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THURSDAY, MAY 22, 2014   
Vol 7.21   

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Opinion
Everything, And Our Problem With It

The accolades for Neil deGrasse Tyson's television special "Cosmos" obscure an important, if little noticed, reality. In just two months since the program aired Dr. Tyson's costar, the entire Universe, has expanded by approximately 400 million kilometers. It is now at a greater size than at any time in its nearly 14 billion-year history.

And really, it figures.

Even in its initial Planck Epoch, the Universe was a showoff. Infinitely hot, infinitely dense. Always displaying its command of all the fundamental laws. Nobody saw it happen, but several promising dimensions that might have earned their own bit of attention just happened to be crushed to insignificance. What manifestation of all reality was around when that happened? Exactly.

Insecure, much?

Our Universe has always had troubling boundary issues. Cannibal galaxies, continental drift, and the career of Prince are just a few examples. The recent attention we're paying the Universe, however, feeds its terrible weakness. There was Higgs boson. Earth-like planets, as common as candy corn on a bad Halloween. New celestial telescopes discerning its every secret. And now, it's piggybacking on the fame of our foremost astrophysicist.

According to the latest theories, the "Universe" is just one among a billion billion other universes, popping away like bubbles from some endlessly huge, endlessly shook-up can of soda. And even that, more thinking says, may be some scrawny fraction of all the other universes. Assuming we can still use the word "all."

Even among that multitude the Universe just can't seem to help feeling so special about itself, with all of us obsessing about where it came from and where it is going. Once again, our celebrity-mad culture has enabled an existence with no guardrails. The terrible result is all around us.

If we could contact some of those other universes (ahem, CERN) I am confident they could help us trace the roots of this sad case. And I bet everything they'd tell you (perhaps through hyper-entangled subatomic quarks, hint, hint) would come down to one word: Pushy. And: Overachieving.

By the time the universe was your age, it had already expanded a trillion trillion trillion times over. I know how that makes me feel. Face it: You get tired just thinking about something that tries this hard all the time. Dr. Tyson has been notably polite about his costar, but it's notable that he is not talking about working with The Whole of Reality again any time soon.

Its official story is that the Universe emerged out of nothing. Just as likely, the Universe was left to fend for itself — you'd be a saint to not leave it near the bowling alley and try to forgive yourself. Somebody couldn't keep meeting all the Universe's demands, and now it's endlessly searching, endlessly growing, and endlessly distancing itself, even from Neil deGrasse Tyson. It's a tragic waste of talent and promise.

With our newest radio telescopes and our powerful computers, we can see the results: This eternal pressing against an unimaginable non-reality at some unbelievable number of light years. That is a silent cry for help, the Universe seeking something it can never find. It's now 56 billion light years across. It has 100 billion galaxies, 300 sextillion stars, and uncounted millions of Manolo Blahniks. The word "enough" does not seem to figure on the list of Every Word Ever Said, just one of the Universe's infinite number of collections. The pathetic showoff.

Why the Universe is one of modern celebrity's biggest cases of overcompensation, though, is not as important as what can be done about it. Fourteen billion years ago was then, this is now. Even when time and space are relative objects, winners always focus on the future.

The Universe needs some tough love, even if we can't expect miracles. You want an eternal manifestation of Number, Form, and Motion to change deeply, catch it in its first few picoseconds. After that, you're lucky if you get it to stop chewing gum. Like all of us, the mature Universe is deep down afraid of change. It can't move away from what it knows to do, from what feels safe. Even when old habits, like heavily salting popcorn or consisting 73 percent of dark energy, are plainly bad lifestyle decisions. To be sure, it's probably even tougher when you encompass the whole of Nature, the Horsehead Nebula, most Lululemons, string theory, plus everything else.

At a density of one hydrogen atom per four cubic meters of volume, though, the Universe is beyond stretched thin. Even from Earth, supposedly a lesser and more obscure planet, anyone can tell it has had work. Probably a good thing, too — if you rule your existence with physical constants that favor gravity among the four fundamental interactions, you pay a price. Gravity always starts out fun, but long term, gravity is a drag.

Once upon a time, when the Universe had youth, looks, and promise, an eventual heat death of endlessly equivalent mass and energy probably sounded romantic, intriguing — and far off. A good way to meet girls. Eventually, though, the ladies, along with the quasars and the leptons, start looking for something more like a plan. It's time for some visioning, some honesty, and some hard work on itself. Spearheaded, perhaps, by a timely intervention by an incredibly smart and plain-spoken cosmologist.

My advice to Dr. Tyson, and the Universe? Stay positive, focus on the healing, and remember: You don't get out of here at once. You take it one planetary rotation at a time.



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