Cosmological Infancy

There is a ‘problem’ that has been nagging at me for a long time – which is that there hasn’t been a long time. It’s Saturday, with no one around, or getting drunk, or something, so I’ll run it past you. Cosmology seems oddly childish.

An analogy might help. Among all the reasons for super-sophisticated atheistic materialists to deride Abrahamic creationists, the most arithmetically impressive is the whole James Ussher 4004 BC thing. The argument is familiar to everyone: 6,027 years — Ha!

Creationism is a topic for another time. The point for now is just: 13.7 billion years – Ha! Perhaps this cosmological consensus estimate for the age of the universe is true. I’m certainly not going to pit my carefully-rationed expertise in cosmo-physics against it. But it’s a stupidly short amount of time. If this is reality, the joke’s on us. Between Ussher’s mid-17th century estimate and (say) Hawking’s late 20th century one, the difference is just six orders of magnitude. It’s scarcely worth getting out of bed for. Or the crib.

For anyone steeped in Hindu Cosmology – which locates us 1.56 x 10^14 years into the current Age of Brahma – or Lovecraftian metaphysics, with its vaguer but abysmally extended eons, the quantity of elapsed cosmic time, according to the common understanding of our present scientific establishment, is cause for claustrophobia. Looking backward, we are sealed in a small room, with the wall of the original singularity pressed right up against us. (Looking forward, things are quite different, and we will get to that.)

There are at least three ways in which the bizarre youthfulness of the universe might be imagined:

1. Consider first the disconcerting lack of proportion between space and time. The universe contains roughly 100 billion galaxies, each a swirl of 100 billion stars. That makes Sol one of 10^22 stars in the cosmos, but it has lasted for something like a third of the life of the universe. Decompose the solar system and the discrepancy only becomes more extreme. The sun accounts for 99.86% of the system’s mass, and the gas giants incorporate 99% of the remainder, yet the age of the earth is only fractionally less than that of the sun. Earth is a cosmic time hog. In space it is next to nothing, but in time it extends back through a substantial proportion of the Stelliferous Era, so close to the origin of the universe that it is belongs to the very earliest generations of planetary bodies. Beyond it stretch incomprehensible immensities, but before it there is next to nothing.

2. Compared to the intensity of time (backward) extension is of vanishing insignificance. The unit of Planck time – corresponding to the passage of a photon across a Planck length — is about 5.4 x 10^-44 seconds. If there is a true instant, that is it. A year consists of less the 3.2 x 10^7 seconds, so cosmological consensus estimates that there have been approximately 432 339 120 000 000 000 seconds since the Big Bang, which for our purposes can be satisfactorily rounded to 4.3 x 10^17. The difference between a second and the age of the universe is smaller that that between a second and a Planck Time tick by nearly 27 orders of magnitude. In other words, if a Planck Time-sensitive questioner asked “When did the Big Bang happen?” and you answered “Just now” — in clock time — you’d be almost exactly right. If you had been asked to identify a particular star from among the entire stellar population of the universe, and you picked it out correctly, your accuracy would still be hazier by 5 orders of magnitude. Quite obviously, there haven’t been enough seconds since the Big Bang to add up to a serious number – less than one for every 10,000 stars in the universe.

3. Isotropy gets violated by time orientation like a Detroit muni-bond investor. In a universe dominated by dark energy – like ours – expansion lasts forever. The Stelliferous Era is predicted to last for roughly 100 trillion years, which is over 7,000 times the present age of the universe. Even the most pessimistic interpretation of the Anthropic Principle, therefore, places us only a fractional distance from the beginning of time. The Degenerate Era, post-dating star-formation, then extends out to 10^40 years, by the end of which time all baryonic matter will have decayed, and even the most radically advanced forms of cosmic intelligence will have found existence becoming seriously challenging. Black holes then dominate out to 10^60 years, after which the Dark Era begins, lasting a long time. (Decimal exponents become unwieldy for these magnitudes, making more elaborate modes of arithmetical notation expedient. We need not pursue it further.) The take-away: the principle of Isotropy holds that we should not find ourselves anywhere special in the universe, and yet we do – right at the beginning. More implausibly still, we are located at the very beginning of an infinity (although anthropic selection might crop this down to merely preposterous improbability).

