29 April 2014

To infinity and beyond by way of the Inquisition

It’s the Hubble’s 24 year-anniversary (which is a good a reason as any to check out some of its trés spiffy body of work. For an awesomely enthusiastic description of one of the more impressive of those photos, go here. Phil Plait’s child-like joy is infectious). Technically, the telescope’s birthday was earlier this month, but I missed the actual day, so we’re going with anniversary and pretending that 24 is significant in some way. As I remember it, it was a pretty good year, so there’s that. Besides, with some two hundred young women getting kidnapped on the eve of their physics exam in Nigeria, I think that we need to beat back our terrestrial depression with a celebration of the cosmos.

Luckily, there’s been a host of space-related things going on lately, including the potential confirmation of a not-horrible kind of inflation. Very simply, some terribly intelligent people have discovered – get this – ‘ripples in the fabric of space time’ (sweet fancy pants, you mean like a tesseract?) that corroborate a decades-old theory that ‘less than a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light. Tiny ripples in the violently expanding energy field eventually grew into the large-scale structures of the universe.’ This theory apparently explains why our universe is even in shape and temperature (I really wish I was bright enough for a job that called upon me to contemplate the temperature of the heavens).

I love how inflation, like so much else, becomes something deeply cool, if not near miraculous, when you stick it among the stars. Granted, I had but one semester of astrophysics in university, so I don’t really understand what they’re going on about with the gravitational waves and latent energies, and in fact think I prefer seeing this as modern magic. That NYT article even uses a French press to illustrate how the universe has grown in the aftermath of the Big Bang. Coffee and Space? I’m in!

Inflation apparently also posits the existence of the multiverse (seriously, this story has EVERYTHING. Go read it now). Apparently, inflation, once begun, is eternal and will result in the rest of the cosmos continuing to expand, spinning off new universes into infinity, like some everlasting Rube Goldberg machine. So that amazing Hubble photo, with the countless galaxies forming and living and dying that represents but a fraction of our known universe which itself extends some 14 billion light-years? Remember that photo? According to inflation, it is the proverbial grain of dust in some ‘larger cosmos whose extent, architecture, and fate are unknowable’. What glorious magic this is‽ Rather, in the parlance of our time, MIND BLOWN.

Any talk of the multiverse, of course, puts me in mind of phantom tollbooths, gardens of forking paths, evilly bearded Spocks and licentious Kiras (I haven’t seen Doctor Who, but if I had, I’m fairly certain that could come to mind, as well), zany Discworld, godly Narnia, Donnie Darko with its creepy bunny, Red Dwarf, Fringe, and, of course, the ever-delightful Giordano Bruno, Metaphysical Monk.

Wait, who? You’re unfamiliar with the cantankerous Brother Bruno? Well, friend, let me enlighten you. Giordano Bruno was an Italian monk (of Dominican flavour, which is perhaps not the best choice for a progressive thinker with borderline heretical views back in the day. I mean, he wasn’t a Franciscan, but still…) and philosopher in the 16th century. Not, it should be noted, an astronomer, despite his pretty rabid support of Copernican heliocentrism, which he apparently didn’t grasp all that well. What is more interesting about him – and why people still talk about him today – is the thought experiment he conducted with what he did understand.

I won’t go into terrific detail here (as he can be a bit hard to follow at times, and I don’t think that’s entirely due to the questionable calibre of the translations I was reading), but in his On the Infinite Universe and Worlds, published in 1584, Bruno’s thinking went thusly:
1) The earth goes around the sun;
2) The sun is, in fact, a star, rather like all the others we see in the night;
3) Observed reality (that we exist at all) suggests that these other stars also have planets circling them (‘Whatever is an element of the infinite must be infinite also; hence both Earths and Suns are infinite in number’);
4) There is very probably not one, but hundreds of thousands of worlds rather, though not exactly, like our own (‘since it is well that this world doth exist, no less good is the existence of each one of the infinity of other worlds’)

Right awesome, no? But he takes it even further, positing the existence of the multiverse: ‘only verbally is it possible to deny infinite space, as is done by pertinacious fellows. For the rest of space where the universe is not, which is called void, where indeed it is pretended that nothing doth exist, cannot be conceived as without the capacity to contain no less a magnitude than that which it doth contain… for in eternity there is no distinction between being and potential being [nor therefore between action and potential action]’. For all intents and purposes, Bruno claims that the multiverse is simply too great for us puny mortals to comprehend, and so we simply pretend that it is nothingness (this reminds me of one of the Yoga Sutras, which cautions readers against being too self-centered by reminding them that ‘nor do material objects depend upon a single mind, for how could they remain objective to others, if that mind ceased to think of them?’ Said another way, if a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound whether you’re there or not. I know I always seem to go to the Sutras, but people have been giving me such guff lately about being both a Christian/Catholic and a yogi that it tickles me how very often the two overlap. Great minds, I guess? That, or I’m just a very specific kind of hammer).

