I just finished reading “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking. The amount of information this slim book contains is staggering. I’m really grateful it’s in a book, actually, since my brain struggles to retain anything books are where I keep most of my information.
The book touches on many subjects that fit firmly in the “I believe it, but I can’t imagine it” category. It’s a weird category. For example, the universe is expanding as evidenced by the red shift of light from every observable galaxy outside of our own. Everything is getting farther away from each other, which means everything used to be really close to each other. When I say everything, by the way, I mean everything. Space itself, as well as the matter speckled across it. So then, at some point, the whole universe was ridiculously small. Hawking isn’t sure that it was a singularity exactly, but really damn small. The science is straight forward, seems totally reasonable, and yet it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Our whole universe as a marble that you could hold in your hand, if it weren’t for the fact it weight many trillions of tons, and also hands wouldn’t come to exist for another 14 billion years. I believe it, but I can’t imagine it.
What was outside of this very small universe 14 billion years ago? Same thing that’s outside our own universe, which is to say who the hell knows. Nothing seems like a solid answer, but what is nothing? By definition it cannot be experienced. It’s the absence of light and matter, but also the absence of space and direction. The absence of time, if you believe time is a real thing. I cannot conceive of nothing. It doesn’t make sense for nothing to be a possible state in or around a universe. For after all, next door to that nothing, is something, the universe, and if nothing can be next to something than nothing must have space, but by definition it cannot.
So, if the universe exists, it must be all that there is, or must adjoin something. It seems weird that it would be all that there is, given that it is getting larger, which suggests a relation to something outside of itself. So, there must be something outside of the universe. What is it? Is this universe inside a larger universe? Next to other universes? Are we but a cheerio in a bowl of milk in an alien universe far beyond our comprehension?
That the universe is expanding is about 1/100,000,000 of the information in this book, but it’s enough to blow my mind. I am stunned by the complexity of our universe, and the overwhelming implications of its current state. That there are black holes, only a few miles across but with the mass of humungous suns, where the infinitesimal mass of a photon is unable to escape its gravity, blows my mind. That it might be the case the universe stops expanding, and contract, and in doing so reverses the thermodynamic arrow of time, so that entropy decreases, and order increases, as everything in the universe settles back into a single location, is unimaginable. It might not happen, but even that it theoretically could is too much for my brain to grab onto. I believe it, but I can’t imagine it.
There’s so much to this book. It’s so well written, accessible to anyone who can rub two brain cells together. Hawking discusses the fact that if you measure time with imaginary numbers (numbers in which the square of a negative number equals a negative number) time itself seems to become an extension of the three spatial dimensions, instead of a dimension itself. That’s what I think time is! Hawking then goes on to say that maybe that is right, and that imaginary numbers are actually real, and we are using the imaginary numbers in our everyday calculations. It is immaterial, he says, just two ways of describing the universe.
Read the book.
What was interesting to me, though, reading this book this time around, was just the idea of information I believe but cannot imagine. Much of that information is cosmological, or astronomical. I believe that people have been on the moon, and looked at Earth from an alien world, but I cannot imagine standing there myself. I believe that right now on Venus there might be a break in the clouds of sulfuric acid, revealing an orange sky, but I can’t really imagine it. I mean, I can imagine it in an artistic sense, in a day dreamy kind of way. But the fact that it is actually happening right now? That’s hard for me to wrap my head around.
There is information outside of science altogether, though, that also fits in this category. Take, for example, slavery in the United States. Human beings were bought from ports in Africa against their will. Taken across the ocean chained to their beds in humungous boats. Sold again to farmers, who inspected them as they would inspect cattle. Beaten into submission. Raped continuously. Killed for insubordination. Their children ripped from the breast and sold away for a few dollars. This really, truly happened. I believe it, I know it, but I can’t imagine it.
I cannot imagine what running away from this kind of absolute hellscape felt like. To know that you, a human being who had been kidnapped, enslaved, assaulted continuously, were the one breaking the law by escaping. Can you imagine that? The person who was kidnapped and enslaved was the criminal by seeking to escape their captors. This was the United States! It was not that long ago. It won’t be until June 19th, 2065 that it will have been two hundred years. It is recent history. Slavery was legally practiced in the United States, by Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, all of them, for 246 years. It has been illegal for only 155. Black people who are in their 80s right now have grandparents who were legally owned by white farmers. Anyone who thinks that Black people in this country are not still suffering the repercussions are fooling themselves.
Reading “A Brief History of Time” brings me so much joy, because of all the information it contains about this incredible universe that I can’t even imagine. It also gives me hope for the people on this cosmically insignificant speck of dust. The universe has changed in incredible ways, far beyond what I can possibly imagine. So, it must be the case that the inhabitants of Earth, an aspect of that universe, can do the same. We are on our way, though. I believe it, and I can almost imagine it.