Infinity is a very large number. Larger than you can ever imagine. But let’s try.
Until recently we lived in a universe – billions of galaxies, with billions of stars each. Big numbers, but nothing compared to infinity. Then scientists began to speculate about a multiverse – an infinity of universes. How many is that? Enough that your life could be randomly recreated over and over again, for an infinity of times somewhere out there in an infinity of universes. Some of your lives, an infinity, will only be roughly like yours, but some of them, another infinity, will be exactly like your life now, and another infinity of them will be only slightly different, by just one little thing. And so on. For infinity.
The number of monkeys and the amount of time it takes to randomly recreate all the works of Shakespeare by banging on old typewriters are very small numbers compared to infinity, but still much larger than what we can imagine.
Get the idea how big infinity is? No, I don’t think so, not yet, it’s still bigger than you can imagine.
This morning after my routine breakfast of scrambled eggs and potatoes, I was sitting on the porcelain throne in the smallest room of my house, reading a copy of Civilization by Niall Ferguson, when an alien from Gliese 687 broke into my house and examined my kitchen without me noticing. So how could I know this? Well, this morning I was reading The Hidden Reality by Brian Green while sitting on the porcelain throne in the smallest room of my house, just after my breakfast of eggs and potatoes and I had this thought: What if while I was taking my morning dump, an alien from Gliese lands in my backyard, jimmies open my back door with with a dazzling alien lock pick, lets itself in, along with a yellow cat hanging out by the back door, to poke around my kitchen, for a bit, only to leave before I finish my reading to return to the kitchen to do the dishes?
If we live in a reality of infinity that has happened. Maybe it happened to me today. Let’s make infinity even bigger. Let’s imagine that alien is also being followed around by a robot from another universe that is billions of years old, and it is collecting information on the life forms of this universe. Hey, it could happen, we have infinity to work with.
My kitchen is a rather small place, at least compared to all of reality. To me it appears to be empty of life except when I fixing myself something to eat. My wife works out of town Monday through Friday, so I live mostly alone. On the weekends my kitchen is very busy with Susan and my coming and goings, but for the most part, from my frame of reference, my kitchen only exists when I’m in it.
My awareness of reality is equal to my ability to comprehend the physical reality outside of my body. I have five senses that collects data that my brain processes into a view of reality. It’s not a direct view. I also am able to analyze this data and theorize about aspects of reality I can’t perceive directly – like time, space and infinity. We might only have five senses but we have many more cognitive tools to perceive reality, like mathematics, logic, imagination, science, etc.
This is a tale of perspective. A lesson in how we explore reality. How big is reality. How much can we perceive?
Like the famous fable about the blind men examining an elephant and all reporting something different, this story is about different creatures exploring my kitchen and reporting what they saw.
I use the world reality instead of universe because scientists are now hypothesizing that our universe is one of but many, probably an infinity of them. So I use the word reality to point to the whole shebang of everything. My kitchen is but one infinitely small aspect of one infinitely large reality. Any creature standing in my kitchen will feel they are in the century of reality. If we expand outward from my kitchen by powers of ten, we’ll eventually surpass the size of the known universe at ten to the 26. More than likely, reality extends upwards well beyond that, probably for infinity. If we explore downward by decreasing powers of ten, at 10 to the minus 18 we’d reach the smallest particles we know about today, but again, there’s probably plenty more small to explore, maybe an infinite amount.
My kitchen is so small compared to the rest of reality as to be non-existent. But then, compare to the smallest of things, my kitchen is as large as the universe is to us today.
The Tale of the Bacterium
Okay, the bacterium didn’t walk in, it floated in with a few billion friends. They wafted in unnoted by all. Bacteria don’t have sense organs, so their concept of my kitchen was rather limited. Maybe as much as you or I would know about the Moon if a bit of moonlight flickered on us through a window one night when we weren’t paying attention.
Bacteria are tiny, but common, and essential to life on Earth, and for most places in our universe, the common form of life. Some scientists have even pessimistically suggested that our kind of self-aware life might be so uncommon that we might be the only example in this universe. Others theorize our kind of intelligent life might be common enough to have many concurrent examples per galaxy. A bacteria might have as much as a terabyte of information stored chemically in it’s structure. How many universes have to evolve before we have one universe where bacteria were randomly produced out of simpler non-living elements? If it takes that many to make the smallest of life forms, how many universes have to form to create the scenario I’m giving here?
Bacteria have chemical receptors. There was a wet spot on the extraterrestrial’s respirator exit value and they landed on it. They died when she/he returned to their ship in my back yard moments after leaving my kitchen. They never knew anything about my kitchen or the ET, but then bacteria have never known much about anything, let alone conceived that we all live in the same reality.
