If I Were Ted Chiang...

(That title doesn't quite scan as is, but if you stick an "a" in there, you can sing it to the tune of a song from "Fiddler on the Roof"... You're welcome.)

The last time I taught my "Brief History of Timekeeping" seminar was in 2012, so I spent a bunch of time on the Mayan calendar. This time around, we've lost the obvious pop-culture hook, but it's still so weird and fascinating that I spent a class on it last week. One of the things we talked about was what this system (what we know of it) says about the Maya concept of time. There's a very obvious contrast between the interlocking cyclical time tracked by the Maya and the more linear Judeo-Christian version that starts with "Let there be light," and proceeds forward to four guys on horses and violent red visions.

(Yes, I phrased it that way; no, nobody picked up the reference.)

One of the students asked a good question about what modern physics would look like if it had been developed by a culture with a more cyclical conception of time. Which I don't really have a great answer for, but it's a lot of fun to think about. As I did while driving home Sunday from a weekend at my parents', while the kids watched videos in the back seat.

And it occurred to me that there's a really good Ted Chiang sort of story in there, around what would happen when that sort of culture developed astronomy to the level of being able to detect dark energy. Because, you know, the Big Bang would be easy to fit into a cyclical time sort of cosmology, in the expand-collapse-re-expand version. But the accelerating expansion of the universe would rock that sort of system to the core-- the discovery that the universe will expand forever, faster and faster, unambiguously points toward linear time, which doesn't bug folks coming out of the Western tradition that much, but would be really disturbing if your whole concept of the universe was built around recurrence.

Of course, getting that into an actual story is well beyond my abilities. Mostly because you would need to first get across the sort of alien approach to science that it demands, in order to sell the shock of the universe working in a very different way than the characters expect. In the right hands, though, it might have potential.

So, you know, I'll throw that out there for anybody who might be inspired by it. If you pick this up and run with it, name a character after me, or something.

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Chad,

"the discovery that the universe will expand forever, faster and faster, unambiguously points toward linear time, which doesn’t bug folks coming out of the Western tradition that much, but would be really disturbing if your whole concept of the universe was built around recurrence."

It depends on how literally one interprets either conception.

I'm not up on latest cosmological thinking; maybe you could elaborate on how we would describe an end-state of our universe, or at least a condition far enough in the future that would qualify as distinct from the present?

" and proceeds forward to four guys on horses and violent red visions."

Recently reading about Black Holes. In addition to the reference to the Revelation of St. John, I also picked up the red/infrared light from the absolute horizon and the red shift/infinite expansion.