I was caught — pulled into an orbit, is the better phrase — by the discovery of the Higgs Boson in July, 2012. I’ve written about that in previous Catches [“The Courage to Imagine”]. I was entranced by the language the scientists used in struggling to describe, to the rest of us, what this was all about.
And now, a year and a half later, I’d been flung off-orbit by a Fiery Neptune, slung into outer space. These are their words, not mine — I wish they were mine — they are the metaphors of the poet-scientists, who talk about slinging stars and say “It’s not that we have moved here, into our galaxy. We grew up here. We belong. We can survive.” And, “The tension is there throughout, between expansion and collapse. It’s always present.”
I wanted to know more. But it was deeper than that. I didn’t want my excitement to go dead under the enormous pile-up of questions I had. I wanted to wrangle with this strange place that is our home. It was as if I suddenly knew nothing about my family or my origins. The very place my foot rested, in taking a step forward, was different from what I had assumed (we’re spinning on the earth at 1,000 miles per hour). It was all so counter-intuitive. Somehow, I secretly believed the earth was flat. It seems flat.
And so I went to a lecture about anti-matter on a Saturday morning in November, 2013. At the end of the lecture, I approached the scientist. I wanted to find a teacher. He told me to write up an ad and send it to him.
On Monday morning, I did just that. Within a nanosecond, I received a reply. “I think I’ve found him. He’s a fourth year student in theoretical physics.”
We had. I called him Mr. Universe. We made arrangements.
Since then, on most Tuesday evenings he’s come to my house, along with two friends who’ve been captivated by this quest as well. We’ve watched “How the Universe Works,” stopping at various points when one or the other of us needed a clarification, an explanation. And Mr. Universe, who is about 6’5” tall, young and eager, provides the explanation, and on we go, zip-a-dee-do-dah, out into deep space.
This experience is changing me.
Often I’d reach a point during the evening when I was filled — overfilled — with a sense of such pleasure at not-knowing and then knowing, figuring I’d glimpsed the miraculous — and I would sort of gasp. Here are some of the things which put me in such awe:
When a star burns and uses everything up, when everything is fused and burned and there’s only iron left, which can’t be fused with anything, then in a milli-second this massive star collapses. It becomes a corpse, a neutron star. There’s nothing to be made of it — except, perhaps, horse-shoes.
Except, perhaps, ourselves.
And all the water on earth came from comets and meteoroids which crashed into us from the outer reaches of the solar system.
Imagine a bell. You whack the bell with a hammer. It rings. That ringing fades and fades. The ringing is the structure of space-time itself and the hammer is quantum mechanics. In mid-March, 2014, researchers found the signal left in the sky by the super-rapid expansion of space (“inflation”) that must have occurred just fractions of a second after everything came into being with the Big Bang. The universe didn’t expand into space, it created space as it expanded. The expansion warped space-time itself; through telescopes, scientists have seen the remains of that warp, that ringing, 14 billion years ago.
Because of the circularity of the earth’s orbit we have a gentle ride in chaos.
“So I have I got this right?” one of my friends says. “A gamma ray burster blew up 7 billion years ago. And in 2008 we could see that burst in the night sky, with the naked eye. And we have no idea what’s there now, from which that great burst blew. We have no idea. It took 7 billion years to reach us. What’s happened since then? How do we know what might hit us in the next second?”
Right, says Mr. Universe, we simply don’t know.
One night, in the midst of watching “How the universe works” I bolted upright, opened the window and called out to the people running along the seawall in front of my house: you don’t seem to know this, but we’re facing extinction…
And my friend suggested that we four pilgrims go on to the seawall with sandwich boards declaring “Alas, the end is nigh.”
We laugh. Someone suggests we have a drink, something robust, a scotch?
And I think, given that we’re destined for ruin, that for absolute certain our earth is going to “end up in the sun,” what else is there to do but to love one another? Before it’s all blasted away into something so violent that, although that violence might create more earths, they will have nothing to do with you and me.
This is our hey-day. Come along, then.
The solar panel on my island, the sun catcher, doesn’t have much to receive today in the rain. It sits there, upright, appropriately slanted like an outstretched hand. I am in awe.
Come along, then.