AI: It Keeps Going and Going and Going and…

The year was 1988. I was in the 5th grade. I remember sitting in class and, I have no idea if we were discussing math or space travel or what, but the idea of infinity popped into my head. And in my little, 10-year-old brain a movie started playing. I visualized a spaceship leaving Earth and whizzing out into space; past Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and on and on, into the void. Into forever. I suddenly understood how immense, how seemingly endless, space is and that my little spaceship would never, ever reach ‘the end’ of anything. That thought scared the crap out of me and made me giddy, all at once.

There's probably a bigger number than this, but I ran out of time

As far as I can remember, this is the first time I had understood the meaning of the word ‘infinite’. Of course that meaning has been refined as I have gotten older and come to understand the concept in more detail. But in that moment, I was scared and exhilarated all at once. I still feel butterflies in my stomach when I picture that little spaceship sailing on, 23 years later.

When you think of The Infinite, what comes to mind? Can you visualize it? Can you hear it? Is it an equation or a fractal? A static hiss? Have you ever found an illustration of the concept that helped you to understand it? Is it just too abstract or huge for you to wrap your mind around?

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

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Brian George

Brian George

Brian George is an illustrator who lives and works in the Van Beardswick neighborhood of Brooklyn. His fierce love of cheesecake is often (but not always) thwarted by his intolerance for lactose. He will draw and paint for your amusement (‘amusement’ is archaic Etruscan slang for ‘money’). Visit his portfolio, follow his tweets @brianggeorge or on G+


  1. April 20, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    “When you think of The Infinite, what comes to mind?”

    A headache.

    The problem with very large things is that even when you try and break them down into a visualization it either does not do the scale justice or it is still incomprehensible.

    For example the Andromeda galaxy. It would take 2.5 million years to get there traveling at the speed of light. But how does that help? I can’t begin to understand how fast the speed of light is or how long 2.5 million years is.

    I have enough trouble with voyager 1 which is traveling at 50400 km/hr and is 18,000,000,000 km away from us and has taken 33 years to get that far. And that is just 1 tiny section of our galaxy let alone the universe…..(Looks Exasperated)

    Visualize infinity? That’s just crazy talk X P

  2. April 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I do okay with visualizing the limit as something approaches infinity. But that’s more like visualizing zero.

    The best discussion I’ve ever come across for infinity is as follows:
    “The car shot forward straight into the circle of light, and suddenly Arthur had a fairly clear idea of what infinity looked like.

    It wasn’t infinity in fact. Infinity itself looks flat and uninteresting. Looking up into the night sky is looking into infinity—distance is incomprehensible and therefore meaningless.

    The chamber into which the aircar emerged was anything but infinite, it was just very very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself.”
    Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

    Also see the Total Perspective Vortex for why it isn’t a very good idea to try to envision infinity.

  3. April 20, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    @dpeabody: I almost used Voyager as an example, but then I read about how fast it was traveling and my brain broke for a little while.

    @Ryan: Shame on me for forgetting the Total Perspective Vortex! I deserve to be placed inside of it.

  4. April 20, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    As a side note: Infinity to me is when you are bored to tears at the office and you look at the clock, note the time and then go read some skeptic blogs to kill some time. But when you check the clock again after you see the exact same time as before!!!!!

  5. April 20, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    ZOMG that design is so much like some Surlies I am making! Will send you a link. Brian WE ARE LIKE ONE. 😉

  6. April 20, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    As a geologist, I have a relatively easy time comprehending huge time spans, approaching infinity. Time goes on and on and on, and the world zips about and changes beneath it. Time, for me, is the infinite constant (even though I recognize that’s not really how it works).
    As for space… infinite distance is a lot harder for me to comprehend. I guess I visualize it by expanding the images I’ve seen of the visible universe. That is everything we know. But there’s more to it than that, and I keep multipying that image, over and over… That’s as close as I can get to infinite space. It’s a picture, to me.

  7. April 20, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    I think the interesting part about infinity is precisely the fact that you can’t really represent it. The best we can come to is something that kinda sorta seems like what might be infinity, but even that is like a cheap imitation of the real thing.

    In music, the first two things that come to mind are the string part to Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question and certain drone-based music, North Indian Classical being a good example. However, both of these examples rely on something interesting happening on top of the ‘infinity,’ the infinite stuff being purposefully boring all by itself.

    I know several musicians/composers/other creative types that use radio static/white noise as a means of covering up unwanted background sound when they’re trying to work. Interestingly, white noise contains (mathematically/statistically speaking) an equal distribution of all audible frequencies, so one could think of it sort of like an infinity – but it is being used in place of silence.

    And of course, xkcd did it.

  8. April 21, 2011 at 3:35 am

    I can kill your big number in seconds by doing this, 10^(10^100), so don’t whine about running out of time.

    That number is the googolplex, 10 to the power of the number the google founders couldn’t spell, a number you could never write out in full in the decimal system as you’d require more digits than there are protons in the observable universe.

    I love that I can write about things like that and accept that infinity just isn’t comprehensible, unlike my twelve year old self who lay awake many an hour worrying about the infinity of space and time.

  9. April 21, 2011 at 8:11 am

    @Amy: Did we have a mind-meld at NECSS or something? The TAM 9 Surlies look fantastic!

    @Bjornar: Are you questioning my aesthetic choices, sir? How dare you! Seriously though, while a googolplex is larger, it would have been less fun to draw and not take up enough space on the board. I think Carl Sagan did it best in Cosmos with that long-as-hell roll of paper that he ran all through that university.

  10. April 23, 2011 at 6:16 am

    @Brian G: I have to agree that it’s a better choice visually. 🙂

  11. April 23, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Ooh, I suddenly remembered Infinity elephants

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