Sunday, May 23, 2010

The big bang you heard was my head exploding

This afternoon, 3B answered a question that's been vexing astronomers and philosophers for years.

To be fair, his quest for the answer started a few weeks back, while we visited the Museum of Natural History in New York. He loved the dinosaurs, the 94-foot long whale model and the instruments from Africa--over the weekend he asked me again, "Daddy, can we go to Africa and get one of those little guitars?" Me: "Yes, sure, someday." 3B: "Tomorrow?"

But where he took off was in the space exhibit. We came into it at the exit, unaware that we were doing so. That left us at the bottom of the spiral ramp down from the entrance. While Uncle FunkDaddie and I checked what our weight would be on the Moon, 3B took off up the ramp at a dead sprint. Although it only took Uncles D and FunkDaddie and me half a nanosecond to bolt after him, he was so far ahead of us, all we could hear were his footsteps slapping on the steel ramp as he circled away and above us.

As we neared the top, a woman looked over the railing and asked if that boy was ours. We said no, that we were abducting him--of course he's ours, you ninny. She promised to stop him, but she didn't look like she'd be any match for 3B, so we kept on. What we didn't know was that she had nature on her side--specifically the element iron, which was likely part of the alloy in the doors that 3B found closed at the top of the ramp.

She explained that we were coming in through the out door, but that we were welcome to watch the show in the theater we were entering, which introduces the exhibits all down the ramp that we had just sprinted past. 3B didn't want to see the show at first, since it started with a big bang--the Big Bang, to be precise--but he endured and ended up absorbing quite a bit of it.

As we walked down the ramp, we pointed out how the exhibits detail the passage of billions of years and the evolution of the universe, our galaxy and life on Earth.

While we were out riding bikes in circles--spirals, according to 3B--all of this came back to him, and he asked me:

"Daddy, why were there no stars before the Big Bang?"

"Because they all came from the Big Bang."

"So, what was there before the Big Bang?"

"That is a question that I don't have the answer to."

"So, before the Big Bang--was there nothing?"

"I suppose so."

"Then that is the answer."

Well then.

I suppose we can call Stephen Hawking and tell him that his life's work is complete now.

I'm working to make cancer history. Will you help me?

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  1. Before the Big Bang, there was tohu v'vohu. Typically it's translated "without form and void," but it's really the only spot those words come up, so you can fill in with some poetic license. I suspect another rhyming pair--higgledy-piggledy or topsy-turvy--gives a better sense of the original words.

    Luckily, there was also pen and paper, so someone could write it down.

    If time and space have edges like a yard of fabric, there's sense to the question "What was before?" But if space-time pours back into itself like a Klein bottle or a Möbius strip, the Big Bang may not actually reflect a beginning, any more than the horizon represents the spot where the ocean suddenly starts. What's on the other side of the Big Bang may actually be on the same side as we are, but the connecting road is off the edge of the AAA map we have so far.

    Show him an Escher print and ask him to find the bottom stair. That's one way to look at the Big Bang. It's a little clumsy, but it gives you some idea.

    Or you could consider the corner of an ordinary paper envelope. You can consider that the beginning of the envelope, but if you unfold the envelope, you see that the paper is actually continuous in both directions from that corner. When you're situated on one side, it's hard to conceive of the other side, but it's there.

    Cool stuff!

  2. Uh, yeah. I was going to say all of that. Later. Or something.