Monday, March 15, 2010

Beyond Infinity?

If you don't mind, I'm giving myself a welcome break from housework and writing to you!

Tell me, are you a knowledgeable mathematician? If so, I'll apologise in advance for a sequence of meandering and fanciful ruminations on the subject. I'm not a mathematician, for me the realm of pure number is an alien world. Perhaps for this reason, when faced with a discourse in pure number, I find myself bemused . . . but totally fascinated.

BBC2 explored the subject of 'infinity' on the 'Horizon' series the other week. The programme was absorbing and totally captivating. What's more, each fresh concept was delivered with an engagingly zany sense of humour. By the end, even if my mathematical ability was no stronger, my sense of wonder had received an invigorating shot of adrenalin.

In case you missed it, I'll try to share it with you in layman's language.
It may sound quite absurd, but it had never struck me quite so clearly before that, when you start counting, unless you are aiming for one particular number, there is no conclusion to the journey. There is no end to reach, no final destination, no satisfying full-stop.

From one . . . to a hundred . . . to a thousand . . . to a million . . . and into the distance . . .
you just keep going. Numbers are infinite. Which, when you come to think of it, makes it a little puzzling that you are able to start in the first place. This point was never raised, but, if there is no end then surely, logically, there should be no beginning?
Perhaps that is true, there is no beginning. When we count, we are, as you might say, leaping aboard a moving train. The track stretches away behind with the same certainty as it stretches ahead. To look back is to see minus one . . . minus a hundred . . . minus a thousand . . . minus a million . . . numbers reaching away implacably to infinity. There is no resting-place in any direction in the relentless progression of number.

But number wasn't the main thrust of their fascinating discourse. What was being explored was going much further, it was travelling boldly 'to infinity and beyond'. By the end of the programme the eminent mathematicians had concluded that, in all mathematical probability, this is an infinite universe. However (hold on to your hat at this point!), it is equally probable that ours is only one of an infinite number of infinite universes!

Now, if that proposal doesn't give you pause for thought . . . well, nothing will!
(And it certainly puts the housework into perspective!)