In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe – Carl Sagan

It was Christmas Night and I was sitting in a girl’s apartment. The two of us were on her couch, one of her bare feet was in my hands, and we were talking about – among other things – the things we’d like to know. Languages we’d like to speak fluently, concepts we’d like to understand, disciplines we’d like to master. I listed off Spanish, photography, music – all of which remain on my mental list of ‘someday’.

I said I wished I knew more about physics, and she shook her head.

‘No,’ she said. ‘You’ve lost me there. Metaphysics, yeah. But why physics?’

What I said at the time was that physics is a field I wanted to know more about because everything that happens, large or small, seen or unseen, happens according to the laws of physics; that this invisible force, while it may not always be apparent, governs us nonetheless. It was a statement which was accurate, if hardly poetic.

And then, as conversations do, the conversation moved on to other subjects and different avenues, and the topic of my curiosity about the mechanics of the world was forgotten.

But what I should have said to her then – now that I’ve put some thought into it and found the words I think express it best – is that physics is the language of understanding and answers; it’s the how and the what of the world. It gives us the raw data of life and existence; add human perception to that and you can begin to see that what we all too often take for granted is truly amazing.

What I should have said is this.

You, sitting there, here with me – in chemical terms, you are 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen. 3% nitrogen, 1.5% calcium, 1.2% phosphorus. You are sulphur and chlorine and sodium, magnesium and cobalt, zinc and iodine and selenium and fluorine. You’re a woman, so you are, on average, 2.3 grams of iron (as a man, I’m 3.8).

Smaller than this, you are electrons, protons, and neutrons. Even those electrons, protons and neutrons can be further divided down, into leptons and quarks; the smallest building blocks of matter.  This is what you are made from, and you are gravity and electromagnetism and the strong and the weak nuclear force; the four fundamental forces that hold the universe together. And this is not always what you were.

13.73 billion years ago (give or take 0.12 billion years), all there was, everywhere, was a single point. There was nothing else. A singularity; of infinitesimal size, of infinite density and infinite heat. It’s hard to wrap the human mind around this concept; we rebel at trying to consider that everything, everywhere, and everywhen was contained in one indivisible space and time.

And then, in an instant… expansion, and the beginning of everything. Before this moment, there was nothing but this moment. After it, the Universe. And although we don’t know, because our skill doesn’t yet match our curiosity, it’s possible that in this, the moment when time started, those four fundamental forces that keep the Earth turning, that throw shadows behind us when we move through the world, that send quiet ripples across the face of lakes and deepen the sky from blue to black, were one.

This is where cosmic evolution began – the Big Bang kick-started everything that has come since then. With a staggering, omnipotent amount of energy like that released, you get particles being created; brought into existence by sheer force. When people talk about the light of creation, they don’t know just how literal they’re being. Photons, the elementary particle of light itself, flooded through the new-born Universe, a greater pyrotechnic show than any human is ever likely to see. Maybe it will end with a whimper, and maybe it will end with a bang, but it started with light.

Understanding this, how the smallest building blocks of existence inter-relate – this is particle physics, high-energy physics.

There are two laws that become important here. The Law of the Conservation of Energy, and the Law of the Conservation of Mass/Matter. In a closed, isolated system, the sum total of energy doesn’t change. The sum total of mass and matter doesn’t change. Basically speaking, nothing gets in or out – nothing can. Energy may change shape, sure – light a candle and its chemical potential becomes heat and light, clap your hands and kinetic energy becomes sound – but the sum total of energy in the Universe isn’t going anywhere, neither up nor down.

The upshot of this is that all of the matter and the energy in the Universe right now – up to and including the 6.7 x 10 to the power of 27 atoms that are you (that’s 6.7 billion billion billion atoms) were present – if in very different forms – right from the very beginning of everything.

A quick word about your brain.

The human brain is, bar nothing, the most complex and complicated object in human experience. Nothing else comes close. You have 86 billion neurons working away – and an estimated one hundred trillion synaptic connections – inside your head. That’s one hundred trillion connections that flicker on and off with electrochemical energy as you live your life from day to day, that make you who you are. While you study, while you work, while you eat, while you drink, while you sleep, while you wash the dishes or watch TV, these connections are flickering on and off, sending or blocking impulses of thought and reaction.

Now listen carefully.

What all of this means is that while your timelines are vastly different, you and the stars you see when you look up at the night sky were born out of the same instant in space and time. The pieces of you have traveled further distances than you will ever be able to imagine to be here, to be now; they have spun through blinding light and impossible darkness, through gravity and magnetism, riding out the shockwave of creation until this moment.

Your heart beats for the same reason that the ocean tides murmur in and out. You breathe for the same reason that the solar wind sweeps through the space between planets. Your dreams shared their infancy with the sky, and your thoughts are sisters to storms and the sea.

Everything that you are, everything that you’ve done, everything that you will ever be – all of this stems from the single instant in which the Universe began, in light. Whatever else may happen, there is no part of you that is untouched by the truth of this.

This is what physics teaches us, and this is something to be remembered.

Thank you to Laura Spitler at Cornell Astronomy, Sheldon Stone at Syracuse High Energy Physics, and Matthew Kirkcaldie at UTAS Neuroscience for making sure I got my facts straight.

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SIMON SMITHSON is an Australian writer and editor. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia, but frequently finds himself in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His work has appeared on both sides of the globe in print and online in publications such as BLIP, Every Day Fiction, Beat, The Loop, My Sinking Boat, and more. He has a tumblr at www.simonsmithson.com and he runs a lifestyle experiment at www.selfhelpless.net.

200 responses to “Burning Bright”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Simon,
    I think this is beautiful. On so many levels.
    ‘It started with light.”
    It does. It always starts with light, even the tiniest ray of light can illuminate so much.
    Very thoughtful, very intense. Everything you are, everything you’ve done, everything you will be all started with light. Yes, my friend. Long may the light shine on.

    • Thanks Z. As always, your opinion carries a lot of weight with it as far as I’m concerned.

      It would appear the Bible got it right on at least one front; it all got started with light. Where it goes from there… well, that’s a bit different. But let your light shine on as well, brew.

  2. Ah, I love it.
    Thanks – very uplifting reminder to help me get through what appears to be
    just any old day that started too early.

    I also love being reminded that our breathing, our hearts beating
    is from the same battery source as the ocean, the earth’s turn – all of it.
    I think, as humans, we tend to feel like we’re alien – just kind of here by accident
    not really a part of the show – just watching – but we are the show, too.

    We are stardust – we are golden – to quote my favorite lady, Joni Mitchell.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      I was just about to quote those same lyrics, Steph. I thought of “Woodstock” as I read the final words of Simon’s post, specifically of this bit:

      “We are stardust – billion year old carbon.”

      • Steph: Glad you liked it. And that’s just it; I’m no longer so sure that there’s such a thing as ‘any old day’. The problem is the damn things disguise themselves so well… Unless, of course, one was to have some kind of ‘bouncy chateau’…

        Steph and Duke: Joni is always welcome to the party.

        • I love billion year old carbon rhyming with back to the garden – oh, Joni.
          Did you know the poor lass didn’t even make it Woodstock? She had to go on
          Dick Cavet and miss the whole party – she wrote the song while being sad she couldn’t go.

          I can’t wait to swirl our golden star dusts together in the bouncey chateau.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          I did know that she’d missed Woodstock, Steph, though I’d forgotten that Dick Cavett was to blame. And her version of the song, as opposed to the more famous cover by CSNY, indeed sounds mournful.

          To the bouncy château!

        • How did you get that fancy > over the a in chateau there, Duke?

          You’re fancy.

          And I spelled Cavett wrong. You’re like my own personal spell check to the stars.

  3. Nina says:

    What a wonderful way to start a Monday morning!

    “Your heart beats for the same reason that the ocean tides murmur in and out. You breathe for the same reason that the solar wind sweeps through the space between planets. Your dreams shared their infancy with the sky, and your thoughts are sisters to storms and the sea.”

    That touched me the most. Thanks, Simon!

  4. I was waiting for the punchline. Where was the punchline, dammit Smithson?! No smutty physics-innuendo-laden final line??

    Did you find God while I was gone?

    • I’ve been working more on my grammatical smuttiness recently – my dangling participle and all that; I’d split your infitive without even thinking twice about it, etc, etc.

