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I'd like to say this point was floating in something-- some sort of primordial cosmic media-- but it wasn't. There was nothing outside the point to support or house it, for everything about the Universe we are aware of today-- the vast expanse of vacuum, billions upon billions of stars, black holes, planets, everything, was inside the point, while outside was -- simply nonexistent. There was no outside. Dimensions, distance, space-- everything required to define an 'outside' or 'inside'-- hadn't been invented yet.
This strange point-universe could have sat there doing nothing for all eternity, with not a care in the world. For time hadn't been invented yet either. But however long it sat there, it suddenly changed anyway, for some reason. Changed by exploding with a violence and magnitude the most insane or brilliant among us could not possibly imagine. Exploded with such force you could have simultaneously detonated a trillion trillions of our own nuclear weapons alongside it and never noticed the blast of our war toys. The explosion was so awful debris is still flying outwards today, considerably more than ten billion years after the event. In the terrible natural cold of space, there remains a few degrees of heat left over from the explosion that haven't yet dissipated.
But for all its ferocity, the Big Bang is responsible for practically everything we perceive today. The hundreds of billions of solar systems that comprise our galaxy, as well as the hundred billion or so other galaxies we can detect or theorize about-- cascaded out of the Big Bang like candy from a burst piñata at a child's birthday party. Being somewhat presumptuous beings, some of us have dared to speculate on the matter of where the original Point-Universe came from. Or what reality may have been like prior to the Big Bang. One of the more interesting ideas is that our dear Point actually was a piece of a whole other Universe that fell into a black hole, became too outrageous to continue existing under its native physical laws, and was 'pinched off' to create its own rules, forming a whole new reality-- our own. Sort of a dangerous radical Universe that was forced to leave home to find its own niche in the scheme of things. Then again, it could be none of this really happened at all, and the world is nothing more than a very elaborate computer simulation being run by some curious god-like being somewhere, exploring what would result if they did initiate a Big Bang....Can I prove this? No. But neither can anyone else disprove it.
As you might imagine, the resolution of reality is extremely fine; so fine as to boggle the imagination.
So far as we may ascertain today, our universe cannot be affected in a volume smaller than a single Planckspace or within a time period shorter than a single unit of Plancktime.
Planckspace is about 10 to the minus thirty-second power millimeters. By comparison, an atomic nucleus may be ten to the minus twelveth power in diameter-- an enormous difference in size. If there were worlds of a scale conveniently measurable in Planckspace units, you could fit a small galaxy of them (60 billion solar systems worth) inside the volume of a single atomic nucleus.
Plancktime is around ten to the negative forty-third seconds. Or, so tiny a time unit each second contains trillions upon trillions of the buggers.
If it were possible for you to do anything in the period of a few Plancktime units, you'd be so damned fast you could pick Superman's pocket a thousand times and he'd still be too slow to notice.
A region no larger than one Planckspace may itself qualify as a singularity, as we can't be sure known physical laws operate normally within it.
Beyond genetic engineering, out past the molecular manipulation of nanotechnology, deeper into the mystery of the Universe itself, lies the frontier of Planck scale physics. Gaining the capability to modify physical reality at this level would likely be one prerequisite for a race to achieve true Godhood.
6-20-2000 UPDATE: Recent lab experiments have thrown doubt on the traditional value of lightspeed as a constant, or maximum limit, velocity-wise. Some scientists claim to have been able to achieve speedups of anywhere from 25% over traditional lightspeed, to 300 times lightspeed, over very short distances. The element moving at such speeds? Light itself. END UPDATE.
Fortunately the heat death of the Universe, if it happens, will occur so far into the future that no human beings need worry about it; for a thousand entirely new species could evolve in sequence after our own extinction, requiring a thousand billion years to do so, and the last intelligent race in line still would not see this End to All Things. Our Universe is an unimaginably long-lived beast, you see. And it's but an infant at the moment (as Universes go), at only some 12 to 15 billion years old!
Theoretically, if you wanted to place something in reliable storage for, say, eternity, and had to abide by normal physical laws in the doing, absolute zero temperature would be one factor you'd want included in the process. Of course, in practical terms many substances-- especially organic ones-- would fracture or burst various cell membranes and more at much higher temperatures, thereby being ruined for later use long before chilled down to 460 degrees F. So that little problem would have to licked before you could reliably freeze something like a human being and expect to bring them back to life again later.
6-20-2000 UPDATE: Recent discoveries seem to prove the Universe will continue to expand forever. END UPDATE.
At present we can only guess about the size of the Universe, since we can only see to the horizon. Yes, Virginia, there is a horizon in space-- it's the limit of how much of the Universe we can see. Large sections (possibly the majority of the Universe!) may be permanently out of our visual range, since they're moving away from us very near the speed of light-- which means their image might never make it back to us to see. How far out is the horizon? Maybe four billion lightyears, until Hubble is fixed or replaced. Then our horizon will expand to ten or twelve billion lightyears out. We'd need to see at least as far as fourteen to fifteen billion lightyears out to observe aspects of the Big Bang itself (looking into space is very nearly the same as looking back in time).
What's beyond the edge of the Universe? Dragons. Turtles. Whatever you want to imagine to be there. You can write your own version because it's unlikely anything remotely human will ever manage to plumb that particular mystery. We'll have to achieve near God status just to see a good part of what there is inside our own galaxy, let alone the other 100 billion galaxies in view, and the other hundreds of billions possibly beyond the horizon. What's beyond all this? Does it matter? Will it ever matter? Let sleeping dragons and turtles lie.
