Sunday Stories: “The Universe Expands/Contracts”


The Universe Expands/Contracts
by James Brubaker 

Don’t be afraid, son, because this universe will never end—it will go on forever. We know this because we know that the universe was once small and contained, ordered and knowable, and then it exploded. Now the universe’s matter—that is you and me and the planets and meteors and moons and suns—moves outward from where it began, expandining, accelerating, running away from its once compact home. The physicists who study this movement call it entropy—that is a word that refers to heat dissipating and order devolving into chaos.

These are examples of entropy: ice melts and becomes water, an egg falls on the floor and shatters, splatters on the floor, a watermelon is smashed by a comedian, you open a can of soda that was shaken by one of your friends, you throw a baseball at a stack of milk bottles, we toss rice at a wedding, a wife and mother leaves her family. Entropy is its own form of violence.

Of course the universe will not expand forever, son. Even entropy has its limits. Someday, the mass of the universe’s objects will be more than its speed of expansion. When this happens, the universe will slow down until it stops. It will stop for only a brief moment. Then everything will begin to contract.

Imagine for a moment how it might feel to be alive on the planet Earth in that moment when the universe stops, when it has finished expanding but before it begins to contract. This won’t happen until you are dead, but think of how it might feel to be playing a video game or shooting baskets when everything stops. Maybe you wouldn’t know because you would stop, too. Or maybe you would feel the molecules hesitate around you, feel yourself freeze. And then, what?

The universe will contract, will begin moving inwards, will run back home.

When the universe contracts, its motion will not, as some physicists speculate, be toward scattered clots and clusters, pulled together by the masses and gravity of certain objects. The universe will contract along the same paths by which it expanded. This is called time reversal symmetry.

Time reversal symmetry means that the effects of entropy can be reversed if the right forces can be applied in the right ways, that the comedian’s watermelon can be put back together if we know how to apply the appropriate forces to all of its pieces. As is the watermelon, so too is the universe. So too are you and me.

Now, consider the moment when time reversal symmetry begins: think of yourself again in that instant when the universe stops expanding. You are back in your bedroom playing video games, or on your driveway shooting baskets. Feel the molecules halt around you, feel yourself grow slow and stiff, buzzing with potential energy. And then you and everything around you begins to move backwards.

Conventional wisdom states that during contraction, as the universe accelerates inward following the path of time reversal symmetry, that we will experience time like we do now, only we will know that instead of living in a universe that is expanding, we will be living in a universe that is contracting, faster and faster, until it has finished collapsing into a tightly wound mass of gas and dust. This understanding of how humans experience time reversal symmetry is not correct. It is not correct because we are integral components of the universe and, therefore, will also be affected by time reversal symmetry, meaning that we, too, will move backwards through time.

The universe’s contraction is not a thing to fear, son. It is simply the way things are. You might be frightened that the universe is contracting into a dense cloud of matter. You might think this sounds like the end of everything we know. Really, it is the beginning. Once fully contracted, the universe will explode, again, sending its matter out at the same trajectories, on the same journeys it always makes, until it runs out of speed and begins to contract again.

This process of expansion and contraction is infinite. We live and unlive our lives without end. Nobody knows how many times this process has been enacted, nor where the process began — if it started with the universe in its full, chaotic glory, ready to collapse inward, or if it began with the universe tightly wound, waiting to burst. Maybe what we think of as entropy is actually the opposite of entropy. Perhaps what we understand as backwards is actually forwards, but our brains are capable of understanding only cause and effect, not effect and cause. These are problems to which I know of no answer, son. I do not know if this is the third time our universe has expanded, or the three thousandth. Personally, I believe we are closer to three thousand.

Imagine an old cassette tape, a video cassette, perhaps, constantly fast-forwarding and rewinding, imagine the way that the tape warps and thins, begins to sag from its casing, the way its images warble on screen when played—our universe is the same way. We are the same way. I am tired. I feel as though I have lived this life, forward and backward, many times.

And maybe we have lived through this cycle a hundred times, a thousand times, a million times. Maybe this is why we experience déjà vu. Once, you asked me why musicians put backwards messages in their songs. I said that it was complicated, that I would tell you when you were older. You are older, now. It is because of time reversal symmetry that they hide these messages. The messages say things like “Here’s to my sweet Satan,” and “Turn me on, dead man,” and “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” The artists do not know about time reversal symmetry; they instinctually add the backwards messages because they subconsciously believe that we will hear them when we are moving backwards through time.

But the musicians’ instincts are wrong. Even though time will be moving backwards, and the songs will be playing backwards, the people listening to those songs will also be moving backwards, and therefore hearing backwards. This means that audiences will hear the songs the same way that they hear them now. The only way that a listener might hear the backwards messages would be if he were to actually play the song backwards on his record player. Otherwise, a person would have to be an outside observer, removed from the backwards motion of time reversal symmetry, to hear the messages.

