13 June 2008

The concept of infinity has tantalized and sometimes troubled mankind...(reprise)

I just wrote my friend a long babbling letter, as I normally do. I often get lost within the hedge maze of my own tangents, often neglecting to answer the things she's asked me about. But, I try. I just cross my fingers and hope maybe she'll find it endearing and I'll get away with it.

For some reason, it popped into my head earlier that my dad's dad had sat down one day attempting to explain the concept of "infinity" to me. I have no idea how or why it popped into my head today and even more haunting is that I have no idea how or why he was given such an insurmountable task.

He wasn't a very loving type, not the typical grandfather, he was more stoic and chill. The type of grandfather that as a kid you're sort of averse to but when you get older you realise he was the man and you see a lot of your own self inside the memories of him and what he was all about. Do you know what I mean? Good. I'm gonna pretend you just answered: "Yes!"

He was a WW2 vet that just hung out and smoked a pipe. My grandmother was lovely and nuts and used to rescue strays that would soon fall in love with my grandfather and lay at his feet near his maroon leather slippers. My grandfather ruled those little dogs with an iron fist; his iron fist was in the form of an old newspaper wrapped tight in black electrical tape. It was hysterical. He used to call me "hamburger" and that was as just about as loving as he got.

One time he was supposed to pick me up after school and he didn't see me, so he just split. Looking back now, it's amazing and I love him SO much more for something like that but as a kid, that's pretty abrasive for a grandfather; he wasn't looking to win any fans; he just didn't care. He was a cynical, stoic, free spirit. And I love him for it, now. I just didn't understand it then.

So anyway, somehow he was given the task of explaining to me one of the most puzzling concepts in the entire universe; a concept which has tantalized and sometimes troubled mankind for a billion years... the concept of INFINITY.

How do you explain the concept of unbounded space, time, or quantity to anyone much less a little wide eyed tyke? How does one explain the continuum of experience in which events pass from the future through the present to the past to a 6 year old?!

Well, as it turned out, quite simply.

He gave me two examples. For one, he drew a crude picture with a marker on a pad of recycled paper. I used to have all these sketch books at my dad's parents house that I'd draw on when we went over there. They were the more hands-off grandparent set, so I was often left to my own devices so I locked myself in my own little world and just drew and drew. I left the more hands-on involved projects to my mom's parents.

So my grandfather took a marker and told me about infinity. He said, "picture a man wearing a tall hat", and he drew a guy who looked a lot like Abe Lincoln with a giant stovepipe hat.

"Then", he continued confidently, "on the mans hat is a picture of a man wearing a hat", and then he drew another guy who looked like Abe Lincoln wearing a giant stovepipe hat.

And I imagine I must have looked up at him blankly.

"Then", he said "in the picture on the mans hat of the man wearing a hat, is another a picture of a man wearing a hat".

By now, I was surely puzzled; puzzled by him, by the drawing, by just about everything. I was six years old and starting to question life itself.

I understood what he was drawing but I'd never heard of a photograph on a hat and why would this guy have a picture of a man wearing a hat on his hat? It wasn't helping. My grandfather was asking me to suspend my disbelief in order to illustrate a most elusive concept and no one had briefed me on how to suspend my disbelief yet; that would come many years later from comic books.

He must've sensed my growing confusion and it probably frustrated him more than me. He was the type of grandfather who just wanted you to understand everything; that you should just be born with the same infinite wisdom as a 60 year old WW2 veteran.

Exasperated he set down the marker on the kitchen table and said, "Ok, picture an audience at a movie theater... and they're watching a movie of an audience watching a movie of an audience watching a movie". I understood what he was describing; I could picture it quite clearly, but I just couldn't wrap my 6 year old noodle around the concept of the continuum and time without end.

I just pictured a really boring movie.

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