Quibbles and Bits

Contemplating Eternity

When I first started writing for Copper, my mandate was to write about digital audio. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how long Copper was going to last, but it seemed pretty reasonable to think I could fill every issue with something useful about digital audio. But nothing lasts forever, because forever is such a long time. And eventually I decided I’d pretty much said everything I had to say about digital audio without starting to repeat myself. So I started to write about other stuff that came into my head. Those of you who have been unfortunate enough to read all of my rambling contributions to Copper will have come to understand that my head can be a pretty weird place. But I’m not a professional writer. I’m not up to the rigors of churning out the sort of content that meets the standards I think Copper should be demanding – every two weeks on an ongoing basis. I certainly can’t do it forever: you should really try it sometime! So, with issue 100 of Copper, I’m going to sign off for the foreseeable future. I may be back on an occasional basis – that is if new Editor Frank wants me back – but for the time being this is Sayonara. [You are welcome to return any time. You’ll be missed. And I put you squarely into the professional writer category – Ed.]

So, what do I write about when I contemplate Copper’s future heading off into eternity without me? And I think the answer is obvious. It’s staring me in the face, really. It’s the very concept of eternity.

We humans are mortal beings, and we live out a life span which seems relatively short in the grand scheme of things. Just when you think you’ve got it all under control, there’s always something to remind you of the inexorable march of time. And while I can’t yet make out the light at the end of the tunnel, if I squint hard enough there’s always a pinprick that might just be it. So it is perhaps a natural reaction for us poor humans to wish that, instead of making do with our measly allocation of four score years and ten, wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually get to live forever? And if not in this world, then maybe in the next. Sounds appealing, no? But we really should be careful what we wish for.

What would you do if you could live forever? Let’s assume that I could bestow immortality onto you. Also, for the sake of the argument, I would bestow on you all of the resources necessary so that there would be nothing whatsoever that would be inaccessible to you, and you could enjoy your immortality to the fullest. You could explore the entire earth – on foot if you wanted. You could enjoy an evening out with every interesting person who ever lived – plus a few of the uninteresting ones too. You could catch every movie ever made, binge-watch every drama series on Netflix, cheer on every sporting contest ever played. You could read every book ever written, in every language that ever existed (and including some, like Klingon, that never did)…because you’d have all the time you needed to learn them all! You could study philosophy and debate it with Plato, science with Einstein, politics with Churchill, and exchange world travel tips with Genghis Khan.

Eventually, though, most of the pleasure would dry up. After exploring a large part of the Sahara desert, you might conclude that the rest is pretty much going to be exactly the same. There are only so many interesting people that you could stomach before you’d never want to hear from another one. There are some bad movies out there, not to mention Stranger Things on Netflix. And with the best will in the world, just how many times can you really watch the Browns vs the Bills? And so on. It will take a long time – a really long time – but eventually you’ll manage to exhaust your all-eternity bucket list.

How long do you think that would take? 100 years? 1,000 years? 1,000,000 years? As Marvin the Paranoid Android put it, “The first ten million years were the worst. And the second ten million years – they were the worst too.” But however long it is, let’s label that time span ES – the Everything Span. What the hell do you do next when you have finally done everything – every single thing – that you ever wanted to do? There is absolutely nothing left that you still want to do … and you still have all of eternity stretched out ahead of you. Don’t be tempted to pooh-pooh the idea on the basis that ES is such an unimaginably long time and you’ll surely keep coming up with new stuff. You’re always going to reach an ES, simply because of the inexorable nature of eternity itself.

So let’s start really facing up to Eternity. Our time period ES has elapsed, and you have now done and experienced every single thing you ever wanted. Now what? Well I suggest you might start by doing them all over again. After all, the very first thing you did happened “ES” years ago, so for all practical purposes it would be as good as experiencing it again for the first time. It’s a bit of a no-brainer, especially given that the alternative is to start on the stuff that you’d previously eliminated because you didn’t want to do them in the first place.

