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  • Richard Farr

Big numbers, immortality, and Jimbo Joyce’s hell


Graham’s Number, folksily abbreviated to “g64,” was long famous as the largest number ever used in a serious mathematical proof. I quote here from Tim Urban’s nerdy, obsessive, but excellent blog post explaining (or trying and failing to explain: what else is there?) how big Graham’s Number is:

Weirdly, thinking about Graham’s number has actually made me feel a little bit calmer about death, because it’s a reminder that I don’t actually want to live forever — I do want to die at some point, because remaining conscious for eternity is even scarier.

The whole post is here. It (and his comment) underline my long-held belief that when people look forward to “eternal life” they have spent roughly zero time exercising their imaginations on what the word “eternal” means.

The post also reminded me of Father Arnall’s sadistically terrifying sermon in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. After going on and on (and on) about the vileness of the torments of Hell, he turns to the meaning of eternity itself:

You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun.


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