“What Time was it Before Time” said the worried watchmaker

After a rather serious blog post, this falls into the “written very late, piece of nonsense, toppling out of thoughts at 1am” category of blog post. 


As the 22.33 from Brighton pulled out of London Bridge, I started reading about the big bang. Frankly, this was too late in the evening to be reading about the big bang. What was before the big bang is the type of question that can meddle with your inner ear and put you off-balance. I once read of the moment before the big bang as “nothing, but nothing with a lot of potential”.

I wasn’t reading a science book, but the first few pages of Joseph Campbell’s The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. To many people, Campbell is best known for inspiring George Lucas’s plotting for Star Wars , though I am not sure Lucas kept up the reading, if the later films are anything to go by. I believe the Phantom Menace was based on a racist fortune cookie he found in a dustbin. 

“the inconceivable pressure of an entire incipient universe confined to single point became converted into energy and mass” was the sentence that got me dizzy, and not for the first time. It is impressive to think how much you can fit into a human mind. If you unloaded every memory, every piece of knowledge, every instinct that you have neatly stored in your brain, you would take up a lot of space. If each memory and picture from within your imagination became flesh, rock, waves, feathers and ticking parts, imagine the space you’d need. Once unpacked, could you ever get it back in again, and you wouldn’t be able to anyway as you’d have unpacked that idea too. Sometimes, in moments of great tension or fury that I can’t find a word or idea that I know is somehow contained within my mind, I imagine the roof of my skull cracking open and every thought, idea, word contained within, shooting out in a bright ray of light, shooting skywards, while I then slump to the ground, an empty, thoughtless sack. 

Now I think of that singularity. That moment before the big bang, and then…everything, all the raw material of stars, planets, bicycles and you, comes into existence. Sadly, my brain may have already flipped open and spewed out and upwards it’s contents as I am racking it to remember the words of a scientist who said something akin to “the big bang is the only event in the history of the universe, everything else is just consequences”. My recall has botched what was a fascinating idea and also, do not trust it, it may make no sense whatsoever, but it sounds good to me as long as it is not scrutinised by people who know things, any things. 

Earlier that day I had started Karl Popper’s Undended Quest, the number of started books compared to finished books on my shelves is at least twenty to one. I do not stop reading them due to lack of interest, but merely play tag with them. You get to a personality, event or theory in one book and think, “hmm, that sounds interesting, I must read about that immediately” and break the spine of the next paperback. Finishing things is overrated, it’s so final. Popper recalls his intellectual journey, which has many more finished books in it than my piggybacking and hitchhiking, stop/start, jog/trot, stop system of lapsing concentration and explosions of fascination. He writes of being 8 years old and facing his first philosophical dilemma. 

“Somehow I had heard about the solar system and the infinity of space and I was worried: I could neither imagine that space was finite (for what, then, was outside it) nor that it was infinite”. 

I recalled the first time the bafflement of infinity stopped me in my tracks. I am not sure why I started thinking about the size of the universe, but it seems to be one of the first times as a child that you sense the limitations of your brain (or at least my brain, I apologise for speaking for you). Remembering it now I think of that squinting, crinkling, scrunching if my whole face, that squeezing of my hands as if I could pressurise an answer or an image out of whatever bit of the restricted area of my mind refused to reveal such imagery or knowledge. My wrinkled face holds no laugh lines, they are big bang lines.

I once fell backwards onto the grass when trying to think about time going back forever in a universe that had existed forever, as If the force of my mind rushing further and further back physically knocked me over. If only I had been taught earlier at primary school that time needn’t be an issue more than 13.978 billion years ago because there isn’t a “before that” (so far as we know so far). I am sure the idea of there being a time without time wouldn’t have winded me at all.

My Darwin/Feynman/Sponge Crab show is coming to Sheffield, Havant, Newtown (Powys) and Manchester very soon. Also Shambles tour with Grace Petrie and Josie Long is coming to Southport, Bath, Finchley and Nottingham, plus plenty of Christmas shows with guests incl Brian Cox, Lee Mack, Alexei Sayle, Alice Roberts, all such things HERE

Happiness through Science DVD (incl Brian Cox commentary) HERE

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4 Responses to “What Time was it Before Time” said the worried watchmaker

  1. celkali says:

    What was the theory that the universe collapses in on itself, and the resulting explosion creates a black hole that eats itself and makes a new big bang that recreates the universe anew, only to eventually collapse on itself again, for all eternity? I used it for a character once, a being who existed out of time and space, living through countless recreations of the universe and each time found a way to entertain himself before coming across humanity and thus finding a new toy. Now that I think about it, that character is a bit like Q from Star Trek…. Anywho, I quite like that theory.

    Oh, and the jumping from book to book I think is referred to as a freefall. Similar to Wiki Freefall, where you look up dolphins and twenty minutes later you’re reading about the Tsar Bomb, with ten other tabs open on multiple, seemingly unrelated, subjects. ( http://www.cracked.com/funny-6646-wikipedia-freefall/ )

    Uncalled for Update: I found the theory, actually just an end of the universe scenario. It’s called The Big Crunch, very unlikely, but still cool to ponder.

  2. draziraphale says:

    Great blog; I’m reminded of the day my then 4 year old daughter asked me, with a very serious face, “Who was my Daddy when you were a boy?”. Woah..

  3. When I was a child my bedtime sequence was as follows. Get into bed start with try not to think of the universe…no, no…I said try not to think of the universe! Too late, so off I would go trying to think of nothingness and then infinity all accompanied by images of Magritte paintings of giant comes against wardrobes, so scaring myself witless. Followed by sleep laden with dreams about being chased by funfair dwarfs one of foot and one on a tiny horse & coach…don’t ask!

    All that has changes now I am older is all that is now set to Gypsy Circus by Goran Ivanovic.

  4. 5affy says:

    I had nightmares about this sort of stuff when I was 7 – oh and the sun going red giant too… Thanks for sharing


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