Our Wild, Wild Universe – Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

I don’t often write about the universe. It’s been ten years since I wrote about the physicist Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Universe. It seems that I cannot get enough of the story, at least when it can be brought down to the terms a layman like me can understand. Some months back Cosmos returned to television, a sort of sequel to the series of the same name hosted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan broadcast on public TV in 1980. This series is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and showed up, curiously enough, on the Fox Network, a network known more for its lowbrow entertainment than this nerdy stuff.

I’m catching up on the series now on Netflix. I find it compelling in a strange way, so compelling that I am putting aside other really compelling shows like House of Cards and Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts to give it precedence. It tickles my curiosity and sense of wonder. The more you explore what we know about the universe, the more wondrous it becomes. deGrasse Tyson does a great job of conveying the immensity and the wonder of our universe. The series is aided by wondrous CGI as well, the sort that was simply unavailable when Carl Sagan hosted the series (although for the time his CGI was quite sophisticated). The combination of CGI, storytelling and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s infectious way of story telling makes it a very compelling series.

It brings out the natural pantheist in me. Natural pantheism is sort of a religion that simply expresses reverence for our universe the way it is. As you finish episodes of this version of Cosmos, you should feel the pull of natural pantheism too. Most of us who are religious tend to appreciate the faiths that we have been brought up in, in part perhaps because its message is much simpler to grasp than the amazing immensity and complexity of the cosmos, to the extent that we can understand it. Traditional religions also tend to concentrate on people and our needs, aspirations and questions. They are human centric. Studying the cosmos as it is, is not human centric at all except of course that we are self-aware creatures. We also have developed a scientific method that allows us to continually gain in understanding of the cosmos and our part in it.

deGrasse Tyson does a great job of explaining how we came to understand how the universe actually works. This too is a compelling story. In it certain scientists like Newton, Faraday and Einstein become something like secular saints, because they each solve great mysteries. In the process they reveal not just what is, but how the master clock works and sometimes how we can work it to our advantage. It’s a story of great detective work spanning thousands of years.

The series is spawning new thoughts within me, particularly in the area of evolution. It is clear to me that evolution does not exist merely here on Earth, but across the universe as well. The universe evolves too, creating more and more complex elements that make life possible. Is there life in the universe, aside from our planet, of course? Now the answer seems simple: yes. Life doubtless exists elsewhere, in many forms. In fact it probably permeates our galaxy and much of the evolved universe. This is because all the building blocks are there, particularly carbon and heat, which is hardly unique to the Earth. In addition, as deGrasse Tyson points out in Episode 11, it is probable that microbial life travels between planets and between solar systems, seeding life itself across the galaxy and the universe. It just happens so slowly and over so many millions of years it is hard for us to see.

To me it gets much simpler. The universe itself is a living creature. The universe does not necessarily think or breathe, attributes that we associate with life but at least to our understanding is something done very quickly. But it is clearly evolving and becoming more complex with time. It is unfolding and through nuclear processes and gravity it is creating the complex, like carbon molecules, from the simple: the collapse of hydrogen gases by gravity into stars and their subsequent explosion. And like all living things, the universe seems destined to die. Like our body though it does not all die at once. It will take billions of years to die as the forces of the big bang move objects further and further from each other. The universe will catch a bad case of pneumonia and then pass on. With the big bang so powerful that no contraction of the universe seems possible, its energy will dwindle out, much like a firework. Whatever happens after that takes us to realms beyond the known laws of physics.

So yes, the universe is alive and it is also a vast system. Systems by nature are complex entities, and the universe is complex almost beyond our fathoming. Systems imply rules and order and some understanding, which if you believe in God suggests your belief is not unfounded. Systems also are comprised of many pieces that interrelate with one another. Our universe interrelates with itself. Forces like the nuclear forces and gravity are the means that enforce an interrelationship. It also means that everything is connected to everything else. We sometimes suffer the illusion that we are alone. We may feel lonely, but we are never alone. We are always intimately connected with everything else simply because we are all a part of everything else.

It is individuality that is an illusion, although as deGrasse Tyson points out not only are we part of a universe so immense that few of us can understand it, there is also a universe within ourselves. Within a breath of air that we inhale, there are more atoms inhaled than there are stars in the universe. If there is a miracle, it is that we have evolved to self-awareness. We have a pretty good idea how it all fits together now, and our part in it.

With life must come death. On the universal level, our life is like the lifespan of a bacterium on a bar of soap: very short indeed. By nature we cannot maintain such complexity for that long and even if we could the universe will shift in ways that would kill us. It’s no wonder then that universe seems cold, heartless and unfathomable. We are destined to die, and die very quickly on a universal time scale. However, we remain part of the fabric of something far more immense and alive: the universe itself.

We are a part of something immensely grand and complex indeed, with our part to play. We have the privilege, thanks to shows like Cosmos, to understand our what it is and our part in it. And that is awe-inspiring and for this agnostic a fitting and satisfying part to play.