But he’s not done there! Our visionary little monk then wanders out beyond the bounds of harmless quackery and into burning-at-the-stake territory. Let’s walk it through:
1) We already agree that other worlds exist and the universe is infinite;
2) All worlds are not created equal, especially in the being saved by Christ sense (‘the virtue of this world is not communicable to any other world…just as my being cannot be communicated to the being of this or of that man’);
3) You know what else is infinite? God (he has this great digression on how, if God is omnipotent, the universe ze created must be likewise – ‘if omnipotence maketh not the world infinite, it is impotent to do so, and if it hath not power to create it infinite, then it must lack vigour to preserve it to eternity’. Take that, haters! He also calls God the universal nature, which I adore);
4) God must therefore be present on all worlds (‘the Supreme Ruler cannot have a seat so narrow, so miserable a throne, so trivial, so scant a court’ as to be limited to one earth alone), and will have saved all worlds through an infinite number of Messiahs born of all these different men.

Thus does an imperfect understanding of Copernicus lead us to an infinity of alien Jesui. And that is just the sort of conclusion to get one burnt at the stake, which is precisely what happened (even if it does warm the cockles of my wizened little heart that not all people of faith were geocentrist nuts, even 500+ years ago).

Possibly my favourite part of his mad, dense text, though, is the introductory letter, wherein the man owns marching to the beat of his own drummer (I mentioned that he was tetchy, no?). 
IF, O most illustrious Knight, I had driven a plough, pastured a herd, tended a garden, tailored a garment: none would regard me, few observe me, seldom a one reprove me; and I could easily satisfy all men. But since I would survey the field of Nature, care for the nourishment of the soul, foster the cultivation of talent, become expert as Daedalus concerning the ways of the intellect; lo, one doth threaten upon beholding me, another doth assail me at sight, another doth bite upon reaching me, yet another who hath caught me would devour me; not one, nor few, they are many, indeed almost all. If you would know why, it is because I hate the mob, I loathe the vulgar herd and in the multitude I find no joy. It is Unity that doth enchant me. By her power I am free though thrall, happy in sorrow, rich in poverty, and quick even in death. Through her virtue I envy not those who are bond though free, who grieve in the midst of pleasures, who endure poverty in their wealth, and a living death. They carry their chains within them; their spirit containeth her own hell that bringeth them low; within their soul is the disease that wasteth, and within their mind the lethargy that bringeth death. They are without the generosity that would enfranchise, the long suffering that exalteth, the splendour that doth illumine, knowledge that bestoweth life. Therefore I do not in weariness shun the arduous path, nor idly refrain my arm from the present task, nor retreat in despair from the enemy that confronteth me, nor do I turn my dazzled eyes from the divine end.

Hey, Pope Francis! Forget making JP2 a saint, Your Holiness – as long as you’re in a canonizing mood, can we look at this dude? Perhaps as the patron saint of righteous misanthropy. And this is his prayer, right before launching headlong into the wormhole of parallel dimensional pantheism:

Wherefore, my lord, may the heavenly powers scatter before me all those who unjustly hate me; may my God be ever gracious unto me; may all the rulers of our world be favourable to me; may the stars yield me seed for the field and soil for the seed, that the harvest of my labour may appear to the world useful and glorious, that souls may be awakened and the understanding of those in darkness be illumined. For assuredly I do not feign; and if I err, I do so unwittingly; nor do I in speech or writing contend merely for victory, for I hold worldly repute and hollow success without truth to be hateful to God, most vile and dishonourable. But I thus exhaust, vex and torment myself for love of true wisdom and zeal for true contemplation.

Damn, Giordano. This man might well be my spirit animal. I cannot wait for the vision quest on which he will take me.

Okay, my apologies, but this ended up being less about science and more about philosophy. Still and all, it’s cool to think about, no? To bring us back around to the science front, Mental_Floss has been running a really interesting series on what it would take to colonize Mars. After all, that would be the first baby step in finding those other worlds and comparing one Saviour to the next (just imagine the gloriously tentacled Christ of the Thermians). God helps those who help themselves, after all, and everyone knows that if we don’t get on the warp technology, the Vulcans are going to pass us by. Besides, we’ll probably need to figure out spinach on Mars, given how things are going here. Add limes to the list for cultivation, and we’re aces.