­door adven­ture writer, grabbed her socks and tapped them against a rock to flex some of the ice out. The col­li­sion sounded like the tap­ping of a metal axe. It was funny until we real­ized that Mr. Sandy Potatoes wasn’t likely to let some frozen socks get us behind schedule. At this thought we scram­bled in vain to thaw them out.

After we devoured some prepack­aged food we began famil­iar­izing our­selves with the unique screams that people make when they try to wedge their feet into socks rein­forced by small, sharp threads of ice. That was all the encour­age­ment we needed to get moving.

The canyon had widened to about fifty feet from wall to wall. A small stream braided its way through the trail, filling the air with soothing echoes of gur­gling water. Overhead, raven puppet mas­ters squawked with laughter at the earth­lings trapped in their maze below.

The turns were more rounded now, the straight-aways longer. The open spaces made us feel even smaller. We were like tiny ants making our way between two unabridged dic­tio­naries spaced just a couple of fin­gers apart. The braids of water grew more and more tightly woven, con­cen­trating in the middle of our trail. The soft dry sand slowly became hard packed and damp. Everything started to wake. All around us we could feel a deep vibra­tion. The air was filling with life, moving just enough to rustle the hair on the back of our necks. As we walked, the vibra­tion became audible as a faint rum­bling sound. With each step it grew louder and the rustling air devel­oped into a breeze. It quickly became clear that we were approaching the source of all this commotion.

After rounding one more bend, we found our­selves standing before a long cor­ridor of tow­ering rock that was con­vinc­ingly audi­tioning for the next Indiana Jones movie. In the far off dis­tance our trail was trun­cated by another wall of rock. Pressing on, our legs began to thaw and the details of the con­stric­tion slowly began to resolve. The canyon sud­denly merged into a major artery (only twenty feet wide at this point). Here the trail dis­ap­peared under a foot and a half of icy water whose cresting echoes res­onated throughout the rock cor­ri­dors for miles. Stepping into the frigid cur­rents, I was over­whelmed with the sense that I had just entered a realm that was com­pletely unaware of any stan­dards or imposed conformities.

Turning right at the junc­tion we fol­lowed the flowing water. I felt com­pletely out of place in this strange under­world lair. Water was swirling around my numbed legs, rever­ber­ating as it buf­feted against the rocks ahead. Echoes were growing louder and louder, filling in the melodic treble of Nature’s most recon­dite song. This mas­ter­piece was far more vibrant than any­thing I had imag­ined. The ground was water, the sky was rock, and every­thing came together like a bizarre sur­re­al­istic painting in progress. It was unfa­miliar and mysterious.

By lunchtime we reached a semi-dry sand bar fea­turing a rock-sculpted bench. A jet of cold clean water, as thick as a stream from a garden hose, shot out of the canyon wall and arched over the two weath­ered seats. I removed my pack, sat down, and tried to take it all in.

“The most beau­tiful expe­ri­ence we can have is the mys­te­rious. It is the fun­da­mental emo­tion that stands at the cradle of all true art and sci­ence. He to whom this emo­tion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.”

Albert Einstein [1]

This was my first expe­ri­ence of hiking through a slot canyon. I had never before seen Nature in this way. It was so dif­ferent from what I had expected that I had dif­fi­culty imaging how I would explain this alien world when I got home. I won­dered how I could accu­rately depict the full beauty of this secret realm to someone who has no con­text by which to ground that descrip­tion. This ques­tion led me to more questions.

Is it pos­sible to reveal the beauty of Nature without trans­lating that beauty into the terms of human senses? Is it pos­sible to convey what Nature looks like without con­structing a pic­ture? After I pon­dered these ques­tions, I real­ized that in order for us to wrap our intu­ition around the nat­ural realm we must find a way to relate that realm to our senses. Literally, if we want to know what Nature looks like then we have to con­struct a pic­ture. As Steven Strogatz elo­quently puts it, “without direct visu­al­iza­tion we are dynam­i­cally blind.” (Strogatz, “The Next Fifty Years,’ p. 123.)

To explore this point sup­pose that I took a dig­ital pic­ture of what we dubbed ‘The Fountain of Buckskin Gulch,’ and then pre­sented the dig­ital infor­ma­tion of that pic­ture, the raw sequence of ones and zeros, to someone. Would that untrans­lated infor­ma­tion help them see the foun­tain? This is more than just a ques­tion of lex­icon, seman­tics, or syntax – it is a matter of con­nec­tion. In other words, if I tried to present a facet of Nature’s beauty to someone without trans­lating that infor­ma­tion into a dis­play that can be directly expe­ri­enced by at least one of the senses, then how could I ever expect the recip­ient of that infor­ma­tion to fully com­pre­hend that beauty?

Einstein addressed this issue more poet­i­cally when he said, “Knowledge exists in two forms — life­less, stored in books, and alive in the con­scious­ness of men. The second form…is the essen­tial one.” We can only obtain this second form when we extend the reach of our intu­ition into the depths of Nature’s secrets. But in order to do this we need a con­cep­tual portal that is capable of unveiling a richer map.

This real­iza­tion high­lights a fun­da­mental problem in the approach taken by modern physics. For the past sev­eral decades, the­o­rists and math­e­mati­cians have been working on con­structing a frame­work of Nature that is capable of math­e­mat­i­cally com­bining the descrip­tions of gen­eral rel­a­tivity and quantum mechanics under the same rubric. (We will dis­cuss these the­o­ries in detail later on.) These efforts have focused on the task of orga­nizing Nature’s data into a self-consistent assembly — like the ones and zeros of a dig­ital pic­ture. The problem is that this induc­tive approach does not encourage, let alone require, the dis­covery of a con­cep­tual portal.

Even if physi­cists were to one day con­clude that their assembly was math­e­mat­i­cally cor­rect, it would not actu­ally increase our ability to truly com­pre­hend Nature unless it was trans­lated into some sort of pic­ture. Therefore, since it is really the pic­ture that we are after, maybe it is time for us to con­sider whether or not our efforts will bear more fruit under a dif­ferent approach. Specifically, to max­i­mize our chances of com­pleting our goal of intu­itively grasping Nature’s com­plete form, maybe we should follow the lead of young Einstein and return to a deduc­tive con­cep­tual approach. Perhaps it is time for us to place our focus on con­structing a richer map of phys­ical reality. If we don’t, then all of Nature’s elab­o­rate arrange­ments may very well remain for­ever hidden in obscure math­e­matics and impen­e­trable sequences of data. [2]

As I sat at the foun­tain sur­rounded by melodic purls and dancing shadows, these thoughts echoed through my mind. It sud­denly became clear to me that what we need is a new pic­ture of Nature — one capable of depicting its deepest sym­me­tries and beauty. We need a map that can intro­duce our senses to what lies beyond their expe­ri­ences. We need an insight that trans­forms our intu­ition and open our eyes to the breath­taking sim­plicity that under­lies the world we know and the world of bewil­dering mys­teries. It must unify every­thing around us and make sense of it all. But how do we attain such a map? How do we lift that veil of ignorance?

Let’s begin our search for the answer to that ques­tion by exam­ining the his­tory of the map we have inherited.


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