On the movable walkway called life

The Thinker by Rodin

As you may have noticed, one consequence of being born is that you eventually must die. It may seem unfair, but that’s just the way it is. We are all prisoners in our own unique time stream. We step onto our time stream (we assume) at birth, although some part of it begins at conception.

Yes, our life is undoubtedly a time stream. It is like one of those very long movable walkways that you find in large airports that carry you inside or between concourses. Its speed is constant. During the time you stand on the walkway, you stay in one place while things move around you. Eventually the walkway ends and the journey stops. We get off the walkway when we die but while we are on the walkway, we are its prisoner.

Unlike the movable walkway, we are not entirely sure how we got on it in the first place. The walkway behind us is quickly shrouded in mist and the walkway ahead, except for the first couple of feet, remains a dense fog. However, we can look to our left and our right and enjoy our limited view.

Unlike walkways in airports, this walkway is very wide. In fact, we cannot see either of its sides. Yet we know we are on the walkway because things are happening all around us. Suns rise and set. Seasons pass and return. Things that looked shiny and new last year lose their luster this year and in a dozen years are often dysfunctional or obsolete. Trying to find the edges of the walkway is as futile as trying to sail off the edge of the world. Space and time curve all around us. We cannot see the curve but we sense it is there. We feel its truth: that we are a singularity in a matrix called space-time. Ephemeral things, some alive and some not surround us. They are often beautiful. At its best life resembles a magnificent kaleidoscope. We often feel like we are sitting in a theater and our life is unfolding on the screen.

It is natural to wonder what happens when the movie that is our life ends. Are there credits? Were we really its producer and director, or just the unknowing actors? These may be impenetrable questions, but sages and common people have pondered them for time immemorial. The atheist believes that when our movie comes to and end, the lights go out and we are simply nothingness. The theist believes there is a producer. Some believe there is a producer and director. The producer is called God. The Christians call the director Jesus. The Muslims call him Muhammad. The Hindus believe there are many producers and directors and they often slip between their roles. Some of these directors coach us more than they coach others. The Buddhists think that like the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, when you pull back the curtain you find another human like yourself (perhaps yourself) at the control directing the special effects. The agnostic doesn’t know if there are producers or directors. He does not exclude them but has a hard time trusting what he cannot see. The humanists are unconcerned about how we got on the walkway or where it will end, but is only concerned about the state of the walkway right now and how we can all live more happily in the present

In general, the longer you stay on the walkway the more you feel the past fade. You see the collection of things you have surrounded yourself with disintegrate before your eyes. You watch people, many of them loved ones, mysteriously drop off the walkway altogether, particularly as they age. The more you witness these events, the more certain you become that your walkway will end for you too at some murky time in the future. A relative handful finds the walkway very annoying. They take their own lives, figuring wherever they end up, if anywhere, is less painful than the present.

How should you spend your time while you remain on the walkway? This too is a topic of great concern for the people on the walkway. Some people are much more concerned about the next walkway. They advise that we should spend much of our time on this walkway preparing the next one. For theists there are generally two walkways that occur after death: one toward heaven, glory and salvation and the other toward hell and misery. To the Buddhist, our walkways sort of cycle backs on itself. They are confident that after death we are quickly deposited into another walkway. While our memories of our last life will be erased, we will carry our personalities and predispositions into the next life. Nirvana is the act of getting off the time stream altogether. Meditation and living simply are the keys. Enlightenment is the goal. You reach nirvana when you have achieved full enlightenment. Then they assert the carousel finally stops, you can dismount, exit and see what, if anything, is real.

Sometime in my early 20s, I remember being profoundly shaken that I was aging. Before entering adulthood, old age was so far enough away that it was abstract and hence nothing to worry about. Grabbing the reins of adulthood made me feel that life was in reality fleeting. Now in my 50s, I still feel the steady passage of the years. It feels like I am at the bow of a ship heading into the wind. The wind tears across my face but the infinite sea ahead is as mysterious and impenetrable as ever.

Strangely at age 52, while I remain leery of death, it no longer seems as fearful while at the same time it feels more tangible. I now accept that I am born to die and that’s just the way it is. It is natural to be inquisitive about dying and death, but to be obsessive about it the way I was in my twenties now seems a great waste of my life’s energies. Whatever movie I am in, it is not a bad movie and it gets more engrossing as the years pass.

Today, it feels more natural to be in the moment than to peer into an impenetrable far future. I see progress in myself and in my life. Some part of me longs for the immortal feeling of youth again, but some other part of me is also glad it is in my far past. I am more comfortable, more ordered and find more meaning now than I did thirty or forty years in my past. I feel grounded, but not rooted. My feelings will probably continue to change as I age, but right now, I accept life for what it is. I accept that it must end and feel that embracing the present is the healthiest thing for me. The movable walkway is my home, so I had better enjoy it and take care of it as best my limited skills will allow.