Sunday, April 23, 2006

Andy Rooney, Astrophysicist and Breakfast Theoretician

Some knotty problems in Astrophysics solved.

Notes on the Inflationary Universe: Djever notice how bagels keep getting bigger, until they’re too fat to fit in your toaster, and then you have to buy a larger and fancier toaster? This detail from the Breakfast Arms Race (which spawns such abominations as the White Chocolate-chip Raisin Bagel) is an illustration of the universal Law of Ongoing Bloat, which states that, a) greed must be served, but b) will never be satisfied. Only a bigger and more hideously adulterated bagel is acceptable to the greedy mind, and this bagel then drives all other aspects of civilization until that sad final day when the Ultimate Plutonium Bagel is accidentally dropped on the President’s toe at breakfast and we all disappear, screaming, into a discontinuum, some weird little crack in reality’s sidewalk.

Perhaps, however - just perhaps - we can avoid this sad fate if only more influential people like the President, the Reverend S. Y. Moon and Dennis Rodman learn more about the basic structure of the universe, by reading the following simplified primer.

1. The Origin of the Universe.

I like to think I'm one intellectual cut above the average cave dweller, and so it's not too unusual to find me curled up in an armchair, reading some exciting mathematical/philosophical/ astronomical tome whose author has nobly flung himself once more against the very gates of Heaven, seeking to explain the instant of creation itself, or at least say something about it that will make a guy like me buy his book. I'm too smart for that; I wait until I see it at a yard sale, or remaindered for two bucks. But alas - these geniuses inevitably come to a point where they can't explain themselves except by using a lot of brand-new symbols they just thought up for the occasion, and torturing the logical faculties of ordinary mortals with statements like: if a is not equal to a', and b is not equal to b', and “not equal” is defined as equal to all subsets of c less or more than d or, during lunar eclipses, d', THEN... And they triumphantly gallop off into a weird ever-receding landscape that Mandelbrot saw once in a mushroom nightmare, riding a cubist pony and holding high a banner with the strange device, QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRATUM; but I'm snoozing in the comfy chair, falling ever deeper into a delightful five-dimensional rabbit hole full of dancing pentangles, and everything seems so very clear, yes, even the long-lost key to that endless moment of fire that hung in the dark, when everything began to unfold; temperature meant nothing, yet they tell us anyway that it was 500 million degrees (Kelvin) or whatever. I love doing that, although I'd be just as enriched and enlightened if I drank beer and watched the football game.

Thusly I establish my intellectual credentials, even if Godel’s Eternal Golden Braid, or whatever he called it, is as far beyond me as trigonometry is beyond an ant. I can appreciate Leonardo’s Codex just as much as Bill Gates, though he may have the original sitting on his solid gold coffee table, stained with cappucino latte for all I know. And who among us, the miserable PC users of this world, has not said to himself, “I could have written a Disc Operating System one hell of a lot better than this garbage.”? Now, it’s a little-known fact that in science, Attitude is often just as potent as The Scientific Method when it comes to finally establishing the truth of something. So, vigorously employing the general attitude displayed above, I state the following:

a) The universe either “began” or it did not, and has never not existed.

b) The universe will either “end” or it will not, and will always exist.

c) We will almost certainly never “see” either event, no matter what telescopes we build.

d) To propose a definite “mechanism” for the origin of the universe is plain silly.

Notice, if you will, how quickly ordinary concepts decay in their meanings when asked to bear the burden of an infinite context.

2. Entropy

It was Yeats who famously tossed off the line, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” and he struck a fatalistic chord on the world’s psyche - good old Captain Bringdown. Later he was vindicated by the codification of the various laws of thermodynamics, and everyone relaxed and had a beer or three. But why is this true? And if we just build a new centre, say, a few miles away in the new megamall, what difference does it make? Sure, I admit we will all end up as lonely atoms wandering untethered in space, like so many tetherballs whose tethers finally frayed and broke, and sent us rolling into a dark corner of the infinite playground, but, by my calculations we still have plenty of time to go get some pizza and red wine, and catch a movie.

I believe good ol’ Lao Tzu said it best more than two millennia ago: “Small country, few people.” I paid a real California channeler to get him on the astral horn and explain that annoyingly cryptic remark, and he was kind enough to translate it for me into modern buzzspeak idiotica: “Basically, Dave, there's a limit to the effectiveness of any system, however skillfully managed. Systems tend to bloat and complicate, and at a certain mysterious point the anti-synergism of excessive numbers of variables destroys their ability to produce their product, whatever it might be; and then the momentum of organization pushes the system over the line into decline and total failure, unless, of course, the controlling entity is able to downsize and simplify in a real snappy manner. It would be nice if things could be kept small, cozy and stable. And if pigs could fly you could send packages, a big improvement over pigeons - call it Pig-Ex/” I eventually had to hang up, he just wouldn't stop jabbering. Apparently there isn’t much to do on the astral plane once you’ve read all the books in the library a hundred times and sampled every dish in the cafeteria.

3. The Arrow of Time - careful! It’s sharp!

Another thing I’d like to clear up is this pesky cosmological constant thing, i.e. the arrow of time problem: why it always goes this-a-way but never back that-a-way, or any other weird direction. Well, it's simple, and you can pass this along to Mr. S. Hawking, free of charge: the reason time is a one-way street is because cause A always causes effect A', and the reason for that, smart guy, is because we say so. Our very thoughts about it instantly create the fourth dimension of perceived-cause-and-effect (time) and also the fifth dimension of intelligence/
stupidity/free will/love. Conduct, if you will, the following ‘thought experiment’. Imagine that consciousness never arose anywhere in the universe; all that exists is insensate matter moving about here and there in accordance with the dictates of the forces inherent to matter, such as interstate speed limits, postal regulations, and the like. Now: where is time? What possible meaning can the concept have without an observer to mark it? Of course, the experiment is bogus; we cannot imagine, with any cogency, our own non-existence, and the fifth dimension is beyond the reach of numerical description, being the very medium of our existence; the fish cannot analyze water, etc. Well I hope that reduces the constant stream of plaintive questions people direct to me here on Mount Olympus. (What is life, really? Why are the stars spread out in such a messy way like marbles dumped on the floor? Who's going to go get the beer?)

Copyright 2006 by David Warren Rockwell

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