Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What's the Big Deal with Infinity?

While in the process of grabbing a coffee (one of the mundane acts that breaks up the slow passage of my day) I overheard a conversation between two coworkers. One was reading a science magazine while the other was also preparing a beverage.

Coworker1: "Carol, have you ever thought about the universe?"
Carol: "What about it?"
Coworker1: "How can it be infinite? What's infinite?"
Carol: "I don't know, it just is."
Coworker1: "But it has to end somewhere. It can't keep going on forever. Why do 'they' keep saying the universe is infinite?"

I was actually a little shocked by the banter. What's not to understand about infinite??? What's the big deal with infinity?

Just to be a smart-ass I added in," You're reading about just one universe? What about the polyverse made up of an infinite number of universes?"

That didn't help Coworker1 very much.

But seriously, what's so hard to understand about the concept of "No matter how far you go, you can go further."

The universe (if you believe in just one) has been expanding for a finite amount of time since the Big Bang... or so the theory goes. But whatever it is expanding INTO clearly must be infitite; a nothingness that extends beyond the material as matter expands into it. Beyond the farthest reaches of matter there is light and energy travelling infront of it. Right at the limits of the farthest reaches of light and energy, there is a void that the light and energy are about to reach. And beyond that, further void about to be filled with light, energy and matter, but still unreached.

Why does the human mind want to wrap empty void in a limit? Why are we expecting to find a wall or barrier at the end?

I really fail the grasp the problem in failing to grasp infinity. However far you choose to count, you can count further. And instead of counting numbers, you can add them, or multiply them, or take one as the power to another and keep going ever further. Why would there be a limit? What aspect of our being demands limits?

Even more interesting (to me) is the question of whether this need for the finite is a human characteristic or the result of cultural or educational bias. A Taoist has no trouble describing the search for the void. Total emptiness. I would bet that a true zen master has no problems with concepts of the infinite, as they spend so much time considering the nothingnes.

And this leads me to thoughts about capitalism and its requirement for perpetual growth and progress. When did people begin to accept the idea of an infitely expanding economy but reject the idea of an infinite universe?

Economics is all based upon resources, which (for a single planet) are clearly finite. Even as each and every resource is known to be dwindling, the economy depends ever increasing production in order to move forward.

How did we get so confused about ideas concerning what ends, and what never ends? And why are these contradictions not more apparent to more people?

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