      It’s OK – I didn’t even find the God Particle. Stupid Higgs Boson. That thing must have gone to the Milford Academy. I’ll be back to diatribing about how much I want to nail celebrities before you know it.

  5. Matt says:

    Very nicely done, Simon. A wonderful bit of meditation to start my day out with.

    Physics and chemistry where two areas of science that always thwarted me. Too much math. Biology, entomology, herpetology, paleontology? Sure. Banging on all cylinders. But physics and chemistry? Nope. Stalled at the gate. I always wish that had been different.

    • De nada, hermano.

      Apparently when it comes to science, people with more creative orients are drawn towards the natural sciences almost as a matter of course; biology was one of my final year subjects in high school. Whereas people with a more mathematical bent tend to end up in physics and chemistry.

      My buddy Luke (he of ‘Sweet Liberty!’ fame) knows his stuff when it comes to chemistry and physics.

      Asshole.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Simon,
    My son-in-law has a doctorate in Particle Physics.
    When he talks about physics it is with such reverence.
    His words are like music.
    His words paint a universe in our minds.
    I think it is akin to knowing God.

    • It’s really amazing when you start to get into it; the overwhelming intricacy of the building blocks of everything is at once so graceful and so overpowering that it’s hard to come to terms with, sometimes. I wish I understood more about it; I can talk about concepts and if I really put my mind to it, I can wrap my head around some of this stuff, but I can’t persistently function at that higher level. Maybe it’s just a question of study, I’m not sure. But I have so much respect for anyone who works or studies in those fields.

      I think I’d like your son-in-law.

  7. Simone says:

    In the beginning there was nothing. God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better. ~Ellen DeGeneres

    * * *

    Simon, this was extraordinary. Once again you have the cogs turning in my mind. I thank you for that, because it’s made my curiosity widen.

    I applaud you for the time it must have taken to research this, I’m sure it was quite interesting. I love researching things, and then having the penny drop when I finally grasp the subject by exclaiming “Oh, I see!” or “F**k me sideways, I didn’t know that!”

    Curiosity is a willing, a proud, an eager confession of ignorance. ~S. Leonard Rubinstein

    If the quote above is true, then by all means I’m eagerly confessing my own ignorance, and I hope to do so for a very long time.

    • Ah, I feel like a broken record people thanking people here for all the nice things they’re saying… but I guess I can say it again… thanks, Simone.

      It was really great. I’d forgotten how much I jumping on the research trail for things that I actually care about; especially when the trail itself is littered with so many ‘Eureka!’ moments. And when it’s something as mind-numbing as fundamental physics, well… it’s gravy.

      For a second I thought that said ‘Saint Leonard Rubinstein’ and I thought That’s the best name I’ve ever heard for a saint.

      • Simone says:

        No need to thank me Simon, I’m just telling it like is.

        Gravy, ha! Eureka all the way, baby! Funny enough, I had my own ‘Eureka!’ moment the other night. I, too, was in the bath, just like Archimedes.

        That cretainly would be a great name for a saint.

  8. Ducky Wilson says:

    Everything is interconnected. Even your love of physics.

    “Our skill doesn’t yet match our curiosity.” Yes.

    • Absolutely. And anyone who says different just hasn’t looked closely enough.

      I’m not sure if I’d ever want us to know everything ever. I mean, I’d be happy to know more, don’t get me wrong. That would be awesome. But the quest for knowledge is a wonderful thing, and I don’t think I ever want to see it end.

  9. James D. Irwin says:

    that was fucking amazing.

    I wish I was more well versed in science— particularly physics.

    I have a friend who has an incredible knowledge of biology.

    I suppose I don’t really want to know about physics so much as I just want to know something awesomely clever that impresses people when I reel it off…

    • Thanks, Jim. I like to amaze people.

      (so I guess we’re not that different…)

      (except I use more ellipses…)

      Yeah, man, that depth of knowledge… it’s awesome to me.

      • James D. Irwin says:

        I don’t know… I use ellipses pretty frequently…

        It comes from writing the way I talk… I think… or writing how I think…

        I’ve started doing a lot of pub quizzes, which is as close as I get to impressing people. I have a reputation amongst my friends now as a man of fearsome quizzing ability…

        SSE plays it’s part too. I got a question right last week because the answer happened to be the title of a book I’d been looking at about four hours earlier…

  10. Don’t forget that E=MC^2 makes those laws of conservation the same, since there is no real difference between matter and energy.

    Only perception.

    Nice post. I’m working on a book right now applying such physics to matters of faith. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with it. But it’s really amazing how understanding chemistry, biology, and physics really helps you perceive the real magic and wonder of life. None of this God and religion stuff. I don’t need stories because I know how the world works, and it’s awesome.

    • My grasp is of relativity is shaky at best; I really need to get a better grasp on it if I’m ever to become the supervillain I dream of being. That of just get myself a nice bath of some cosmic rays.

      Thanks, Will. I’d be very interested to read that book.

      And it really, really is amazing. All the more so for the fact that most of time (and I speak personally) you just don’t notice it, or think about it. The Universe is a truly wonderful place.

  11. Richard Cox says:

    I have only read the first line, but before I enjoy the rest, please tell me you have seen this. 😉

    • Greg Olear says:

      Speaking of, Simon, you should read Richard’s book Rift. This is the second time today I encountered the word “lepton,” having never heard it before.

      SSE?

      • Richard Cox says:

        Thank you again for the plug, Greg. Although I must admit the science in Rift is a bit suspect, whereas in my second book I tried to get a little closer to the sort of thing Simon so eloquently writes about here.

        • The science may be suspect, but the book and story are both better.

        • Richard: I saw that the first time thanks to your link.

          And subsequently started copying and pasting it all over Facebook.

          Greg: SSE indeed. Thanks for the recommendation – my curiosity was actually piqued by Richard’s titles a little while back, especially the Higgs reference.

          Has anyone read a book called Improbable? One of the major plot points is the concept of LaPlace’s Demon, which I stumbled upon accidentally (I totally thought of it independently first, however, and no one can say I didn’t) after working on my Kissing in the Rain piece.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Hahaha. Thanks for the free advertising! You rock!

  12. Richard Cox says:

    Splendid, Simon. As a fellow writer and lover of physics, I find one of the biggest challenges when writing about this subject is properly communicating the awe I feel about the universe. I suppose it’s akin to the awe a person of faith feels when they imagine their Creator, especially if they have enjoyed an “experience” that shaped their belief.

    I imagine particle physics seems like a difficult and esoteric subject to many people, and certainly if you’re trying to earn a grade, it probably is. But if you put aside most of the equations and read popularized versions of the outcomes of physics, the big ideas, the beauty and simplicity can be life-changing. For me, the miracles of the actual universe, and our limited-but-growing comprehension of them, far outstrip the conjecture of metaphysics. Readers new to the subject should check out Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos. Greene is a better writer than Hawking and he’s easier to digest…particularly when it comes to relativity. He’ll make you believe the magic. The real magic.

    I’ve been tinkering with a piece on the HUDF, which I think is the most amazing photograph ever taken by humans. I’ll try to post it this week. Maybe we should talk to Will and put together a physics week sometime. Ha.

    • Greene’s more accessible, but string physics is such bad pseudoscience one can’t even really call it a theory.

      • Richard: And there it is, right there. I find that I get into this stuff and I start wanting to grab people on the street by the collar and yell ‘Look! Look! Do you see? Do you see what’s going on? This is incredible!

        Maybe I should. I’d like to be able to say ‘I got arrested for physics.’

        I don’t think I could have summarized it better: the beauty and simplicity can be life-changing.

        I’ll check out Greene, as I haven’t read him so far. Have you read Wilczek? I haven’t myself, but I was over at a friend’s family home for dinner the other night, and his father (who has a Ph.D in Nuclear Physics) recommended it.

        Will: What do you think of Richard’s idea? Physics Week?

        • Richard Cox says:

          I think one of the biggest misunderstandings of science, and particularly theoretical physics, is that you’ll lose the sense of transcendence religion provides. But as Becky mentioned, you can embrace physics and believe in God if you choose (though you have to rethink your Creation stories), but even if you choose not to believe in God, that feeling of awe and being connected with the universe doesn’t have to go away.

