Turtles All The Way Down

One of my favorite stories, probably apocryphal, is about a little old English lady at an astronomy lecture. The lecturer described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of an immense collection of stars––our galaxy––and gravity and centrifugal forces keep everything in its proper place.

At the end of the lecture our little old lady said, “You are wrong, young man. The world [being flat] is supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

The lecturer asked her what, then, was the tortoise standing on.

Unfazed, she replied, “You think you are very clever young man, but it is turtles all the way down.”

This, arguably, is a cosmological system with more aesthetic appeal than spinning spheres.

I love this story because it speaks to my ability to have unshakable beliefs that make no sense to anyone else––beliefs, I hope, that are less radical than turtles. And, of course, it speaks to beliefs that others hold that make no sense to me. I’ll let you come up with your own examples.

I recently watched a television news piece about Saul Perlmutter, one of the 2011 recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics, which caused me to re-evaluate our English friend. Before he described his discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating he backed up to explain that the universe is infinite. He said to imagine going out from the Earth in any direction (in fact in every direction) and you would find a galaxy, and then another one farther still, and another, and so on forever, without end!

Our Lady may have got the flat Earth assumption wrong, and we can safely say that she was off the mark about the turtles, but she appears to have nailed the “all the way down” concept of infinity.

I know about infinity, and yet I failed to see that she was one-third correct. I dismissed everything she said out-of-hand, in a lump, because I found parts of it fanciful.

I’ve got to stop doing that. I need to guard against ignoring everything someone says because I don’t agree with some part of what they say.

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