Intuitively, this is all horribly wrong, although intuitions have no credible authority, and certainly provide no grounds for contesting rigorously assembled scientific narratives.  Possibly — I should concede most probably — time is simply ridiculous, not to say profoundly insulting. We find ourselves glued to the very edge of the Big Bang, as close to neo-natal as it is arithmetically possible to be.

That’s odd, isn’t it?

ADDED: Numerical escalation from John Derbyshire.

ADDED: Alrenous has a different Big Bang issue.

July 20, 2013admin 40 Comments »
FILED UNDER :Cosmos , Templexity

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40 Responses to this entry

  • radish Says:

    It’s always hard to be an early adopter. On the other hand, at least we can say we existed before existence was cool. Before all the hipsters showed up and reality sold out.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    In an expanding, diluting universe, “we existed before existence was cool” is a slogan of quite remarkable cosmological validity.

    [Reply]

    Alan Liddell Reply:

    “before existence was cool”

    I see what you did there.

    [Reply]

    Handle Reply:

    Awesome

    [Reply]

    fotrkd Reply:

    Depends how you interpret this infuriating sentence:

    Looking backward, we are sealed in a small room, with the wall of the original singularity pressed right up against us.

    And there was I thinking we were already an afterglow…

    [Reply]

    fotrkd Reply:

    I’m going to add some stuff from/about Nick’s namesake:

    [F]ollowing thinkers like Étienne de la Boétie he [Landauer] therefore insisted that all it takes is for human beings [to] step out of this relationship, this artificially-created social construct of reality, and the state is rendered obsolete, it disintegrates.”

    Pondering the depths of Cathedral penetration 🙂

    [Reply]

    Posted on July 20th, 2013 at 4:26 pm Reply | Quote
  • Orlandu84 Says:

    According to St. Thomas Aquinas one cannot prove that the universe is created. Most Christians should be surprised at this since Thomas holds that all sorts of things can be rationally shown to be true. That the universe exists can be proven. That God exists can be proven. That God sustains the universe can be demonstrated. That the universe started to exist at some point in time, however, cannot be demonstrated for Aquinas. Instead, he (and most Christian theologians of note before the Reformation) holds that the creation in time of the universe is an article of faith!

    To restate the above in Moldbug inspired terms, members of the Cathedral (being ‘evolved’ Christian universalists) hold onto the conception of the universe’s finitude in time as part of their belief in Progress. If the universe did not have a beginning or an end, Progress cannot exist as the meaning of human life. For Progress can only be understood as moving from a beginning (chaos) to an end point (heaven).

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    A tight bundle of intriguing ideas in that — and I share your eagerness to do some hard trekking into the metaphysics (as well as the socio-political diagnostics). It’s also clear that the present structure of cosmological theory has to be revisable in principle, with plenty of controversy about the nature of original singularity (Lee Smolin is especially ‘creative’ on the topic).

    Momentarily, though, there’s room for some generosity in engaging with the standard hypothesis — it was put together carefully and rigorously, to integrate an abundance of hard evidence. In particular, the discovery of cosmic expansion (and then accelerating expansion) implies something very like a Big Bang (or original singularity), following scrupulously disciplined scientific reasoning. It doesn’t seem necessary to ascribe ideological motives to that (even if the ideological resonances are, indeed, fascinating).

    [Reply]

    Posted on July 20th, 2013 at 4:31 pm Reply | Quote
  • Handle Says:

    The only way to support an intuition of Universal Earliness is to make some kind of statement along the lines of “There’s hasn’t / barely been enough time for X.” You have to have an X, and you have to have an estimate for some kind of lower bound on how long X takes. Example, Human Neurological Uniformity supported are often heard to assert such balderdash as, ‘Evolution doesn’t work that fast” or “There hasn’t been enough time for ethnic groups to diverse genetically in that way.” For them, the last 50K years are too ‘childish’ for HBD.