          We as a species seem to have a deep-seated need for unexplainable magic in our lives. It’s like when you try to tell someone that love is just neurotransmitters and neurons. People hate that. But why does it matter if love can be explained biologically? Everything has a process behind it. If love can be mapped, that doesn’t make the feeling of love any less intense when you have it. If I love someone, I love them. It’s wonderful and special, even if someone call tell me exactly why it happens.

          BTW, I haven’t read Wilczek. But I will.

        • Richard: I couldn’t agree more. Damn. Let’s be friends.

          Regarding love: oh, man, people hate that, I’ve found. Although I don’t want to sound as if I’m speaking for everyone in the whole entire world. But there’s something about that kind of biological reductionism that, to a lot of people, reduces the experience (no pun intended). But it really doesn’t.

        • Becky says:

          Richard, that was Greg who mentioned love later in the thread, but I’ll answer anyway.

          I have no problem with love being a biological/biochemical reaction.

          In fact, evolutionary psychology was a fetish of mine in the ol’ anthropology days (I have had a very protracted undergraduate career).

          The other thing people don’t want to hear? The suggestion that compassion and cooperation are selfish.

          Is this a whole other argument I’m starting?

        • Richard Cox says:

          There is no such thing as a completely altruistic act, right? Isn’t that what Phoebe said?

        • Hang on – I’ve heard of the selfishness inherent in compassion and co-operation, but my memory is rusty. Refresher course please?

        • We are still the experiencers of our experience – this is the mystery – to me.
          Every day we get new cells and old cells die and then new ones form. And I really don’t have
          much to do with it – other than that I may choose a pomegranate over a twinkie for breakfast. I am still the one reading all of this info and experiencing this all – separate from my physical actions. Everyday in our bodies there is death and regeneration. But I’m still here experiencing it all.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Simon, very generally, one would expect an organism to do anything it could to survive. Any action it takes should not increase the fitness of another at the expense of its own fitness. DNA would conceivably be at the root (root!) of this behavior, hence an organism’s willingness to sacrifice itself for its own genetic offspring. The individual dies, the genes live on.

          But there is also the idea of the fitness of the group having some importance, because the group’s survival increases in some way the chance of the individual’s DNA living on. So that could explain altruism to those close to you.

          This is only my general understanding. I bet Becky can give you the real skinny.

        • Are these the same principles as Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene? (which I haven’t read)

        • Matt says:

          Yes. Dawkins discusses this in great detail in both The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I dunno if it’s exactly the same. Let’s wait on Becky. What I mainly know about that book is the idea of memes, which are currently operating in earnest on this very page.

        • Becky says:

          Not a fan of Dawkins and haven’t read that book.

          But you’ve got it right with parents and their offspring, particularly in cases where the odds for the long-term and multi-generational survival of the genome is greatest. There can be cases where that doesn’t happen–where the interests of the genome are best served by preserving the parent’s life (or an existing child’s life in which the parent has already invested significant energy) rather than a child’s (particularly infants, which are especially needy), and in these cases, you might find regular infanticide. But by an large, a parent who is older and nearing the end of his/her life and/or reproductive years would find it in the genome’s best interest to preserve the life of a child. Not that this takes place consciously, of course. It’s just the evolutionary “logic” that explains these behaviors. Imagine a genome as a man piloting around a body with the end goal of leaping into a newer body and a new one after that….

          Altruism, in cases where an individual gives up food or expends energy for the benefit of an individual to whom it is not genetically related, is called reciprocal altruism. The thinking being that it is a later development that arose out of or in conjunction with social living and that it worked, at least initially,on the premise that sharing with others in their time of need helps to guarantee that they will share with you in your time of need. Capitalizing on close proximity of the same individuals.

          If I remember my reading correctly, in at least one group of chimps, individuals who did not reciprocate in terms of grooming and food sharing were quickly ostracized and even physically attacked by others in the group.

          It’s the most basic impetus for friendship, by some accounts. Probably the source of the human notion of “fairness.”

          It’s not quite right to say it’s about the “health of the group,” though, since evolution functions on an individual level (the level of the genome). It is correct to say that a healthy group can result from it, though. Which is just a bunch of healthy individuals living together…it seems like a technicality, but it’s important.

          And of course, we’re talking about millions of years ago. Long before humans were human. It is true that modern humans will often sacrifice themselves for others to whom they are not related and from whom they cannot expect reciprocity, but according to some evolutionary psychologists, this is just a sort of a mutant outgrowth of reciprocal altruism. An enactment of the same drive, but with no reward (in the event the altruist dies or becomes unable to reproduce) or a reward that is not directly survival or reproduction related, but nevertheless offers the individual something he wants or needs.

          Kind of like how human’s intense craving for sugar once helped them to take advantage of high-energy foods, but now just makes us fat. Though admittedly, you can’t get heart disease from being nice, I don’t think.

          It has been a while, but I think this is the gist. I think Robert Trivers was the reciprocal altruism guy (or at least the guy who initially dispelled the notion of “for the health of the group”). Though people are sort of trying to resurrect social or group evolution, my recollection was that they were doing mostly by changing the definition of the word “evolution.”

          Anyway. People get all up in arms when they want to believe that humans are inherently “good.” It’s a stubborn moral notion ironically probably born out of reciprocal altruism itself. Reciprocal altruism is inherently selfish, as most things evolved are. But the question that I always pose is, “Does it matter?” If people are driven to help each other and will help each other, does it matter why they do it? My feeling is that it mostly only matters for people’s peace of mind. The outcomes, regardless of the motives, are the same.

        • Becky says:

          I offer this all with the disclaimer that it has been many years since I’ve actively studied this stuff, so I’m working mostly from memory. Additionally, I haven’t kept up with advances in the discipline. Most of this info was good as of about 2005, though.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Thank you for the detailed response. I guess you didn’t have to write it twice this time?

          By the way, it matters because it gives us something to talk about. At the very least. Isn’t that why there’s a comment board in the first place? And if you weren’t deriving some sort of personal benefit or pleasure from the conversation, would you bother writing the responses?

          Regarding your disclaimer about the information you shared, I offer this quote from Star Trek IV (The One about Whales):

          Kirk: Mr. Spock, have you accounted for the variable mass of whales and water in your time re-entry program?
          Spock: Mr. Scott cannot give me exact figures, Admiral, so… I will make a guess.
          Kirk: A guess? You, Spock? That’s extraordinary.
          Spock: [to McCoy] I don’t think he understands.
          McCoy: No, Spock. He means that he feels safer about your guesses than most other people’s facts.
          Spock: Then you’re saying… it is a compliment?
          McCoy: It is.
          Spock: Ah. Then I will try to make the best guess I can.

        • Becky says:

          Basically, you can study/talk about/think about evolution based on a cost-benefit model. That’s what I was taught. It is a necessary numbers game if evolution exists. Evolution cannot favor a behavior whose costs outweigh its benefits. Simply, eventually, those individuals possessing the gene for that costly behavior would all be dead and the trait could not persist.

          Conversely, where the potential benefits for the long-term, multi-generational survival of a genome (not necessarily an individual) outweigh the costs for a given behavior, evolution can be expected to favor that behavior.

          Where it does not, either the behavior is not evolved or, more likely, you’re looking at something that is a couple of (or many) degrees or contexts removed from its original evolutionary benefit (like humans’ taste for sugar).

          It’s a generally good way to think about discussions of evolution without having to be particularly well-versed in the minutiae of the theory. 90% of the time, this line of internal questioning will lead you to the right (or damn close) answer.

        • See, this is why I want to be rich.

          Then I’d have the time to get to grips with everything that I wanted to get to grips with.

          Thank you, Becky and Richard, for shedding some light on it.

          Evolution – especially some of the maladaptive evolution that we’re seeing these days – as Becky pointed out – in people who cram themselves full of sugar that they don’t actually need in this day and age, is fascinating to me. And it’s such an overwhelmingly powerful force. Why the hell would we need to sweat in a job interview? And yet we do.

          So much of social dynamics would appear to be informed by evolution as well (she’s not just a pretty face, RC). Really, really fascinating stuff.

        • Becky says:

          No worries, Simon. I was only about a year younger than you when I started learning all this stuff. You’ve got plenty of time.

          I generally recommend two books to people who express interest and are new to the topic:

          _The Red Queen_ by Matt Ridley: A book that explores “why sex at all?” through meta-analysis and talks about a handful of topics related to sexual selection. A good overview of the differences between natural and sexual selection and how we see them manifest in the modern world.