Excellent, so now we have the first two ES periods sorted. And in fact, we could actually keep on doing this, recycling through the same set of experiences once every ES years. But in the end, it’s only a band-aid because, at some point, whether you’ve been through the loop ten times, or a hundred, or a million…at some point you’re just going to get fed up. And this time there will be nothing you can do about it. How much of your eternity will this have taken? Let’s call this the FP – the “Fed Up Period.” You have endured one FP’s worth of Eternity and now you are bored to tears, with every possible resource at your disposal and absolutely nothing that you want to do. How is Eternity looking now? Kind of a nightmarish remake of “Groundhog Day.”

How many FPs are there in one Eternity? Well, there are a lot. Let’s start thinking about that. Clearly two FPs won’t amount to one Eternity…we’ll need a lot more than that. Eternity exceeds even an impossibly large number of FPs. At this point, I thought I would describe Graham’s Number to you, as an example of a mathematically large number, but instead I’ll just limit myself to paying homage to its massiveness. Ronald Graham was a mathematician who, back in the 1970s, was studying a very arcane problem in topology (which I won’t bore you with). He realized that although he couldn’t solve the problem exactly, he could at least put an upper bound on the solution. And the upper bound he came up with was a precise number, but it was a number so big, so unmanageably gargantuan, that there was no sensible way to represent it. So he came up with his own formalization, g64 which is now called Graham’s Number. If you want, you can Google it and you’ll find it’s not all that hard to understand. But getting your head around the utter massiveness of it is another thing entirely. At the time it was the highest precise number that had a meaningful mathematical purpose, but now (unsurprisingly) there are even higher ones around.

So let’s get back to our poor hapless individual who has attained the great joy of living for all eternity. He’s spent the first FP years of that Eternity repeating over and over the sum total of every conceivable thing he’s ever wanted to do, and now he’s bored. He’s contemplating the rest of Eternity and trying to come up with a go-forward strategy. I can’t offer him much help, but I’d tentatively suggest that he plans his Eternity to start off with g64 separate periods of FP years each. He can then break down the task into manageable chunks by planning how he might like to fill each of those individual periods. After all, by this time he’ll be comfortable with the reality of an FP period, since he’s just experienced one first hand, in all of its richness. Also, since he’ll have spent a lot of time boning up on Science and Mathematics for those multiple discussions with Einstein, he’ll have no problems getting his head around the concept of g64.

While he’s busy working on that, let’s think a little about the implications. What might a time span of g64 multiples of FP look like? Interestingly enough, g64 is so freakin’ YUGE that it doesn’t actually matter in the slightest how long you think FP might turn out to be. We’re looking at a long, long, loooooooong time. This is longer than the expected lifetime of our Sun. It’s longer than the expected lifetime of the Milky Way. In fact, it’s longer than the expected lifetime of the entire universe itself, which we believe will eventually collapse into nothing but black holes, which in time will all evaporate away to nothing due to Hawking radiation. Hmmm….

I wrote about this a while back. Mathematically speaking, this post-Hawking universe looks indistinguishable from the pre-Big Bang universe, and so, in principle, it could spontaneously generate its own brand new Big Bang. If so, a period of g64 multiples of FP will allow our Eternity Seeker to observe several of these Bang-Expand-Collapse-Evaporate cycles. In fact, he will be able to observe gazillions upon gazillions upon gazillions of them.

He will be a bit like those physicists today who contemplate our universe at the smallest possible scales, which we call the Planck length and the Planck time. At those impossibly tiny scales, space and time, as we know them, no longer actually exist. The “quantum foam” interpretation suggests that tiny fragments of “reality” continuously spring into and out of existence, like bubbles in a boiling foam. It’s quite hard to fathom, really. But, without doubt, our Eternity Seeker will have plenty of time on his hands to contemplate the extraordinary symmetry between the Bang-Expand-Collapse-Evaporate cycles that he gets to watch over the longest of long timeframes, and the roiling quantum foam of the shortest of short timeframes predicted by modern string theory.

All provided, of course, that he doesn’t go stark staring mad first, and develop a God complex.

Live long, and prosper.