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.
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.