Last week readers were tempted with the possibility of an answer to the meaning of life and then informed that, apart from having to wait a week for an answer, in similar fashion to the eventual outcome of the same inquiry in book four of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, the question was wrong anyway.
That may have tempted some to think the column was little more than a grossly abbreviated rehash of that series and consequently, that the puerile punchline would be the number 42 followed by a glib assertion that Earth is simply a giant supercomputer that has, in any event, produced the wrong answer to the question put to it, namely "What is eight times seven?"
Followers of that clever and very entertaining series will recall that the ultimate conclusion to the story was Arthur Dent's discovery of a message in enormous flaming letters on some far-flung mountain to the following effect "We Apologise for Any Inconvenience".
That may not have been too far wrong and, with a few notable exceptions, no-one can say what happens to us after "you know what". Nevertheless, we still can, with some certainty, answer the question "What is the meaning of life?" The answer is, life itself: Life exists for its own sake and the continuity of life is life's meaning. Moreover, most people who have given the matter any dedicated attention have discerned this result.
But that semantic exercise leaves hanging the real inquiry: Why? Why is there life? Or, as my only centenarian family member once observed in response to that question, "Why any of it?" referring to us, the other animals, our planet, the solar system and our universe. Who says old people lose their marbles?
Only two weeks ago, scientists announced the discovery of what they regard as the smoking gun of cosmic inflation, which, given the dramatic description, sounds like as much fun as scientists ever get, apart from fooling about with a $10 billion machine that smashes atoms into tinier bits. (It is also no secret that all they ever find is lint, teaspoons, odd socks and ballpoint pens). Science, for want of a better name, can now say there is real evidence for the theory that our 13.8-billion-year-old universe began with a rapid expansion, as opposed to the penultimate state of affairs, which posited that scenario with no more than theory to back it.
Apparently the evidence is in the form of gravitational waves and supposedly demonstrates what Einstein predicted, which is that in the first trillion trillionth of a trillionth of a second of its life our universe underwent an almost inconceivable, phenomenal expansion. Then everything slowed down and here we are.
So there is evidence for the "big bang", although they don't call it that because, apart from being a simplistic and unscientific description as well as the name of American television's most pathetic TV sitcom yet, they still can't tell us what went bang, what expanded at a terrific rate and why.
Nevertheless, the idea that there was such an event does leave us with an extra dimension beyond the four we already have, namely the usual three plus time (incidentally, the length, width and depth dimensions we grew up with are in fact only aspects of one dimension, which we can refer to as "things").
Now we also have "The place where something went bang, but just before it did that". No doubt someone will conjure up a more scientific name, such as dimension X153R, or some such similar label. However, when all's said and done, it amounts to nothing followed by something.
In fact, the most significant observation anyone can make is that in 13.8 billion years and with infinite possibilities available, not one species of anything has appeared to keep us company. Even if our meagre lifespan is too short to create space and time travel that would enable us to go visiting in and about the universe, you'd think someone or something else would have by now and that we might have heard from them. Not a skerrick.
Aside from anything else, that is a rather lonely observation to make, although the state of affairs is probably just as well because the United States would almost certainly take charge and shoot them. I've seen movies and that's how it goes.
In the end, neither evidence of cosmic inflation nor our lack of interplanetary company proves or disproves much else. As opined some time ago, if God is responsible for all of it, then it stands to reason the whole shooting box would be made of something and by some process. Some would say that the fact we are here, with or without company, is all the proof we need and that the scientists and sceptics are all flat-out looking in the wrong direction. Who's to say?
The point remains that whatever it is all about, apart from life producing more life, we still need food and shelter and if we don't deal with it, the rubbish piles up: Life goes on and, in the meantime, we have choices, such as what to believe and how to act. Perhaps that is the reason? Are we here to choose?
- The Timaru Herald