See You After the Big Bounce

One evening while I was a grad student at U of M, my dad came out to Ann Arbor to visit.  I remember stopping at a gas station and having a conversation with him about some science news: the cosmologists studying dark matter now believed that the Universe was likely to go on expanding forever.  There would be no Big Crunch to end it all; instead, we would peter out, stretching thinner and thinner as the stars burned through all their fuel, becoming ever colder, ever thinner, ever emptier, until the Universe was a great dead void.

And Dad and I came to the same conclusion: we never realized how attached we were to the idea of the Big Crunch until now, when we were informed that it most likely wouldn’t happen.

As it happens, I read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics around that time, curious about a dissenting voice who suggested that the dark matter dreamers might actually have missed the mark.  I’m a fan of Smolin—you may remember him from this post—because he’s a champion of divergent thinking and visionary intelligence.  I am not a trained physicist, as will be clear to any physicists who read this, but as an enthusiastic advocate of blue sky research funding, I do ponder the results of their work to the extent that I’m able.  Smolin’s work centers on this thing called loop quantum gravity, an alternative to string theory that seeks to unite general relativity and quantum theory (here’s the Wikipedia article if you’re curious).

And loop quantum cosmology suggests a Big Bounce—a Crunch that is, in turn, another Bang.  Maybe after that, there’s something new.  Or maybe we relive everything in reverse.


When I was teaching in Japan, I found a copy of physicist Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos at an English language bookshop in Kyoto.  It was there that I first encountered his idea of the spacetime loaf.  Though it’s an imperfect analogy and I’m still not a physicist, the spacetime loaf idea helps convey one of Einstein’s most revolutionary ideas about the nature of space and time.  So: imagine a loaf of bread.  The loaf represents spacetime.  (Space and time are the same thing, say most physicists; time’s just another dimension.)  Now picture two people standing across from each other on the loaf (it’s a really big loaf).  These two people are stationary (i.e., not moving relative to each other), and they will measure time the same way—in other words, they have the same “now.”

Now imagine that those two people across the loaf (or perhaps they’re a human on Earth and an extraterrestrial in the Alpha Centauri system—I told you it’s a big loaf) are moving relative to each other.  They now measure time, or slice the bread, differently.  “Now” for our extraterrestrial friend might, physically speaking, suddenly be equivalent on Earth to George Washington crossing the Delaware or the dawn of the American socialist utopia or whatever point in the past or future you like!  This is so because of relativity and the invariability of the speed of light, among other things that I’m not qualified to explain, so before I confuse everyone irredeemably, here’s the main point:

The past and future always physically exist, even if you can’t reach them because you happen to be stuck in your slice of now.

Early in 2014, my uncle died.  My aunt is an atheist.  She believes that this life is all you get.  Religious belief—and specifically, faith in an afterlife—offers significant comfort, and some atheists will tell you that they wish they could somehow access that; they are, however, constitutionally incapable of doing so because of the way their minds work.  That’s why many of them are atheists in the first place.  So telling an atheist “he’s in a better place” will, at best, fall flat, and it might just make things worse.  And yet, we always want to say something to offer comfort, don’t we?

The spacetime loaf came to my mind, so I wrote it up in an email and sent it to my aunt.  She’s also not a physicist, so if there’s something wrong with my understanding, it didn’t matter.  She said it helped.  Because when your brain is grappling with someone suddenly apparently not existing anymore, when you try to find them somewhere and fail, it’s not a small thing to find evidence that they really, scientifically are somewhen, and that when and where are essentially equivalent in physics, SO THERE!  It’s just that it’s harder to travel to 2010 than it is to Detroit.  That’s all!  Q.E.D., Death!  YOU LOSE!

As for me?  I find myself in the nebulous and varied realm often labelled agnosticism.  I am pro-religion (well, as usual, my opinion is complicated); suffice it to say, if you believe in an afterlife, I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong.  I can’t rule out hope, which we all know springs eternal.  But this is too uncertain a prospect for me, so I also get where the atheists are coming from.

I want answers.  And I want Dad not to not exist.  To be somewhere.

The lesson of this cosmological theology is that you’d best try to create as many positive moments, because they’re permanent.  The bad things are still baked into that loaf, too.  But then, maybe this is the closest physics gets to giving us an immortal soul.

Dad is, indisputably, somewhen.

Starchild - shutterstock_337623893

None of this means I can see my dad again while trapped on this arrow of time that is mortal human life.  And some upstart trollish physicist may well show up and tell me why I’m wrong and Death wins after all.  Actually, someone who is not at all a troll may end up ruining it for me—no less an admired physicist than Smolin himself.  (Et tu, Lee?!)  See, in his latest book, Time Reborn (wiki), he seeks to tear down my agnostic Heaven, which is contingent upon time being an illusion:

Smolin argues for what he calls a revolutionary view that time is real, in contrast to existing scientific orthodoxy which holds that time is merely a “stubbornly persistent illusion” (Einstein’s words).  Smolin reasons that physicists have improperly rejected the reality of time because they confuse their mathematical models—which are timeless but deal in abstractions that do not exist—with reality.  Smolin hypothesizes instead that the very laws of physics are not fixed, but that they actually evolve over time.


