Thinking in New Dimensions

Every year the musician Peter Mulvey looks forward to spending time sharing his music at the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia. And he looks forward to this annual gig because he gets to spend time with another instructor at the camp, Vlad the astrophysicist. You see, Peter loves science and Vlad loves music, and they both like beer.

And one warm summer night as they sat together on the back porch by the drifting Greenbrier river, drinking beer and gazing up at the night stars, Peter said to Vlad “My friend you are the only person I know in my life who might be able to provide a good answer for one question that has puzzled me for years. Can you tell me, is there intelligent life out there in the universe and why have we not found each other?”

Vlad put down his glass and looked at Peter and said, “That, my friend, is two questions.”

Vlad went on to explain that the answer to the first question is yes, probably yes. We know from the availability of carbon chains in the universe to build amino acids and the genesis of life, plus the immense number of stars and potentially habitable planets in the universe, the answer is yes. There is probably intelligent life out there in the universe.

But, as Vlad continued, the answer to the second question is more tricky. And to answer this question we need us to perform a thought experiment. Imagine that the entirety – the vastness – of the universe is now contained in a space right before us only the size of a beach ball. And now imagine the entire scope of time as we understand it – 13.5 billion years – is condensed into just 5 minutes. So we have the entirety of time and space contained right here before us.

Now Vlad asks Peter a question, “How much longer do we, with our iPhones, our internet, our NCAA tournaments and waffle makers, our yoga classes and science camps, our business trips and our dreams go on? Is it another 5000 years? 500,000 years? Even 5 million years? It doesn’t matter. In the scope of time in this little universe before us, it is this long ‘Pssst’”

And so yes over the course of 13.5 billion years there may have been one great civilization that lasted for tens of thousands of years over here ‘pssst’ and another one over here ‘pssst’ and another here ‘pssst’. And maybe, just maybe, at one time next to each other in the universe ‘pssst, pssst’ TWO civilizations emerged simultaneously. And perhaps they had inter-stellar book trades and film festivals, and language classes, and exchange students, but they are long gone now.

With Vlad’s insight we see the puzzle is multi-dimensional. It is not simply a problem of where to look in space, but also of when. And the interesting thing about this story is that solution, or the novel understanding, came from find someone who was capable of thinking about the puzzle differently. In this situation Vlad had a unique insight into the question. And with his reframing, he didn’t just think outside the box, he built another dimension to it. Reminds me a bit of the classic book Flatland.

Learn something interesting every day by asking the right questions of people who are outside your usual orbit.


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