Friday, July 27, 2007

The Shortest Story of Everything

He had also found qubits and magnetars, proteomes and morganucodontids, ids and memes, e-commerce and virtual reality, fundamentalism and postmodernism. And thousands of other things he couldn't even name. He had, in truth, found too much. He had come across a glut of information. The problem was . . . he wasn't gluttonous. (from The Story of Everything, Chapter 21)

Last Saturday I asked if the Bible was a Story of Everything and I answered no. The irony, of course, is that the Bible contains a Story of Everything--the creation account that opens the Book of Genesis. How can a brief narrative cover all of existence better than two thousand pages?

This is the age in which to ask that question. It's been estimated that a weekly edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person living in the seventeenth century England came across in a lifetime. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley have concluded that the amount of new stored information doubled between 1999 and 2002 and is now increasing at the rate of 30% a year.

How can you cover it all?

Google is trying. The company's name is derived from "googol," the term for the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. Imagine 10,000,000,000,
bits of information. Now imagine organizing them, which is how Google defines its mission. Now imagine getting them into a single human brain, which you have to do if you want to tell a story.
It's tough but not impossible:
You take hydrogen gas, and you leave it alone, and it turns into rosebuds, giraffes and humans.
That's from Brian Swimme, who used it to sum up The Universe Story, which he wrote in conjunction with Thomas Berry. It's one of the shortest Stories of Everything I've ever seen.

How do you boil things down? Maybe the trick is to let a child do the talking, as poet Charlie Finn did in Deep Joy, Steep Challenge. This is his seven-year-old daughter:
Let me tell you a story.
First there was nothing and then there was something.
there was a little something that became a big something.
Then the big something became human beings.

The end.

In The Story of Everything there's an Old Story and a New Story. You can get each down to six words:
Old Story: First Spirit, then Matter, then Life.
New Story: First Matter, then Life, then Spirit.
Not much character development there, but you get the idea. It's a matter of order, of sequence. To tell a Story of Everything, you don't have to know everything. You just have to know where everything goes.




Anonymous said...

I've been reading with interest and enjoyment your blog, The Story-of-Everything. What touched me most directly was your old and new story. Old Story: First spirit, then matter, then life. New Story: First matter, then life, then spirit. I've been a member of the new school my entire academic career and have professed that message near and far. About 15 months ago I had a genuine spiritual awakening and have become a card carrying member of the old school. As a matter of fact, my change in world view has prompted me to decide to retire from teaching and become a student once again. I've been studying the Torah with a rabbi for the past year and following retirement I plan to study in Israel.

I guess what I'm trying to say is you're very right when you claim that much can be said with a few words.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm torn between two poles - either everything matters or it doesn't. I came to the conclusion that there can't possibly be only one book of everything, or one story of everything, since EVERYTHING to me means infinity. And even the largest of human minds, say Einstein's, is still far too puny to comprehend anything so enormous as infinity, so how could any one thing capture it? But most importantly, does it matter? Does everything in infinity matter? Does anything or nothing encompassing all of infinity matter? Obviously no human could ever know that, since no one has died and come back to tell us about what's going on on the other side (hoping there is one).

John Kotre said...

Here's a different way of boiling something down. Israeli scientists have inscribed the entire text of the Hebrew Bible on a silicon chip half the size of a grain of sugar.