A Brief History of Time, or Turning 35

by Elison Alcovendaz

A couple weeks ago, I turned 35. On the same day, I also finished reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

I've never been well-versed in science. I'm the guy who took Astronomy in college thinking I was going to meet girls and look at stars (even though my class was in the early afternoon), but ended up drowning in so many complex equations that all I could do was get a C and call it a day. But reading A Brief History of Time, I felt like I had become one with the cosmos, a collection of particles intimately connected with the rest of the universe, like a little piece of truth had been made known to me.

At a point in the book, Hawking ruminates about the possibility of a "Theory of Everything," an explanation of, well, everything. At least everything physical. General relativity and quantum mechanics are generally considered to be the two closest theories to this, and a large part of the book explores how to bring the two together. But it got me thinking, if we are approaching a Theory of Everything, and humans are a part of Everything, might there be some really complicated set of equations that could accurately predict human behavior? Surely, if there are rules guiding the way electrons move (with a certain amount of uncertainty, of course), and if there are rules guiding the way massive pieces of matter interact gravitationally in space, then there should be rules for how other pieces of matter (us) exist, right? Or, at the very least, guide the lives we lead?

There were three concepts that really hit home with me. First, the idea of time dilation. This is probably beyond my mental capabilities, but time dilation basically states that the faster you're moving, the slower you perceive time to happen to you relative to someone else. For example, if you were to get on a spaceship and fly at a very, very, very, very fast speed into space, circle the solar system a few times and then return to earth, you'd find that we mere Earthlings would have aged more quickly than you, you lucky astronaut! Or, at least, that would be the perception. Is that weird? I probably explained that incorrectly. Perhaps a video explaining the Twin Paradox will help:

I'm not here to butcher cosmological physics, so let's get to how a similar idea of time dilation affects us. A few years after high school, I'd hear about peers from my class who were doing great things: getting PhDs and globetrotting and working for worldwide firms and living in New York and Paris and basically doing things I'd dreamed of doing but just never did. For them, moving from event to event in their lives was happening at a much quicker speed. From my vantage point, because I saw them moving more quickly into the future, my life, relativistically, seemed slower (or "normal") even though the post high school years remained the same for both of us. Same thing happened when people my age started getting married and the same thing is happening now that everyone I know in my age range already has kids. 

"Relative" to everyone else, my life has moved more slowly. What I've been thinking about lately is the benefit of having kids earlier versus having them later. If things go according to plan, I'll likely be 37 by the time Patty and I have our first child. My mother had me when she was 22. Several family members and friends had children sooner. Cons? Maybe less financial stability, less life experience, less time to do things for themselves in the earlier years. Pros? Maybe a better physical ability to care for a child (less toil on the physical body, for gravity affects time, too), more energy, and the kicker, of course, which is the appearance of more time. Though I'm passed the point of choosing, the decision of when to have kids can be treated as a condition of time dilation. If you wait, you watch people move more quickly into the future and thus experience your life more slowly, having the benefit of slower time when you're young.  If you have them early, when you retire and the kids are out of the house, everyone else will be moving more quickly into the future, and thus, you can enjoy slower time when you're in your retirement. Here's to hoping that, for Patty and I, anyway, we've made the right decision.

The second concept that really struck me was the anthropic principle, or, as Hawking writes, "We see the universe the way it is because we exist." There's a "weak" anthropic principle and a "strong" one, but for my purposes here we'll deal strictly with the "weak" one. Essentially, the world as we observe it can only be as it is because if it were any different, humans wouldn't exist to observe it. So even if 99.99999999999999999999999999999999 percent of the universe is uninhabitable for humans, the fact that we're here, on Earth, makes our location in the universe extremely special.

If that all sounds divinely inspired, or destined, well, you wouldn't be alone. If there was any part in the book that begged God as explanation, this was it. But science would explain that in the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, otherwise known as the multiverse, even if it were one in a quintillion that all the necessary components would occur to create a place where life would exist to observe the universe, in the realm of possible universes, it is likely to happen somewhere at sometime.

Our lives operate in much the same way, in ways that make us feel as though things were destined to happen. When we are born, there are an infinite number of events that could occur to us and an infinite number of choices we could make to said events that create the person you are right now, right here. I mean, there are literally an infinite number of possibilities. Instead of giving it to destiny, though, which is easy enough for us to do, what I learned was the importance of every decision. A few years ago, I had quit a job I thought would be a career, moved back in with my parents to pursue writing, and went back to school. Not exactly a prime "boyfriend" candidate. And then I met a woman in my first class and we talked a bit and then the last day of class came and, still convinced I wouldn't be worthwhile to everyone, even more convinced when she figured out the state of my residential and financial situation, I'd have zero chance of even sniffing a first date, I debated (rather fitfully), if I was going to ask for her number. Eventually I did and she saw something in me and we got married and it's easy to call that "destiny," or even God's plan, but really it was a choice. A series of choices. If anything, the anthropic principle should teach us about the importance of our own agency.

The biggest impact for me, however, came from the idea of singularities. A singularity, in the terms of science, is a point at which some cosmological measure becomes infinite. The most well-known example is the Big Bang singularity, a point at which the curvature of space-time was infinite. Another are black holes, where density becomes infinite. I personally don't fully understand the concept of infinity, so you can read about it here and then explain it to me.   The important thing to know about singularities is the rules we know no longer apply. No scientist knows what happened before the Big Bang because the rules of general relativity and quantum mechanics no longer work (many say this is because pre-Big Bang is God and we cannot understand God, but that's another blog for another day, maybe by an alternate me in another universe!). You may have read about a recent discovery that within a blink after the Big Bang, the universe experienced an exponential, yet instantaneous rate of growth faster than the speed of light (which according to relativity, isn't "supposed" to happen) and scientists just found evidence of this. Sometimes, even in science, the rules break down. Sometimes, the rules change.

If you take a look at your life, it is likely filled with singularities. When someone died. When someone was born. When you lost a job. When you gained a job. When you got married. When you got divorced. When you got sick. When you got healthy. When you read a book and it changed your life. There are events that happen and you know you'll never be the same. The rules that applied before can never apply now. The problem is, we often don't know it at first and we continue with our lives as normal, as though nothing has changed. We might still be reeling from that initial explosion, that event that knocked us from the comfortable and made us feel as though we were floating aimlessly in space. And yet, eventually, you find your feet on solid ground, you have the distance and time to observe clearly, and you can see the previously invisible threads of events and choices that made you who you are, right here and right now, and armed with that information, you can make the choices that lead you to a bright future filled with possibility.

When I look back, turning 35 is going to be one of those moments when my world changed. If there's anything that Hawking has taught me, it's this: neither you nor I are at the center of the universe, but the fact that we are here, living, is so ridiculously special that we need to stop giving away our agency. Our lives are not pre-destined. Our loves are not pre-destined. Our health, our happiness, none of it is a part of anyone's plan but our own. Let's make our own choices, acknowledge when it's time to change the rules, and by God, let's fly, no, let's soar, into the the finite space-times of our lives with curiosity, eagerness, and joy. 

Or, as one astronaut put it, To Infinity, and Beyond!