The Longest Story Tellable in 140 Characters

What’s the longest story you can tell with just 140 Characters? We’ll use “total elapsed seconds” as the measure of the story’s length. A first attempt might be to say,

“The earth is 4.5 billion years old.”

That’s a lot of seconds! The thing is, that’s not the oldest physical thing there is. Let’s go for something bigger:

“The big bang started it, we’re still doing it.”

That’s the best we can do, right? We’ve embedded the entire history of the universe into that one tweet. We can’t do better than that, can we?

Image from wikipedia

Let’s take a detour here, and talk about references. Putting the big bang into a tweet is little is like a hyperlink: the information it conveys depends upon the reader to understand the larger body being referenced. In the case of a hyperlink, the reader’s web browser will interpret the embedded link, making the reference obvious. In the case of “The big bang started it…,” the tweet only makes sense if the reader is familiar with the idea of the big bang, and understands that we’re all involved in a massive going-on that’s been going on a very long time.

In other words, science is basically a quick way of referring to an elaborate story that’s in the middle of being told. Science is like an attempt to tell the story of the story itself: the metastory.

Elon Musk tweeted as much, recently:

You could compress the laws of physics down into a page or two, but the long forms of things like the schroedinger equation are just too long to fit into a tweet. Of course, you could pull the ‘reference’ trick again, and just post a link to this essay here. We’re going in circles — we’ve gotten to the concept that science allows us to tell a long story with a few characters, but haven’t gone beyond that.

So let’s try another angle: the laws of physics contain the universe’s story, as he points out. But they also contain your story, and my story. What if we tweeted the following:

“Everyone has their own Story”

How does that compare to the age of the universe, in seconds? The universe itself is just under 14 billion years old. If we restrict our focus to just the set of humans alive now, there are currently over 7 billion of us. Two years of following each person around would tell a story with a total number of seconds elapsed equal to the current age of the universe. The total story only grows longer if you include all the animals in that estimate — let alone the possibility of intelligent species on other planets.

A whole lot of stories going on, just in this place here. Image by NASA.

Think about that. Every two years, the human race as a whole experiences as much passage of time as elapsed from the big bang, to now. That’s a long story. And anyone who reads those words is implicitly part of the story , because the story “Everyone has their own story” includes everyone who has their own story, regardless of when or where or what they are — whatever the laws of physics be in their jurisdiction.

In other words, “everyone has their own story” is like a universal reference.

As for the idea of science and compression, I was thinking this kind of thing back in 2006. I had to go to the internet archive to find this one:

Yet another late night post

Saturday, September 23rd, 2006

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about compression — it seems everythign we think, every idea, every statement, is some sort of compression hueristic for explaining our list of life experienecs. Is that all there really is, then? Telling people what you’ve experienced, or some shortened version thereof? Who knows?

One thing I can see from this is that either my typing or spelling were pretty bad. Another thing I can tell from this is that Elon Musk appears to think about the same stuff that “me from 10 years ago” thought about.

Chances are, there are a bunch of other folks out there who’ve thought the same thing. We don’t know each other, and we’ve never got in a room to riff on the idea, because only one of us has started and runs two successful multi-billion dollar companies.

You aren’t alone — You’re surrounded by 7 billion of the closest friends you’ve never met. You’re part of a massive story that’s been going on close to14 billion years now. It’s the longest story ever told.

What kind of character will you play?

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