Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Insufficient and unceasing

Went with my father to a panel discussion on the multiverse at UCSD's new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination this afternoon. A young theoretical physicist/cosmologist, an experimental astronomer and the science fiction writer in residence each spoke. While they had planned the panel together, the differences in their approaches were half the fun. The other half was this multiverse business which, the sci-fi writer (also a PhD in physics) told us, has in fifteen years become a theory everyone takes seriously. As the theoretical physicist stressed, it's not just a theory, but a prediction made by other theories (inflation, string theory). I'm not sure I see the significance of the difference, but I guess a prediction is, in principle at least, testable. In the ensuing discussion he mentioned that he hopes we'll be able to test this, adding that this was perhaps just an "aesthetic preference" of his. Then, as a sort of coda, he noted that it would be "kind" of the universe, too.

The panel offered us a kind multiverse. The second speaker was part of the team which triumphantly announced the confirmation of gravity waves a few months (and so inflation, and, sort of, the multiverse) - On its A1 the New York Times called it the "smoking gun." He didn't let on that the scientific community is far from agreed that anything of the sort was established, instead posting a 17th century painting of a dissection and remarking that over 600 articles engaging their data had already appeared. His presentation was full of wit and humor and, since the results were from a funny gifsUCSD-built telescope at the South Pole, he included this well-known penguin gif (my first gif!).

The sci-fi writer talked about ways in which all this might be good news for us - make our showing up for panels like this in some way significant, maybe even indicative of some broader truth about the multiverse. He was very taken by a theory that black whole really create new universes, and, if some produce universes with more black holes of their own through the transmission of a sort of black hole DNA, then a sort of evoluton of universes might be taking place - apparently what might make a universe more productive of black holes might also make it more likely to sustain life!

The chance for any sort of affirmation of our experience in all this seems vanishingly small, to put it mildly. I was thrown back to the opening remarks by the Center's director, who reminded us of Borges' story of the "Library of Babel," which it was fun to have an excuse to reread on returning home. (I'm familiar with it in part because it's one of Borges' Leibnizian works; for that matter, I'm familiar with the multiverse in part because of talk I heard in Lisbon which insisted that, were he alive today, the famous philosopher of "possible worlds" would be all over the multiverse.) As the director recounted it, initial excitement over a library of all possible books evaporated as people found that almost all were gibberish. He was too kind to mention this: As Borges describes his vast library (which his author thinks infinite), each of its hexagonal chamber is illuminated by a special kind of light: "the light they give is insufficient, and unceasing."

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (Penguin, 1998), 115. 112.

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