Here is something I know: if you were free from the tyranny of time, standing outside the universe listening in, you would hear the backwards messages. They would be the only things that sounded correct to your ears. Imagine what that would be like. You might hear something like this: at the end of Prince’s song “Darling Nikki,” from his album, Purple Rain — you have not heard this song, son; you are too young — there is a backwards message that says, “Hello, how are you? Fine, fine. ‘Cause I know that the Lord is coming soon. Coming, coming soon. Hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah.” Played forward, the message is garbled and confused, like warped gospel singing over a backdrop of rain. Played backwards during time reversal symmetry, it is a prophecy, not of the second coming of Christ, but of the first.

An outside observer, watching the backwards flow of time, would hear this message on Prince’s record, then shortly after — relatively speaking, as two thousand years isn’t long in the grand scheme of the universe — he would see Christ descend from Heaven, appear to his disciples, then return to a tomb that had been empty for three days. Then the observer would see Christ’s body removed from the tomb, nailed to a cross and taken down, alive. One moment we would be forgiven, in the next that forgiveness would be gone. Unfortunately, I am unaware of any such beings that exist outside of time.

Now that I think about it, maybe the artists’ instincts know nothing of the universe’s contraction and musicians have always recorded these backwards messages because they are funny and irreverent, and pop musicians value things that are funny and irreverent. After all, if we are all parts of the universe, and we experience time reversal symmetry as parts of the universe, then we would not be able to change our actions to accommodate a subtle awareness of our repeated lives. Therefore, the artists, even if they sensed that they were reliving their lives, would be unable to act differently and record backwards messages. Yes, I was wrong before—the backwards messages aren’t the result of time reversal symmetry. The artists have always made these messages because they like things that are funny and irreverent.

Here is something else I know: we do not need to be forgiven when living in time reversal symmetry. When moving backwards through time, we understand the consequences of our actions after they are done, and then we undo them. When living in time reversal symmetry, everything is a take-back.

Sometimes this undoing is unhappy. Consider the comedian’s watermelon—the audience is laughing because the melon was smashed. Next, they watch as the watermelon’s pieces reform on stage. The audience now has no memories of the comedian smashing the melon. All they know is the anticipation of that moment. Laughter is not all we will lose to time reversal symmetry. As time moves backwards, you will become a baby, then a mass of cells that recombines into one—you will reverse entropy’s will. Then you will become an egg that finds its way back to your mother’s ovaries, and a sperm that becomes a splash of semen. I will gasp for breath as the semen enters my urethra. You will be gone, will be back inside me. Then, I too will enter my father’s urethra, and be gone. Then my father will be gone, and his father will be gone, and his father, and his father, and his father—all of the fathers through all of time will be gone.

But there will be good moments, too. Remember when your mother left, I blamed you for her leaving. I hit you. When time is moving backwards, first I will feel guilt for having hit you, even though I technically will have not yet hit you, then I will look at your face and see the bruise. I will touch your face and I will pull the bruise from your cheek, hold the wound in my fist. I will unsay the hurtful words I said to you. Then I will feel bad for treating your mother so poorly, for not spending time with her, for spending time with other women instead, for making it so she had to leave. Then she will come back to us, and then I will do all of the things I did to make her leave, but in reverse, until they are finished, until they never happened to begin with and we are happy and you are a baby, and then you are gone.

Then we will all be gone and humans will become Cro-Magnons will become apes. Dinosaurs will appear and disappear, and the universe will shrink, shrink, shrink until it is the size of God’s fist. Then it will explode and everything will happen again, the same way it happened before. We will not know we are living it all again. We might sense the repetition as we move through this new iteration of the universe’s expansion, but the laws of physics are hard and fast—we can only do what we have already done. As the trajectories of celestial bodies are fixed, so too are the trajectories of our lives, forwards and backwards. Please son, know that I am sorry for what I have done, and what I will continue to do, forward and backward, forever and ever.

James Brubaker is originally from Dayton, Ohio, and is currently living with his wife in Oklahoma. He is the author of the chapbook, Pilot Season, forthcoming from Sunnyoutside Press, and numerous short stories that have appeared or are forthcoming in publications including Zoetrope: All Story, Web Conjunctions, The Normal School, Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Keyhole, Vector Press, and West Wind Review, among others. James also edits the music section at The Fiddleback.

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1 comment

  1. Fascinating. To what lengths we really do go to justify abuse! The line that shocked me the most, even though I knew it had to come given the set-up, is “…and then you are gone.”