    So what’s your Universal X? The Universe has had plenty of time to cool down. There has been enough time for two or three generations of stars – most importantly the original age of ultra-fast-burning hypergiants didn’t take much time at all to form and complete their cycles (less than 10% of existence) and are responsible for both the ‘modern structure’ (heh) of galactic-core supergiant Black Holes and also, critically, for the elemental distribution they created in their Novas during that original round of stellar nucleosynthesis. The Earth is mostly made of Iron – only formed in the the core of a near-dead supergiant, and the other heavier elements (of which Earth has plenty) we only get from the neutron radiation during the Nova.

    I could go on. For example, it took two billion years for The Great Oxygenation Event to saturate the sinks and build up atmospheric concentration to levels which supported terrestrial life. But we’ve had two billion years, and another billion besides.

    What haven’t we had time for?

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    I agree that the intuitive revulsion at the disproportion between cosmic size and time is not rationally compelling, certainly according to your extremely strict principles. What, though, about Isotropy? You don’t allow for it, but it’s hardly an eccentric consideration. This argument is an influential application.

    [Reply]

    Handle Reply:

    I think the Doomsday argument is plainly faulty. In general Isotropy is not really about uniformity but balance. At some level of granularity we can permit a great deal of variation consistent with our observations, but above that scale the pluses and minuses cancel out almost exactly necessarily as a statistical matter. In a box of hydrogen, if you ‘zoom in’ enough, you can see one particular molecule going in a particular direction. A few order of magnitudes higher and average systematic directionality disappears entirely.

    With time, my preferred version works the other way around. At the smallest, briefest scales – time is indeed reversible and isotropic, with objects flitting backwards and forwards in time, and perhaps even interfering with themselves. But there is a statistical tendency for interactions and statistical ‘Consistency’ to cause a ‘drift’ forward. Move a few orders of magnitude up and time looks to have a continuous, unidirectional forward velocity.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    “I think the Doomsday argument is plainly faulty” … “plainly”? Freeman Dyson:

    [John] Leslie argued that the Copernican principle should apply to our position in time as well as to our position in space. As observers of the passage of time, we should not put ourselves into a privileged position at the beginning of the history of our species. As Copernican observers, we should expect to be in an average position in our history, rather than close to the beginning. Therefore, we should expect the future duration of our species to be not much longer than its past. Since we know that our species originated about a hundred thousand years ago, we should expect it to become extinct about a hundred thousand years from now.

    When Leslie published this prognostication, I protested strongly against it, claiming that it was a technically wrong use of the theory of probability. In fact Leslie’s argument was technically correct. The reason I did not like the argument was that I did not like the conclusion.

    John Hannon Reply:

    The isotropy issue would also be resolved if, as suggested by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, the universe is but one of an infinity of different universes.

    Posted on July 20th, 2013 at 5:07 pm Reply | Quote
  • Red Powder Says:

    One potential solution for the Fermi Paradox is simply that the universe is so young and we’re one of the first species to develop technology. People often forget that it’s only the Population II stars which have the heavy elements necessary for life (which narrows the window for life to appear), and that although life appeared very soon after the formation of the Earth (which makes me think life is common) it hung around for 4 billion years until deciding to go multicellular (which makes me think complex life is rare).

    What I wonder is if other intelligent species face similar problems to the ones we face. It’s probable that other tool-using species descended from large, tribal, land-based carnivores (if they were small, they couldn’t have big brains; if they were solitary, they wouldn’t be able to develop culture; if they were in the sea, they couldn’t develop tools; and if they were herbivores, they wouldn’t get enough energy to support big brains). Unless they evolved from some kind of eusociality, their tribalism will develop into multiple competing political and economic forms of organisation, much like us. And once their civilisation gets sufficiently advanced, they’ll face similar existential threats (super-destructive weapons, probably nuclear; key resource depletion; AI singularity; etc) and, like us, will probably lack the global unity to deal with these threats effectively.

