01 April 2014

My Invisible Friend Bernard Uses the Expansion of Space to Illustrate Social Change

Bernard was excited, which delighted me. I knew that his eyes lit up like that only when he'd been seized by a new idea he wanted to share.

"It's been a long time Bernard," I said as I sat down.

"How is this for a long time," he said leaning forward. "13.8 billion years!"

I had to shake my head. "That's a really long time."

"Yep. I heard scientists talking about new experiments that shed light on dark matter," he said. "And the big bang. Did you know that in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second the entire universe expanded from something smaller than an atom to something the size of a grapefruit?"

"That actually sounds kind of good," I said.

"What does?"

"Grapefruit. Do you think they have any grapefruit juice," I asked.

"Out of what I said you heard, 'I think I'll have grapefruit?'" Bernard slumped. "You've got to be kidding."

"Bernard," I leaned forward. "I was! I was only kidding." Some days he was more sensitive than others. "Go ahead. It really sounds interesting."

"That's not even the interesting part," Bernard began anew. "That's just the set up for the interesting part. Get this," he leaned in. "The particles in the universe have to obey the speed limit, can travel no faster than the speed of light. But, the expansion of the universe itself can take place at any speed."

"Hmm," I said in what I hoped sounded like an intelligent tone.

"Hmmm," he shook his head. "You had better find that waiter and order your grapefruit juice," Bernard scoffed. "I think your blood sugar might be low."

I nodded. He shook his head.

"So this is pretty phenomenal to think that while the stuff in the universe - stars and planets and comets and even the light they emit can only travel so fast, the container in which all of this is moving can expand out at some multiple of the speed of light."

"Wow," I responded. "So you're saying that the space in which space happens can expand faster than the speed of light even though things in space can't?"

"Exactly," Bernard grinned. "Exactly." He looked like a seven year old who'd just played a Coltrane solo on a waxed papered comb. He actually rocked as he smiled.

"So this explains cultural evolution," he said. "It explains how it is that we get progress even though we're social creatures."

"The expansion of space explains cultural evolution?"

"Yes! See, we are products of our culture. So much of who we are is defined by that. If you're born in Indonesia there is a 99% chance that you're Muslim. It's hard to move faster than the speed of light if you're a particle or faster than your culture if you're an individual."

"Okay," I took the bait. "So what about a culture?"

"Aha!" Bernard jabbed the air dangerously close to my nose. "That can move rapidly. See Ron," he said. "Context is everything! Culture moves so rapidly that people can barely keep up. One century everybody is Catholic and the next they're Calvinists and Lutherans and Anglicans and Puritans and Deists. One year everyone is trying to be like Bobby Darin and the next it's Mick Jagger and then the next year rock gives way to disco. One decade everyone is embodied  and hang out in clubs and the next they're virtual and hang out on social media."

"So what's the container that can move so much faster than individuals?"

"The container is the code, the DNA, the meme, the new normal. As individuals we can't travel much faster than that but that - that normal - it can change so rapidly. And given we're social creatures, we keep up."

"So who changes the code?"

"Social inventors. You succeed at that experiment and you've just changed the container - maybe even more rapidly than people could ever think to move."

The waiter showed. "What can I get you," he asked.

I looked up. "For like the last ten minutes I have not been able to think about anything but grapefruit," I told him. "Do you have that?"

Before the waiter could say, "Sure," Bernard let out with a groan.

"Something wrong," the waiter inquired, worried.

"Yeah," Bernard said. "I guess that just because the container expands rapidly doesn't mean the people in it move at all."

The waiter looked at me with raised eyebrows. I shrugged. "Excuse me," the waiter asked.

"I said I'll take the lox and bagel," Bernard said. "With sesame seeds."

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