The epilogue of I am a strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter has this beautiful description of the human condition: Posed midway between the unvisualizable cosmic vastness of curved spacetime and the dubious, shadowy flickerings of charged quanta, we human beings, more like rainbows and mirages than raindrops or boulders, are unpredictable self-writing poems – vague, metaphorical, ambiguous, and sometimes exceedingly beautiful. (363) But he also says that our inability to comprehend the full tingling complexity of what we truly are…our own unfathomability is a lucky thing for us! Just as we might shrivel up and die if we would truly grasp how minuscule we are in comparison to the vast universe we live in, so we might also explode in fear and shock if we were privy to the unimaginable frantic goings on inside our own body. (362)
I am a huge fan of Hofstadter since the time I read GEB which was soon after it was published. But is the above true? Unfathomable, unimaginable, yes, but shrivel up and die, explode in fear and shock? Maybe he’s right, we’ll never know. What I do know is that efforts to visualize the incomprehensible don’t shrivel me up but fascinate. Hofstadter focuses on space, but time is of the same weaving, and just a bit less daunting, the scale a bit more fathomable than the inner world of the atom or the outer reaches of the universe. So let’s start with time and let’s start as close to home as possible, a life (if you’re interested in how this was done, look here);
Now let’s move it up a notch. As far as we can. It’s called Big History.
Starts with the big bang. Which I’ve always thought a weird idea. Quantum mechanics may be fundamentally incomprehensible, I find the birth of time equally incomprehensible. There may not be an answer but the question is certainly there: what came before? I recently saw a physicist explain that the big bang wasn’t the beginning but his effort to visualize some string theoretical solution to the ‘before’ question is so obscure that I won’t bother you with it here. It once more illustrates that the gift to describe the absolute weirdness of reality without (much) obfuscation is rare, very rare. That’s why I love Hofstadter so much. Another scientific rock star with the gift is Richard Dawkins. This short presentation of his addresses a lot of what Hofstadter’s quotes above are about. So I’ll share that one instead.
But back to topic: let’s move from time to space, a reality of even larger numbers than time. Again, let’s start at home;
And then move to the edge:
Maybe I should be scared. But I’m mainly fascinated, thrilled, awed. It’s beyond me why science is so often equated with the loss of the sacred, with reducing everything that makes life worthwhile to the life-less, boring, predictable, mechanical. What if not utterly wondrous are the stories that the above videos tell?