What’s an Omniscope? – The Tale of the Timeline
In the spring of 2021, the British magazine The New Scientist announced that Michio Kaku, a high-profile physicist from the City University of New York who has appeared on TV steadily over the last 40 years, would be giving a virtual lecture. Kaku was going to explain grand unified theories of everything. First, he was going to explain how Newton came up with laws of motion. Then he was going to show how over a hundred years and fifty years later, Maxwell worked out four equations that took Newton one step further and described what electromagnetism was. Finally, Kaku was going to explain how physicists today are trying to come up with an even more inclusive equation, an equation that describes the laws of the motion of matter, electromagnetism, and gravity. Says Kaku, physicists want an equation that you can put on a T-shirt. That to them will be “the grand unified theory of everything.” The GUT. In other words, physicists are looking for what Kaku’s new book title calls “The God Equation.”
But this Grand Unified Theory of Everything isn’t really what it pretends to be. There are vast levels of reality that this grand unified equation, this god equation, will never help us understand. The equation won’t give us insight into how life pulled itself together on a poisonous planet in a poisonous sea over 3.5 billion years ago. It won’t explain how an egg hatches into a chick. It won’t explain how we humans come together in clans, tribes, nations, and civilizations. It won’t help us understand the ecstasies we can experience when we are in love with each other, when we have sex and when we make love with each other. Or even the ecstasy at a rock concert.
The mass raptures that the equation will not capture utterly defy belief. When crowds have ecstasies, these ecstasies can be forces of history.
Look at Hitler….he was an artist of group ecstasies. He gave Germans the feeling of being a part of something far, far bigger than themselves. When he gathered the German people in crowds, he was able to evoke collective raptures. And those ecstatic experiences fueled the Germans to start a war of conquest—World War II. Ecstasies, things of the spirit, can power new realities. New realities in the material world.
Which means that we don’t just need a science that uses the atom smasher at CERN to look at things so small that even a microscope cannot see them. We don’t just need a grand unified equation that physicists can claim sums up everything. That god equation when it arrives will be important. But it will sum up almost nothing!
I have no idea of how this project landed on my plate, but since I was twelve years old my goal has been to put together the opposite of the atom smasher. My goal has been to assemble the opposite of the instrument that lets us break things down to their tiniest elements in order to understand everything. The tool I’ve been impelled to use has reached for the biggest picture possible, not the smallest. My tool has been the timeline of the cosmos. The history of the whole goddamn thing, of everything that ever was, so that you can see how the burst of the big bang and the birth of the first galaxies relates to the strange flickers of the human spirit in you and me.
The aim has been a Grand Unified Theory that puts physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, the evolution of human societies, poetry, the arts, and the strange emotions of the human mind into a single big picture, a grand panoramic vision, a real grand unified theory of everything. A theory that filmmaker David Van Taylor would someday take a look at and call The Grand Unified Theory of Everything in the Universe Including Sex, Violence, and The Human Soul.
You could say that instead of using a microscope or a telescope, this Grand Unified Theory has used an omniscope.
For the story of the omniscope—for the story of the cosmic timeline—let me put you in my shoes.
In a sense, this book begins in 1955 when you are twelve years old in Buffalo, New York You’ve been reading two books a day since you were ten. You’ve been reading under the desk instead of paying attention in class, so you are not popular with your teachers. Your parents are kind enough to try to find a school that will fit your oddness. They send you to an interview with the headmaster of the Park School of Buffalo, a private school founded in 1914 with a lot of personal input from philosopher John Dewey, the founder of “progressive education.” John Dewey stressed letting children follow their own curiosities.
The Park School headmaster, E. Barton Chapin, augments his authority by cultivating a Sphinx-like image. He wears a tweed jacket, smokes a pipe, and hides his face in the shadows to give an impression of power and inscrutability. But you don’t humbly implore this imposing figure to let you into his school. Instead, you tell the inscrutable headmaster, “I will only come to your school on the following conditions.” Yes, you make a set of demands. Demands that are just plain absurd. Remember, you are twelve years old. A pip. A person guaranteed ignorant by sheer virtue of your age. And thanks to your two-books-a-day reading habit, the grades you’ve received in your previous school were abysmal. So what do you insist on?
Demand number one is that the headmaster teach you Russian, the language of a superpower you suspect will soon surprise us, the rapidly rising Soviet Union. Apparently you are onto something. Two years later the USSR will surprise the world and launch the first satellite in human history, Sputnik.
