@Ramnath R Iyer
Is the Universe Infinite?
4-minute read

Traditionally when it comes to clickbait articles, it is common to frame the headline as a provocative question whose answer, all said and done, is “Nope, nothing to see here!” Happily, this article is not clickbait, and the answer to the titular question is most likely “Yes!”

The question of whether the Universe is finite or not is an interesting one, because despite there being only two possibilities, neither answer really seems satisfactory. When I was a kid, I used to wonder: (a) if the Universe is infinite, how could it possibly go on forever? (b) if the Universe is finite, what happens at the edge? Today, while I can make the question sound smarter with physics jargon thrown in (like “spacetime”), the essential point remains the same and the question is still open.

So here’s a fundamental problem: science ultimately relies on experiment to validate its hypotheses; with the acceptance of Einstein’s theories of relativity, we now know that the “observable” universe is about 93 billion light years across, and anything outside this bubble is beyond our reach forever (and in fact, cannot influence events in our part of the Universe at all). So from an experimental standpoint, we’re stuck, and may need to take a more Aristotlean approach to the problem. (Aristotle famously believed that women had fewer teeth than men…and didn’t bother to check.) So if we started from first principles and simple logic, should the Universe be finite or infinite?

In modern times, the question of whether spacetime is finite or not can be answered with an excellent trick. Let’s assume that there are only a hundred billion galaxies in all. Is spacetime finite or infinite? Answer: it is both, in a manner of speaking. Yes, it is finite, but no, you will never reach the edge. Consider the analogy of the surface of the Earth - the surface is finite but you can keep walking around forever (or until you drop). Now extend this analogy to spacetime as a whole. Can’t visualize it? Sorry, that’s the way it goes.

But are there a hundred billion galaxies in all, or more, or…even more? No one knows, but, we can switch our perspective to consider time instead. If the Universe has existed forever, and has been creating galaxies all along, there must be an infinite amount of stuff lying around. So has the Universe been around forever? Here, we may be tempted to seek out one of the many philosophies that claim that time is cyclic, and that if you go back to the distant past you end up in the future. Roger Penrose has a far more scientific-sounding but no less mystic version of this philosophy posited as a hypothesis. But there is a simpler version of this idea: certain conditions are conducive to the creation of fields, that evolve relative to other fields, and we perceive these fields as quantized packets under the right observational conditions. The relative evolution generates the notion of time we understand on a day-to-day basis, so you can think of time as a “local” concept. Meanwhile, there is a sense in which all of this has been happening “forever”, where “forever” is not in terms of the conventional and local notion of time mentioned earlier. And so the bottomline is, we have stuff being created on a continual basis (assuming, reasonably so, that the Big Bang is not a once-in-a-Universe event), and that implies there cannot be a beginning or end to this process. And this, finally, leaves us with an infinite amount of stuff, and an infinite Universe.

Happy New Year
1-minute read

Happy New Year! 2024 is finally here, making its slowly way around the globe.

My hypothesis is that people like beginnings and endings, something that each New Year signifies. Beginnings, because it is an opportunity to start afresh. Endings, because it is a chance to declare “Good riddance to bad rubbish!”

Speaking of chance, a “New Year” is an overly predictable event, and it would be fun to add a bit of random chance to it, somewhat like a Powerball lottery. That is, we draw random numbers every day with ever decreasing chances of picking the winning number. When we do pick the winning number, we declare it to be the start of a new year. Until then we keep playing, and everyone remains on the edge of their seats.

Losing the Way
3-minute read

Losing your way is far more common than seems fair in life. One moment you’re trudging along happily, the world seems organized, you have goals — a purpose that seems legit — and then bam! everything goes haywire and nothing makes sense anymore. Why am I here, and what should I do next, you wonder. This is, of course, true both on a literal level when you’re walking along a road and take a wrong turn, as well as on a metaphorical level when you wake up some day at 2am. In all cases, you can easily see (in retrospect) that it’s all just a matter of perspective. Perhaps it’s also specifically the distortion of perspective that you once had, and are forced to look up in your records, re-evaluate, or even reconstruct from first principles.

Sense-making, or the act of bestowing subjective and actionable meaning upon the world around us, is a very human endeavor. Perhaps intelligent species like mice and dolphins do this as well (I reject the human-centric view in general), but it correlates with the degree of agency that you feel with respect to the actions that you take. It’s like you’re driving your car on a road trip with your itinerary mapped out, and suddenly realize you’ve forgotten where you’re heading. Or some volcano erupts and you’re forced to drive down an evacuation route.

The meaning we bestow on the world is influenced by the vision we create for ourselves. One person looks at a computer and sees it as a tool to pay his bills. When I look at a computer I see it as a portal for reaching in and crafting a vast system within the abstract world of software. Somewhere along the way we created a directionality to our lives that influences the way we perceive everything around us. A vision speaks to the final destination (with the caveat that nothing is ever final), and clarity of vision means that we’ve rationalized our heading and know when to course correct. And all that sounds great, except that in reality there’s a dense smoky fog around you, the smoke makes you sputter, you keep tripping and falling along the way, and the oasis you saw in the distance was just a mirage.

I recently finished reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s audiobook “Be Usefulon Spotify. One point that struck me was it is likely the case that we create the seeds of our visions early in life. And then, we take that seed and nurture it into something with greater definition. This, in turn, suggests that we already kinda sorta know what our vision is, and just have to work on refining it. And it gives me hope, for it suggests that we don’t ever really lose our way, we just need to rediscover and refine it from time to time. This is a process, not a catastrophe. After all, if something is “lost” and later found, was it ever lost in the first place?

Moment in Time
3-minute read

The past is, but a mere memory. The future is yet to be. This moment — now — is an idea, fleeting in its essence. What, then, is actually real? The problem with this line of inquiry, of course, is that we have failed to define “real” in any precise sense. Even so, the notion of reality as a collection of moments raises interesting questions. Should we care about the past, the present or the future? Each of these choices leads us to live a different kind of life.

For me, the past takes on a vague and hazy form, a kind of amorphous synthesis of memories that informs my intuitions in the present, but is seldom amenable to careful examination. The past is gone, and has no more power over me. With that belief, my focus has remained on the present and the future, seeking a sense of balance between the two. I advocate this “memoryless” stance to everyone who will listen, as the alternatives are to either stew in nostalgia or struggle with baggage from the past.

But how can one deal with an inherently unpredictable future? The allure of this unpredictability is that it can tempt us to surrender to it and play the victim. On the contrary, the healthy mindset here is to exercise complete control over our choice of actions, but accept the outcomes that these actions subsequently entail. Unpredictable outcomes are not in itself a reason for us to cede agency in the actions available to us. And do note that inaction itself is a kind of action, usually a far inferior one amongst the alternatives. The wise man always makes bets.

Sometimes, the future is all about obsessive iteration. Rocky’s inspirational speech to his son in the movie Rocky Balboa may have framed it best: “[…] it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep movin’ forward.” Life is about making bets, observing the outcomes mediated by chance, and then figuring out how to keep moving forward. Change is, as they say, the only constant — परिवर्तन संसार का नियम है।

I must have started this blog afresh at least a dozen times by now. Every iteration begins with a long period during which I don’t write anything at all, followed by a desire to blog again. Scrapping my existing content and starting with a clean slate is a way for me to clear up the clutter in my head, and eliminate the baggage of old ideas before I can express new ones. I like expressing ideas, and I find it useful to write them down. None of them are permanent, of course, not even the new ones. All I can offer is an idea that exists within this moment in time.