Infinity is one of those things that is tough to understand, let alone explain. That is why there are so few nursery rhymes dedicated to the subject. Grandfathers rarely cradle their child’s child on their lap and say, “Once upon an infinity ... ”
It is unclear how many can truly put their mental arms around infinity. That is except Chuck Norris, the Texas ranger kung fu action hero. His prowess became even more legendary some years ago when multiple legends showed up on the Internet. Talk about a second career. Beyond the fact, and I emphasize fact, that his tears can cure cancer, but he never cries, it is confirmed by many that our boy, Chuck, counted to infinity twice.
The second living figure that comprehends infinity is Buzz Lightyear, “To infinity and beyond.” But, no, you say he is a made-up cartoon character? My answer back is how do you know that a cartoon character didn’t make up infinity?
Infinity, well, is infinity. What more needs to be said? Still for a bunch of students in my high school physics class it was tough to picture that infinity plus one is the same as infinity. The teacher’s explanation that it was infinity didn’t help.
So in the lifelong pursuit of knowledge to fill in this infinite gap, I have concluded that there are three things that exemplify infinity. There are two on earth and one overhead.
Circling above us is the Hubble Space Telescope. The images from this aging Kodak blow the mind, and that comes right after mind-boggling. Cerebral explosions define infinity. Seeing galaxies after galaxies full of stars knowing there are still more uncounted is incomprehensible even for the scientists who count them.
The two earthbound examples of infinity are photography and music. Photography alone could represent infinity plus one.
This is not for the pure math at heart. Since we as mortals can’t comprehend infinity, then a life of endless variation is a close enough approximation. Look at photos. What can be done with color, shade, shapes, subjects, faces, focus, composition and angles adds up to infinity for us. You may doubt me because when you walk down a street you see nothing. Following you is a photographer who captures the dew on the petal, the sunlight breaking through the clouds or a rusty bike leaning just so on a porch.
It is this eye for the beauty or story in everything that gives the feeling of forever. It crafts not just a picture, but a vision. Artists sense a dimension beyond the electromagnetic spectrum. They multiply this intangible intelligence with the magic of light. The object is close or far. The colors are bright or muted. The subject is one or many, live or inanimate. The look is there, then fades. The breeze is captured for an instant.
There are countless photos from everyone and everywhere. Not one is the same; not one is alike. This incomprehensible variety approaches infinity for our finite minds.
So it is with music. I know that music only lives in a defined audible frequency and volume for the human ear. However, all the songs, concertos, hymns, symphonies and sailor ditties of the world would consume more than a single person’s lifetime. Added up, they are infinite to us.
If you don’t believe me, try to name all of the songs of the Beatles, hum all the operas of Verdi, whistle all the show tunes of Rogers and Hammerstein and tap your foot to every jazz number of Duke Ellington or Aretha Franklin. If there were time left over, name all the groups, bands and singers that your kids know that you have never heard of except when you tell them to turn off the noise.
Between Hubble, Beethoven, Ansell Adams, and my musical and artistic wife, we can see and hear infinity. Maybe Chuck and Buzz are right. We should at least start to count or head off into the direction of the beyond. There we will find infinite stars, light and sound.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and is a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and on the faculty of the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.