          _The Blank Slate_ by Steve Pinker: A somewhat controversial work that looks at the philosophical and ideological underpinnings and implications of various theories of human nature through the lens of evolutionary psychology. Pinker is a MIT/Harvard psychologist by trade (his language acquisition theories focus on evolution), and he has become a bit of a darling in the EvoPsych world for his ability to translate complex evolutionary topics into entertaining and accessible laymen’s language.

          Both are very readable and geared towards people who are not professionals in the field. If you’re feeling ambitious, I highly recommend both.

        • I will accept that recommendation. Maybe my next blog post should be an amalgamation of all the books I tell myself I should read that have stemmed from TNB.

      • Richard Cox says:

        Will,

        Fabric of the Cosmos is Greene’s book about theoretical physics in general. It’s his version of A Brief History of Time, and contains the best explanation of relativity I’ve ever found. It does have a section on string theory (which I’m no more of a fan of than you), but the book’s primary focus is relating physics to the world around us. It’s more elegantly written than Hawking and more connected to the real world, I think. Just skip the string theory section.

        • Oh! Good to know. I tried out The Elegant Universe but was all like, “Man, these guys have as much evidence for ‘strings’ as Christians have for God. Count me out.”

          Will check out this other, though.

  13. Greg Olear says:

    Great post, Simon, as usual.

    Physics can explain the how and the what of the world, as you suggest, but it can’t ever explain the why. That’s what poetry is for.

  14. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    “What all of this means is that while your timelines are vastly different, you and the stars that you see when you look up at the night sky were born out of the same instant in space and time.” Love this sentence and the whole idea behind it.

    But now I’m thinking of a book I finished last week: A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Godel and Einstein. Godel proposed that time doesn’t exist and described a model to prove it. Therein lies the Zen in science.

    • Isn’t there a book, something about a loop, concerning Escher, Godel, and Bach? I Am an Infinite Loop or something?

      I’ve heard an argument time is just the human mind’s way of keeping the universe from occurring simultaneously.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Dogulas R. Hofstadter. The copy I found at the world’s most esoteric garage sale is in my bookcase, yet unread.

        A Buddhist friend told me all time is Now. If that means past, present and future is all happening at once, to me that negates time itself. And suggests indeed the universe occurs simultaneously. (*synapse cramps*)

        • To me, time is the big boy of mental exercise. Trying to work it all out is like putting your brain through marathon training. While learning to box. And juggle. And ballet. On rollerskates. In the rain. Upside down.

          Of course, maybe I’m making too big a deal of it…

        • Becky says:

          “Paris, 7am” Elizabeth Bishop

          Poem about time.

          Pretty sure it blew my mind. It must’ve, because when you said time was the “big boy of mental exercise,” my brain got really excited, rifled through the files, pulled out that poem, and started waving it around. *flap flap flap*

          So I had to oblige and share it.

          I remember struggling mightily with that poem. Not because it was bad but because the concepts were so intense. And furthermore, written in metaphors. Double mindfuck.

          That is all.

        • OK. Google, here I come!

    • So… many… books… to read…

      Thanks, Ronlyn. Really glad you liked it. And I’m glad I even had the idea in the first place.

      Our own Ben Loory turned me onto a book called An Experiment With Time, which postulates that time is a fixed dimension, like space, it’s just that we perceive our own movement through it and call that ‘time’. I’m interested (very interested!) to read A World Without Time. Thanks for the recommendation.

  15. Becky says:

    Of course the line between physics and metaphysics is not always particularly clear.

    And although physics can describe a lot of things, there is very little that it can explain, really, at least about any kind of human “condition,” which is where it tends to lose me.

    We are made of star stuff born of the singularity and ejaculated into the universe more years ago than the human mind can fathom.

    But so what? What then? What of it?

    These questions are where the real party is at, in my opinion. Religion, philosophy, etc. Probably because I like to argue.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Ah, yes, Becky. This is one of my favorite arguments. The “Who cares?” argument.

      If you could know the answers to everything now, would you want to? If you could know if there is a God or if it’s all an accident…if you could know our world is an illusion, or a simulation, that we’re all just ants in someone else’s farm, would it really make a difference?

      Because you still have to get up every morning and sit in traffic and drive to work and deal with jerks. Whether the universe began with a Big Bang or God’s hand or someone booting his computer, you still have figure out how to enjoy the time you have on this tiny blue planet.

      Knowing the truth doesn’t solve anything, not practically. It doesn’t change the machinery of your life. However, seeing the universe through the prism of physics does make things more beautiful to me. Imagining that spectacular enormity, the amazing miracle of a universe evolving enough to ask these questions of itself, helps brighten an otherwise bleak Monday morning. I take the same comfort from physics discoveries and theories that a Christian takes from belief in God. So, in a way, particle physics does describe the human condition. Especially if it inspires Simon or me or Brian Greene or Umberto Eco to write a book about it.

      • Becky says:

        It’s not a “who cares?” argument. In this case, “so what” means, “so what about it?” “What do we do with the information?” Not “who gives a shit.”

        Greg expressed the same general idea when he said physics could not tell us “why.”

        I’ve read A Brief History of Time, “The Universe” was one of my favorite miniseries. I’ve had my mind blown by M Theory.

        I care at least insofar is that it’s important to know, at least in general, about physics, the creation of the universe, etc. It’s fascinating.

        Just not as fascinating, to me at least, as what humans choose to do with that information.

        Physics, in and of itself, is basically a list of facts, as best as we understand them. We take these facts, which have no ethical, moral, religious, or ideological value in and of themselves, and organize them to imbue them with these kinds of implications. We use philosophy, ideology, religion, etc. to do that.

        For example, you set physics up as an alternative to God, others may see physics as evidence of God or a disproving of the existence of God; the singularity is even used to advocate certain political philosophies, particularly those that advocate greater communalism. But physics doesn’t give a shit about any of those things. Like evolution. It has no conscience, no sense of political correctness, nothing. It just IS.

        We give it the “so what.”

        It’s not that I don’t care or even that I don’t understand the appeal. I prefer transcendent philosophies, broad perspectives and the 50,000 foot view almost always, much to the consternation of a lot of people who like to deal in particulars. So I get it.

        I’m just more interested in philosophy and religion than physics.

        • Greg Olear says:

          That’s because you’re a poet.

        • Becky says:

          I thought it was because I was boring and old-fashioned.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Nah. Poetry gets a bum rap because it’s not quantifiable, and our culture overvalues things that are quantifiable. You know what moves faster than light? Thought. Explainthat, Einstein.

          (Note: I mean the actual Einstein, not you).

        • Richard Cox says:

          For me it’s more than a list of facts. On the one hand, physics theories are ideas we humans devised, and even more, the correct theories are truths that, as you point out, simply are.

          What fascinates me is that we humans ARE the universe, one part of it anyway. And from our narrow keyhole view we seem to be the universe’s crowning achievement, a miraculous uptick of order and structure in a universe dominated by and destined for entropy. When a couple of dudes discover cosmic background radiation, solidifying the Big Bang theory, it’s really the universe discovering its own possible creation. As if the universe is an organism becoming sentient, and within it, we are tiny components of this sentience, like neurons in its cosmic brain.

          I realize I’m describing outcomes of physics in a philosophical way. So I sort of agree with you about physics having no conscience or personality. But when I consider the size and enormity of the universe, and how it has somehow evolved to produce you and I having this conversation, I am awed enough by the simple existence of it to see its description as more than just a list of facts.

          And while I while have full respect for a variety of belief systems, if I have to pick between a philosophy built from direct observation and one derived from word-of-mouth fables, I’m going to pick the observations.

        • Becky says:

          Well, that’s a huge oversimplification of religion, first of all. If you spent a little time with theology, you’d find that it’s about 90% philosophy-grade logic, which functions, effectively, the same way algebra does. Theology is more akin to literary criticism, forensic linguistics, and philosophy than storytelling. The fact that it must take into account so many disciplines, including physics, makes it potentially the most mentally challenging topic there is; I know it is for me.

          Most importantly, I think the physics/religion dichotomy is a false one, anyway. I can see no reason why a person would have to choose between religion/God and physics. That strikes me as a baseless kind of assertion. What is especially striking to me is that your notions about The Universe being sentient sound a lot like a pretty common concept of God. Particularly, though not only, the part where it (the bible) talks about humans being created in “his” own image. Of “his” own stuff, as it were.