    The neatest explanation for cosmological infancy imo is that one such civilisation will reach the singularity and ultimately take over the universe. Though the anthropological argument implications are making my head spin – should I be surprised that I’m a human living at the dawn of the universe, when I could be a Matrioshka brain living slab-bang in the middle of it?

    To go to an even higher level, I’m interested in “cosmologial evolution”/”fecund universe” theories that speculate that universes themselves reproduce. Maybe intelligent civilisations (with black-hole technology or whatever) are how they achieve that. I’d find that less surprising than there being merely one universe that was tuned just right for intelligent life (anthropological argument be damned). On the other hand, infinite universes a la Max Tegmark would also explain everything (literally).

    I also have a theory that any type of universe that supports sufficiently complex patterns (like some cellular automata) will eventually develop life and intelligence. Think self-replicating patterns that are able to mutate -> evolution by natural selection -> patterns with ever-greater agility, power and ability to respond to stimuli -> information processing patterns -> patterns that model the world (minds) -> patterns that model themselves (conciousness) -> group consciousnesses (societies, organisations) -> social evolution…

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    This a kind of overload comment … every time I set out to respond, I get distracted by a minor brain hemorrhage … but starting somewhere semi-random: who’s on your list of cosmological evolution people (besides Smolin and Susskind)?

    [Reply]

    Red Powder Reply:

    I’m not sure if that’s a compliment, but I’ll take it as one. Over the last few months I’ve been thinking about this kind of stuff a lot, (ie, cybernetics and reaction, though I had no idea anyone else would have linked the two) but haven’t yet gotten around to writing most of it down in my own blog. Hence my tendency to braindump.

    As for cosmological evolution, to be honest it isn’t something I’ve read about in depth. I’m more interested in biological and social evolution, because at least there we can get an idea of what happened beyond pure speculation. But if we take the whole of the biosphere and its evolutionary history as a single system, it seems suspiciously well-designed to produce intelligent tool-using life. If it’s not God, a higher level of natural selection – ie, cosmological selection – would be a neat explanation. But it’s not something I’ve thought about in depth.

    I’m just getting back into the habit of writing daily – are there any topics I mentioned in the above post that people here would be interested in reading about in more depth?

    [Reply]

    Posted on July 20th, 2013 at 11:30 pm Reply | Quote
  • admin Says:

    @ John Hannon — Why would the multiverse solve the isotropy problem? Most statistical ontologists (Almond, Yudkowski …) seem to be multiversalists and isotropy problem theorists.

    [Reply]

    John Hannon Reply:

    Although we find ourselves violating temporal isotropy by our proximity to the start of this particular universe, the multiverse would allow for sentient life emerging much later in other universes – even close to the end of some of them – and thus, from a multiversal perspective, the specific temporal isotrophy-violating character of this particular universe would be statistically subsumed.
    (And maybe in another universe psychedelics will have done me more favors than in this one)

    [Reply]

    Posted on July 21st, 2013 at 8:44 am Reply | Quote
  • Nick B. Steves Says:

    That’s odd, isn’t it?

    I don’t think so. Where else could we be? (And still have a we to talk about?)

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    “Where else could we be?” Any other time in the Stelliferous Era, just for starters.
    Consider Handle’s first post on this thread, and then Red Power’s: When the nucleosynthesis prerequisites for a chemically-rich system are considered, it looks as if the earth is a first generation planet, in a cosmic history that — even if truncated by savage Anthropic Principle constraints — extends out for 100 trillion years. If you had been the first person in the world to buy Apple stock, or drink a bottle of coke, you’d think it was strange, wouldn’t you? But the chance of finding oneself at the very beginning of the universe totally dwarfs that kind of weird coincidence.

