Cosmological Infancy

by Xenosystems
Cosmological Infancy

There is a ‘problem’ that has been nagging at me for a long time – which is that there hasn’t been a long time. It’s Saturday, with no one around, or getting drunk, or something, so I’ll run it past you. Cosmology seems oddly childish.

An analogy might help. Among all the reasons for super-sophisticated atheistic materialists to deride Abrahamic creationists, the most arithmetically impressive is the whole James Ussher 4004 BC thing. The argument is familiar to everyone: 6,027 years — Ha!

Creationism is a topic for another time. The point for now is just: 13.7 billion years – Ha! Perhaps this cosmological consensus estimate for the age of the universe is true. I’m certainly not going to pit my carefully-rationed expertise in cosmo-physics against it. But it’s a stupidly short amount of time. If this is reality, the joke’s on us. Between Ussher’s mid-17th century estimate and (say) Hawking’s late 20th century one, the difference is just six orders of magnitude. It’s scarcely worth getting out of bed for. Or the crib.

For anyone steeped in Hindu Cosmology – which locates us 1.56 x 10^14 years into the current Age of Brahma – or Lovecraftian metaphysics, with its vaguer but abysmally extended eons, the quantity of elapsed cosmic time, according to the common understanding of our present scientific establishment, is cause for claustrophobia. Looking backward, we are sealed in a small room, with the wall of the original singularity pressed right up against us. (Looking forward, things are quite different, and we will get to that.)

There are at least three ways in which the bizarre youthfulness of the universe might be imagined:

1. Consider first the disconcerting lack of proportion between space and time. The universe contains roughly 100 billion galaxies, each a swirl of 100 billion stars. That makes Sol one of 10^22 stars in the cosmos, but it has lasted for something like a third of the life of the universe. Decompose the solar system and the discrepancy only becomes more extreme. The sun accounts for 99.86% of the system’s mass, and the gas giants incorporate 99% of the remainder, yet the age of the earth is only fractionally less than that of the sun. Earth is a cosmic time hog. In space it is next to nothing, but in time it extends back through a substantial proportion of the Stelliferous Era, so close to the origin of the universe that it is belongs to the very earliest generations of planetary bodies. Beyond it stretch incomprehensible immensities, but before it there is next to nothing.

2. Compared to the intensity of time (backward) extension is of vanishing insignificance. The unit of Planck time – corresponding to the passage of a photon across a Planck length — is about 5.4 x 10^-44 seconds. If there is a true instant, that is it. A year consists of less the 3.2 x 10^7 seconds, so cosmological consensus estimates that there have been approximately 432 339 120 000 000 000 seconds since the Big Bang, which for our purposes can be satisfactorily rounded to 4.3 x 10^17. The difference between a second and the age of the universe is smaller that that between a second and a Planck Time tick by nearly 27 orders of magnitude. In other words, if a Planck Time-sensitive questioner asked “When did the Big Bang happen?” and you answered “Just now” — in clock time — you’d be almost exactly right. If you had been asked to identify a particular star from among the entire stellar population of the universe, and you picked it out correctly, your accuracy would still be hazier by 5 orders of magnitude. Quite obviously, there haven’t been enough seconds since the Big Bang to add up to a serious number – less than one for every 10,000 stars in the universe.

3. Isotropy gets violated by time orientation like a Detroit muni-bond investor. In a universe dominated by dark energy – like ours – expansion lasts forever. The Stelliferous Era is predicted to last for roughly 100 trillion years, which is over 7,000 times the present age of the universe. Even the most pessimistic interpretation of the Anthropic Principle, therefore, places us only a fractional distance from the beginning of time. The Degenerate Era, post-dating star-formation, then extends out to 10^40 years, by the end of which time all baryonic matter will have decayed, and even the most radically advanced forms of cosmic intelligence will have found existence becoming seriously challenging. Black holes then dominate out to 10^60 years, after which the Dark Era begins, lasting a long time. (Decimal exponents become unwieldy for these magnitudes, making more elaborate modes of arithmetical notation expedient. We need not pursue it further.) The take-away: the principle of Isotropy holds that we should not find ourselves anywhere special in the universe, and yet we do – right at the beginning. More implausibly still, we are located at the very beginning of an infinity (although anthropic selection might crop this down to merely preposterous improbability).

Intuitively, this is all horribly wrong, although intuitions have no credible authority, and certainly provide no grounds for contesting rigorously assembled scientific narratives. Possibly — I should concede most probably — time is simply ridiculous, not to say profoundly insulting. We find ourselves glued to the very edge of the Big Bang, as close to neo-natal as it is arithmetically possible to be.

That’s odd, isn’t it?

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17 responses to “Cosmological Infancy

  1. Hugo Miller

    The answer is 42, I believe.

  2. Nick diPerna

    I sometimes wonder why we are spending all those resources trying to understand the universe when we haven’t even been back to the moon.

    Surely, it’s a case of trying to walk before you can crawl?

    As for the nature of the universe, maybe it’s more of a question for philosophers than abstract mathematicians. What we know of nature is fairly consistent – a good rational mind should be able to fill in the missing pieces.