Smolin asserts that overturning the existing orthodoxy is the best hope for finding solutions to contemporary physics problems, such as bringing gravity into line with the rest of the currently accepted models, the nature of the quantum world and its unification with spacetime and cosmology.  Outside science, Smolin asserts his views have important implications for human agency, and on how our social, political, economic and environmental decisions affect our future, Smolin saying that contrary to deterministic philosophies derived from conventional physics, humans do have the power to exert control over climate change, our economic system and our technology.

What?!  Forget the master theory!  Who cares about human agency!  I want my dad!

Well, maybe I’ll cheer for Team Einstein over Team Smolin in this matchup, in which I’m just a spectator.  My intellectual OE really wants to read Time Reborn, but my emotional and imaginational OE have thus far teamed up and to prevent me from doing so (which is easy enough because my intellectual OE is occupied with trying to implement socialism.  Even though Smolin’s book looks like it might actually provide some material to support that latter goal.  SHHHH, DON’T LET IT HEAR YOU, I have too many books piled up to read already!)

But really, it’s spiritual anxiety that gets in the way.  The Hoagies’ Gifted blog hop is exploring this topic this month, thinking of those precocious kids who intellectually understand things like cruelty, violence, and death before they’re emotionally mature enough to process them with a minimum of inner turmoil.  But like so many of the topics that parents of gifted kids talk about, it won’t stop being a quirk in their lives even when they grow up.

Some gifted people are even out there trying, famously with Google’s funding, to conquer death.  But seeing this become even a smidge closer to possible raises a number of quandaries, one of which makes me want to immediately pull the Class Warfare Alarm.  And I find myself left thinking that, well, maybe the next step is Buddhism and coming to terms with nonbeing.  No matter what Ray Kurzweil thinks, this strikes me as healthy and admirable.

But at the same time, there’s still a chance that the Universe might not spread out to a cold, dead, thin emptiness after all.  It could still slow down and crash back in on itself, starting everything over again, all the good and all the evil in the Universe.  And for some reason, at the moment, I find that prospect comforting.

See you after the Big Bounce, Dad.

This post is a part of Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop.
Follow the link for others’ takes on this topic.

11 thoughts on “See You After the Big Bounce

  1. Fascinating and beautiful post – I enjoyed it. Thank you for writing about such a difficult and important topic. Bookmarking to share the next time these struggles come up in discussions with friends.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You taught me some things Jessie – thank you! I very much enjoy your rabbit warren mind and sense of humour. The longing for your Dad comes across strongly and my heart goes out to you. I used to be one of those people seemingly incapable of believing in an afterlife. Not sure what I believe these days – and that’s not for lack of consideration. Best wishes Jessie. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece of writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading, Ro, and for those kind comments! Oh, yes, I can readily imagine how much consideration you must have given this. We’ll never find the answer, but the pondering is nevertheless valuable.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always thought if the 4th dimension is TIME, then a couple of the higher dimensions are CHOICE and STORY. So in a sense, since there are more then 4 dimensions, your dad, and you, are eternal. More to think about…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Indeed! It’s just that we’re stuck in an illusion. I see how Choice could be a higher dimension; it seems like that could play into the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. Would Story then be a dimension on top of that one? Or perhaps it’s another word for that particular universe as opposed to all the rest of them in the Multiverse!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sometimes I like to think about complexity theory and weird physics. It’s so different from anything else that thinking about superfluids, super-critical fluids, Klein bottles, fuzzballs (because black holes just weren’t weird enough), and the like, you go into an altered state of conciousness. It’s probably the closest thing to secular mysticism there is.

    The thing I’ve never understood about the Big Freeze theory is that there should still be sources of heat. If expansion sped up to the point of not just overcoming gravity but atomic bonds as well and pulling planets apart, then yes. But it would then be the Big Rip. As long as planets, dead stars and black holes exist, there is still gravity. And gravity cheats the laws of thermodynamics and acts as a kind of perpetual motion machine. It constantly creates gravitational pull without depleting the object’s mass. The moons of Jupiter are volcanic or otherwise geologically active because of the tidal forces of Jupiter’s gravity pulling on them and creating heat. As I understand it, the sun could have long since died and Jupiter could be drifting through a frozen void, but as long as it has mass and gravity its moons will stay warm.


