Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Poetry, Physics and Philosophy

The title of this piece brings together three things that are not always thought of in the same context. Physics usually remains removed from poetry and philosophy, while philosophers can use poetry to get their point across and poets use their work to let the reader know their particular philosophical stance.

A favorite poem from my youth is the following:

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Most interpretations of this piece of work lend themselves to a discussion of love versus hate. Being the geek that I am, I prefer to look at it as an explanation of where the universe may have come from and where it may be going.

The Big Bang Theory is the model that scientific evidence and observation currently supports the most. Basically that the universe began as a hot primordial mess at a specific point in the past and has continued to expand to what we have today.

Many scientists are still at odds over exactly how all that matter ended up in that point at that time with enough energy to create the universe as we know it. The Big Bang theory is not meant to explain that very beginning point in time. It is intended to explain events since just after the ‘explosion’ happened.

We enter the realm of cosmology (NOT cosmetology as my mother loved to tell people) when we start looking at how the Big Bang happened. For the sake of this article, I will focus on the cyclic model postulate.

It was put forth to my class at some point during my undergraduate studies that the universe may be what we call an oscillatory universe. That is one in which the universe could consist of an infinite sequence of finite universes which end with a Big Crunch which then leads to the next Big Bang.

For this to happen, the universe would have to be dense enough to stop its current rate of expansion while maintaining enough matter that it would begin to contract in upon itself due to the gravitational pull of the remaining matter.

The main problem with the cyclic model is the matter of entropy. This being that in statistical mechanics, entropy only increases due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This implies that each successive cycle will get longer and longer, while each preceding cycle was smaller and smaller, till again we are trying to figure out how all that matter got into one place, in one point, at one time and decided to explode in the first place. This could also imply that there will come a point at which enough matter is lost in the next explosion that the universe will simply expand in its last cycle until it burns itself out and nothing is left.

So what if we have been here before? What if you have lived this very life in a past universal expansion? What if you may be at this point again in the next one?

What if those weird senses of déjà vu are from the fact that we are going through this cycle over and over again with the universe, and we REALLY have done all this before?

For many of us, this may be a scary proposition. For others, this may be a validation. If it were actually the case, what would you change, what things would you want a chance to do over? Would you donate more time or money to making the world a better place? Would you simply not care because you know it has to end sometime? These questions are no easier to answer than the one of how the universe came to be in the first place.

But in the end, it may simply not matter. Nothing is forever. But, given that all current evidence points to the fact that universe is expanding and that expansion is accelerating, what if this is the last cycle? What if the previous one (if there was one) was the first?

That cycle ended in fire. This cycle may end in ice.

Which would you prefer? Fire and the chance to do it all over or ice and believing that this is all there is and we should make the most of it while we can?


How's that for my hundredth post?


Robert I. Marsh II said...

One integral part of this repeating enigmatic phantasm, is the engagement of the CERN LHC/ALICE/ATLAS! What are they 'really' searching for? Are they trying to change something? Even by accident, the Large Hadron Collider could distort our Time-line stability!

Remember: Follow the 'White Rabbit'!

Alison said...

Loved the physics. Thank you. As an English major who took a class on Frost from one of his old students, I'm sticking with the idea that it's about our relationships with our spouses.

And it's not just the extremes of love vs hate: he's trying to point out commitment vs the quiet corrosion of indifference.

Funny you should post it. I have a brother going through a divorce, and I've been thinking about this poem for days.

--AlisonH at

Moni said...

Damn. That was the best blog post I've read in a long time. Very interesting stuff.