My wife and were watching a show on Netflix about the subject of infinity when they trotted out an example that blew my mind. If you put an apple in a box and left it in there for an infinite amount of time, the apple would eventually decay and turn to dust, but all the particles that used to be the apple – 1024 power of them – would be swirling around in there, slowly reacting with each other until they turned into a plasma burning at unbelievable temperatures and, as all these particles interacted with each other over endless millennia, they would eventually reconstitute themselves into all 10×1024 states the amount of particles originally in the box could possibly occupy – like a pocketknife, a banana, a lightbulb, butterfly, flashlight, etcetera, etcetera. “This,” a physicist said, “Is the power the infinite has over the finite.” And, since we’re talking about infinite amounts of time here, eventually you’d open the box and, voila, your apple would be there again. “How did that happen?” the same physicist said. “How did this hot gas turn into an apple? But eventually it has to. In fact, every possible thing that could exist in the box will exist. And they will each exist an infinite number of times.”
When physicists talk about such things, they often sound like high schoolers on an acid trip. “Far out man!” But, if you follow their logic to the utmost extreme, that means everything in the cosmos, over an infinite amount of time, must eventually occupy every state it can possibly occupy – meaning there will inevitably be exact copies of you and me out there in the universe doing exactly what we’re doing now! Ugh. Truth be told, trying to imagine such vastly mind boggling things gives me a slight case of nausea. And, when you think about it, learning about science’s often counterintuitive proclamations about what reality is usually isn’t much use for the average person on the street – but it does wonders for martial spats.
“Honey,’ I said to my wife as we were preparing dinner, “Something in the fridge smells.”
“Don’t start,” Annie said, tensing. My wife and I usually have arguments over her proclivity to keep leftovers past their expiration date.
“You can’t smell that?”
“You always throw out leftovers when they’re still good.”
“Whatever that is,” I said. “It smells like botulism. Please find it and throw it out.”
With a “harrumph” Annie delved into the fridge and, after much rummaging around, produced a Tupperware container of the chili I made last week.
“I think it’s the chili,” she said, opening the container. “Yep” she said, after a sniff. “That’s the culprit.”
“Were you hoping that, if you left it in the fridge for an infinite amount of time, it’s atoms would turn into a hot plasma and eventually reassemble into a fresh batch of chili?”
“Very funny,” she said, giving me a withering stare. I wisely skipped saying, “It’s hard to be right all the time.” Science is a bitch.
Later that night, however, I found those physicist’s words echoing in my head. “This is the power the infinite has over the finite.” Infinity can be a scary thing. Who hasn’t looked up at the night sky and felt infinitesimally small compared to the sublime grandeur of the stars above? Like everyone, I find the idea of my finitude daunting – that most of those stars I see will be around long after I’m dead. But, after I take a few breaths, I try remembering that infinity’s vastness is indeed it’s power, that it’s the very thing that makes room for everything there is – everything that is not infinite like us. And if everything is recycled in endless permutations? Well, maybe the Hindus are on to something there. But when I finally slipped under the covers and shut off the light, I couldn’t shake the feeling I’m on an endless journey that’s only just begun. Maybe I’ll find my chili out there waiting for me.
Far out, man