          Even beyond the academic aspects of religion, who says it isn’t based on observation? You have to have a pretty narrow understanding of “observation” to work this argument.

          Naturally, I could put the kibosh on all this by whipping out the mother of all philosophical trump cards: “‘Truth?!?! You can’t even prove to me that you’re really here. Or that anything called ‘physics’ actually exists. Or that anything exists.”

          But even I hate that one.

        • Becky says:

          That’s not meant to be a bait or come-on or snotty, though looking at it now, it sort of looks that way. It’s just a tongue-in-cheek poke at a very real potential future of this argument.

        • Richard Cox says:

          No offense taken. And yes, that is a huge oversimplification of religion. I should have left that part out, because it wasn’t the point I was making with the rest of my comment. It came across as flippant and I didn’t mean it that way.

          All I mean is that for me, the wonder I experience when I think about the universe is the kind of wonder a religious person might have. And yes, I’m aware my description of a sentient universe sounds a lot like God. However, the way I understand Abrahamic religions is they see God as the creator of the universe, whereas I believe a god-like entity could emerge from the evolution of the universe. If the technology of humankind (or any other intelligent life) advances to the point where we can manipulate the particles of matter and energy itself to convey information as we see fit, then eventually the universe and everything in it could be connected in an intelligent, ordered way. The way I understand most organized religions is they believe this connection already exists, though their beliefs are based mainly on texts that, in my opinion, are primarily literature.

          Theology as an intellectual discipline is outside my area of expertise, so I defer to you there. I’m basing my opinions on practiced organized religion, which I think must be somewhat different.

          All this being said, while writing a solipsistic novel about simulated reality over the past two years, I have become enamored with Gnosticism. Not the religion itself, but the idea of our universe being the product of a flawed creator. This creator could be supernatural, but he could more likely be another human or life form simulating the world in which we live. Philosophically, of course, there’s no difference between the two. And this answers nothing about the creation of a “top-level” world.

          Finally, if we want to traverse the basic philosophical question of “how do we even know we’re having this conversation?” we might as well just stop now. Ha.

        • Thought travels faster than light? Isn’t it based on electrical impulses in the brain? Which are formed of electrons?

          I’m not saying you’re incorrect. But I will ask if you have measurements to support your statement.

          Which is the problem. What facts are there to support religion beyond communal comfort taken from a shared story?

          I’m not saying God exists, though all evidence supports the conclusion that God–for some certain definitions–does exist. And does not exist.

        • Becky says:

          Richard, I had an elaborate response all typed out for you, then someone walked into my cube and I slammed the tab shut, in a panic, without thinking.

          It said something about how theology and organized, practiced religion are not necessarily (or even usually) mutually exclusive. For example, having grown up Lutheran, I was required to read Luther’s small catechism for confirmation, in order to receive my first communion. That’s one Christian denomination which is VERY theology heavy, relatively speaking. Stands to reason, since Luther was a scholar and theologian himself.

          Then I said something about how talking about “organized, practiced religion” as a unit is inadvisable, since no one such thing really exists.

          Then I said that I found it convenient that the evolution and eventual sentience of God should, despite 14 billion prior years of the universe’s existence, coincide with humanity’s rather sudden and recent realization of physics as a discipline. It presupposes that no other life form has ever existed in the universe prior to us that has had the ability to contemplate or manipulate the physical principles of existence.

          And then I started off on some paragraph about how it could be linked, in a way, to the ultimate human arrogance according to the Abrahamic religions–the desire to be God, to posses his creative powers, and furthermore to take credit for the creation of God himself. I somehow arrived at a connection between that idea and Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge.

          Then someone walked in.

        • Richard Cox says:

          That is the worst. I have this habit of copying my responses every so often as I type them, for fear of what just happened to you, but of course when it finally does happen, that’s the time I was lazy and didn’t back up my work. That’s The Guy for you.

          I struggle mightily with the Fermi paradox. You’re absolutely correct. I cannot believe 14 billions years have passed with no other intelligent life forms evolving to create grand civilizations, and I can’t believe every one of these civilizations nuked themselves to death before they rose to claim the universe. And yet they are nowhere to be found.

          Yes, the cosmos is a vast place, more vast than anyone on Earth can probably truly fathom. Attempting to communicate with anyone outside our galaxy seems foolish at best, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies out there. They can’t all be devoid of life. No way.

          But even if you just consider the Milky Way, there must be millions of planets with life on them. I realize they’re still very far away, but if my hopes of the universe evolving to become a sentient organism have any chance to be true, where is everyone else?

          Obviously there is a gigantic gap between our current level of knowledge and whatever may be the “truth.” I’m willing to consider the universe is a computer game, and The Guy running it likes to mess with our heads. But I’m much more hesitant to accept that of all the planets among the billions of galaxies and zillions of stars, that we happen to be the one where God’s children live, that our spiritual explanation for existence just happens to be the correct one.

          I just copied this response. With any luck, I’ll get it posted before The Guy crashes my computer.

        • Becky says:

          I don’t think religious concepts are a rigid as you suggest. If a religious narrative’s function is at once instructive and allegorical it can contain both factual and fantastical information and still never fail to be “true” in a general sense.

          This is a made-up myth, but take it for example: If an instructive native american myth tells the story of how a particular plant came to be poisonous, how and when it can be cooked so as not to be poisonous, but blames the whole thing on a mythical made-up anthropomorphic Coyote, does that make it untrue that the plant is poisonous?

          The mix of truth and allegory, story and instruction, is the premise upon which religion, not just Abrahamic religion, has functioned for hundreds of thousands of years. There is nothing “contrived” about religion in and of itself, generally speaking, in the way we conventionally think of lying or deceit or betrayals of truth. And nothing “wrong” about it unless you restrict it to an interpretation which IS wrong (provided wrong can be determined blah blah blah).

          This is where one enters into the field of epistemology and ways of knowing, which gets confusing as hell.

    • “Of course the line between physics and metaphysics is not always particularly clear.”

      Um. I thought the difference is that physics is science (which generally means theories/hypotheses can be proven and disproven), while metaphysics is pseudoscience. Like Reiki and water pictures and aurae and such.

      • Becky/Rich/Will/everyone else: I think, at this point, we’re going to need a bunch of plane tickets, a coffee shop, and some Beastie Boys in the background to get this discussion going and give it the atmosphere it deserves. Because I would love to have a TNB roundtable back-and-forth about this stuff.

        How does LA in June sound? I know a girl with a coffee shop, so I think the onus is on the rest of you to work out the logistics.

        To me, Becky, as I said up above to Greg, it’s when you draw the disparate threads together that you really start to get the cogs turning. The absolute wonder I feel when I learn more about the building blocks of humanity and the Universe (not to compare the two) begets a lot of positivity for me, which in turn begets more curiosity and more wonder and more investigations and so on and so on. And I think it’s hugely uplifting to consider how complex we are.

        But you’re right – these disciplines, in and of themselves, provide us with data. It takes human perception to look at that and say ‘Oh my God. Look at what that data is provoking in me/us.’ And that in itself is a valuable thing.

        Religion is also something that’s fascinating to me, just in a different way. Finding points of overlap between say, theistic teachings and modern physics – to quote Carl Weathers, well, now you got a stew goin’.

        • Becky says:

          Exactly my point, Simon.

          But if this coffee shop doesn’t serve beer, I’m not coming. At some point, I will no doubt need an excuse to extract myself from the conversation to turn off the Beastie Boys and commandeer the music machine, and “I’m too drunk for this,” is just about the best excuse ever for that sort of thing.

          “No you guys. This is really fascinating (read: no longer fascinating), I’ve just had a few too many drinks and can’t do it justice (read: am about to belch in someone’s face to lighten the mood). WHO WANTS TO HEAR SOME CCR?!?!”

        • Even bad moons rise according to the laws of physics, Becky.

        • Becky says:

          But the volume of them rises according to my desire to get. this. party. started.

        • Oh, well played, ma’am. Well played.

        • Becky says:

          Okay, I’ll do it, but we can’t stay at that coffee shop acting like tedious intellectuals ALL night.

          That sounds like hell to me.

          That’s what happens to me in hell.

          Like most things that happen to a person in hell, it’s fun for a little while, but eventually it’s torture.

