Thinking Out Loud No. 10
On the humanism of Star Trek, the end of time and Tutankhamun
You may be aware that yesterday was Fibonacci day, the day when, in the American date format (mm/dd), the date was 11/23 – the first four digits of the Fibonacci sequence. For those who haven’t come across this before, I'll give you a little more: see if you can figure out how it works:
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, ...
The Fibonacci sequence pops up in all kinds of places in nature, says Wikipedia:
Fibonacci sequences appear in biological settings, such as branching in trees, arrangement of leaves on a stem, the fruitlets of a pineapple, the flowering of artichoke, an uncurling fern and the arrangement of a pine cone, and the family tree of honeybees.
I love it when life imitates maths. Or is it the other way around? Regardless, I hope you marked the occasion by doing something suitably mathematical.
In this week's newsletter I look to the future, both the near and the unimaginably far, and share a little of my recent trip to an exhibition on Tutankhamun here in London.
Until next week!
The humanism of Star Trek
Lal: Father, what is my purpose?
Data: That is a complex question, Lal. I can only begin to answer by telling you that our function is to contribute in a positive way to the world in which we live.
I watched a video on YouTube called "Star Trek: 50 Years of Humanism". It's a beautiful and thoughtful exploration of the philosophical underpinnings of Star Trek, which really brought home just how much Star Trek has shaped my belief systems. I was a big fan of Star Trek growing up, and while I struggled to admit it then, now I'm proud of it.
When I watched the later Star Trek series that marked my childhood and adolescence, I wasn't aware of the social context in the United States when the original Star Trek aired in the late 60s. Racial segregation had only recently been removed from the law. The Cold War was at its height with the Cuban Missile Crisis taking place just a few years earlier. Protections and rights for LGBT people were nascent, where they existed at all.
It was a period of rapid change, but optimistic change. With the Cold War came the space race and the Apollo program. The last episode of Star Trek: The Original Series was broadcast on 3 June 1969, just six weeks before Apollo 11 landed on the moon and, for context, just four weeks before the Stonewall Riots in New York, which gave rise to the gay liberation movement. There was a sense that things should, and could, change for the better.
Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, took advantage of this Zeitgeist to insert Star Trek firmly into these issues with its own moral stance. Each episode was a morality play set in a context far from the lives of Americans (in space, in the future), but familiar enough to be useful as social commentary. It adopted an optimistic and progressive stance that extrapolated what the future could be like if the social change present in the late 60s continued for 300 years (The Original Series was set between 2265 and 2269).
The later series of my childhood – The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager – continued to explore these themes and many more besides, always taking the stance that further growth as a species is desirable and achievable. More than that though, they encouraged critical thought in response to moral problems that lent themselves to easy yet oppressive solutions. Doing the right thing might be difficult and fraught with ambiguity, but that was the route to creating and preserving the semi-utopian ideal that Star Trek portrayed.
Looking back I’m grateful that, of all the TV inputs I could have had as a child, Star Trek was the main one.
So I encourage you to watch the video! Hopefully you'll see what I mean.
Journey to the end of time
While you're there, if you have half an hour to kill, I recommend another YouTube video by one of my favourite creators: melodysheep, this one called "TIMELAPSE OF THE FUTURE: A Journey to the End of Time". It's one of the most profound perspective-inducing media experiences I've come across.
You probably know that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old and the Earth about 4.5 billion years old. These numbers are deceiving, because while they seem extraordinarily large, they don't give any context for where we are in the whole life of the universe.
Our best understanding is that the universe will continue to expand infinitely, driven by a mysterious factor called dark energy. Infinte expansion does not mean infinite time, though.
For now, time exists because it's possible to distinguish one moment from the next. In one moment the teacup is on the table, the next it's smashed on the floor. This 'increasing disorder' (also known as entropy) is why time flows in one direction. The universe is getting more disordered moment by moment and this process cannot go backwards.
Time will cease to exist when it's impossible to distinguish one moment from the next. This will happen when the universe is maximally disordered, when every part of the universe, at every scale of observation, looks the same as every other. An infinitely cold, dark, homogenous nothing.
But how can this happen when the universe is so full of stuff, you say! Stars and planets and nebulae, oh my! We're only 13.7 billion years in, remember? Over the next unimaginably long period of time, the stars will all die, the protons that make up all matter will decay and black holes will eat each other and then evaporate.
Don't worry though – it's a long way off. Time is due to stop making sense in a little over a thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years, so it probably makes sense to keep paying the bills and going to work.
Feeling nihilistic? Don't worry. If you read and agree with my previous newsletter on optimistic nihilism then nothing has changed. We still get to define our own meaning in an inherently meaningless universe, and that's pretty special.
But wait! The video ends with an intriguing opportunity for salvation. It seems that physicists are increasingly of the view that multiple universes with different laws of physics can and do exist, and not only that, but new universes can be created by sufficiently advanced intelligent life – perhaps our deep descendants?
If so, a meta-narrative might emerge. If a universe with laws of physics suitable for life exists, then any life that emerges might be able to create a new universe with similar laws of physics to move into to avoid eternal oblivion. It's then possible to imagine a kind of evolution of universes with laws of physics conducive to life. The universes that aren't suitable for life don't 'reproduce', while the ones that are spawn baby universes.
As hard as it is to wrap our heads around the idea, universes themselves might be subject to the principle of survival of the fittest. And if that's the case: look around. It's probably already happened.
Let there be light!
Media of the week
This week I went to see the Tutankhamun exhibition in London.
Tutankhamun wasn't a pharaoh of any note in his time, but has become so well known as his tomb was never robbed.
Ancient Egyptian thought says you experience two deaths. One when your soul leaves the body and the second with the death of the last person who speaks your name. If that’s true then it seems pretty unlikely that Tutankhamun will die any time soon.
This is Tutankhamun's Wishing Cup, made of alabaster. The whole exhibition was very well designed, so if you live in London and get the chance to see it then I highly recommend it.
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