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    1. The limits of my knowledge of physics will be even more evident here than in the original post, but it’s interesting, so I’m going to run with it! Take everything I say below as that of a student in class who may or may not have understood the reading thus far, and therefore possibly completely wrong. That said:

      Okay, so, I know you were just using a Jupiter-like object as an example, but when the Sun goes red giant, it’s going to swallow Jupiter and its moons, and then turn into a white dwarf that will eventually evaporate because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (i.e. entropy). I mean, it’s the Second Law that predicts the heat death of the Universe, right? I guess because all those moons and dead stars will be swallowed and evaporate, and even out. So here I think I still come to the same question you posed: if we take out the proposed repulsive force of dark energy, what’s stopping gravity from glomming those particles together, like North Vietnamese repair crews trying to repair a primitive little solar system? Well…would the answer simply be, you know, other particles that are pulling in the other direction, leading to a thin, thin soup? (Curse you, capitalist imperialist particles! This seems also applicable to economics. I think I’m going to have to break down and read Smolin’s latest book….)

      Also: yes to secular mysticism! That may indeed be part of why I like to play around with quantum mechanics, without bothering to study the equations and so on, which of course is a huge limitation on my knowledge. (I went up to Calc II in college and then multipotentiality got in the way of going further. I regret it a little bit — especially since the professor encouraged me to continue — but I also am trying to learn to accept the limits of mortality life in other areas, including the inability to learn absolutely EVERYTHING. But regret still plagues me.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is complicated…research in progress…*sounds of glee*.

        There doesn’t seem to be much on this – if you Google ‘future of jupiter’ or ‘tidal heating and the big freeze’, the results are unhelpful. I don’t think the theory is just about thermodynanics – a lot of the explanation includes concepts like ‘gravitational radiation’, ‘quantum tunelling’ and ‘Hawking radiation’ to make the theory work. I think the inventors of the theory only thought about the big-ticket items – stars. In comparison a few hot moons do seem somewhat insignificant. Tidal heating is also rare – it takes a big planet and multiple moons to keep the elliptical orbits that create the effect going (and could presumably happen in orbits around stars and stellar remnants too).

        It can also be disrupted by classical physics events like another large body passing close by or orbits can be slowed by flying through dust clouds and the like. So it’s not a ‘perfect’ perpetual motion machine. But I’m so sick of perfect systems in thermodynamics. I once read a descriptionof how a type of refrigeration worked that had two seperate lists of how the perfect one worked and how the real one worked, and they were almost completely different.

        One thing though is the expanding sun won’t swallow Jupiter. The sun’s maximum size will be about the orbit of the earth. Nobody seems to agree on what effect this will have on Jupiter any more than they can agree whether flying through the outer envelope of the sun will slow the earth down enough to fall into the sun, or if it will just remain in place as a charred cinder.

        I don’t think white dwarves evaporate either. They cool off into black dwarves, but the former sun will still have a mass of about 50% its current mass, in a ball the size of the earth. I assumed the sheer pressure would keep the the core above ambient background temperature, but reading about it, it seems compression causes frictional heating, but once it is fully compressed no more heat is generated and it starts to dissipate (the whole subject of internal heating is really complicated). The explanations of the Big Freeze theory I’ve read so far don’t explain how planets and stellar remnants cease to exist, except being swallowed by black holes. And that seems unlikely in an expanding universe where the distance between things is constantly increasing.

        But like you I’m trying to answer a very specific question about a theory I don’t really understand. Somebody needs to go to a planetarium or a science museum and ask about the future of the outer planets and how long tidal heating can hold out as an island of warmth in a cooling universe.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I didn’t forget about this excellent comment! In fact, I meant to respond earlier to say that I live within walking distance of a science museum (namely, the National Air and Space Museum) and also know a PhD astrophysicist (namely, Max’s dad).

          So I had a chance to ask Max’s dad about this last weekend. He noted that his expertise not in planetary physics or the ultimate fate of the solar system/universe, but as he actually studies galaxies, I figure he knows enough to answer our questions. He says that in terms of tidal fiction, you may have a point, in that the “heat death of the Universe” might actually have a few little pockets of extremely isolated non-zero temperatures, but that as everything gets farther and farther away from each other, this will get more unlikely. You’re right, of course, that the Sun won’t swallow Jupiter after all (my mistake! I am rusty on my planetary science myself these days) but Earth is still going to eventually lose the Moon and Jupiter will lose its moons as well.

          Incidentally, the Sun going Red Giant is not what’s going to destroy life on Earth; that will happen with the gradual brightening of the Sun even before that stage. (Which is not to be confused with anthropogenic global warming! Let’s not toast ourselves any sooner than we need to be toasted.)

          And you mentioned a lot of other things that I wanted to read about in more depth there, but alas, there are not enough hours in the day to learn all the things I want to learn. I know you will understand this feeling.

          But Max promised to go with me to the Air and Space Museum to see their film about dark matter, so I’ll report back if there’s anything relevant. 🙂


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