There is a wide yawning black infinity. In every direction the extension is endless, the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce. But most of all, there is very nearly nothing in the dark; except for little bits here and there, often associated with the light, this infinite receptacle is empty.
This picture is strangely frightening. It should be familiar. It is our universe.
Even these stars, which seem so numerous, are, as sand, as dust, or less than dust, in the enormity of the space in which there is nothing. Nothing! We are not without empathetic terror when we open Pascal’s Pensées and read, “I am the great silent spaces between worlds.”
The words above are credited to Carl Sagan when he was an undergraduate student in the early 1950s at the University of Chicago. They seem a fitting introduction to the essay I’ve pasted below, which is copied verbatim from one I posted in this space on 1 January 2008. Yes, it’s naive. But it was written a long time ago. I’ve added the song embedded directly below.
Not so long ago, humans believed the watershed was everything. Their world was restricted to a tiny area, and traveling beyond the area was undesirable — even dangerous. But some daring traveler took the leap and discovered a world beyond the watershed.
Rinse and repeat, from the watershed to the continent, from the continent to the world, from the world to the solar system, from the solar system to the galaxy, from the galaxy to the universe. If the Church hadn’t killed a few daring travelers along the way, we’d have discovered a lot more a lot sooner. Call it the collateral damage of controlling the empire.
Human discovery represents a continuum, with our part diminishing along the way. The world was large, but we were large, too. Discoveries and our ability to travel made the world smaller. And then the solar system, and so on, so that now we’ve explained the universe in physical terms and we understand our inconsequential role (and our hubris, which is quite consequential).
Religious believers like to believe we’re special, that Somebody is watching over us. And they use the most stunning logic to explain the notion of Somebody: Science only explains our universe back to the Big Bang. What about before then? And what caused the Bang, and all the matter associated with it? It must have come from something. By which they mean Somebody.
As if pointing to Somebody explains it all.
Stephen B. Hawking tried to explain the idea of a singularity to the lay public in his dreadfully incomprehensible 1988 book, A Brief History of Time. I suspect this was one of the most-purchased, least-read books of all time. Needless to say, Hawking’s prose failed to provide an explanation convincing to the masses. But here’s the bottom line: Universes come and go, and they collapse and arise in events called singularities.
Fast-forward to the Russian physicist Alex Vilenkin and his 2006 book, Many Worlds in One. Vilenkin explains that ours is one of many universes — an infinite number, in fact. If you buy the evidence behind an expanding universe (which is overwhelming), then it’s a short, simple, and logical step to ours being one of an infinite number of universes. We’re part of the multiverse. The continuum rolls on.
Most universes likely blink out as quickly as they arise. They persist only a few nanoseconds, and fail to produce even a single flower. Some of these universes, such as ours, are relatively stable. They persist long enough, and have sufficient initial conditions, that life arises. Eventually, intelligent life arises, if you’re willing to stretch the definition far enough. Count up all these universes, come to terms with the concept of infinity, and you’ve got an infinite number of Guy McPhersons typing these words now.
This explanation accounts for all matter, and all energy, for all universes, for all time. Thus, it explains our universe, and the universes that preceded ours, and so on, back to infinity ago (and also from now until infinity).
Many of you are thinking, “Yeah, but what about before that?” If you want to know what came before infinity, then you don’t understand infinity.
Since the brains of most of us are somewhat smaller than infinity, religious believers will never admit that physical processes might explain more about the universe — or even the multiverse — than that “explanation” to trump all explanations, “Somebody did it. Somebody big and mysterious that we’ll never understand.” Somebody like Gawd, Yahweh, the Great Spirit, or the unicorn on the dark side of the moon. But invoking Somebody is choosing to remain ignorant. That’s a personal choice, of course, and I’m happy to let religious believers keep believing instead of thinking. Especially if they let me think. It’d be even better if they encouraged their children to think, but apparently that’s asking too much.
It’s pretty demoralizing to think there are an infinite number of Earths dealing with peak oil and runaway greenhouse by promoting destruction and ignorance. But it’s pretty cool to think that there are an infinite number of planet Earths that produced humans with empathy, compassion, and creativity. On these Earths, humans persist a very long time and humbly share the planet with many other species. On these Earths, there is no runaway greenhouse. Passing the planetary oil peak is a cause for celebration because, on these Earths, the demise of cheap oil doesn’t spell the end of civilization and the likely demise of four-fifths of the humans on Earth.