Monday, June 25, 2007


Every time I hear it there's this little frisson of annoyance. The Universe is expanding. The story goes that it isn't the galaxies blasting away from some center -- rather, it's space itself that's stretching out. The image is of a balloon (space) with dots (galaxies) painted on its surface: as the balloon is inflated, the dots move apart. It isn't the dots that define or motivate the motion -- it's the space between. So the analogy goes.

Like all analogies, it is flawed. Of course it is. We forgive our metaphors their imperfections. How else could we even approximate communication? But I have never heard this particular analogy deconstructed, and it is sorely in need of that. Here's the problem: into what is the balloon, the universe, expanding?

It brings us down to the question of the Big Bang. We imagine a singularity, a sort of unimaginably dense seed that contains all matter, all energy -- all such potentialities. Then this singularity explodes, as it were, and eventually resolves, blossoms, into the universe as we experience it. A fine metaphor. A useful creation myth. But if the seed contains everything, what is the air, what is the soil, into which and through which the seed grows?

Obviously the metaphor is stated incompletely. We cannot stop at postulating merely a dotted balloon. We have to imagine a room in which someone is blowing it up. We may please ourselves by omitting the blower. But we still need the room. Let's change the metaphor: Behold, a civilization, which is expanding, growing into the wilderness, cultivating the wild fields, laying down roads, harvesting the forests. The civilization is the order, the initial high-state of organization, the anti-entropy, of an existing universe. The wilderness is chaos into which the universe is expanding. Pray tell me, what is the wilderness? What is the balloon room? What exists outside of order and prior to chaos?

It's a question that science cannot be prepared to answer. Science deals with the observable, and with speculation about the observable. It deals with nature and its laws, which are (rather tautologically) merely formulations about how nature behaves. Since the laws of physics were not operative in the initial moments of the Big Bang -- if there was such a thing -- science has no real authority in speculating on the matter. Science in this instance can merely assert an assumed condition. This is not illegitimate. But it's not science, either.

Speculation is the province of philosophy. Likewise, to speculate about what the universe is expanding into -- if it is expanding -- is, quite literally, a matter of metaphysics, of that which is beyond physics. No embarrassment here. The embarrassment would be in falling into the error of denying this fact. Define science and there will be no argument: something about increasing and organizing knowledge of what is observable. The more we remove ourselves from the observable, the less we partake of science. I'm comfortable with all that.

We're all familiar with outmoded cosmologies. The relevant one that springs to mind is said to derive from ancient India: the world rests on the back of a tiger, which stands on an elephant, which stands on a turtle. On what does the turtle stand? We hear the infinitely echoing reply, It's turtles all the way down.

Well? Into what does the universe expand? It's just as sensible -- in fact more so, to my way of thinking -- to suggest that the universe is shrinking. The balloon is a bowling ball, and the dots are getting smaller and smaller. It isn't space that's expanding, it's matter, or energy if you will, that's diminishing. The singularity of the Big Bang was the same size that the universe is even as we speak -- it didn't explode, it, uh, collapsed, leaving an outer shell filled with motes of dust. Or it self-organized, the way a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly (in the cocoon it turns into an amorphous paste, a sort of activated soup swarming with purposeful proteins). Or it was sculpted the way Michelangelo created statues -- by removing everything that didn't belong. I'm just making this up. But at least it has the elegance of starting with a known (as it were) quantity -- a constant volume of space. The universe isn't expanding. It's evaporating. To where does it evaporate? Must be the same place that space would expand into.

Kabbalists addressed this question centuries ago. As memory serves, both Maimonides and Luria dealt with it -- we'd think of it in terms of multiple dimensions. Well that's just fine. Theories are allowed to make assumptions. The fewer the better, but it's allowed. (Indeed, an assumption is just a front-loaded prediction -- and every theory must make predictions.) We might postulate some necessary greater dimension into which our mere three and a half dimensions encroach. We might find support for such an assumption, in the elegance of the resulting conclusions. We do such things all the time.

Dark matter is an example: a necessary assumption to make previous assumptions about gravity and the size of the universe make sense: an invisible and hypothetical source of gravity, the existence of which is at present only inferred and its presumed effects observed only indirectly. Some minority of physicists dispense with dark matter by supposing that the currently favoured theory of gravity is flawed -- say, those who favor TeVeS or NGT. If these are closer to reality, then dark matter is an ad hoc saving device which will be remembered in the same footnote as phlogiston, aether and miasma -- and the apparent observations (non-artifacts) that seem to support its existence will be used to explain some other quality of the universe. For my part, I am enamored of any explanation that involves quantum mechanics. Call my mad.

To assume that our singularity expanded, exploded, or intrudes into some greater dimension is quite reasonable, and is an idea with which I am entirely comfortable. We might ask what even greater dimension that one burst into, out of its singularity -- and so on. It is reasonable, but it is not actually an answer ... just sounds like one. It turns the metareality or the polyverse of existence into something rather like Russian nesting dolls, matryoshkas, one inside another, outward and inward, infinitely. Now if those dolls were turtles -- or caterpillars -- the analogy would be nearly perfect.

The upshot is, if we postulate n number of dimensions, or an infinite number of universes, or some plausible ad hoc assumption, or an infinite regress of turtles -- well, I just said it, didn't I. Infinite regressions are not science. They are explanations, as any myth would be. That's fine. We can use myths ... we call them axioms -- things that are assumed to be true, without proof.

My point, if I have one, would be that even the most rational-sounding assertions might be questioned. We would do so not with the arrogance of the half-educated, the callow or the reflexively argumentative. We'd do it with the understanding that every question must ultimately resolve to first principles. The child's endless questioning of why why why is finally answered with because that's the way it is. After a certain point the patient adult may recognize that the child isn't looking for information, but attention. Likewise, the bright child may realize that the adult is just an incurious ignoramus.

That pretty much defines the world we live in. It isn't one of forces and vectors, of chemical or nuclear reactions -- it's one of personal interactions, of perceptions and of emotions ... disconcertingly subjective. After all, how did this conversation start? With me being annoyed. But you knew that about me already, how I take everything personally. Everything always comes down to the same point. How does such and such affect me, and what's my opinion about it. At least I'm consistent. I know my first principles.



Teague said...

Damn that James Joyce. I always did hate that wordy bastard. You "know" your "first principles." Do you know the company you keep or the company that keeps you ?

Jack H said...


But would it have been worth it, after all, to have squeezed the universe into a ball, to say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead, come back to tell you all" — if one should say: "that is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all"?