Many environmental scholars (and economists of a Republican bent) enjoy pulling this physical law out of their hat to make it appear some higher authority has decreed their way to be the 'right' way, when they oppose new construction or industries, or argue against new government programs of various kinds. These fellows usually neglect to mention that while the universe as a whole may well be a closed system, and so must ultimately adhere to this rule, the Earth itself has never been so closed, and indeed, would never have developed life itself if the 'no free lunch' rule were enforced to the letter.
The key is the difference between a 'closed' and an 'open' system. Though the universe as a whole will someday have to balance its books so-to-speak, the Earth and the life upon it have so far lived very nicely thank you on a set of books which have never and will never be balanced. Someone or something else is paying our tab. This is not to imply the existence of a divine benefactor or helpful aliens, but only to emphasize the fact that we have always lived beyond our means on this little planet, and always will (no matter how high in recycling efficiency we get, or how well we perfect our political and economic systems).
It's simply a fact of life that an unimaginable amount of raw energy is being 'wasted' every second in this universe, and a small part of it just happens to be landing on us, enabling us to evolve from an algae-like muck to an uncertain naked ape, spending much of our lives trying to make a deal with one another in order to survive.
Earth is an open system because it gets tremendous amounts of energy from the Sun that it doesn't have to pay for, in the form of light and heat. It also gets considerable water from comets every twenty-five thousand years or so, and a constant rain of fine and valuable dust from space debris that disintegrates in our atmosphere.
If Earth were a closed system, we'd have to pay something for all this light, heat, water, and minerals.
But Earth is not a closed system, so we don't pay for these things (except amongst ourselves; there's no cosmic landlord or power company sending us a bill from the void).
Even when we exchange our personal toil for the light, heat, and water in our homes, and the soil upon which we live, we are not paying for these items per se, but rather for the delivery systems that allow us to use these elements at our convenience or necessity. One example would be the light and heat we routinely switch on and off in our homes. That light and heat is (as of 1993), one way or the other produced from underground hydrocarbon deposits left over from the formation of our planet, or created over time by decaying organic matter (which itself was produced by chemical reactions dependent on sunlight or geothermal heat). Or by the concentration of radioactive elements originally produced within a completely foreign star, somewhere else, which only later settled here in our Earth during formation.
In summary, while the Second Law of Thermodynamics does merit respect for its cosmic truth, in some very substantial areas of our day-to-day life it simply isn't relevant, and is routinely ignored by the living creatures on our planet, since Earth is not a closed system.
What all this means is there may well be many ways to thumb our nose at the Second Law, similar to those methods discovered by our slimy ancestors in the primordial goo. Heck, those most ancient of our living predecessors didn't even have brains, and they figured out how to get a free lunch anyway! After three billion years of evolution we became smart enough to figure out a reason why our ancestors should have failed miserably, and then complain about all the limitations we find ourselves saddled with.
All we have to do is follow the lead of our protoplasmic forefathers, and find more ways to garner benefits from the existing universe while shifting the costs to the rest of the system.
Not only is a "free lunch" readily available in an open system such as ours, it's more than a lunch-- it's a great feast.
It's just that so far we've been unable to match the achievements of our pond scum forebears in tapping this cornucopia of delights.
It might help if we had fewer folks constantly misguiding us about such matters, tirelessly working to convince us all that resources are (and must remain) in short supply for everyone but the wealthy.
(Many of the human limits listed above are average or typical restrictions; some may be exceeded slightly for brief periods by luck or training or superb physical condition).
In the centuries to come our mental and physical capacities will be sorely taxed by the new options and decisions made possible or necessary by our leap-frogging technologies. We are already drunk with change, having leapt from grunting, running apes in Africa to airplane riding businessmen and tourists world-wide, in less than five hundred generations.
The jump from ground hugging bird watchers to hang gliding clubs and private planes required only four generations.
We first hurled our heroes from air to space less than two generations ago.
The strain is showing on our genetic formula, as dreams become reality at an ever faster clip. My own parents as children saw 20 mph, one and two horse drawn wagons still in wide use, yet by my own adolescence a powerful automobile of hundreds of horsepower, capable of 125 mph speeds, was not an uncommon purchase for a high school student.
Some of the toughest psychological obstacles to overcome may be instinctive fears, such as fear of falling and heights, fear of drowning, fear of darkness, fears of insects and snakes, and, of course, fear of death. How might these elements prevent us from exploiting our full potential? Well, a few examples would be a fear of falling preventing many folks from ever using the new personal jet belts or anti-grav harnesses when they come along. Fear of drowning will be a big nuisance for those moving to fluid breathing colonies deep beneath the sea (refer to the film "The Abyss" for a great visual on this). Fear of insects will be very cumbersome once insect-like robots are ubiquitous features of our surroundings, for cleaning and maintenance purposes. Fear of death will stymie a great many of the first attempts by the public to use a "Star Trek" style transporter system, once it becomes available.
Even at this early date, our internal biological clocks interfere tremendously with our goals of becoming a 24 hour a day global society, by making life harder and more dangerous for those of us who must work the late shifts, and especially for those who regularly cycle through all three different eight hour shifts for their jobs. The mental, emotional, and physical inertia enforced on us by our biological clocks play havoc with the long distance travelers among us too, in the form of "jet lag". Our internal clocks make it difficult for us to adjust, interfering with our rest, leaving us groggy and prone to accident under all these conditions.
Being social animals, we are highly susceptible to social manipulation. Constant bombardment by love songs, advertising that preys on our desire for acceptance, and films and stories which present idealized scenarios of love and romance all tend to damage or warp our own self-esteem, personal expectations, and individual goals in life. Pressures from ideologues and social predators for conformity or subservience also affect us. Our vulnerability to these elements may only increase in the foreseeable future. Our only defenses against such things? Education, experience, familiarity with history and our own inner nature, fierce independence, and good, strong relationships with high quality friends and family members.