O'Brien Versus Holmes

Auden noted that the world doesn’t stop or even pause when a man dies, not even when the deceased is a great poet. That is a depressing thought to some. But the same thing is true when great advances are made in cosmology. The momentous event leaves no mark; nothing changes in ordinary life.


A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

Journalists are trying to frame news that an inflationary model of the early universe has found empirical confirmation. “The Bicep2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation) telescope at the Amundsen-Scott polar base in Antarctica had found conclusive evidence for the existence of gravity waves,” writes the Telegraph. This new evidence implies that creation was much more fecund than at first thought.  We may live not in the universe, but in a multiverse.

The existence of gravity waves is the “smoking gun” for the controversial theory of cosmic inflation, the idea that right at the start of the universe, nearly 14 billion years ago, everything underwent a colossally fast period of expansion – the “B of the Bang”, if you like.

If cosmic inflation, which we need in order to explain several weird facts about our universe, is correct, then this provides strong support for the notion of the “multiverse”; the idea that what we see when we look up at the night sky is but a gnat on the back of the elephant that is the true totality of creation.

The existence of gravity waves is strong evidence that “our” universe may not only exist alongside an infinite number of parallel worlds, but may itself be infinite in extent, containing endless copies of our galaxy – and indeed our world and you and me – located countless trillions of light years apart.

As National Geographic put its, “essentially, in the models favored by the BICEP2 team’s observations, the process that inflates a universe looks just too potent to happen only once; rather, once a Big Bang starts, the process would happen repeatedly and in multiple ways.” It wasn’t just a Bang, but it was a chain of Bangs, as if someone had strung an infinite length of det cord in every direction to produce a giant sequence of creation.


The Big Bang and inflation make the universe look like the ultimate free lunch, [Alan] Guth has suggested, where we have received something for nothing.

But Linde takes this even further, suggesting the universe is a smorgasbord stuffed with every possible free lunch imaginable. …

In this multiverse spawned by “chaotic” inflation, the Big Bang is just a starting point, giving rise to multiple universes (including ours) separated by unimaginable gulfs of distance. How far does the multiverse stretch? Perhaps to infinity, suggests MIT physicist Max Tegmark, writing for Scientific American.

The idea itself is so non-intuitive — perhaps post-intutive is the better phrase  — that Tegmark himself asks in Scientific American, “so how seriously should we take inflation?”

Inflation had emerged as the most successful and popular theory for what happened early on even before BICEP2, as experiments gradually confirmed one of its predictions after another: that our universe should be large, expanding and approximately homogeneous, isotropic and flat, with tiny fluctuations in the cosmic baby pictures that were roughly scale invariant, “adiabatic” and “Gaussian.” To me and many of my cosmology colleagues, the gravitational waves discovered by BICEP2 provide the smoking-gun evidence that really clinches it, because we lack any other compelling explanations for them. For example, the ekpyrotic and cyclic models of the universe that had emerged as the most popular alternatives to inflation are now suddenly ruled out because they cannot explain BICEP2’s gravitational wave detection.

This means that if the BICEP2 results hold up and we take inflation seriously, then we need to understand and take seriously also everything that inflation predicts – and these predictions form quite a long list!


Tegmark lists the implications  in the form of a question and answer.

Q: What caused our Big Bang?
TC: There’s no explanation – the equations simply assume it happened.
IC: The repeated doubling in size of an explosive subatomic speck of inflating material.

Q: Did our Big Bang happen at a single point?
TC: No.
IC: Almost: it began in a region of space much smaller than an atom.

Q: Where in space did our Big Bang explosion happen?
TC: It happened everywhere, at an infinite number of points, all at once, with no explanation for the synchronization.
IC: In that tiny region – but inflation stretched it out to about the size of a grapefruit growing so fast that the subsequent expansion made it larger than all the space that we see today.