The Ant’s Story
The ant came into the kitchen from under the house, via a loose space between the flooring and the water pipes. The ant is a giant compared to the bacterium, a magnificent creature, with useful sense organs and a little teeny tiny brain. To the ant, a creature who perceives the world mostly in two dimensions, my kitchen is a vast affair, but not impossibly large, probably no bigger than you and I walking through a large neighborhood. The ant was prowling through the cabinet under my sink while the alien was examining the island counter of my kitchen, while I was in the bathroom sitting on the pot reading Civilization by Niall Ferguson, and the robot was discreetly observing the alien.
The alien never noticed the ant. The robot recorded the ants activities with it’s powerful sensors. The ant felt the vibrations of the alien moving around the room, but never sensed the robot. The ant never even met the dying cockroach.
Imagine if life on Earth had never evolved past the ant. What if the perception of this Earth, our Earth, had never been perceived by nothing greater than an ant’s brain? We humans think reality is all about us, but it’s not. We humans come and go, even in all of infinity. And compared to everything else in infinity, in all of reality, humans would make up such a small percentage of each universe, that our total impact would be near zero. Compared to all of reality, we are as close to be nothing as nothing. Isn’t it hilarious that we each think we’re everything?
I often wonder what the world will be like when mankind becomes extinct and the most advanced being on the planet will be the dolphin or chimpanzee. Will they remember us?
What the Roach Saw
Unfortunately, the roach had entered my kitchen yesterday and had already partaken of the poison I had set out for roachkind. It wasn’t quite dead. It’s hairy legs occasionally stretched and retracted. The roach didn’t know it was dying. Nor did it notice when the alien reached down and carefully picked it up and put it in a small specimen container. The roach would finally die in orbit around the Earth. The roach had liked my kitchen in it’s own little way. It was warm and not perfectly clean. It had possibilities for a future colony. Lucky for me, but sad for the roach, it never got to lay its eggs. Those eggs were an interesting surprise to the ET from Gleise 687. To the roach, my kitchen was a much smaller place than what the ant found, but to a roach, reality isn’t very big at all. There is no infinite numbers in a roach’s brain.
The roach had perceived my presence several times during its short visit. It had no understanding that I was a fellow creature living in a large reality, it only sensed me by vibration and changes in light patterns on its primitive receptors. Evolution had programmed it to always run. However, the roach had no program to warn it of the chemical appeal of the bait I had left for it. Sorry little guy.
Mouse in the House
Last night, unnoticed by me, a little mouse crawled into the pantry from a passageway of tunnels in the wall. My kitchen was a far richer place to little Mickey than what the ant and cockroach found. My kitchen had wonderful possibilities, a very rich environment it. It was aware of my every movement in the house and knew when to hide and when to scamper. The kitchen was a three dimension maze of sights and smells, and when I left for the bathroom, the cute little mouse had come out of hiding and ran across the kitchen floor hoping to find something good to eat. It froze when the alien picked the lock of my back door, momentary letting in a chill breeze. The mouse sensed the cat immediately and was below the house before the cat reached the kitchen.
The little mouse could not count. It never knew that billions upon billions of bacteria lived inside it’s little body. It was no Carl Sagan of mice.
The Kitty Kat
The scruffy old cat was looking for a warm spot when it ran into the house. The being that let it in did not scare it like the human that lived there. The cat was leery of all humans and lived out of doors on its own. It was always drawn to the warmth that leaked out of houses, but never liked people, and especially hated dogs. It always kept other animals at a distance, except the ones it wanted to eat. As soon as the yellow cat walked into the kitchen it could smell the mouse.
In terms of certain kinds of numbers, cats and humans are very close. We know of each other’s existence. The difference is we can conceptually know much further than our senses can show us, whereas a cat is a creature that lives very well within it’s perceptual reach. This makes some humans sad, and others happy.
Alien from Gliese 687 (cloaked)
The alien was hundreds of years old because of enhancements to her/his biology. Aliens from Gliese 687 traveled between stars at one third of the speed of life. They have been observing Earth for millions of years. That’s the thing about intelligence, about the only thing to do in this universe is to observe how it works. Observers seldom let themselves be observed because of ethical reasons. It’s not much fun for a species to discover it’s not the crown of creation. If humans suddenly realized it was the mouse or cockroach of this reality, or even the bacterium, it would be hard on our collective ego.
She/he had let in a yellow cat that was hanging around the back door. The alien was completely silent, but then she/he was unaware of being followed by a robot from another universe.