    [Reply]

    fotrkd Reply:

    Our planet is 4,500 million years old, but its surface was molten during the first stage of its history, the heat made the atmosphere unbreathable, and countless isotopes generated even more heat. Then the whole thing cooled down. If primitive forms of life did appear before the cooling, they were swept away by the storms. The rocks dating from the period when the earth’s crust formed, about 3,700 million years ago, were subsequently given such rough treatment by the heat and the pressure that no fossil evidence remains, only carbon isotopes, which can indicate the presence of life. These are the oldest traces of life on earth. And what’s most interesting about them is precisely the fact that they indicate the presence of life about 3,700 million years ago.

    When I was a student, it was faculty dogma that the emergence of life was a highly improbable phenomenon. In his articles on the origins of life, George Wald wrote that the only reason this phenomenon had eventually occurred was that the earth was so old: ‘In time the impossible becomes the improbable, and the improbable becomes the almost certain.’ And that’s right, but basically it was his whole perspective that was flawed. For now we have fossils that come from the oldest rocks, and today we can say that life appeared as soon as it was possible for it to do so, it could not have been older than it is. Because the oldest rocks capable of containing it do in fact contain it. And this simple fact obliges us to reconsider the whole question.

    If life appeared as soon as it could, you may conclude to the contrary, that its appearance is predictable, that it is the logical result of the way organic chemistry and the physics of self-regulating systems function. But it doesn’t prove it! … Hence this early emergence of life is not a proof, but a clue. (Gould, Conversations About the End of Time)

    Extending this global argument to the universal, the conclusion is that the neo-natal is precisely where we are (or life is) most likely to be, and that as the universe ages life becomes increasingly challenging (as you suggest), and therefore less likely.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    You make a strange jump in this argument. Gould himself argues strongly the general trend of the terrestrial biosphere is to a quantitative expansion of living mass (overwhelmingly incarnated in bacteria). A statistical ontologist bacterium would expect to find itself living comparatively late in the earth’s history, not near the beginning.

    fotrkd Reply:

    Why, on behalf of the statistical ontologist bacterium, late in the earth’s history rather than late in the history of life on earth? The two are not necessarily the same thing (not that I want to insult the survival ability of bacteria – “they were here long before us, they will certainly outlive us, they thrive in tiny spaces inside rocks three kilometres underground” (Gould again)). Why the confidence life escapes the neo-natal (or has Gould just answered that)? And even then – “we should not find ourselves anywhere special in the universe, and yet we do – right at the beginning” – is this really so odd or just evidence of human insignificance on the cosmic stage? (It’s not odd for an early and short-lived form of life to exist near to inception?)

    Nick B. Steves Reply:

    We’re smack dab in the MIDDLE of Stelliferous Era… in the log domain accounting of time. Maybe counting time linearly is the problem. Most things in the REAL world aren’t linear.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    If we were going to use a Log scale to gain traction on this problem, we should invert it to account for the cosmic population trend (unless some kind of hard doomsday is about to curtail that).

    Posted on July 21st, 2013 at 12:21 pm Reply | Quote
  • The Reluctant Apostate Says:

    Looking at the long perspective with entropy in mind, it makes perfect sense that we’d find ourselves near the beginning of the universe. After all, per the second law of thermodynamics, the beginning of the universe is the time at which it has the least entropy and thus the most usable energy and life is nothing if not an energetically intensive process. It certainly won’t be abundant if it even exists in the degenerate era.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    That’s formally coherent, but it’s not substantially very persuasive, because the massive negative entropy stock of the early universe has been only partially converted (by dissipative structures) into living beings. The terrestrial biomass has continued to expand, even as the universal free-energy budget has (very gradually) been consumed. There are no thermodynamic constraints preventing aggregate cosmic biomass peaking close to the end of the Stelliferous Era. Given a sufficiently flexible definition of life, this is exactly what should be expected.

