What are we?
It seems such a simple question, but the easy, glib answers don’t tell us much. We are humans. We are mammals. We’re animals. We’re solids, or so we were called by the shapeshifting Odo of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
In a world filled with solids, fluids, gases and some weird things called waves, we aren’t exactly any of those, but some mixture of them all. And despite all of that, we are almost entirely nothing—empty space. Human “common sense” evolved to serve our ancestors as hunter gatherers on the savannahs of Central and Southern Africa. Common sense simply will not do to answer this simple-sounding question fully, because the full answer extends so incredibly far beyond where our natural senses can reach.
Let me illustrate. In Tanzania, there is a huge dune-like thing that was formed by the ash from an eruption of the Ol Donyo Lengai volcano in 1969. Because there is a prevailing wind blowing in one direction for most to the year, the barchan (the dune-like thing, pronounced bahkahn) walks slowly across the valley floor. It moves about 17 meters per year. It is beautifully sculpted by the wind, which blows individual grains slowly up the windward side till they reach the crest, then tumble down the steeper leeward side. If we could watch a time-lapse video of it, the object would appear to our limited senses to be a wave. But it isn’t a wave. It walks. Waves in the ocean seem to our drastically limited perceptive abilities to move in the same manner as the barchan, but much faster. However, in ocean waves, individual molecules of water do not move horizontally. They stay in a fixed horizontal position and move vertically. Sound waves in the air are the same. Air molecules are moving up and down as the wave propagates through the air. If they were moving toward us, that would be wind and not sound.
What moves in electromagnetic waves? Victorians wondered, and applying human “common sense” figured it had to be something, so they invented Ether and posited that radio, x-ray, and electro-magnetic waves were motion up and down in the Ether. Unfortunately, there is no ether. We humans, with our very limited ability to see radiation, see a tiny stretch of the radiation bandwidth, the visible light from red to violet. But if that visible light spectrum were 1 inch high, the total spectrum of radiation would extend for miles up and downward from the portion we can sense. And all of that is at play within us. Solids, liquids, gasses (which occasionally escape bringing much embarrassment) and waves. Cosmic rays and neutrinos are passing through us as we read this, because we are mostly empty space. If one atom that makes us up were a fly sitting in the center of a football field, the next atom would be outside the stadium in the center of its own stadium. The wall of my office is equally made up mostly of empty space. But when I hit it at non relativistic speeds, it feels so solid I come away with a big bruise.
I was reading something Steve Grand wrote. He noted that we are more like waves than permanent ‘things’. He invited his readers to think…
... of an experience from your childhood. Something you
remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even
smell, as if you were really there. After all you really
were there at the time, weren’t you? How else could you
remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there.
Not a single atom that is in your body today was there
when that event took place…. Matter flows from place to
place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever
you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are
made. If that does not make the hair stand up on the back
of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is
So what the heck are we. It’s clear that the “common sense” we evolved to use as hunter gatherers on the African Savannah cannot answer the question. Whatever we actually are just doesn’t make sense to our limited perceptual abilities and the understanding that perception informs. And yet, as we now have invented sensors to extend our tiny 1-inch bandwidth all the miles up and down the spectrum, we can begin to contemplate what we really are. What answers will we find?