A year and a half ago I was lucky enough to spend a week in New York with my daughter Sarah, who teaches Middle School in the East Village. We had a whale of a time, thanks mainly to Sarah’s meticulous planning – in fact if she ever decided to stop being a teacher she’d make a marvellous tour organiser! Here’s a wee taste…
One out of many highlights was our visit to the Museum of Natural History at Central Park, where they had a display called the Cosmic Pathway which graphically illustrates the current scientific consensus about the origins of our Universe. The concept is that you start at the Big Bang at the top of a 360 foot spiral walkway and then walk down the spiral and follow the 13.8 billion year story of the formation and development of the universe, each step measured in millions of years. The relative blink of an eye that is the human era is depicted at the end of the pathway as the thickness of a single human hair.
Sarah and I were entranced by this display, and struggled to get our heads around the mind-blowing ideas being explained. Firstly the sheer enormity of the cosmic story, populated by the formation and evolution of stars and galaxies, and concepts such as nuclear fusion, black holes, dark matter and quasars. Not to mention the observational methods that have been developed in the last 100 years that have enabled scientists to present us with a fascinating view of our origins and show us phenomena like a background glow of microwaves. It seems that the spectrum of this cosmic microwave background identifies it as the fading remnant of the Big Bang.
The thing I take away from all this is firstly how very beautiful and awesome the cosmos is. The second is that although we are but tiny specks in that cosmos, we are nevertheless as much part of it as the trees and the stars – in fact we ARE the trees and the stars. We have all come from the same impossibly distant event (act of creation?) – a miniscule “singularity” of infinite density and heat which must have contained the potential for all matter and energy which then unfolded into the still expanding Universe we know today. Would it be messing with your head if I also mentioned the existence of a Big Bounce theory which supposes that over the eons the Universe could be in a cycle of expanding and then contracting down to the singularity when the whole process will begin again.
I don’t really mind what the rights and wrongs are, I just find it perennially fascinating to speculate in this way on the nature of creation. Even just the fact that humanity feels such a need to make sense of the world/universe is enthralling in itself. Here we are, this tiny speck of consciousness with big beguiling ideas about how we came to be here and where we are going. It’s not just religion, our quest is also expressed in philosophy, science, politics, literature, film, you name it, not to mention late night discussions into the wee small hours. It seems wonderful to me that we even bother – I mean the universe has been getting on just fine without us for close on 14 billion years, and yet we have the temerity to imagine that what we think even matters, and that we would strive to live well, be happy and to make a difference in the world. That seems the biggest miracle of all!
There’s a Science Fiction story by Arthur C Clarke called the Nine Billion Names of God. In it, a community of Tibetan Monks believe that it is man’s purpose to compile a list containing all the possible names of the Almighty, and they have been working on the task for the last three centuries, each generation taking over from the last. Initially, they expect it to take about fifteen thousand years to complete the task, until they hit upon the idea of acquiring a “Mark V Automatic Sequence Computer” (this story was written in 1953). The computer, along with two – sceptical – engineers, duly arrives and proceeds to churn out the entire list in a mere three months. The sceptical engineers make their way down the mountain just as the computer is finishing its run, and they wonder what will happen once the monks realise the futility of the task. The answer comes in the quietly chilling last sentence of the story. Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
Here’s a link to the whole story if you’d like to read it for yourself – I recommend it!
I like to conjecture that we can actually sense the interconnectedness of matter and energy. Have you ever walked into a place that made you shiver, or where you instantly felt happy or full of dread? We all have things that bring joy to our hearts, don’t we? Moments that make us want to breath deep of an ocean breeze, or a baby in our arms; to touch and caress a beloved person. Or feel the sun warming our skin, or watch a wonderful golden sunset from the top of the Empire State Building…
Some places have a reputation for being haunted. I’ve heard theories that even the very bricks and rocks that surround us can pick up vibrations from living things, which we are capable of sensing in some way. And why should we not? We are made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe – why shouldn’t our molecules and atoms resonate in tune with the music of the stars?