Trying to Understand Spacetime

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

My favorite book as a kid was A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I found the book in the library of my elementary school, and the back cover’s mention of black holes, my favorite space object, immediately drew me to it.

I must have read that book a hundred times between the 4th and 8th grades. I went from understanding almost nothing in the book to understanding about half of it across those four years. Words like spacetime, relativity and Chandrasekhar’s limit slowly began to reveal their meaning to me. But there was so much more I still didn’t understand, and I felt like each time I read the book, the universe was being revealed to me a little more, bit by bit.

That was 25 years ago; in theoretical physics, that might as well be the same amount of time that the universe has existed. Theories about the universe have taken on all sorts of strange and maddening forms. There’s the idea of quantum foam; the suggestion that we’re all living in a simulation; and even more wild concepts are put forth seemingly every day. The idea of a multiverse, once the cutting edge of theoretical thinking, is downright tame compared to where science is heading today.

And here I am, still struggling to keep up with these ideas. I don’t have to go to the library anymore, because thanks to the real life breakthroughs that ideas like these have fostered, I can read the Wikipedia page about spacetime from anywhere with a cellular or internet signal. I wrote about what a profound experience seeing the first black hole we could image was for me. I love this stuff. Understanding is not a prerequisite for love. It certainly makes the experience more awesome when I get what I’m reading about, but I struggle through the same Wikipedia articles over and over again the same way I struggled through Hawking’s book.

The universe is such an awe-inspiring place that the opportunity to understand even a fraction of it is worth the effort I put into these articles and books. I want to go into space someday, whether it’s a tourist flight into low orbit or having my ashes shot into the great beyond when I die. Looking at the stars is like looking back millions of years to a different point in time, and even that relatively simple concept blows my mind. Much of this stuff is beyond my understanding, but the process of learning and growing with each re-read is almost as satisfying as having the answers to the universe’s great questions.

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