I, unlike most of my generation, grew up in a family far removed from the reaches of technology. My parents didn’t believe that too much media was good for kids. I lived in constant admiration as a kid of my friends, who had TV’s, gameboys, and (amazingly!) cellphones. What little computer time I did have was spent, 15 minutes a day, on a relatively ancient Windows 95 computer—without internet, of course. While other kids were enchanted with the newest adventures of Pokemon, and the seminal mobile web, I could be found in a corner of our laundry room, enthralled by screen savers and minesweeper. But I never felt deprived. Instead, I learned to probe the computer, how to create and how to manipulate files. And I was still pretty young when I first discovered how to manipulate hidden files to change computer settings. I thought that that was just great.
Hidden files are a lot like classical physics: not overt and obvious, but not hard to find once you know where to look. And just like the basic laws of physics, they provide the underpinning of the computer operating system. Usually, they are made hidden so that they can’t be changed by an inexperienced end user, and in the same way, physical laws have taken a lot of time and a lot of study to to investigate, and even more time to probe their limitations. After all, between Aristotle’s writings on the actions of falling bodies and the legendary experiment in which Galileo found that all objects fell at the same speed, regardless of mass, almost two thousand years had passed! And yet it is a concept that gives few of us pause today. It might not be obvious, but it’s not hidden, unencrypted. It just slides under the radar of most of our everyday consciousness, and takes time to learn.
For me, encryption was a problem. I never understood, as a young boy, why a file could be opened and be nothing but a jumble of meaningless letters and numbers, any one of which
would make a program crash if deleted, and then could be run in the right program, or with the right password, and would suddenly cause the computer to belt out the Star Wars theme song. I spent fruitless hours on running these files over and over again, trying to manipulate it, hoping that my randomly typed letter combinations would magically cause a change in the file that would morph it into some homemade video game. Of course, I now know the futility of that endeavor, but it seemed like a distinct possibility then. Once I learned about the first atomic models I thought wryly back to those days; they too were simplistic, and completely disprovable. And yet one cannot blame the scientists—they were, after all, acting to the best of their knowledge, as I was. As the old saying goes, “It’s all in knowing how.”
The atom is, in its way, the first layer of encryption. Encryption is, of course, the process of imposing a code onto a piece of information so that one must discover the key to the code before the information can be read. It’s not impossible, if one is an outsider, to crack a code, but it is difficult: a lot of time and computing power must be used to discover the pattern that is created by the code. The atom, too, is not directly observable. Time and care must had to be put in to determine its structure, its components, and the mathematics that make it tick. Yet, when all is said and done, it can be described quite nicely; consult any periodic table and you will see the pattern emerge—orbitals, protons, neutrons, electrons. Easy.
I began to become interested in the deeper principles of physics as I got older. The theory of relativity was especially exciting. Time and space were no longer the simple “if-then” statements of classical physics—they were relative, and ruled by some maddeningly unbreakable constant, the speed of light. The mass, velocity and energy of objects were now not absolutes, but rather defined by their relation to other objects. At the same time, the deeper structure of the atom was described to me: electromagnetic charge, color charge, subatomic particles, elemental particles that can morph into each other—so many different definitions that it almost seemed hopeless to remember them all. A sneaking suspicion started creeping over me. It all looked like a massive encryption scheme to hide some kind of information. Every layer a set of definitions, each one with a code to discovering its inner workings. Every time one layer of information was discovered and decrypted, a new one would be found underneath the surface. It’s almost as if matter doesn’t exist except as information, encrypted with laws to prevent a probing mind from finding out too much. Why? And who could be the master programmer?
There is an old story, scoffed at by some, revered by others, that speaks of a moment. The moment when a programmer defined the first command—“let there be light”—and there was light. A simple beginning, and interestingly enough, the first command defined was one of the only ones now thought to be unbreakable, the speed of light. The story goes to list the commands that created all the other things we know, line by line; and all of it created from nothing. It only retains meaning, it would seem, by the sheer infinity of the definitions that comprise it. All speculation of course, and thus bad science.
But after all, not all science is definite. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle demonstrates that one cannot know both the position and velocity of a particle definitely; instead, all one can speak definitely about is its probability to be in any one place. Yet we rely daily on the simple classical laws which we “know” to be true. It’s frustrating to many scientists to be unable to figure out the problems of the universe, and to have unsolvable problems, but if the last few thousand years of science are any indication, it’s all a matter of time and computational power until the next secrets of the universe are figured out. As the layers of encryption are peeled away, it’s anyone’s guess what we will find. Will we finally lay bare the elemental secrets of the universe? Or has some mysterious programmer created an ultimate encryption, an eternally complex one, that protects the basic workings of the universe? It’s something to think about, and science is up to the task. But for now, we still get excited by simple things, like gyroscopes and chemical reactions. And maybe they prepare us for important discoveries in the future, like my old Windows 95 prepared me.