KSJ Tracker January 2, 2013

Natalie Angier at the NY Times: One infinity, many infinities.

The New Year's offering yesterday from Natalie Angier at The New York Times tripped me up at the lede:

On this day that fetishizes finitude, that reminds us how rapidly our own earthly time share is shrinking, allow me to offer the modest comfort of infinities.

I'm not sure which day she's talking about, Dec. 31 or Jan. 1. And I'm not sure infinities will expand our time share. But from there on, she delivers a delightful piece on current thinking about infinities--not one, but many.

"in the ever-evolving view of scientists, philosophers and other scholars, there really is no single, implacable entity called infinity," she writes. Instead, they "come in a vast variety of shapes, sizes, purposes and charms," including such monsters as "hunchback" and "hyperboloid" infinities.

Infinity has great practical implications. For one thing, it gave us calculus. But it also has implications with no practical value whatever. With the possibility that there exist an infinite number of universes comes the certainty that there will be duplicates. Is there a universe where, say, a dashing and witty media critic who prefers his martinis shaken is writing about a Natalie Angier story on a Tracker at this very instant? The answer, a scientist tells her, "has to be yes." (That was, uh, my example; not Angier's.) "Your doppelgangers may be out there and many variants, too, some with much better hair who can play Bach like Glenn Gould," she writes.

Infinity is an interesting thing. And so is Angier's story.

-Paul Raeburn


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