Q: How could an infinite space get created in a finite time?
TC: There’s no explanation — the equations simply assume that as soon as there was any space at all, it was infinite in size.
IC: By exploiting a clever loophole in Einstein’s general relativity theory, inflation produces an infinite number of galaxies by continuing forever, and an observer in one of these galaxies will view space and time differently, perceiving space as having been infinite already when inflation ended.

Q: How big is space?
TC: There’s no prediction.
IC: Probably infinite.

Yet this tremendous news leaves nothing to remark upon to the waitress at the lunch counter, to our supervisor at work or the cop who may pull any of us over someday to issue a speeding ticket. What can one say? What small talk is possible? A trillion dollars is comprehensible. A lifetime lasting five hundred years might be imaginable. But infinities of infinities derived from nothing — well you can’t even imagine it, let alone gossip about it. If F. Scott Fitzgerald were alive he might say that man was “face to face for the first time in history with something incommensurate to his capacity for wonder.”


But not incommensurate to his melancholy. The BICEP2 news has, if anything, had a curiously depressing effect among some intellectuals, as if the newly revealed vista by its very magnificence had diminished the beholder into insignificance. In golden age science fiction the characters in stories could fly in recognizable space ships and land — tail first mind you — on distant planets really not so different from our own. But reality as we now understand it is way past that, and that for many is a frightening thought.

There is in man a curious impulse to be governed by little kings; a craving for a sovereign of the right size; someone — even a bully — only let him be within reach; with whom relations are clear and our place in the hierarchy is known. The poet Giacomo Leopardi caught our longing for the familiar in his verse.

Dear to me always was this lonely hill
And this hedge that excludes so large a part
Of the ultimate horizon from my view.
But as I sit and gaze, my thought conceives
Interminable vastnesses of space
Beyond it, and unearthly silences,
And profoundest calm; whereat my heart almost
Becomes dismayed. And as I hear the wind
Blustering through these branches, I find myself
Comparing with this sound that infinite silence;
And then I call to mind eternity,
And the ages that are dead, and this that now
Is living, and the noise of it. And so
In this immensity my thought sinks drowned:
And sweet it seems to shipwreck in this sea.

A cozy universe is appealing to some. But now reality is the wrong size. What is precisely attractive about the Left — or any tyrannies which seduce us to submit — is they offers us comforting little kings who spare us the uncertainty of infinity. The smaller the king, the deeper our bow. The Party in Orwell’s 1984 had no intention of expanding our vistas. The point, it argued, lay in shrinking our conceptions. In the dialogue between the tortured and the torturer in Room 101, the message is clear. The problem is the stars. Only let the Party blot out the stars and man will be restless no more.


‘But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach for ever.’

‘What are the stars?’ said O’Brien indifferently. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.’

‘The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not power over things, but over men.’

Even without Room 101 few on the contemporary scene appear to care about the external world; the state of the economy or Ukraine … let alone multiverses.  The physical universe, even physics itself seems curiously irrelevant, except as it provides us with smart phones and WiFi. What they care about is not getting a penalty notice in the mail and that TV keeps playing its reality shows. That to them is real. Multiverses and infinities have to affect the gas bill for people to take them seriously, and not before.

Yet for others tidings from beyond the familiar wood and the revealed existence of dragons past the mountains high and cold will be welcome news.  For them the need to be loved is, to quote Auden again, not synonymous with the need to be loved alone. We don’t have to possess, only to know. That we might never see dragons personally is less important than the possibility they exist.

Sherlock Holmes once observed there was a promise in superfluity and a beckoning beauty in unseen infinities. “Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”


And now we have more than the flowers. We have untold numbers of universes.

The last decades have been spent inducing man to look at his bunions; to lower his gaze from the sky beyond the flag to a  politician’s bumper sticker. It is now a civic virtue to imagine oneself as mere protoplasm, or a chemical accident; to speak no more of cures, but of end-of-life care; to put aside the thought of dawn and wait instead for inevitable night; to enforce scarcity when everything about us shouts No Limits!  No Limits. But to accept these possibilities we must have hope.  “And so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

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