On Intimations of Immortality

The quest for immortality has quickened with advances in the fields of medicine, genetics, artificial intelligence, cryogenics, exercise science, and nutrition. If immortality turns out to be a scientific impossibility, however, then at least significant life extension would be a worthwhile pursuit. I believe that, given mankind does not annihilate itself in the near future, eternal life is a real possibility. It could be this century, or it could be hundreds—perhaps thousands—of years away. There are dozens of ways this could happen. Here are a few:

  • Human cloning combined with mind upload/download
  • Vital organs grown and transplanted on demand
  • Cryogenics perfected (this is only a “bridge” to immortality)
  • Genetic research/gene editing

No doubt it’s wishful thinking that it happens in my lifetime, but who knows? Here is the way I see it playing out, from most likely to least likely:

  • Immortality is achieved, but not in my lifetime
  • Immortality becomes real in my lifetime, but I am excluded because of finances
  • Immortality becomes real in my lifetime, but I am excluded because of failing health
  • Immortality is impossible

At any rate, I need to try and stay alive as long as possible in order to increase the chances of it being realized in my lifetime. Now, you may ask: why would you want to live forever?

That’s another blog post…

The Law of Truly Large Numbers

Laura and I were watching a science show the other night on the latest theories of the universe and its origins. It was probably a NOVA episode, or maybe Nature. Lawrence Krauss was one of the interviewees, along with a few of the other usual suspects in the field of cosmology. This particular episode discussed some recent findings about dark matter, dark energy, black holes, and the like. One segment described, quite effectively, the nature of galaxies, galaxy groups, galaxy clusters, and filaments. Each stage zoomed out, as it were, to illustrate how utterly immense the universe is. The discussion ended with a final representation of the entire cosmos, with its web-like structures of matter strewn about in the totality of the universe. It was pretty cool, and awe-inspiring to say the least. I know of no word in the English language that can adequately describe the unfathomable vastness of the cosmos.

I remember a few years ago, when Laura and I (perhaps with my daughters) visited the science museum in Fort Worth, Texas. There were a lot of interactive displays in the exhibit, and on this day, the place was packed with kids running about flipping switches, turning knobs, working cranks, pushing buttons, etc. One exhibit attempted to illustrate the concept of very large numbers. A transparent plastic cylinder, roughly three feet long and four or five inches in diameter, was filled with exactly one million tiny beads. Each bead was maybe two millimeters in diameter, but perhaps a bit smaller. Next to the tube was a chart showing the distribution of colored beads in the container. I don’t recall the exact distribution, but it was something like this:

  • 938,899 blue beads
  • 50,000 yellow beads
  • 10,000 green beads
  • 1,000 orange beads
  • 100 purple beads
  • 1 red bead

The trick of course was to locate the one red bead by continually turning the cylinder on its axis and letting the beads cascade around inside. It was almost impossible to find the lone red bead unless you were willing to be patient and turn the cylinder slowly and deliberately, carefully scanning the multitude of beads along the length of the tube. Not only was it difficult to find the red bead, it was  unlikely you would even encounter a purple bead. This was the first time I’d seen a million of anything in one place like that. It was staggering to behold. I was not able to find the red bead, and I didn’t feel comfortable continuing the search when other museum-goers wanted to give it a shot. So I moved on to other displays, but I went back to the cylinder a couple more times to try and comprehend the sheer number of beads in that tube.

So as Laura and I were watching this episode of NOVA the other night, the narrator surmised that there were perhaps 400 billion galaxies in the universe, and each galaxy might contain around 100 billion stars. Forget the stars for a minute and just think about the number 400 billion. That cylinder at the museum held one million beads. Multiply that by one thousand. It’s not too difficult to imagine a thousand of these tubes in a large room of a museum, but now multiply that by 400. Okay, most museums would be hard-pressed to house 400,000 of these tubes and still have them accessible to the public. So imagine them instead in a coliseum or football stadium. 400,000 of those tubes, each with a million “galaxies” in them. And that’s not even remotely close to describing the size of the universe, simply because the space that exists between matter is vastly larger than the matter itself. And that’s just the galaxies! Now multiply 400 billion times 100 billion…you’ll have a number that, to paraphrase a line from Team America, nobody even knows. Actually, I think it’s a four with 22 zeroes after it. I don’t know what the name of that number is.

Pardon me, I think I just blew my own mind.

In-freaking-credible

When I worked at Quest, my friend Mark loaned me a poster of the Hubble Deep Field for me to hang on my office wall. Occasionally I would just sit and stare at it, trying to fathom the immensity of the universe. For those unfamiliar with the poster, the Hubble telescope chose a random coordinate in the night sky and took a long exposure of it. The targeted area was about the size of your thumb if you held out your extended arm against the nighttime star field. What it revealed was astounding: not only thousands of stars, but thousands (if not more) of galaxies as well, and this was only one tiny section of the night sky.

This morning I read an article by Phil Plait on Slate.com and it featured a similar photograph. I was going to post the photo directly in here, but it’s over 11 MB and I only bought 250 MB for this site. I may have to upgrade sooner than anticipated.

But you really ought to look at the photo, preferably in all its enlarged glory. So here’s the link.

Be sure to view it in its max size and just take it all in (yes, that’s what she said), then scroll around a bit. The galaxy in the center is cool, but look around the edges as well. What you’re seeing is a panoply of not merely other stars, but other galaxies! Can you wrap your head around that?