Demand number two is that the poor headmaster reorganize his science program for you. Science in those days is taught in the following order: biology first, chemistry next, and physics last. You demand a reversal. Why?
Because physics, you tell this poor, patient, red-faced man, is the beginning of the story of the universe. It is the tale of the Big Bang, a theory that is new and still fighting for survival in 1955. Physics is the saga of the birth of elementary particles and the origin of atoms. Then you demand chemistry as course number two. Why? Because chemistry is the tale of the self-assembly of atoms into molecules and the saga of what molecules do when they mix and mingle. Next you want biology because biology is the story of how molecules assemble life. After biology, you demand something no high school teaches—anthropology. You want to be told how human societies evolved. And finally, at the end of all the rest, you want history. You want to be taught how primitive human societies have done their thing and complexified. In other words, you want all the sciences and human history laid out in a timeline. In a single story.
What a cheeky little brat you are.
Lord knows what the headmaster thinks of this scientific churlishness. But he is kind enough to tolerate it. The proof? He lets you in to his school. And he reverses the order of your science courses for you. However he feels that you are so deeply marinated in science that you’ve lost touch with the daily rituals of humanity. So he invents a special one-student tutorial, a tutorial in which he, personally, becomes your teacher. To make up for your social deficiencies, he has you read Victorian novels of manners. Apparently he hopes that the manners will wear off on you. They don’t.
Seven years later, you drop out of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, ride the rails, and hitchhike up and down the coast of California. You accidentally help start the hippy movement. But that’s a saga for another book How I Accidentally Started the Sixties, a book available from Amazon. Then you live in a Marxist agricultural commune, a kibbutz, in Israel for a year to see if a change in social structure changes human nature. It doesn’t. Finally, you go back to college. This time at New York University.
And you discover something. College plunges you into a state of utter confusion. You are studying seventeenth century English poetry, physics, biology, psychology, probability theory, art history, and normal history. They seem like a total jumble. You can’t keep them straight. And without being able to make sense of them, you can’t remember them. When you are walking down the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side near NYU, you feel like an Alzheimer’s patient…always in a cross between a swirl and a kafuffle. And when you glue yourself and your books to a long wooden table in the NYU library, you have a hard time staying awake. So you try something.
You Scotch-Tape six pieces of notebook paper side by side to make a continuous, horizontal, accordion-folding panel. You don’t do the arithmetic, so you don’t realize that the result is over four feet wide. All you know is that it weighs nearly nothing, it fits into your three-ring binder, and you can slip it into your knapsack with your class notes. Another fact escapes you. Your accordion-folded horizontal strip of paper is an instrument in tune with the demands that you made nine years earlier on your poor, badgered headmaster. It’s a timeline. Whenever you get a fact, you pin down the date.
- Hammurabi’s Code, 1772 BC.
- China’s Han Dynasty 220 BC.
- Michaelangelo’s David, 1504 AD.
- Establishment of the first English global trading company, the East India Company, 1600 AD.
- King Charles I grants a charter to a guild of clockmakers in London and clocks become common in the households of England, 1631,
- Andrew Marvel’s poem “To His Coy Mistress,” 1649.
- The first book on Probability Theory, 1657.
- The founding of Britain’s Royal Academy of Science, 1660.
Then you put each event on the timeline. And an amazing thing happens. Relationships pop out. The timeline tells a story.
Andrew Marvell writes “To His Coy Mistress,” for example, almost fifty years after the establishment of one of the first global trading companies. He pens his lines a mere eight years before the first book on probability, and eleven years before the founding of Britain’s Royal Academy of Science.
Some sort of common zeitgeist is knitting itself together. And you can X-ray its mind by reading “To His Coy Mistress.” Marvell’s poem exults in living a physical life in a physical body. It exudes the sort of exultation in the physical that Michelangelo put on the map back in 1504 with his sculpture of a tall, muscular, naked David dangling a slingshot over his shoulder. What’s more, Marvell focuses on something he can measure with the new household clocks of 1649—time. And what does Marvell use the concept of time to accomplish? To seduce a girl. Or at least to give it one of the world’s most inventive tries.
The poet implores the object of his desire to sleep with him before the bloom of her youth—her gorgeousness–is gone. But he does it in British East India Company terms: the terms of geography, measurement, commerce, and globalism. Terms reducible to numbers. And terms with a historical scope.
