Shut Up About the Universe

Composed on the 15th of February in the year 2016, at 9:18 AM. It was Monday.

The story so far

13.something billion years ago, something weird happened. In the next few very small increments of time something fieldy doubled in size. Then it did the same thing about 80 times, which may not instantly seem like a lot, but it’s too big a factor of change even to fit on one of those charts people share to remind you how poor you are or how many milliseconds you no longer have to live.1[1] This thing went from being much much smaller than a proton to about the size of a grapefruit. It did this so quickly, the edges of this doubling ball travelled away from each other at about 5,184,705,500,000,000,000,000 times the speed of light, or something like that. In technical terms, this speed is referred as Dude, Whoa.2[2] This grapefruit was our universe, and was made possible because due to fieldy things back then, gravity was repulsive.3[3]

Anyway, after the chunk of this thing that concerns us slowed down it started releasing all the energy in the universe, and then we had a lot of hot particle plasma.4[4],5[5],6[6] As things got roomier and cooler, and because of some tiny differences in where stuff happened to be during inflation, some of it clumped together a little bit, then clumps got bigger and bigger, then they were gas clouds. The gas clouds turned into stars and galaxies, then some stars exploded and turned into gas clouds which turned into new stars and planets and some other things, most of which were very hot and/or black.7[7]

It may also be the case that an infinite amount of this stuff went from itty-bitty to grapefruit. And/or that there’s still an infinite amount of the fieldy thing going on. Point is, there’s at least one grapefruit-centric infinity.

So, we’re up to 13 billion years and change, and we’re pretty sure about about how things happened, and continue to happen, unless you’re moving too fast, in which case things might happen in a different order than the one experienced by those of us who assume the next train can’t be more than twenty minutes out. The only thing we’re super sure about is that chickens don’t turn into eggs and marriages don’t spontaneously fix themselves.

Also, really tiny things sort of randomly jump in and out of existence. Some people think this means there is another infinite set of infinite universes, but we don’t worry about that infinity so much, because if our universe is infinite, everything that can happen happens an infinite number of times, so the universes splitting off because of the random particle stuff are really just photocopies, but rotated a bit. Other people think probability waves collapse, maybe because of gravity. Many don’t worry about explaining the weirdness in a way that would be comprehensible to layperson concerns, because the math adds up and the particles explode properly. To them, the annoying thing about physics is that it bothered at all, because the math explaining the universe would be a lot cleaner if there wasn’t one.

So that’s weird

Right?

Oh, also

In one spot in the part of the universe we can see—and probably in an infinite number of spots in the part of the universe we can’t—there’s a small blue-green planet with a thin film of bio-matter on it. Among other things, this film supports some bipedal mammals who like building things they can set on fire.

These mammals each have a small but dense clump of cells near the top of their bodies, and this clump makes patterns out of various kinds of nerve stimulation. These patterns help the clumps keep the mammals from dying by making them eat, jump at loud noises, and double down on eleven.

After a lot of pattern-making and calorie-burning and wood-cutting, the mammals got comfortable, and started using their clumps for things besides avoiding bigger mammals. They got other mammals to burn and store calories for them, so some of the clumps could go make more complicated patterns, and worry about them, because they were out of other stuff to worry about. They spent more and more time using their clumps to make new patterns, and this made a lot of them lonely.

These lonely mammal clumps are very invested in their patterns, and tend to think all the patterns are actually things, when in reality most of them are nothing, and out of the ones that aren’t nothing, only a few of them are useful, and most of the useful ones are about how to keep a positive balance on a checking account and not kill people when operating large machines.

The problem

What does a lonely clump do when it spends most of its time making patterns that are nothing?

It comes up with a way to convince itself that something loves it. It could be another clump, it could be an invisible clump, and some think the universe itself is a super-clump that cares about the little clumps inside it the way those little clumps care about puppies.

How’s that work?

It doesn’t. But it sounds sexy when people bring up the particles doing weird things and we are all obviously made of the same stuff, whatever it is. And look at all that fieldy grapefruit stuff the universe did. And the pretty patterns! They must be not nothing! And since the universe is everything, it must be instrumental in determining the course of every bipedal mammal life, in some way that’s vaguely but actually exactly like the way those mammals concern themselves with each other.

Back up a bit

Our clumps are things that care about other things, but they don’t have a special plan for every skin cell their supporting body sheds. Most of the clumps that exist don’t care about much besides themselves; why would an infinitely large clump micromanage an infinite number of skin cells? In fact, most things don’t make the nothing patterns that worry about other things. Why would All The Things be like one of the tiny number of things we can have sex with?

And remember how we’re pretty sure there’s at least one infinity? That means every you that could possibly be, is, infinitely many times. And for everything the universe could possibly have done for you, it did it for an infinite number of identical yous, and it did the exact opposite for an infinite number of other nearly identical yous. An infinite number of yous are already dead. An infinite number of yous wrote Hamlet. An infinite number of yous have fourteen more dollars than you in their checking account.

The universe doesn’t love you. The universe is openly mocking you.

Now shut up

The universe is a strange, incomprehensibly vast, incredibly cool something. You are a strange, incomprehensible, possibly cool, upright mammal. Just because you care about you and feel like something else should doesn’t make it so. Even a finite universe is infinitely unlikely to be enacting a plan that will eventually assume all the responsibility for the bad decisions that made you unhappy with last Wednesday.

You want something to love you? Fine. But a thinking universe is probably a bad choice, and attempting to use physics to make your case is definitely a bad choice.

Two scientists were harmed in the making of this essay

Their names are Josh Wickman and Jeff Berger. Remember to like and share if you want to hurt more scientists.

1 Around 5000 since you started reading.

2 Some will be quick to point out that expansion of space is different from the motion of things through it. They should also shut up, but these are people who have never known joy and they deserve our compassion.

3 And in the case of your mom, still is.

4 I’m trying to ask my physicist friends about this stuff in our chatroom, but they’re all watching the Super Bowl right now. I have X-Files reruns on in the background, so I’m taking my King Nerd title back after tonight.

5 One of them has just informed me he’s watching CSI Miami and programming, so I guess we’ll have to call a kingsmoot.

6 Update: I made contact with the physicists, and was told that at least one of them was at Ikea, and that my first draft of this was so wrong they had to have a private conversation to establish a method of describing to me how wrong it was. Moral: don’t trust pop sci; find a scientist.

7 There are some really good jokes here. I’m not going to make them.

Beware of Zeus.

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