The Universe…the tyranny of distance and time

I came across this image through erdilielsfavourites‘s blog post “Hubble’s Greatest Hits“, on the twenty-second anniversary of the Hubble Telescope.

The image shows “a delicate cosmic dance is taking place between two galaxies known together as ARP 273. The larger galaxy is an off-kilter spiral, suggesting that the smaller one has actually passed through it. Given the titanic forces that can be released when galaxies merge, these two are lucky to be in the healthy shape they are.” – TIME magazine

Contemplating the physical and temporal scale of the two galaxies passing through each other made me almost physically sick.

I couldn’t help but tink of an intelligent species evolving in some non-distinct solar system and emerging as a star faring civilisation just as the galaxies begin to collide and then wiped out with no hope of escape. There would have been warning too but no chance of survival; not just of one planet lost but entire regions of the galaxy, billions of species lost to the universe.

But then, maybe as a result of the collision, a new species of intelligent life emerges from the shattered star stuff.

It was the same sick, frustrated feeling I remember from a reoccurring dream I had when I was young:

I had to get to the other side of the world to be with someone and travelled there on an ocean liner, taking six months, only to find they’d left to come back to me. I would jump back on the ship but then discover they had done the same. In desperation I would leave a note telling them to stay where they are but then find the same note to me when I arrived.

SS Normandie

SS Normandie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I stayed they did too, and whenever I travelled they would too; always…frustrated by the tyranny of distance and time.

“U” is for the Universe

Looking through the wrong end of a Telescope and other Analogies for Time

We look at the past  through the wrong end of a telescope, he thought one day; eventually the things we can see in there become simply too small to hurt us. (Character: Peter Clayborne) – Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martians Pg. 316

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series the expected lifespan for humans is extended by a “longevity treatment” to at least several hundred years if not thousands of years. Through this he is able to explore issues and limitations of the human brain for storing and retrieving memories. In one scene, Maya Toitovna is now around 150 years old  has returned to live in a city she had previously lived in 70 or more years before.

Maya found herself trapped in a déjà vu of a déjà vu, Where was she?

It wouldn’t come back to her. It wouldn’t come. A horrible sense of tip-of-the-toungeism made her dizzy, then sick, as if she would get it out by vomiting. She sat down on the steps. On the tip of the tongue, her whole life! Her whole life! She groaned aloud, and some kids throwing pebbles at gulls stared at her.

It hadn’t really been gone; just a momentary lapse in her thinking, while her attention had wandered elsewhere. To another life.

A strong memory had its own integrity, its own dangers, just as much as a weak memory did. It was only the result of thinking that the past was more interesting than the present. Which is many ways was true. But still…

Later Maya saw her daughter Jackie, who she… lets say despised, sailboard on the open oceans of Mars:

Events would soon be washing by her, the way they did everyone else; history was a wave that moved through time slightly faster than an individual life did, so that even when people had lived only to seventy or eighty they had been behind the wave by the time they died; and how much more so now [when they lived for at least several hundred years]. No sailboard would keep you up with that wave… - Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars.

A word of caution here, Maya suffered from severe depression so don’t get drawn too deeply into her neurosis.

“T” is for Time, and for Telescope

Carl Sagan, and the Baloney Detection Kit

When asked to cite the most influential person to the way I perceive the universe I have no hesitation to say that it is Carl Sagan.

The first time I heard about Carl Sagan was in a Physics Lecture in year twelve at school. Our teacher had recorded the opening episode of Cosmos and from not too far into it my world view expanded and I’ve never looked at things the same way again. The original Cosmos television series from the 1980s is where Sagan entered most of our lives but for many it was through his academic works or the leading role he played in the American space program.

NASA gave Sagan three weeks to design a message to be engraved on two twenty three centimetre wide aluminium plaques attached to the Pioneer Deep Space Probes.

As well as his work in the scientific community Sagan also wrote fiction – I’ve found most of the best scientific minds also have a highly developed imagination.

He wrote the book Contact,  and in 1997  was made into a Hollywood movie staring Jodie Foster. At the end of this book (spoiler alert) the main character is labeled as a fraud and even begins to doubt her memory. She goes on to search for deeper meanings eventually in the last passage discovers the pattern of a perfect circle encrypted in the decimal places for the mathematical constant Pi. The gist of this revelation being that the shape of a circle, and if so, the universe was designed and did not simply spring into existence.

Initially I found this an odd inclusion for probably the world’s most famous atheist. But later reading his work The Demon Haunted World this is the sort of evidence that would pass all of the tests in his well publicised Baloney Detection Kit.

Sagan is a famous skeptic and this Baloney Detection Kit  provides a set of tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

Baloney Detection Kit

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
  • Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” — Carl E. Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

Another of his books that is worth seeking out is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It was published on the tenth anniversary of his death and is based on his famous Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.

The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources. – Carl Sagan

“S” is for Carl Sagan

Imagining life outside of time

Dr Carl Sagan

Whenever the topic of multidimensional existence comes up, which is for me surprisingly often, I always remember how Dr Carl Sagan described it in his Cosmos television series. He described in terms of a two-dimensional creature imagining a three-dimensional universe. From what I recall he referred to this as “Flatland” – as you would.

This is a useful analogy and has helped me to visualise many spatial problems I’ve encountered in my professional life.

I’m currently writing a novel length piece of fiction in the alternative history genre. And being a little pedantic about such things I felt the need to theorise about how the entity, who was the catalyst for this version of the universe, lived.  And, to this end, I’m using a similar analogy.

We three-dimensional creatures may be able to move through our universe at will but there are physical limitations. It is not like we can move/jump to any point on our planet in an instant, let alone move about the universe. For me living in Australia to jump to the UK takes time and effort in both physical and monetary terms. Similar limitations should apply to an entity living in three-dimensional + time (3D+t) universe i.e. it can only move so far on a whim. Greater movement would require a corresponding increase in effort and patience.

And also, the faster I choose to travel about this three-dimensional universe there is a corresponding increase in risk to my three-dimensional body. So I expect that a similar increase in risk would apply to a creature jumping about in a 3D+t universe.

Taking this analogy a step further, each time I travel to London I don’t run into myself;  it is a different London – irrespective of how precisely I attempt to position myself in the exact spatial location. Many people have speculated that with each decision we make a new parallel universe springs into existence. I don’t think reality will be… is anything like this. There is not a new London, it is just a different one. So the 3D+t entity can visit a new time/place that it has visited previously but it doesn’t “run into” itself.

A few conundrums to end this post for now:

If a 3D+t entity lives outside time, then can it ever have a first time?

Every moment that ever was is now. Or, when each intersection of a moment in a place occurs, it is gone forever and exists only in our memory e.g. the 3D+t entity could remember being at this time/place but that is as close as it gets to “running into” itself.