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
“Rate” is a vital word in trade and taxation in 1649. It’s in heavy use to indicate the price that you charge per year to someone to whom you lend money. Or the steadily-ratcheting price that you are charged.
Then there’s the Ganges, a river in India, where the East India Company is making a fortune on treasures like rubies. And numbers, a hundred years to praise his enamorata’s eyes, two hundred to each breast, and 30,000 to the rest.
Marvell urges the woman he is flirting with, a woman who is in all probability a virgin, to “tear” her “pleasures with rough strife thorough the iron gates of life.” He urges her to keep her eye on the deadlines of aging and death. “The grave’s a fine and private place,” he says, “But none I think do there embrace.” However there’s something strange about Marvell’s timescape. Despite a biblical reference to the flood, it is intensely secular. It has no heaven, no hell, and no afterlife. Despite the infinite wait for “the conversion of the Jews,” it has no god, no Jesus, and no salvation. It has no sin and no demand for self-denial. Instead, it is riddled with something very non-religious—sexual pleasure. Try this for sensuality:
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
There’s something more than just sexual delectation here. Marvell exudes a glorious sense of control, a sense that you can seize joy and you can triumph over time despite the fact that someday you will die. A sense that you can have a sensual salvation down here on earth, a secular salvation born of your own powers.
Just look again at his conclusion:
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
We can’t stop time. We can’t dodge death. But we can give time and death such a run for their money that we can beat them at their own game.
“To His Coy Mistress” is a poem about beating the odds. Remember, Marvell’s focus on numbrs and his sense of racing with time has something akin to the obsession with numbers and risk that will appear in the first book on probability theory eight years later in 1657. It has something akin to the sense that there are earthly forces without supernatural components, earthly forces that can be grasped with the senses and numbered with the merchants’ math. And this sense of forces that you can master with your senses, with numbers, and with an exuberant sense of control has everything in the world to do with the invention of a new thing that will someday be called “science,” a new thing that is then called “natural philosophy,” a new thing that will be given validity and heft in 1660 by the establishment of the Royal Society–the organization more formally known as The Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. That beacon of science would be founded just eleven years after Marvell’s poem.
Marvell does what you will do someday. He puts commerce, the knowledge of distant lands, their resources, their “rubies,” and mathematics, into a timeline. And with a timeline, your timeline, you can see the currents of history that give birth to Marvell’s poem and to your main anchoring point in life—science. You can take a chaos and see its hidden story. And your story-revealing-device, your timeline does two more things: it keeps you awake at your library table. Awake and fascinated by every new detail. And it turns a senseless jumble into an amazing tale. A tale you can remember. A tale that enthralls you.
As new findings from physics and cosmology enter the picture in the coming years, you add six more pages to the timeline, stretch it to eight feet long, and flesh out the continuum that you outlined to your headmaster when you were twelve. You put in the 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution that started with the big bang. You add in the birth of the first elementary particles, the first atoms, the first wisps of gas, the first galaxies, the first stars, and the first complex molecules. You insert the results of new scientific studies as they pour in, whether they are research findings in astronomy, particle physics, geology, paleontology, anthropology, neurobiology, mathematics, or psychology. To top it off, you add in history, literature, art, geopolitics, and current events. You put in all the things that you’d begged your high school headmaster to give you.
And something becomes obvious. Glaringly obvious. Hitting-you-over-the-head and stopping-you-dead-in-your-tracks obvious. This universe is on a constant climb toward higher degrees of flamboyance. Higher degrees of order and complexity. It is not doing what the believers in one of science’s most sacred principles, the second law of thermodynamics, insist. It is not tumbling downward toward heat death. It is climbing. It is step-by-stepping on a constant staircase up. And that upward staircase is unlikely to end anytime in the next twenty, thirty, or forty million years.
The second law of thermodynamics, that all things tend toward entropy, that all things tend toward a random whizzle, does not fit the cosmos emerging from your timeline. In fact, your timeline makes the second law seem ridiculous.
But the second law is not the only scientific assumption that your timeline seems to question. From the 1950s onward there is another apocalyptic drumbeat, the drumbeat of ecological extremism. A lot of ecological thinking is right. But some of it is wrong. Not just wrong, but upside down, backwards, and perversely counter factual. And you are exposed to these topsy turvy extremes of ecological thinking earlier than most.