The universe over the breakfast table

Here I was, trying to spread an intractable pat of butter across a rapidly disintegrating slice of toast when my wife suddenly asked: "Does the universe go on forever?" Just like that, no warning, no preparation, metaphysics at 8:15 in the morning, and I hadn't even had my juice yet. Normally I dodge such questions with a deeply reflective, "Who knows?" With three small children constantly underfoot, I have trouble enough just seeing my way clear to the end of a meal, let alone to the outer limits of the universe. During the last five years, the only remotely ontological discussion we've had concerned the probable life expectancy of our rapidly disintegrating Honda. And I was wrong about that one.

From my five-year-old daughter, I've come to expect such queries, usually on the way home from religious school or in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to postpone her bedtime: "Daddy, where does God live?" "What happens when we die?" "Why is the sky blue?" I can fake the sky one with a smattering of half-remembered high school physics, but the others usually leave me stuttering.

Oddly, in this particular instance, I felt sufficiently informed to answer. For just the day before, I had read of new astronomical findings at the very edge of the universe, pulsing quasars, or some such interstellar phenomenon that most people, especially those who can't even butter their morning toast, should avoid. But I boldly chose to respond.

"Why only yesterday," I replied, "astronomers in Great Britain reported finding a new star at the edge of the universe."

"The universe has an edge?" she asked in anxious amazement.


"And then what?" she wondered aloud.

"Don't ask," I replied, having reached the edge of my own severely circumscribed comprehension. As far as cosmic evolution goes, I'm generally more concerned about the effect three small bladders might have on our car seats during a two-hour drive to New Jersey than I am about the significance of spectrographic analysis of intergalactic radiation. Call me strange.

But my wife was beginning to worry that my response concealed not ignorance but knowledge of some impending disaster, some apocalyptic doom lurking in the distant ether. "Don't ask, it's horrible?" she wondered with a look of vague terror, "Or don't ask, you won't understand?"

"Don't ask, I don't understand," I admitted.

"Why? What's out there?"

"The end of time," I replied. "Or maybe it's the beginning. I forget. Does it matter?"

"I'm not sure yet. Tell me about this new star," she insisted. I had never seen her so alert this early in the morning. Cosmology affects people in strange ways.

"Just when they thought they had a fix on things, like how big the universe is and when time began, up pops this interloper a billion-trillion light years away, sending them all scurrying back to their calculators. I guess they haven't quite nailed things down yet, off a few billion in either direction, apparently. Must be annoying."

"Like trying to account for the missing 12 cents in your bank balance."

"Something like that," I replied, marvelling at the human capacity to make concrete the infinitely abstract.

"So now what?" my wife asked.

By this time the butter had begun to disappear into a black hole at the center of my cold toast. "I don't think the findings will have much immediate impact on our lives," I offered.

"But I'd like to know," she pressed. "A person should be familiar with the limits of the universe, don't you think?"

"I suppose," I said distractedly, exhaling over my butter in an effort to soften it.

"And while we're on the subject of unexplained phenomena," she pursued, "why do people yawn?"

That one I fielded without even looking up. "Because they're tired."

"But why? Does it help us fall asleep?" I glanced across the table to see if she was serious. She was. "And why, when someone else yawns, do you yawn too?"

"Because...." I began, and then paused, unable to finish.

"We can send a man to the moon, we can discover light at the very edge of the universe, but no one can explain why we yawn." My wife's voice was filled with incredulity. "And why do people sneeze when they walk out into bright sunlight?"

I shrugged, sensing an impending avalanche of life's insoluble riddles.

"And while we're at it, how come some hard-boiled eggs peel easily and others take half the white with the shell? And what good are hiccups? And how come human will precedes human reason, especially in two-year-olds? And what about UFOs?"

"All part of the inscrutable mystery of creation," I replied, rising from the table.

"Don't go," she pleaded, reaching for my hand. "There's so much we've left unanswered."

"I'm late," I replied, gulping my juice.

"But what about your toast?" she asked. It lay dismembered across my plate, mostly crumbs now, surrounding a still-rock-hard pat of butter. "What happened to it?"

"Just another of life's unyielding enigmas, I guess."

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