I was talking to my friend Rick about one thing and another, when he mentioned reincarnation. I was reminded of a brief conversation Jack and I had on the subject a while back.
We had been standing in line in front of Kojak, when one lady in the line-up happened to mention reincarnation to her companion. Jack turned to me and asked: "Do you believe in reincarnation?"
I assured him that I didn't. I said "one turn on the merry-go-round is enough for me. What about you?"
Jack said: "I'm not sure. In Sunday school we were told about heaven -- a big city of gold and pearls and all kinds of cubic zirconia, everybody playing the harp and having a grand old time. I like the music bit, but I can't quite buy into the rest. Later in grade school and high school we were told we'd be sharing in the glory of God Himself for all eternity. And that's hard to picture: hanging around God's throne in some kind of ecstasy ... FOR ALL ETERNITY!. That's one hell of a long time. I'm hoping for something else."
I asked "like what?"
Our conversation was interrupted briefly by the interchange relating to our purchase of a souvlaki and a Greek salad respectively. We managed to find a table-for-two.
I repeated my question: "like what?"
Before answering, Jack took out his ballpoint, and got ready to jot down something on his paper napkin.
He said: "I heard somewhere that there are a billion stars in our galaxy. And there are a billion galaxies in the universe, according to the latest count." Jack did some fast calculating: That's a one with 18 zeros. Billion ... trillion... quadrillion ...that's a quintillion stars.
I was impressed, not so much by the actual number, as the fact that Jack knew the name of the number. I go from a billion to a gazillion in one mighty leap, not knowing how many zeros I've leapt over.
Jack continued: "What we don't know is how many planets there are for each star. Our sun has nine planets -- eight if we don't count Pluto -- they say now that Pluto is actually a bit of problem rock; nothing more than a big asteroid. More like a haemorrhoid -- an astronomical pain in the ass. Maybe we should spell asteroid with two esses."
I said "Jack, you're digressing."
Jack continued: "Alright! For the sake of argument, let's assume that each star has one planet. Then there are a quintillion planets in the known galaxies. That's a lot of planets! That's one hell of a lot of stars and planets."
I said: "To be accurate, Jack, that's one heaven of a lot of stars and planets."
Jack said: "Have it your way. But still... Have you ever asked yourself why there are so many planets?"
"No," I said, "but I've often wondered whether any of the planets out there are inhabited. As Arthur C Clarke once put is: 'two possibilities exist - either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.'"
Jack said "you're not answering my question. Maybe the reason for all those stars and planets is that we get to visit them in the afterlife! It would give us something to do rather than hang around God's throne for all eternity, getting bored and cranky."
I said "Jack, I know you like to travel, but you forget that if our Sun's planets are anything to go by, most planets out there would have a very hostile environment. You wouldn't be able to breathe, for instance or it may be too hot or cold."
Jack said: "Are you listening? I said 'in the afterlife ... once you don't have a body anymore, you don't need to breathe either. You can flit about the universe in the blink of an eye, even if you don't have an eye to blink with."
I said "But what do you do after you've visited all the planets in the universe, say you stick around each one for a year. See every sight there is to see. That still doesn't fill up eternity."
"Aha!" said Jack, "This is where it gets interesting. We know that there are more or less a quintillion stars in this universe, but nobody knows how many universes there are. Maybe a billion of those too."
"Ok," I said, "but what happens when you run out of universes?"
"When that happens," said Jack, I will have a talk with the Almighty. Maybe he can whip up another billion universes to keep me travelling. It's worth a try."
Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.
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