Column: They counted on their fingers and toes

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It was the Eighties. Unlike the usual use of that term, I remember this day clearly and I’m not particularly embarrassed by the events, though I was likely wearing too much Bugle Boy clothing for my own good and for entirely the wrong reason. Bugle boy was founded by Dr. William Mow, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. So, I felt fashion-conscious and very geek at the same time.

I was in class staring at a screen projected over with equations. They were seriously taxing my ability.

The day before, our class had tea with Dr. Edward Teller, the “father of the hydrogen bomb” a title he thought was in terrible taste. Dr. Teller encouraged our studies and insisted that, no matter what, we should persist through that course on statistical mechanics.

His encouragement did not go far that afternoon.

The professors rotated based on their expertise and that three-hour-long lecture was underscored by the smell of burning acetate from the overhead projector and mathematical maneuvers narrated only by statements such as “this should be obvious.” No one asked for an explanation because everyone knew that if you asked you were confirming that, whatever was obvious, was only so to others.

That day’s professor occasionally waxed metaphysical, a characteristic that I especially appreciated as a newly minted Witch. He broke away from the equation-covered acetate and put up a fresh sheet. He looked into the class of 10 students sitting in the shadow and just wrote “= 0”.

He said and I paraphrase, “there’s no balance to the universe if one state is favored over another. Only local conditions have favorites. Balance requires zero.”

The professor then stared into the shadow, for what I remember was five minutes, then said abruptly, “Thank you, that’s all. Continue with Chapter 6.”


“equals zero”


Immediately my ADHD turned on “My Hero, Zero” from Schoolhouse Rock which may punctuate why I remember the lecture so well.

But it also felt like he had shared a sort of communion with Nature, a momentary insight into the clockwork of the universe. It also felt deeply Pagan, not nihilistic as it might seem on the surface.

That memory was summoned this week. The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Drs. Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez for their work on black holes. Dr. Penrose “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity” and Drs Genzel and Ghez “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.”

When Penrose accepted his award for his other research, he reaffirmed his belief that the universe exists in an infinite series of creation-destruction cycles. He refers to it as “a crazy theory of mine” called conformal cyclic cosmology.

“The Big Bang was not the beginning,” Penrose said in an interview with The Telegraph. “There was something before the Big Bang and that something is what we will have in our future.”

As proof for further investigation, Penrose offers anomalous regions across the landscape of the universe that are warmer than the background and imply an echo, he suggests, of a previous cosmos. He and his co-author write “the existence of such anomalous regions, resulting from point-like sources at the conformally stretched-out big bang, is a predicted consequence of conformal cyclic cosmology, these sources being the Hawking points of the theory, resulting from the Hawking radiation from supermassive black holes in a cosmic aeon prior to our own.”

Penrose’s most recent paper also looks at these echoes. He writes “the very action of this Second Law tells us that however special the universe may be now, with life existing in it now, it must have been far more special at an earlier stage in which life was not present. From the purely anthropic point of view, this earlier far more special phase was not needed; it would have been much more likely that our present ‘improbable’ stage came about simply by chance, rather than coming about via an earlier even more
improbable stage.”

Penrose’s hypothesis is controversial. Most cosmologists understand the universe as an existing steady-state. They raise important questions about Penrose’s findings and hypotheses. They cite known mechanisms for the presence of the circular anomalies, like colliding black holes. They also raise questions about changes in mass and energy from one universe to the next.

Still, there is something deeply Pagan about Penrose’s cosmology and perhaps even something comforting. Some of our most basic beliefs and practices seem to echo that cosmological understanding of destruction and recreation. We hear stories of deities sacrificing themselves and experiencing a rebirth. Our own Wheel of the Year itself is a universal echo of death and rebirth.

Scientists rarely mix science and theology. Penrose is no different, but he still entertains the topics in his October 7, 2020 interview above with Closer to the Truth.

Penrose did similarly in the 1991 film, A Brief History of Time, about the life and work of Dr .stephen Hawking. Penrose said, “I think I would say that the universe has a purpose, it’s not somehow just there by chance … some people, I think, take the view that the universe is just there and it runs along – it’s a bit like it just sort of computes, and we happen somehow by accident to find ourselves in this thing. But I don’t think that’s a very fruitful or helpful way of looking at the universe, I think that there is something much deeper about it.”

Indeed, there is a Pagan insight that computes: we are part of a universal story of a great succession from creation to destruction to recreation sustained through eternity, cycling between infinity and zero, simply and exquisitely in balance.