To Infinity and Beyond

“A bird flies back and forth across the universe. Once every thousand years, it comes to sharpen its beak on a mountain which is one hundred miles long and one hundred miles high. When that mountain has been ground to sand, one second of eternity will have gone by.”

I’ve always been rather annoyed by this storicle—it plays out as if eternity is just a slowed-down version of…what really? Eternity is that which has no end, so if we were to say that the grinding-down of the mountain took a googol seconds of eternity it would be as true—there would still be exactly as much of eternity left.

And so, in what way is eternity different from the time we normally experience? Arguably we could imagine that in the far future of our expanding universe, it will become so dilute that there is no way even to count time and say that at this (fuzzy) point time has ended, and that our universe has had a finite existence. In this case we would need to posit some other universe which actually exists eternally. Had we this eternal universe we could subtract the lifetime of our universe from it, and there would still be as much left of eternity.

This may be because people really cannot comprehend something infinite, and assume there should still be an end stop even to eternity, just very far away. However, I am reminded of what Stanley Schmidt wrote on the subject once (“Finite cornucopias”, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Feb 1986):

“The concept of infinity is deeply ingrained in the average layman’s mind at a very real, painfully practical level. Infinity is the amount of electricity in the wall socket, the amount of oil in Texas…”

So, by that count as well, the bird mountain story is pointless. Let us now forget it.


Flotsam and jetsam

Some time ago, my mother and I were out walking on a crisp autumn day. A contrail crossed the sky, and my mother, as she always does, pointed it out and said: “Look, a jet fighter!”

Now, people often say stuff that is incorrectly specific, to try to be funny or whatever. (The OBCM, for example, will refer to all birds as “ducks”, to underscore that she’s a city girl and can’t be bothered with the details of non-asphalt-based organisms.) But this time, just to make conversation, I said: “Heh, yeah, but properly speaking it’s a passenger aircraft, clearly going to land at Arlanda.”

My mother was surprised. “It’s an aeroplane?”

I in turn was surprised. “Uh yes, or well, aeroplane exhaust. If you look carefully, you can see the plane itself at the tip.” I gave a brief explanation of how contrails form in the cold air at altitude, and my mother marvelled at this new information. I for my part realised that she had been a child when newly-purchased Vampire jets probably would have been the only aircraft flying high enough to form contrails in the skies of Finland. Presumably her elders would have pointed out the streamers in the sky, excitedly referring to them as “jet fighters” [suihkuhävittäjiä], but not making it clear that a jet fighter was a type of aircraft rather than a strange name for a strange celestial phenomenon, and somehow the misunderstanding had gone uncorrected all this time.

I wonder what misconceptions I have that people think are just me trying to be funny.