Sum: Tales From the Afterlives

David Eagleman

Created on Friday, September 2, 2011.
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Thoughtful, humorous, and contemplative stories about the different afterlives that might exist.


After three centuries of this toil, we have the option to take a vacation. We all choose the same destination: we project ourselves into lower-dimensional creatures. We project ourselves into the tiny, delicate, three-dimensional bodies that we call humans, and we are born onto the resort we call Earth. The idea, on such vacations, is to capture small experiences.

On the Earth, we care only about our immediate surroundings. We watch comedy movies. We drink alcohol and enjoy music. We form relationships, fight, break up, and start again. When we’re in a human body, we don’t care about universal collapse — instead, we care only about a meeting of the eyes, a glimpse of bare flesh, the caressing tones of a loved voice, joy, love, light, the orientation of a house plant, the shade of a paint stroke, the arrangement of hair.

Those are good vacations that we take on Earth, replete with our little dramas and fusses. The mental relaxation is unspeakably precious to us. And when we’re forced to leave by the wearing out of those delicate little bodies, it is not uncommon to see us lying prostrate in the breeze of the solar winds, tools in hand, looking out into the cosmos, wet-eyed, searching for meaninglessness.



What we have deduced about the Big Bang is almost exactly wrong. Instead of a Big Bang, the genesis of the universe consisted of the uneventful, accidental, hushed production of a single quark.

For thousands of millennia, nothing occurred. The solitary particle floated in silence. Eventually it considered moving. Like all elementary particles, it realized that its direction of travel in time was arbitrary. So it shot forward in time and, looking back, it realized that it had left a single pencil stroke across the canvas of space-time.

It raced back through time in the other direction, and saw that it had left another stroke.

The single quark began to dash back and forth in time, and like the individually meaningless actions of an artist’s pencil, a picture began to emerge.

If it feels to you that we’re connected by a larger whole, you’re mistaken: we’re connected by a smaller particle. Every atom in your body is the same quark in different places at the same moment in time. Our little quark sweeps like a frenetic four-dimensional phosphor gun, painting the world: each leaf on every tree, every coral in the oceans, each car tire, every bird carried on the wind, all the hair on all the heads in the world. Everything you have ever seen is a manifestation of the same quark, racing around on a space-time superhighway of its own invention.

It began to write the story of the world with sagas of war, love, and exile. As it spun out stories and allowed the plots to grow organically, the quark became an increasingly talented storyteller. The stories took on subtle dimensions. Its protagonists engaged in moral complexity; its antagonists were charming. The quark reached for inspiration into its own history of loneliness in an empty cosmos: the adolescent with his head on the pillow, the divorcée staring out the coffee shop window, the retiree watching infomercials — these became the prophets of the quark’s text.

But the quark did not dwell upon the loneliness. It found that it couldn’t get enough of the love stories and the sex scenes. From the complex network of love stories spawned new generations of children, and the storyboard of the space-time canvas became increasingly rich in characters. The quark pursued the logical flow of each story with dedication and integrity.

Then, on an afternoon that would come to be known by our physicists as the Day of Decline, the quark suffered an epiphany. It realized it had reached the limits of its energy. Its stories had grown too baroque and rococo to be contained by the maximum speed of its pencil strokes.

That was the first day the world began drifting toward incompleteness. The quark despondently resigned itself to the fact that it could keep the show going only if it saved energy. It realized it could accomplish this by drawing only those entities that were being observed by someone. Under this conservation program, the great meadows and mountains were only drawn when there was someone there to look. There was nothing drawn under the sea surface where submarines did not travel; there were no jungles where explorers did not probe.

These measures of savings were already in place before you were born. But things are about to get worse. Even with these energy management programs, the quark remains overextended. Given the directionless and explosive growth of the human chronicle, our quark’s reserves are nearing depletion.

Soon, against its will, it will submit to the fact that it cannot continue the narrative. The physicists have advised us to prepare ourselves emotionally for the end of our world: trees will have fewer leaves, both men and women will go bald, animals will be drawn with less detail. As the decline continues, you will someday turn a familiar corner to find buildings missing. At some point you may look through the missing walls of your bedroom to find your lover only half drawn.

This is the proffered prediction but, fortunately for us, the physicists have slightly miscalculated. Missing from their equations is the fact that the quark loves us too much to allow this to happen. It cares about its creation and knows it would break our hearts to see through the veneer.

So it has a slightly different plan. It will end the world in sleep. All the quark’s creatures will curl up where they are. Morning commuters in suits will sink softly into slumber behind their steering wheels. Highways, locomotives, and subways will slow to a muted halt. Office workers will make themselves drowsily comfortable on the floors and hallways of their tall buildings. The squares of the world’s capitals will drift into silence. Farmers in their wheat fields will doze off as midflight insects touch down softly like snowflakes. Horses will arrest their gallop and relax into a standing slumber. Black jaguars in trees will lower their chins to their paws on the branches. This is how the world will close, not with a bang but a yawn: sleepy and contented, our own falling eyelids serving as the curtain for the play’s end.

This way, the quark’s beloved creations will be unable to witness what happens next. What happens next is the world’s recession, the unraveling of the planet. As the quark slows, its individual pencil strokes become increasingly sparse until the world resembles a crosshatched woodcut. The sleeping bodies become transparent netting through which the other side can be seen. As the pencil marks grow fewer, the asphalt highways become a sparse lacing of black strokes, with nothing below but the other side of the planet, one Earth-diameter away. The world’s canvas devolves into a thin sketch of outlines. The remaining strokes, one by one, disappear from the latticework, drawing the cosmos toward a more complete blankness.

In the end, spent, the quark slows to a halt at the center of infinite emptiness.

Here it takes its time, catching its breath. It will wait several thousand millennia until it regains the stamina and optimism to try again. So there is no afterlife, but instead a long intermission: all of us exist inside the memory of the particle, like a fertilized egg waiting to unpack.

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2022.