The Robot from Another Universe (cloaked)
The carefully cloaked robot had been following the alien for over two hundred of our years. The robot found the alien the most interesting creature it has discovered in the last 787,623 years. When you can live for billions of years across multiple universes finding something interesting to do with your time is a challenge.
The robot was like a machine, but calling it a machine would be insulting. Eons ago it had been created by intelligent machines closer in shape to what we call machines. There are limits to intelligence, consciousness, awareness and lifespan, and this robot was at the outer limit, at least for all the universes it was aware of, but then there was much it wasn’t aware of. There’s always more. Infinity is like that.
Me, James Wallace Harris
This version of me is a lot like most of the others like me. I mostly know about this house, and what exists around it for a few miles. Conceptually I know about a lot more, but most of my awareness is focused on a tiny piece of reality, in a tiny fragment of time. Reality has existed for an infinite time before me, and will exist for an infinite time after me. Reality is infinitely bigger than I can imagine. I miss a lot, like the visit from the bacterium, ant, cockroach, mouse, cat, alien and robot. That’s how it always is, we miss a lot. We miss most of everything. We miss an infinity of everything. But that’s okay, because we have a finite mind that enjoys a finite time and place. Small numbers do have their charm.
None of my visitors stayed long, and by the time I finished my after breakfast read and returned to clean up the kitchen they had gone. I went off to my computer room to write this until lunch time. Which is now.
4 thoughts on “A Bacterium, Ant, Cockroach, Mouse, Cat, Extraterrestrial and Robot Walked into My Kitchen”
In an infinity of universes the alien burst through the bathroom door an said something rude involving you and his genetically enhanced sense of smell. And in infinite number of variations on that theme. Even an infinity of universes where unaware of all of this at the same time i scratched, another where I didn’t, and an infinity of scratches varying in length and intensity, for every single of the infinite event that happened in your house. Multiply that by every singe person, bug and bacteria each with its own infinity. And as so say for every atom and every sub-atomic particle, etc….
Which is why I don’t really buy the multi-verse theory, it whiffs of the same gobbledygook religion reeks of. I don’t see any reason for there not to be more than one universe, but the main reason to believe in an infinity is that the constants in our physics happen to be just right for beings like us to exist. I think it is far more (infinitely more in fact) likely that our understanding of physics is massively wrong and hopelessly incomplete. What we think are fundamental facts of physics are a mirage. An explanation of reality as naive as thinking there are four elements and each rises to its natural level to explain what we call gravity.
This is the curse of science it is always provisional and we understand too little at this point to draw any meaningful conclusions. People want to know the meaning of life. We know enough to be certain ancestral creation myths are bunk, but not enough to replace them with something satisfying in that deep, aware we are going to die sense. Our situation is (infinitely) worse than an tween algebra student trying to explain Einstein’s Relativity.
To end on a hopeful note, that massively wrong and hopelessly incomplete load a bunk was able to get us to the moon and for me to post this via electrons and magnetic charges stored on a metal platter. So we’ll make slow progress, but it will be eons after we are dead and gone. Damn, I so wanted this to end on a hopeful note.
Jim, we are finite beings, and there’s certainly no point to getting lost in infinity before we even know if infinity exists!
You talk about reality, but reality is finite – certainly, as far as we know. (A hypothesis isn’t a theory. It’s just imagination.) If you want to blow your mind, think about the very big or the very small. That’s mind-blowing and it’s real.
Furthermore, even if infinity exists, there isn’t an infinite number of you. You’re still an individual. We could clone you over and over and over again, but you’d still just be you. You’d still feel like an individual, feeling your own thoughts by yourself. Your clones would feel likewise, each a separate individual,… and they’d be right to think so.
So your initial story has not happened to you. Period. It doesn’t make any difference whether or not there are an infinity of universes, since that’s immaterial. OK, OK, you can claim that it might have happened to you, but you can claim that even if there’s just one universe. You don’t need infinity for that.
This is a clever story, don’t get me wrong, but I’m a concrete kind of guy. (You know that.) I don’t see any reason to get lost in infinity, because infinity hasn’t been demonstrated to exist. And it’s easy enough to get lost in our finite universe as it is!
Bill, I know the only thing we can do is focus on our finite little lives. This story was just a way to play with the idea of infinity. The faithful like to wish to live forever, but immortality is a very long time. My story is another way to think about forever. I want my story to remind people that our lives are not infinitely long, and our awareness is small. We might be creatures that can think big and want more, but what we need to do is cherish the short limited life we do have. Even if we were an alien that could live for hundreds of years, or a robot that could live for billions, there are always limitations.
Like Dirty Harry, a man must know his limitations.