Everything Has a Problem

Forget exploration — it's time for an intervention • Quentin Hardy
Art by Eugenia Loli

Art by Eugenia Loli


n the time it takes to read this sentence aloud, the universe has expanded by approximately 314 miles per megaparsec, or roughly 8.9 million miles. Slightly more, if you had to clear your throat, or drawled. Meaning that once again, the universe is at a greater size than at any time in its nearly 14 billion-year history. 

Except for now. 

And now. 

It can’t stop. 

We must, as a species, face facts: We live inside a narcissist, and a dangerous one at that. Infinitely hot, infinitely dense, always expanding. Always commanding the fundamental laws. It would be sad, if it weren’t so alarming. The universe is like some out-of-control celebrity we all know is headed for trouble, unless somebody does something.

But what? We’re complicit, too — codependent, even. The more attention we pay the universe, the more it seems to crave. We obsess about where it came from, where it’s going. New celestial telescopes, NASA’s paparazzi, strain to discern its secrets, compelling the universe to keep us guessing. 

For example: We find one Earth-like planet in a distant galaxy. Huge deal for us, lots of attention for the universe. So of course, a couple of months later, to get rid of the loneliness and emptiness inside, the universe reveals another, and people go crazy again. Then there’s another, and another, until liquid water-bearing planets whirling around G-type main sequence stars are as common as candy corn. What was thrilling becomes…embarrassing. Needy. Almost pathetic. 

Did you know that during the Big Bang several other promising dimensions got crushed to insignificance? God forbid someone else would come in for some attention! And talk about boundary issues — our sharp-elbowed universe is growing without end, totally insensitive to anyone else’s need for space. Plus, it never seems able to account for its supply of dark matter. Where did you get it? What’s it made of? Who gave it to you? Don’t ask the universe; it’s as mute as a sullen teenager. 

We know what this is: It’s cry for help. Seeking something it can never find. The universe is 56 billion light years across. It has 100 billion galaxies, 300 sextillion stars, and uncounted millions of half-completed dust clouds. Universe, you’re not even finishing them!

It’s like what they say in AA: one is too many, 300 sextillion is not enough.

Once the Universe had youth, looks, and the romantic-sounding promise of heat death. The equivalence of all mass and energy, that’s moody, intriguing — a good way to meet girls. After a while, though, women get tired of pie-in-the-sky dreams, and start looking for something like a plan. 

At a density of one hydrogen atom per four cubic meters of volume, the universe is beyond stretched; you can see it’s had work done. But what do you expect? If you rule your existence with physical constants that favor gravity among the four fundamental interactions, you pay a price. It’s not our fault gravity is a drag. 

Look, I’m not judging here: The universe came from nothing. No strong male role model, no loving maternal figure. There’s obviously going to be some instability at the beginning. But at a certain point, you have to take responsibility. Are you growing, or are you distancing yourself from intimacy? Fourteen billion years ago was then, this is now. 

The universe has to want to change. It has to do the work, go to meetings, maybe even rehab. It’s not going to happen overnight — you want an eternal manifestation of all Number, Form, and Motion to pull its act together, you should have caught it in the first few picoseconds. But change is real: Just stay positive, focus on the healing. One planetary rotation at a time. ◊

This piece originally appeared in The American Bystander #3.

Quentin Hardy
(@qhardy) is a Deputy Technology Editor of The New York Times.
Quentin Hardy (@qhardy) is a Deputy Technology Editor of The New York Times.
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