  3. Odd indeed.

    BTW & OT I would like to comment on the “racism” thread above but my comment has been rejected so that’s that.

  4. Okay, here’s an even weirder one. Humanity as a species has an indefinite lifespan and you live right at the start of it. The species is under 100,000 years old (which is nothing, NOTHING!), and anything approaching civilisation is under 10,000 years old. Modernity is only around three hundred years old. And here you are, right at the start of it!

    I’ve had arguments with people who insist that human “progress” is exponential and will never end. I disagree. I think it’s an “S” curve and we are somewhere on the steep part. It will not be long before we’ve learned everything worth learning, and after that, humanity will be much the same for uncounted aeons. There is no reason to think we will ever become extinct, so long as the universe is in a state that can support live. Millions, billions, quadrillions of years of humanity lies ahead. And here we are, within the first 100,000, living lives of primitive ignorance. We can guess at the next, close at hand, developments of our species; freedom from disease, immortality, arbitrary directed modification of our own form (no more natural selection, but arbitrary artificial change).

    So, that’s why we’re at the start of the universe. It took about this long for a species such as us to evolve, and probably others like us in those galaxies we gawp at. Such a species will spread out across the galaxy (distance is no object, even with relativistic limits, for immortals) and fill every nook and cranny worth filling.

    And so, once one species has done that, there will be nowhere a new species can evolve, on its own, alone. Thus, the reason we are here, now, is that there won’t be anywhere else, in the future, for a species like us to be. Older species will already be everywhere there is.

    I sometimes lie awake at night wishing I would live to see the plateau after the end of progress as we know it. It will be, by our standards, Utopian. I find it quite maddening to have been stuck here, right at the start, in this awkward age where we are still primitive, but capable of imagining what lies ahead. It might be the most frustrating age in which to be alive.

    • Nick diPerna

      “I find it quite maddening to have been stuck here, right at the start, in this awkward age”

      Don’t dismiss the possibility of being resurrected in a billion years time.

      • Heh. I do actually have a story for a novel/movie/whatever in the Utopian tradition, in which the protagonist is resurrected from cryogenic preservation (as currently available) and then wanders around have the libertarian, godlike existence of the future explained to them by endless patient expository characters.

        If I had the money, I’d have my head frozen. The chance of being revived from that state is very small, but not zero. And if you’ve got the money, you won’t need it after death, so it’s a gamble with zero possible negative outcomes.

        The awesomeness of waking up in the year 3000 would be awesome beyond imagining.

        • Nick diPerna

          Reminds me of Cold Lazarus. But in a billion years time, I think they’ll be able to reconstruct our entire genetic makeup, personality and memories, just from an ancient IP address.

  5. Not optimistic abut the chances of your scenario IanB. There are far too many psycho/sociopaths and powerseekers for such to happen and, worst of all, far too many morons who will crawl and swallow the shite. If it is all an accident, as your atheist philosophy maintains, then we will likely be destroyed by our own evil or one of those elder races you speak of.

    • Ah, but we know we’re first. How do we know we’re first? Because we’re here, as I said above. We are this galaxy’s elder race. Or will be, one day, anyway.

  6. Still sounds like a statement of faith to me.

    • No, faith is when you believe in something without justification. Reasoning might be wrong, it might just be guesswork, it might be absurd, but it isn’t faith.

      • Nick diPerna

        Multiculturalism, environmentalism, feminism and egalitarianism are good examples of a faith.

        • Hmm, dunno about egalitarianism. I’d count egalitarianism as more of a philosophy, or an aspiration, like libertarianism. Which is itself egalitarian if your egalitarianism is equality of treatment, as opposed to equality of outcome. The very basis of liberty is a level playing field.

      • Nick diPerna

        Equality as in ‘equality of outcome’ is the new-age loony spiritual belief system.

  7. We’re here so we’re first?. Sorry–that logic escapes me. Those who are truly first may not have got this far–yet.

    Also , human beings will remain unchanged for quadrillions of years?–when the actual nature of the Universe is still unknown (and most “scientific” theories about it are bullshit and ignore huge amounts of data that don’t fit –eg”dark” matter and “dark” energy as a response to their failed calculations–what was it?–95% too little matter in the Universe). No–that is faith not reason.

  8. Ecks-

    The logic is that if someone else were first, they’d already be here. Someone else may be simultaneous, but that would be quite a coincidence. On cosmological timescales, filling the galaxy would not take long. So the point is, the likely reason we’re unusually early in cosmological time is that we’re first. Somebody has to be.

    I didn’t say, nor do I believe, that humans will remain unchanged. All I said is that we can guess at the likely near future changes, such as overcoming death (an evolved system that we no longer need; I have no desire to die just because a creature that was less than a worm found it selectively advantageous).

    What our descendents will be in even 200 years is hard to guess, in a thousand quite impossible. Millions of years? Far beyond imagining. All we can know is that we are right at the start of whatever the human story is. We’re on the first page of mankind’s autobiography.