Science fiction has imagined some pretty wild ideas about the universe and our place in it. Parallel or alternative universes have been a recurrent theme in Star Trek. In Interstellar, an astronaut explores hidden extra dimensions. The Matrix and other movies have depicted ordinary life on Earth as nothing but a holographic or mental projection. But these imaginings all seem downright tame compared with the mind-bending science now coming out of physics and astronomy.
The weirdness begins at the moment of creation. We have long thought of the big bang as the beginning of time, but theorists now have an idea of what might have come before. Could our 3-D universe have sprung from the formation of a black hole in a 4-D cosmos? The math says: maybe.
Then again, black holes might be quite different from the conventional picture of a point-like singularity surrounded by an invisible event horizon—the boundary beyond which escape is impossible. As physicist Joseph Polchinski explains, the laws of quantum physics suggest instead that black holes may literally be large, spherical holes devoid of space and time. If so, then event horizons might actually be solid shells. And they should be quite visible, seething with an intense, instantly lethal fire of high-energy particles.
Increasingly, it seems as though hardly anything out there is what it first appears to be. The first stars to form may have been so huge they arguably deserve a new label. Our own Milky Way galaxy has a gigantic dumbbell of glowing gas skewering its center that no one noticed until recently. Even our most fundamental notions of what reality is are now up for debate—although there may be less dramatic ways to interpret the bizarre behaviors seen in the quantum realm.
Much of this new science is made possible by technological innovations. They include 5,000-odd sensors frozen deep within a cubic kilometer of crystal-clear ice in Antarctica—an array that might shine light on the puzzling nature of dark matter. Scientists are also dissecting molecules with the most powerful x-ray laser in the world and using a 570-megapixel camera to scan the heavens for clues to the mystery of dark energy. And don't forget the most useful tool of all for physics: mathematics.
Advanced physics can seem abstract, but it does connect to everyday life. Living things, too, must abide by the rules of quantum mechanics. And physics may eventually set an upper limit to human intelligence. In the meantime, it makes us smarter.