the melancholy of history

If things keep going the way they are, Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University and Robert J. Scherrer of Vanderbilt University calculate, in 100 billion years the only galaxies left visible in the sky will be the half-dozen or so bound together gravitationally into what is known as the Local Group, which is not expanding and in fact will probably merge into one starry ball.

Unable to see any galaxies flying away, those astronomers will not know the universe is expanding and will think instead that they are back in the static island universe of Einstein. As the authors, who are physicists, write in a paper to be published in The Journal of Relativity and Gravitation, “observers in our ‘island universe’ will be fundamentally incapable of determining the true nature of the universe.”

It is hard to count all the ways in which this is sad.

From NYT

Ways in which this is sad

  1. Potential fundamental unknowability of true state of things. Future generations will “puzzle about why the visible universe seems to consist of six galaxies. What is the significance of six? Hundreds of papers will be written on that.”
  2. Potential limits of own current knowledge. What if our obsession with the Big Bang, ultimate causality, and our inability to understand what could possibly have predated that and time itself, is simply an indication of where we are running up against the conceptual edges of our “island universe”?
  3. Instability of our own current knowledge. If a hundred billion years from now, people have formulated a “Six Galaxies Theory of Creation”, we will know that not only is their theory wrong, but that they are asking the wrong questions. What seems to us incontrovertible today may be plagued by these insurmountable paradigms.
  4. Subversion of optimistic ideas of progress — the notion that we slowly build a clearer and clearer picture of things, culminating in an Apex of Grand Understanding, or at least even if never achieved, gesturing towards the possibility of its existence. “We have the prospect of a million separate Sisyphean efforts with one species after another pushing the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down and be forgotten.”
  5. Futility of honing scientific method. “You can have the right physics, but the evidence at hand could lead to the wrong conclusions.”

But all this strikes me as remarkably similar to what I feel is the kind of melancholy inherent in studying the past. Historians formulate hypotheses based on, essentially, the Six Galaxies of Available Sources; we might ask the wrong questions of the material that we do have, because we don’t have access to the other galaxies (sourceS) that enable us to ask the right questions. And the very existence of many competing (and equally honed) historical methods seems to subvert the idea that we can have a clearer and clearer picture of the past, except perhaps in a sort of prismatic way. At any rate, we might simply be getting a clearer and clearer idea of those same, stoic six galaxies.

Given these similarities: is historical knowledge any less consequential than cosmological knowledge? and really, in this bleak view of things, knowledge itself — regardless of discipline — becomes dissolute, something fundamentally unstable & necessarily incomplete — ahh, how far we have come from the Enlightenment!

And yet we have physicists & historians, often doing good & commendable work…perhaps there is hope, albeit of less cosmic magnitudes.


2 responses to “the melancholy of history

  • Kyle

    Are Lawrence Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer assuming that we will not progress technologically in the next 100 billion years? Something tells me that our tools in the year 100,000,002,007.5 will be precise and powerful enough to overcome any such problems (though they will undoubtedly create new, unexpected ones). This goes for history as well, as you state: ever refining our tools and discovering new sources, we will be ever able to tease out more about the past, even if it won’t necessarily make our understanding of it any clearer.

  • musafiremes

    A similar proposal by Janna Levin (theoretical cosmologist):

    “Theories of Everything

    A physical Theory of Everything is the greatest ambition consuming theoretical physics. Yet last century we were forced to concede that there will never be a mathematical theory of everything. Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, and Gregory Chaitin proved that our knowledge of numbers themselves is fundamentally incomplete. Most numbers are random, a toss of the coin. There are true relations among the numbers about which we can only prove that we can never prove them.

    Many times in the history of physics, theories have been shaped by such profound limits. Einstein proposed a fundamental limit in the speed of light and thereby discovered Relativity. Heisenberg invoked an uncertainty principle in measurements of quantum phenomena and thereby laid a cornerstone for Quantum Mechanics. Alongside these should be listed the profound incompleteness in our knowledge of numbers – there can never be a mathematical theory of everything. The proposal is to define the limits mathematical incompleteness might set on a physical theory of everything. Just as Relativity emerged from the limit of light’s speed and Quantum Theory emerged from the limits of measurement, deep insight into the universe and its origins could emerge by confronting the limit of mathematical incompleteness.”

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