New Year reflections on time, life & the universe

IMG_9211I’ve just been reading that the chances of the universe (and the planet that we call home) having been formed by a massive number of very specific random events are so slight that even die-hard atheists are questioning their (lack of) belief.

Apparently there are just too many complex parameters that are required to support life to be a coincidence – such as the presence of a large star that is close enough but not too close, the gravitational pull of a planet like Jupiter to reduce the risk of asteroid strike, and the correct ratio of nuclear and electromagnetic forces.

Despite the overwhelming enormity of the cosmos and ongoing uncertainty about whether our very existence is the result of a big bang or divine intervention, I was delighted to read (on the next page) that Rick Morton’s mother had passed on some universal wisdom to her son when she explained that the world definitely didn’t revolve around him. 

A few other people would do well to remember this humbling fact about their own relative importance. (Mrs Morton – have you ever considered a career on the international professional speaking circuit?)

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The article’s tag line had initially grabbed my attention with its claim that rumours about the death of religion had been greatly exaggerated.

This was of course a reference to Mark Twain’s (1835 – 1910) classic response published in the New York Journal in 1897 after his obituary had been published somewhat prematurely.

Alfred Nobel (1833 – 1896) could potentially have tried to come up with a witty comment when he read his own obituaries (published in error when his brother died) and attempted to counter statements such as “The merchant of death is dead”.

Instead, Nobel chose an alternative and more ‘noble’ path that was not made public until after his actual death. As a result we know him better for his international peace and other prizes and less so for having given the world dynamite and profiting from oil and the manufacture of cannons, detonators and other armaments.

Luckily, he was too early to be swayed by Elbert Hubbard (unless he could time travel), who advised that one can avoid criticism by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.*

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As well as being a sucker for a good tag line, I often see book titles that are irresistible and just beg to be read (e.g. Ben Goldacre’s latest book ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that‘ about dodgy medical research and health product claims based on his Bad Science/Bad Pharma column in The Guardian).

Unfortunately some titles have loads of promise but leave me disappointed when I read the back and discover that the content is not quite what I expected.

Like when I noticed a copy of ‘The Rosie Effect’ a few days ago.

I so wanted this novel to be based on the concept illustrated in ‘Run Rosie Run’ but the blurb made it clear that this was not the case. (And then I remembered that the film was actually called ‘Run Lola Run’ – Oops!)

(Run Lola Run‘ is a German film in three parts that was released in 1998. It starts out exactly the same each time but the ending is completely different depending on how long it takes Rosie to get down a flight of steps from her apartment. One time Rosie trips over a dog and takes a bit longer, while another time she arrives at the street a bit earlier and does not bump into a woman pushing a pram. These small variations make a big difference. ‘Sliding Doors’ is based on a similar concept – where the outcome changes completely depending upon whether Gwyneth Paltrow misses the train or not.)**

I am fascinated (and somewhat terrified) by the idea that the future may be altered irrevocably by seemingly inconsequential actions.

This thought was probably in the back of my mind when I instead purchased the latest book by Ben Elton (author of numerous hilarious and scarily insightful novels and TV series, including the environmental conspiracy classic ‘Gridlock‘).***

Time and time again‘ explores the issue of time travel and asks what might happen if we had the opportunity to go back in time and change a crucial event or assassinate someone who, with the benefit of hindsight, turned out to be a tyrant.

As I don’t want anyone describing me as a spoiler in my obituary (especially if I get to read it before my death like Nobel and Twain), I will resist the temptation to tell you the ending and instead encourage all of you to read it.

(It should also be added to mandatory reading lists for all students – not just those studying history, theology, politics and philosophy.)

Although I admit to having a particular bias towards anyone prepared to argue that time is a relative concept (to which anyone who is chronically late will attest), the content focuses on people and unintended consequences rather than the physics that may or may not make time travel possible.

This intriguing novel also raises lots of ‘wotifs’. For example, what if millions of people were never murdered in concentration camps, women never got the vote, and the smartphone had never been invented?

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If you are open to some sort of hybrid creation/evolution theory and a more flexible view of the universe, does it follow that disasters (including seismic events, pandemics and climate change) are a conscious attempt by someone or something to right a few wrongs in our (occasionally calculated but more often clumsy) march towards unsustainable ‘progress’?

Are they intended to restrict the relentless expansion of humans across the globe and into outer space and to delay our inevitable spiral towards chaos?

And are wars and other human conflicts ‘tolerated’ or even encouraged for similar reasons?

Surely a higher being would be more compassionate and seek to avoid spectacularly unequal and harsh impacts and suffering?

(Apologies if you already have all the answers. I fully recognise that Arts students may have debated lofty questions such as these while I was out doing field surveys and drawing trees.)

Unless this was just a trial run and the higher being has since moved on and is hoping for better results in another distant universe? Maybe they decided that they spent too much time perfecting nature in general and need to work a bit harder on human nature next time?

Or perhaps the universe is the work of a high committee that does not have the benefit of unilateral decisions and is forced to make endless compromises? Or (worse still) is doomed to spend eternity arguing about the optimum solution while people on earth bumble along as best they can?

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References:

* But often mistakenly attributed to Aristotle.

** There are lots of other examples in film and print (e.g. here) but ‘Run Lola Run’ is my favourite. An earlier Polish film called ‘Blind Chance’ apparently used a similar storyline with three separate scenarios.

*** I really enjoyed ‘Gridlock’ but it has been criticised for its insensitive and sometimes ill-informed treatment of people with disabilities.

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4 replies

  1. I love time travel stories – thanks for the recommendation. And, Happy New Year !

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