          A coffee shop, with no beer and no CCR and the only thing to do for all eternity is argue about the definition of the word “God” with a bunch of writers.

        • I think we’ll need to find a coffee shop with beer and a pool table, so that at some point, one of us – maybe swaying a little, maybe not – can say ‘Hey. Hey. Hey you guys. Wanna see something awesome? C’mon. C’mon. I’m totally gonna make this shot. Like Jesus would. You guys?’

        • Richard Cox says:

          Hell is “A coffee shop, with no beer and no CCR and the only thing to do for all eternity is argue about the definition of the word “God” with a bunch of writers.”

          True. So go find Stefan’s post from yesterday and debate with us the relative merits of body hair removal. Baahaha.

        • Can we do it in New York instead of LA? Manhattan seems way more suited to intellectual bullshitting, pseudo or otherwise?

          Physics week sounds like fun, but I fear I’d drop the punt on that one. I’ve got an energy level I can’t fill. I’m good at comments concerning science and such. And I’m working on a large-scale project.

          But in between? There’s just so much.

        • Becky says:

          I’m not coming if Will keeps talking about his “project.”

          New York or L.A. makes no difference to me, but Chicago would be ideal. Neutral territory? Well, not for Simon, but he has to spend forever in a plane anyway. What’s another four hours?

          If I have to fly to a coast, you guys will subsidize my airfare, right? In that case, no problem.

        • Sorry Becky! I’m knee-deep in it right now. It’s creative myopia; you get so concentrated on something big and it becomes all you’re thinking about. Something akin to muscle memory, in ways. I’m preoccupied.

          I think we all need massive publishing contracts to foot the bill of gatherings such as this one.

          Because PS- I want to be part of a Becky party. Hell. Yes.

          Also: coffee? Fuck that noise. I honestly pretty much don’t go anywhere they don’t serve booze. What’re we, 5? If I want caffeine, I’ll put it in the mixer, dammit.

        • One of my favourite phrases at the moment is ’86 that noise’.

          Do you guys have espresso martinis over there in the States? It’s the best of both worlds! If not, we’ll have to do it in Melbourne, at a bar here called Double Happiness. They do them the best.

          Will. I concur on the contracts.

      • Becky says:

        “Um. I thought the difference is that physics is science (which generally means theories/hypotheses can be proven and disproven), while metaphysics is pseudoscience.”

        There is no doubt in my mind that this is what you think, Will.

        • Greg Olear says:

          You can add other things to your “pseudoscience” list of things that can’t be proved, Will. Start with love.

        • Where’s Uche when you need him? He’d know how to unify all of this!

        • Richard Cox says:

          Becky, see my comment somewhere above about the science of love. Ha.

        • Love can’t be proven? But it’s all you need!

          I’m not saying science is the only means by which we can experience the universe. I was just noting I thought there is a pretty clear line, and where its boundary is. I could be wrong about that boundary, as I’m not really sure how many things one can label under “metaphysics,” but I also know that if you have a hypothesis you can prove false, trying to do so is generally science.

          And further comment would just echo the above discussion re: love.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Well said, Will. I take it back.

          Forgive me — I get my dander up because people scoff at my astrological studies — usually the same people who go to a church and pray to a statue of a man in his death throes.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I think I made some highly derogatory comment about astrology a few months ago. My apologies. However, I am an equal opportunity scoffer.

        • I have such mixed feelings about astrology. On one hand, millions of people are born on any given day, at any given time, and the idea that they may share more personality traits with each other than with other solely based on some stars in the sky seems extraordinarily suspect, at best. And besides that, I mean, none of the constellations look like the signs. How high must the astronomer have been to look up at the stars and say, “Hey, those handful look like a bull! Everyone born today must be awesome!” before he subsequently birthed astrology?

          On the other hand, I’m a Taurus, obviously. And I think somebody once told me, or I once mistakenly read, I have a Taurus moon, too? Or something. They said Shakespeare was a double Taurus, and I said, oh, okay, very well.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Did I hear a call? Who invoked the Cosmological Djinni? It had better be good. Eh? Physics versus metaphysics? Of cor blimey, it is good. Well then. Where to start? Ah, never mind, the anthropic principle means I don’t need to worry about where to start. So I’ll start with the idea of “proof”. That is a dangerous word to use around science. Science doesn’t really “prove” things, in the sort of sense that could be used to sneer at metaphysics. What science does is make predictions about phenomena. This is what some people mean with the semi-literate expression “you can’t prove a negative”. Science gives us incrementally more confidence in the affirmative likelihood of future phenomena, which could include a negative, such as the confidence we have that if we drop a regular tennis ball, it will not rocket straight up into orbit.

          What denotes science and excludes anything else, including metaphysics, is a defined system, a set of agreements, a shared convention for moving that marker of predictive confidence ever incrementally forward. If you follow that particular method, if you follow those rules in making predictions, you are in the realm of science. If you don’t, you are outside the world of science. it’s simple enough, but unfortunately the business of value judgments inspire factions to rub away that straightforward demarcation. Religious judgments, for example, do not follow the scientific method, so they are straightforwardly not science, so the question should follow is not “so which can be used to prove things?” It should rather be “which one makes predictions that appeal to me”.

          For me, it’s a doddle. I trust in science for predictions, and I don’t trust in religion (so no, I don’t think the guy driving in front of me tomorrow will disappear into heaven in the rapture, nor so I wake up mornings wondering whether it is the day when the great wolf Fenrir will defeat and consume Odin signaling Ragnarök, the end of all worldly things.

          But when I don’t want predictions, e.g., in love, as Greg mentions, I often do find metaphysics more satisfying than science (except for the particular form of metaphysics that is organized religion, which I mostly loathe).

          And I must say that when playing footsie with a chick on Christmas night, I suspect to find much more appeal in the metaphysical realm. After all, attempting to predict the likelihood of further gratification from a game of footsie is exactly the sort of activity that can only lead to a painful case of blue balls. That’s the sort of proven negative I can well do without.

          Back to my lantern, ya’ll. Peace…

        • This Djinn’s a real tonic.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          And don’t you know that, as the slightly overzealous atheist Douglas Adams points out, that’s the only cocktail that can be found in some variant among lifeforms in every corner of the universe.

        • Jinnan tonnix, you say?

          Uche, thanks for appearing when invoked.

          “Science gives us incrementally more confidence in the affirmative likelihood of future phenomena.” This is something that I’m going to remember, as it’s a definition that I hadn’t previously heard, but is of the order where I scratch my head and think Yes, but why hadn’t I heard that before? Because it makes sense.

          Although I am very worried about what will happen when Surtr comes over Bifrost.

          I think there’s room for both, as the general consensus seems to be (damn it, Love. You’d break Pauli himself).

        • Greg Olear says:

          I wish there was a way to highlight a comment, like you can tag an email “important.” Thanks for weighing in, Uche.

          And he’s right, Simon…we never did find out what became of the gal whose foot was in your lap. Although we can, with some authority, use scientific principles to predict the outcome.

        • There are some mysteries that even Einstein would have trouble with. Not only does God play dice, but they’re loaded.

  16. D.R. Haney says:

    To learn more about physics used to be one of my goals, but I’m now too stupid. Also, my sense of wonder seems to undergone tremendous injury in recent years. I’m not sure why, but L.A. and omnipresent technology may have something to do with it. Maybe I should live in the woods for a while, and that can help to restore some of the 86 billion neurons that should be working away in my brain. I think I’m down to at least half that amount.

    But didn’t The Word come before light? Or maybe that was just St. John’s bias as a writer at work.

    • Becky says:

      It’s not just Christianity and Judaism that place the utmost importance on “the word.” Ancient Egyptians, at least in one version of the religion (it tended to change), put Thoth, the scribe (and creator of language), near or at the top of the pantheon, since without “the word,” creation (and the Gods themselves) would not have been possible.

      Interestingly, and maybe more germane to the story, he was also the God credited with calculating, establishing, and maintaining the rules that govern celestial movements. Physics.

      Comparative religion. Now there’s something that blows my mind.

      • Duke: see if you can track down a copy of Edelman’s Wider Than The Sky. It’s a neuroscience/consciousness work that may help kick-start your sense of wonder; a hugely valuable thing, I think. It’s a startling discovery to me to realise that I’m so much less jaded than I thought I was, and I still have the capacity to be almost childlike in my fascination with the science of things.