    [Reply]

    Posted on July 21st, 2013 at 2:04 pm Reply | Quote
  • admin Says:

    @ fotrkd — oh yes, the impending bacterial apocalypse. I confess to not having thoroughly factored that in to the ‘model’ yet — despite having recklessly opened the door to it. In any case, your openness to radically nihilistic possibilities speaks well of your rationality, from the S.O. perspective, at least.

    [Reply]

    fotrkd Reply:

    S.O – sod off? I did move away from the ill-thought out starting point. I simply meant it’s not odd for humans to be at this neo-natal point in time, even if it is statistically odd to be human.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    [“S.O. = Statistical Ontology”]

    [Reply]

    fotrkd Reply:

    Then you shouldn’t have gone to bed so early.

    fotrkd Reply:

    Wikipedia [Future of the Earth] supported evidence(!):

    As a result of these processes, multi-cellular lifeforms may be extinct in about 800 million years, and eukaryotes in 1.3 billion years from now, leaving only the prokaryotes…

    However, the increasingly extreme conditions will likely lead to the extinction of the prokaryotes between 1.6 billion years[78] and 2.8 billion years [77] from now, with the last of them living in residual ponds of water at high latitudes and heights or in caverns with trapped ice; underground life, however, could last longer…

    The most probable fate of the planet is absorption by the Sun in about 7.5 billion years.

    So again I ask, why the confidence life will survive neo-natal universal time?

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Please stop scaring the bacteria.

    [Reply]

    fotrkd Reply:

    Thinking about it, the bacteria must get pretty fed up with us sometimes. We can be pretty ungrateful. Which is to say: please call off the hell hounds (briefly). Some of us are still catching up.

    Posted on July 21st, 2013 at 3:28 pm Reply | Quote
  • spandrell Says:

    Maybe that “Time doesn’t exist” guy has your answer. Platonia, was it?

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    If he has, it’s not easy to find at his site.

    [Reply]

    Posted on July 21st, 2013 at 7:23 pm Reply | Quote
  • Alrenous Says:

    Do you find comments that more or less go, ‘Yes, I agree’ useful at all? I like them to balance out all the times people like me speak up only because we disagree.

    For some reason, this reminds me that the moon is exactly the right distance for dramatic eclipses, just in time for civilization. Used to cover the corona too. Soon, it will leave an eye-searing ring. Clearly, biped evolution must be correlated with dramatic astronomical conditions. 😛

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    In this case, you’re helping to sustain problematic tension, so it’s an especially welcome intervention, on grounds of intellectual drama alone.

    The moon case is also truly strange. I’ve heard it used as an argument for archaic alien activity — as a clear ‘sign’ — which is obviously a leap too far for sensible scientific theorizing, but the coincidence (or improbability) is real and extreme.

    [Reply]

    Posted on July 21st, 2013 at 10:52 pm Reply | Quote
  • Scharlach Says:

    If someone has made this point before, admin, I’ve not read it. This passage . . .

    Earth is a cosmic time hog. In space it is next to nothing, but in time it extends back through a substantial proportion of the Stelliferous Era, so close to the origin of the universe that it is belongs to the very earliest generations of planetary bodies. Beyond it stretch incomprehensible immensities, but before it there is next to nothing.

    . . . is perhaps one of the most insightful and non-derivative points I’ve read in years. What to do with it? God only knows. This thread is a good start. My mind is still reeling. Once again, the discussions in the reacto-sphere are reaching for the stratosphere while my academic colleagues continue to play in the sandbox.

    [Reply]

    Posted on July 25th, 2013 at 10:32 pm Reply | Quote
  • Dios aún no existe – Prolegómeno a la sintosomática | Critical Hit Says:

    […] – Además recuerda algo: Cosmological Infancy[16]. Recién está empezando la cuestión. La sapiencia aun es un bebé. Aún necesita su teta, que […]

    Posted on August 22nd, 2013 at 11:35 pm Reply | Quote

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