The utterly incomprehensible

A journey of the mind and the soul.

NB: Regular readers will find that today’s post is rather different to my usual run of things. But I do hope that you end up sharing my feelings of mystery; sharing what seems to me utterly incomprehensible. I am speaking of The Infinite.

Let me start with this quotation:

The infinite has always stirred the emotions of mankind more deeply than any other question.

The infinite has stimulated and fertilised reason as few other ideas have. But also the infinite, more than another other notion, is in need of clarification.

Let me now take you back many years, back to the Autumn of 1969 when I left Gibraltar bound for The Azores on my yacht Songbird of Kent. I was sailing solo.

My home for five years – Songbird of Kent; a Tradewind 33.

Despite me being very familiar with my boat, and with sailing in general, there was nonetheless a deep sense of trepidation as I headed out into a vast unfamiliar ocean.

On the third or fourth night, I forget which, when some four hundred miles into the Atlantic and therefore far from the light pollution from the land, I came on deck and was emotionally moved in a way that has never ever been surpassed.

For way up in the heavens above me was the Andromeda galaxy, clearly visible with the naked eye.

andromeda-galaxy-josh-blash-7-23-2014-e1473897834535
Josh Blash captured this image of the Andromeda galaxy.

That photograph above and the following are from the EarthSky site.

Although a couple of dozen minor galaxies lie closer to our Milky Way, the Andromeda galaxy is the closest major galaxy to ours. Excluding the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which can’t be seen from northerly latitudes, the Andromeda galaxy – also known as M31 – is the brightest galaxy in all the heavens. It’s the most distant thing you can see with your unaided eye, at 2.3 million light-years. To the eye, it appears as a smudge of light larger than a full moon.

Not only could I not take my mind off seeing the Andromeda galaxy, I couldn’t easily comprehend seeing the stars come all the way down to the horizon; all 360 degrees about me.  Right down to the edge of my ocean horizon; a swirling blackness out to where it kissed that glorious night sky.

That image of that dome of stars would be forever burnt into my memory. An image that both made no sense, yet made every sense

Fast forward forty-seven years to now!

Recently we have had some beautiful clear nights here in Southern Oregon. Just the other night, before the moon had risen, there up in the night sky just a short distance from the constellation Cassiopeia was Andromeda. Immediately, my memory of that dark night sky out in the Atlantic came rushing back at me

The Andromeda galaxy is 2.3 million light-years away. But how can one possibly comprehend the distance? The fact that light travels at 186,000 miles per second or 671 million miles per hour (the exact value is 299,792,458 metres per second (approximately 3.00×108 m/s) has no meaning whatsoever. Think about it! Light is traveling at the equivalent speed of going around our planet 7.46 times every second!

But if you can’t fathom the distance to the Andromeda galaxy try this!

Back in March, 2016 a new galaxy that has been named GN-z11 was spotted by the Hubble space telescope 13.4 billion light years away. That’s approximately 5,830 times more distant than the Andromeda galaxy!

Now it is starting to become very difficult to comprehend.

Over the last couple of weeks BBC Radio 4 has been airing 10 talks given by Professor Adrian Moore under the heading of A History of the Infinite. They are freely available to be listened to and I so strongly recommend them.

But it was episode eight that made me lose my mind. Just like that night so many years ago on Songbird of Kent.

For that episode was called The Cosmos. You can listen to it here. Please, please do so! This is how that episode is presented:

Does space go on for ever? Are there infinitely many stars? These are some of the questions Adrian Moore explores in the eighth episode in his series about philosophical thought concerning the infinite.

With the help of the theories of the Ancient Greeks through to those of modern cosmologists, Adrian examines the central question of whether our universe is finite or infinite.

For most of us, looking up at the stars gives us a sense of infinity but, as Adrian discovers, there is a strong body of opinion which suggests that space is finite, albeit unbounded. This is a difficult idea to grasp, but by inviting us to think of ourselves as ants, astrophysics professor Jo Dunkley attempts to explain it.

Adrian also tackles the idea of the expanding universe and the logic that leads cosmologists to argue that it all started with a big bang, and may all end with a big crunch.

Finally, we discover from cosmologist John Barrow how the appearance of an infinity in scientists’ calculations sends them straight back to the drawing board. The infinite, which the Ancient Greeks found so troubling, has lost none of its power to disturb.

A Juniper production for BBC Radio 4.

If you find that episode compelling beyond belief then all the episodes are available on the BBC iPlayer and may be found here.

I started with a quotation that is the opening of the final episode. It is a quotation from the German mathematician David Hilbert. As Wikipedia explains, in part:

hilbertDavid Hilbert (German: [ˈdaːvɪt ˈhɪlbɐt]; 23 January 1862 – 14 February 1943) was a German mathematician. He is recognized as one of the most influential and universal mathematicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

I will return to that first sentence in Hilbert’s quotation:

The infinite has always stirred the emotions of mankind more deeply than any other question.

For me that sight of the Andromeda galaxy and the stars back in 1969 was in every meaning of the word a sight of the infinite and it has forever stirred my emotions very deeply indeed!

20 thoughts on “The utterly incomprehensible

  1. With 6,600 generations of humans spending their nights looking up at the stars before electric light started to diminish them, is it any wonder that we wonder about the Infinite?

      1. I am sorry I didn’t Paul, too much to do this week.. And as I woke up not sleeping catching up with comments as tomorrow is another busy one.. But I can imagine it would be good

      2. Sounds like you need some restful days, my dear! Make a mental to drop in on those broadcasts when you fancy a change from your busy life. Big hugs!

  2. I have thought about “what is out there” and have wondered it there is a “stopping place.” My own thoughts are that space has no end. It just makes sense to me. I don’t have the time to listen but I am making this post a favorite for later listening.

    An enjoyable post with your personal observations. That experience realty did make an impact on/for you.

  3. Dear Paul: There is the practically infinite, and then the assumption of infinite as a physical object. The former is a fact, as you depicted it beautifully, and efficiently. The latter an axiom which causes all sorts of problems.

    1. Thanks Patrice. I see precisely where you are coming from. Nevertheless, there is something very tantalising, in an almost poetical sense, about that latter axiomatic concept.

  4. I have always dreamed of looking up at the night sky and seeing all the stars in their glory. I have not been fortunate enough to be away from light pollution. There is something very humbling gazing upon the heavens like you did, Paul. You realize that there are endless possibilities out there in the universe. One regret that I have is that I will never get to go into space. Thank you for taking me with you on your journey! BTW, I am envious that you owned a boat! I would love to own one.

    1. Susan, is there no way you can find a dark place? A hill top or a dark park? The night sky is certainly a means of losing oneself. Yes, my five years of living on Songbird were very special. My home ‘port’ was Larnaca Marina in Cyprus.

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