        That being said, if you want to go Walden on us, I’d be sure to come stay for a while.

        Jesus. Now there’s a blog idea.

        I’m sure your synapses are still in fine fettle. Just dust them off with some fish oil and you’ll be sparking along in no time.

        Becky: I ask because I’m not sure – do you have a particular background in theology?

        • Greg Olear says:

          Another great read on this topic — and an extremely well-written book — is The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, which postulates that there is an inverse relationship between a society’s veneration of the written word and its women. In other words, the more we care about words, the worse we treat our women…we come out of the so-called Dark Ages, about which we know nothing because there is no written record, with chivalry. A mind-blow book.

          But you should really read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. Run don’t walk.

        • Becky says:

          No, just an abiding interest. Independent study. Before I converted to English Literature, I was an Anthropology/Archaeology major (hence the ancient Egyptian stuff)…And my sister is finishing her Ph.D. in New Testament studies, so she is a theologian and we have theological discussions a lot.

        • Becky says:

          Dude! Chivalry was pretty sexist.

          And Egyptians, mostly, were not.

        • I’ll take door holding over being burned at the stake because I’m a witch.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Good point, Steph. And that wasn’t all that long ago — and it was here, in the U.S.

          Becky, I’m trying to distill a book I read ten years ago into two sentences, in the thirty seconds of free time I have before one of the kids demands another episode of Max & Ruby (and you thought “Heroes” was bad, Simon? Oh my). He makes his point quite eloquently and convincingly…I’m not doing the book justice, alas. Check it out next time you’re at a B&N.

          Chivalry today is sexist. I don’t know that it was then — my sense is that there was a real submissiveness to it on the male side. And the Egyptians used hieroglyphics — pictures — not words, which, he says, has a different effect on the psyche. So that would serve to prove his point.

  17. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Loved the foot in your hand! No better way to talk about physics than with a girl’s foot in your hand!

  18. Quenby Moone says:

    I’ve always felt this way about the universe; I’m still completely unclear why it shouldn’t be enough for people, why it needs to be couched in terms of God. But I’ve never been able to properly define my thoughts so concisely such, and now I will always point to this essay if anyone tries to proselytize.

    It is enough.

    I recently read a book about the cosmos, and it ends with the universe essentially expanding so rapidly and so far from the Big Bang that there will be no light from elsewhere that would reach our galaxy anymore; we would effectively be alone in the universe. And then the stars would begins to expend the last of their fuel and blip out one by one by one.

    Or, in another scenario called the Big Rip dark energy grows so strong “that galaxies will not only be pushed away from each other but torn apart as well….somewhere along the way, the Universe will no longer provide hospitable conditions for life. Thus the awakening of consciousness in our cosmos is temporary and ultimately doomed.”

    You’d think this would be depressing, but I don’t find it that way at all. It’s another perfect example of the preciousness of life, in this moment. If we do not realize that there’s an expiration date, then we have no reason to take what we have very seriously. But if we do, we must embrace our finiteness and recognize the utterly mysterious gift that coincidence and the Universe has handed us.

    • With this essay at your back, you’ll be the Q in Q.E.D.

      Thanks, Quenby. It’s really nice to hear that.

      The stars blipping out one by one is the scenario referred to as ‘Heat Death’, I think; I could be off on that one. I hadn’t heard of the Big Rip, but yes, as far as I know, consciousness has a limited lifespan.

      But no, it isn’t depressing at all. It’s a sign of value; of rarity. And I think embracing it and recognizing it is exactly the way to go.

      Let’s start a religion! Becky can compare it to others for us.

    • I concur QB. I think it’s when we realize how temporary it all is – that’s when we can embrace it and appreciate it. Even looking back at times in our life when a day seemed like just a day – like when our exchange caused me to reminisce about the early 90’s in the east village. If I only knew then how precious it all was. Even the legless pimp in my mailroom. I mean this in all seriousness. And my kids drive me insane and drain me to no end – but one day – they will be older and more independent and I’ll most likely miss that they don’t want to be up in my grill every second of the day.

      So, I try and appreciate it all – because it’s here and it’s precious. So, I snuggle with them a little longer and smell their sweet angel hair.

      Ok – going to go do that now.

  19. Lenore says:

    omg you are so smart. do me and have my babies.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I’d say it was a matter of time before that happened, but I think Simon thinks time doesn’t exist.

      • Lenore: K.

        Greg: I’m still working out how I feel about time. Although I will say that anyone who has sat through Seasons 2 – 4 of Heroes knows without a doubt that time exists.

        And yet why can’t I stop watching it?

        • Greg Olear says:

          LLOL. [second L is for literally]

          Are you watching the new season? So. Fucking. Bad. And yet, hey, it’s on tonight. Gotta find out if Samuel does whatever stupid senseless thing he’s planning.

        • OMFG! (the ‘F’ rhymes with ‘Ducking’).

          WHY DOESN’T ANYTHING MAKE ANY SENSE ANYMORE? Did they just forget that Claire has magic healing blood? Was Adam Monroe’s superpower to actually make people incredibly stupid? Why does Sylar go through a crisis of conscience every second episode? Why did Edgar suddenly trust a guy for giving him a cup of tea? WHY IS THE WRITING SO BAD? AND WHY CAN’T I LOOK AWAY?

          Ahem.

        • Matt says:

          The writer’s strike was a deathblow to that show, and it’s been limping on like a zombie ever since. I haven’t even bothered with season 4 at all. Someone, please: bullet, brain. That’s all it takes.

        • I hate every moment of it and yet – I need to see it tonite – even though every second of it is pure torture – I guess I need to see HOW bad it will get.

        • Even a bullet in the brain won’t stop it any more… not since Sylar moved his Achilles Heel…

          That’s right. Contextuality.

        • Matt says:

          I got so tired of watching them write themselves into a corner and then pull some half-assed deus ex-machina to get out of it every other fucking episode that after season 3 ended, I gave up on it entirely. My local affiliate shows Lie To Me at the same time, and I’d much rather watch Tim Roth be brilliantly smarter than everyone around him than the half-assed dumbfuckery Heroes has become.

        • Seriously, the writers must live in some bizarre house of angled mirrors, because every week, there’s a new corner for them to escape from.

        • Matt says:

          It’s because they keep firing writers and replacing them! I’m pretty convinced Tim Kring has even walked away at this point, his name just left on the credits due to contractual obligations.

          Season 1 was one the tightest bits of plotting and storytelling that I’d ever seen on American television, and somehow they’ve managed to fuck it up completely.

          Ah well. The producers have been circulating petitions to keep the show on the air for a fifth season, so evidently the end may well be nigh.

        • oh no – that’s unfortunate – I need it out of my life.

          Yeah – season one was GREEEAT – then the writer’s strike – boom – never recovered.

        • I’ve retroactively discovered that there’s a bit from Season 2 that is (and this is so unlikely) one of my favourite bits from the series; Adam Monroe’s talking about his diabolical plan and he says ‘When God wasn’t happy with what he created, he made it rain for 40 days and 40 nights. He just washed it all away.’

          There’s something about the way he says it that just made me go ‘OK. Good two seconds of TV, right there.’

        • Richard Cox says:

          What you should really be talking about is tomorrow night’s Lost premiere.

          The reason TNB doesn’t allow the img src tag is so I won’t post a continual stream of Evangeline Lilly pictures.

        • Heroes sucked from the first episode. Don’t blame its badness on the writers’ strike. It was terrible long before then.

          “Sav teh cherleder, sav teh wurld!”

          Good shows right now: House, Castle, and Supernatural. Those are pretty much the only ones I bank on.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Simon – That’s the thing with that show…there are bits of really cool stuff…like finding a diamond…well maybe not a diamond; a sapphire, say…is a pile of cow shit.

          Richard – “S1 of Lost is amazing! But S2 totally sucks. Then S3 is better.” Everyone says that, which is why I haven’t watched. I hate the sophomore slump with shows.

          Will – Heroes is a guilty pleasure. As long as Ali Larter was involved, it didn’t suck.

        • No, Will – Seasons 1 of Heroes ROCKED and the writers strike ruined it by
          the original writers of the show abandonning ship.
          I stand by that season and I will NOT BACK DOWN!!!
          (sorry – just felt like yelling – Matt knows how I get.)
          Now – if you’ll excuse me totally killer greg and I are pulling ourselves
          away from this place called laptop and we’re going to watch the sucky ass
          season 4 of Heroes.

