It’s Thursday again, and thus, it’s time for another of my weekly blog posts. I would like to say, “Hello and good morning,” to all my readers, even though you may not be reading this in the morning. (I switched up my usual starting order to keep things fresh for those who read my blog regularly, and for me as well. It’s not much variety, but it doesn’t take much to break up minor monotony.)
Speaking of things that might seem as though they would be monotonous, but which somehow are not, the editing of The Vagabond is proceeding well. I said last week that I was only twenty or so pages from the end of the latest run-through, and I’m now well into the next. I’ll be more than halfway to the end of my usual, rather laborious process, by the time I finish this current iteration, and getting past the halfway point is always a good feeling.
Unless you count life itself, I suppose. For most people, realizing that they are already (probably) halfway through their lives is a somewhat troubling thought. Sometimes it’s a very troubling thought. One readily sympathizes with their angst, particularly when one realizes that, as we grow older, our subjective sense is that time passes much more quickly. Much of our perception of time is dependent on how much of it we’ve already experienced, so the years before us seem far less substantial than those that came before. I can remember, when I was much younger, that being told that it was twenty minutes until dinner time felt like an almost unendurable wait. And if it was still an hour before dinner? It was hard not to think that I would surely starve to death.
But though I can recall the fact that I felt that way, I can’t recall the feeling itself. Twenty minutes now feels like an eye-blink, and an hour is barely enough to get anything useful done at all, unless one applies that hour daily. Pink Floyd captured this nicely and concisely in their song, Time: “Every year is getting shorter/ never seem to find the time / plans that either come to naught / or half a page of scribbled lines,” as well as, “And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking / racing around to come up behind you again. / The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older / shorter of breath and one day closer to death”.
Of course, everything is a matter of scale and comparison. Over the course of a single day, the sun may not change in a relative way, but it is older, and though its “lifespan” is measured in billions of years, it is finite. Likewise, on even larger scales, our universe itself has a limited lifespan, enforced by the laws of nature and the inexorable tendency for entropy to increase. There are some very good recent popular science books that deal with this, and I personally recommend two of them: Until the End of Time, by Brian Greene, and The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), by Katie Mack. Both authors are working scientists who know their subject well. Mack’s book is slightly more playful but is nonetheless clear and informative. Greene, as usual, gets slightly deeper, but his love of the subject is unmistakable and contagious. He uses a wonderful metaphor to try to convey the vastness of the time scales he’s discussing, asking the reader to imagine an Empire State Building in which each subsequent floor represents ten time as many years as the floor below. The top floor is a lot of years later than the bottom floor.
And yet, as Carl Sagan first told me (and a lot of other people) in the ninth chapter/episode of Cosmos, “The Lives of the Stars”, neither a googol nor even a googolplex is any closer to infinity than is the number one. Even the lifespan of our universe is just an eyeblink from a certain point of view*. Of course, there may exist some grander arena, a metaverse, which is truly eternal and infinite in all possible dimensions. I suspect that this is the case, mainly because I find it harder to conceptualize an end of actuality (What’s there at the end? How does it know where to end? What could it even mean for there to be nothing beyond it?) than an infinite regress. But reality isn’t constrained by the failures of my imagination (thankfully) so that’s just a strong intuition or prediction or supposition. I make no claim to final knowledge.
Anyway, what was I talking about again? Oh, yeah, the changing subjective sense of time over a human lifespan. The fact that our own sense of time changes so drastically (in a seemingly logarithmic way) over the course of our lives can lead one—or at least me—to wonder what the subjective experience of time would be for a being, like one of Tolkien’s elves, who lives a very long time, or forever. It’s more or less pointless to think too precisely about the latter, because forever never happens, or at least it never finishes happening. But a being that lives for many thousands or millions of years would eventually, I imagine, come to see even the rising and falling of nations as no more momentous than, say, the life of an adult mayfly, or the brief growth, sporulation, and then shriveling of toadstools after a rain.
I think it can be useful to imagine such perspectives, though I’ve found few authors who have tried really to get into the mindset of such possible characters. Still, to see things from the long view can help us keep our own concerns in perspective. Our petty differences can be seen to be all the pettier, our urgent ideological divisions not much deeper or more consequential than changes in fashion, and the experiences of our lives both less cataclysmic and at the same time more precious and beautiful.
With that thought, I’ll close by sharing with you a picture that I encountered on Jerry Coyne’s website, taken and shared by one of his many readers. It’s a photograph, edited in camera** only, by Joseph Routon, who said that I was free to share it if I wanted. I think it’s beautiful and brilliant, and I like his title for it: Life is beautiful! Wear a Mask!!
*In fact, if I recall correctly, in Roger Penrose’s book The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind he points out that, taken from the scale of the Planck time, and the time scale of subatomic processes, the lifespan of a human is comparable to the lifespan of our universe itself. Now that’s thought-provoking. I was so pleased when they gave him the Nobel Prize this year.
**I mean that in the literal sense, not that it took place in a judge’s private quarters, without the press or the public present…though I in fact doubt that there were any members of the press around when he did it.