        • Will: my God, I love Supernatural. So, so much.

          Yep. Guilty pleasure it where it’s at. Well noted, Greg; sapphires in the stool, as opposed to diamonds in the rough.

          Or diamonds on the streets of LA. Thanks again, Zara!

  20. kristen says:

    Simon!

    “While you study, while you work, while you eat, while you drink, while you sleep, while you wash the dishes or watch TV, these connections are flickering on and off, sending or blocking impulses of thought and reaction”–

    Sigh. To be able to control *certain* impulses of thought… (You know.)

    What a truly thoughtful and engaging piece, S.

    xo,
    k

    • We really should do some mind-mapping exercises sometime. So we can say ‘Oh, lookit – Neurons 436A to 679G… those are the problems! Now, if you’ll just hand me my copy of PsychoCybernetics…‘ (I know).

      Thanks, K. I truly appreciate your saying so.

      OK

      Simon
      ox

  21. “Everything that you are, everything that you’ve done, everything that you will ever be – all of this stems from the single instant in which the Universe began, in light. Whatever else may happen, there is no part of you that is untouched by the truth of this.”

    Ah, Simon…. I just scribbled these sentences and taped the paper on my desk so I see it when I sit down to work. Thank you… thank you for your beautiful and amazing words and ideas… and the foot in you hand? What a stunning bit of imagery!

    • Wow, really? That’s so flattering! You’ve made my day, Robin, you really have.

      (please note: everyone else, you have also been instrumental in making my day. I mean no disrespect whatsoever).

  22. Darian Arky says:

    How is it that 86 billion neurons cranking out one hundred trillion synaptic connections can handle a max of, say, five martinis before going haywire? You’d think a few thousand per cocktail would be all that’s needed…

    • Darian: I think we should put this theory to the test.

      Actually, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of a documentary where a neuroscientist filmed himself doing tequila slammers in the name of science. God, I love you, Science. You’re magnificent and wild.

      But I digress. Martinis, you say?

  23. kat magendie says:

    This is absolutely beautiful . . . breathless here.

  24. Sara says:

    You peddling perspectives now?
    So what you’re saying is, between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act lies the beginning of time? way to distract me from homework! much more thrilling than Alberta’s energy policy.

    • Two for a dollar.

      I’m afraid you’ve lost me though – the beginning at time was the beginning, and everything stems from that. As far as I know, anyhow. I could very well be wrong.

      • Sara says:

        Following on from your T.S. Elliot reference is all… if in every thought, feeling, synaps… is made of the same stuff from the light in the beginning. then everything in between holds the history of time….

        • I made a T.S. Eliot reference? Oh cool! Look at me! I didn’t even know.

        • Sara says:

          yeah… from the end of the Hollow Men (in my top 3 favorite poems):

          “…Between the idea
          And the reality
          Between the motion
          And the act
          Falls the Shadow
          …..

          This is the way the world ends
          This is the way the world ends
          This is the way the world ends
          Not with a bang but a whimper.”

        • And I always thought it was apocryphal.

          Well, I guess that’ll show me…

  25. Marni Grossman says:

    See now, I’ve never wanted to learn more about physics. Which I justify by saying that I prefer life’s big questions to be mysteries. I prefer surprise. I think the real reason is that I’m lazy.

    Kudos to you for taking on new things.

    • I salute your laziness, Marni. Tell me, have you ever really, really wanted to get a bucket of chicken and just sit around watching Supernatural? Because man, I could be into the physics of that equation.

      I like to have the answers to some, but not all, of the questions. A little grist to my grind, if you will.

  26. Gloria Harrison says:

    I love the line, “…our skill doesn’t yet match our curiosity…” You’ve pretty much encapsulated my boys’ basic understanding of their world.

    Actually, I love that whole damn paragraph. That’s some beautiful writing.

    Seriously, Simon. This blew my mind and made physics gorgeous for me again.

    Thanks.

    • Ha. Awesome. Hence my childlike wonder…

      Thanks, Gloria. I’m really glad to hear it. When did physics stop being gorgeous for you?

      Now, off to read about your vagina!

      • Gloria says:

        Physics never stops being gorgeous for me. I, on the surface, am a magpie, though. It’s easy for me to get distracted by every shiny, pretty thing on the ground, and so I don’t always remember to look up and consider the bright, shiny things in the heavens.

        Re: My vagina. Dude, it’s a bait and switch. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

        • “Re: My vagina. Dude, it’s a bait and switch.”

          Promise me that you will have that put on your tombstone.

          Promise me.

        • Gloria says:

          Okay, I promise. I’m not sure your family will let me be a part of the decision making process, but even I have to show up in the graveyard in the middle of the night with glowsticks and a chisel, you have my solemn vow.

  27. Sarah says:

    You made my head hurt, but in a good way. My brain needed a good kick in its ass to start working again.

    “Maybe it will end with a whimper, and maybe it will end with a bang, but it started with light.”

    This is my new favorite quote. Ever.

    • Hooray! Suck it, T. S. Eliot! I’ve stolen you work (apparently) and you’re too dead to do anything about it – you and your cats!

      Jesus, Sarah. I’m blushing here.

      • Becky says:

        Also T.S. Eliot:

        “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” (+/-)

        I’m reasonably sure that “writers” could be substituted for “poets” here and that good ol’ Tommy would thoroughly approve of your theft.

  28. jmblaine says:

    Ooh, now this was different and yeah, I’m completely into to it.
    I’m all about Tesla
    the band and the man.

  29. Erika Rae says:

    This is fantastic to chew on while staring at that huge waning gibbous moon we’ve got tonight. Thanks for this, Simon. It reminded me of my favorite quote from Richard Feynman:

    “Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one – million – year – old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

    • We had our Blue Moon on Saturday night – you guys got yours on NYE, I think?

      Great quote, and now I think I’m going to have to add Richard Feynman to my ever-growing list of things to read (as well as that damn list of things to learn).

      I’m glad you liked it, Erika Rae.

  30. Funny how a girl’s naked feet can get you thinking about the makeup of the universe…

  31. Erika says:

    Simon my head is so dizzy from all this physics but it was a very fascinating post nonetheless!And to think I almost missed it due to my fun filled day of inventory!
    I wish I had a better liking towards anything science related but it was never my cup of tea hence my blind faith in the universe.
    Things on my bucket list: learn Italian(speak,read,write) be the next Meg White, and get a better sense of geography (I still can’t tell north to south east to west as well as where most countries are located) amongst the very many.

    • As you’ll be able to see in the comments above, Erika, a scientific approach and a faith-based approach aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive…

      I think you should write all of these things down (if you haven’t already). In fact, I’m going to go and get started on one of my items right now…

      • Erika Rae says:

        As “the other Erika”, I would like to state that I couldn’t agree more. Where did all of the components of the universe come from in the first place? The Big Bang only takes us back to the singularity. What before that? And why – if all matter tends toward entropy – did life ever manage to come (and stay) together. Plenty of room for faith.

        • I used to work at a place where I was one of three Simons. It was awesome. I kept hoping they’d hire more.

          That’s one of the other great things about the Universe – there’s a lot of space in it. For all kinds of things.

          Profound, Simon. Profound.

        • Erika Rae says:

          I went to camp with 3 Erikas once. That, too, was awesome – so I know what you mean.

          I particularly like the other other Erika (above) because she spells her name correctly. She and I would so get along.

  32. Brin Friesen says:

    Where did this one come from, Simon? It seems out of left field and wonderfully so.

    • Mainly from the unification of a number of things, Brin. Ideas that had been bouncing around my head for a little while and then, at the right time, I guess, they just kind of clicked together.

      Thanks, amigo.

  33. Lauz says:

    Love it Simon. is all. 🙂

  34. Slade Ham says:

    I will simply say this. Wow.

    I am incredibly jealous of this piece.

    Just, wow.

  35. AXS says:

    That was amazing: learned, profound, eloquent, beautiful. At the end, I even got a little teary. Who would have ever thought physics would make me cry? Thank you.

  36. […] even think of it until I make the effort to (and this is just on the biological level. Don’t even get me started on chemistry and […]

  37. […] Metaphysical waxer. […]

  38. Meg Worden says:

    This is beautiful times infinity.

  39. […] SIMON SMITHSON gets physical. […]