Searching for Mr. Universe

Catch Starry-Night

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

In the summertime, I go to my cottage on a small island near the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. It’s off the grid, so that electricity is mainly from the sun, and water is only from the well. At the end of a day, I long to divert myself. In previous years, I’d done this by watching films on DVDs which I’d collected over the winter. However, I started to notice that when the movie was over, I’d have a tinge of fear. But then everything — sight, sound, emotion — is quite intensified when you’re on an island, off the grid.

I figured it was because, in watching a movie, I’d lost track of my connection to the place. I’d immersed myself in the narrative of the film, and when I emerged I wondered what had happened while I was away. I’d lost continuity: with the sound of the wind, the waves, the rain. As a result, instead of simply paying attention, I was now on the alert and somewhat anxious. 

(One of the noticeable differences, in being on the island and in the city, is that in the city, no sound has to do with me — I block them — while on the island every sound has to do with me.)

The result of all of this was that last summer I decided not to take with me the entire seven seasons of Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect (which a beloved friend had given to me for Christmas) but instead try to find something more in keeping with being on the island.

In the racks of DVDs at London Drugs, in the miscellaneous section, I found something called “How the Universe Works.”

On May 2, 2013, a year ago, I was at the fag end of one of those exhilarating days of outside/inside: outdoors in the abundance of nature and indoors in my imagination. I wanted a diversion. Had I brought Helen Mirren, there’s no doubt I would have chosen her as my date. But I had intentionally left her at home. I had only — god forbid — “How the Universe Works.” The last bloody thing I wanted to know about.

Into my computer I inserted the first of two discs. For the next two hours — and then over three nights running, two hours each night, I watched “How the Universe Works.” 

What happened was unexpected. I heard myself exclaim, “You’re kidding,” into the silence of my cottage. And “What the hell?” And, more calmly, “I didn’t know that.” Out loud, because of my shock, my disbelief. 

In 1969, I was in a youth hostel in Europe. On a tiny television, almost obscured by the hulking shoulders and backs of other kids, I watched the moon-landing, and heard Neil Armstrong’s almost disembodied, grandfatherly voice declare: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

Since then, for over forty years, I’d been self-absorbed, indolent. I’d missed an important scientific fact gleaned from that mission, which I belatedly received, by way of the London Drugs DVDs: the moon was created because it was sheered from the earth by the great impact of something. That something had wrested away part of the earth’s surface and gradually, over eons, all those broken bits of earth swirled into a stable orbit and became — miracle — our moon.

Catch Binary stars

Two spiral galaxies in the early stages of interacting

On my remote island, I went outside on the terrace and looked up at the starry night sky, and at the moon, half full. I haven’t really known you, I said out loud. The moon, born from the earth, wrenched from it; the moon beautifully organized after the huge impact which had skimmed off the earth’s outer layer leaving an undersurface, on which I walked every day and… — 

Amazing that I’d missed this.

Over the course of the summer, like a kid who has discovered self or sex or something profound, I’d say to my friends: did you know the moon is made from the earth’s surface?

Some did. Most didn’t. I’d look up, point, and say, “It’s true.” 

Strangely, in that summer of 2013, I felt that some of the existential angst of my adult life might have been abated by knowing the truth about the moon.

Well, darling, it’s never too late.

I understood a lot of what the scientists were saying — their amazing delight at everything, even when describing the certain extinguishment of our earth when we will “end up inside the sun” — I loved them all. They were my friends. But there was so much I didn’t really understand. 

“Some atoms of me, and of you, have been in other galaxies, and are now in this galaxy, are now in me.” 

“Be humble, as you are made of earth. Be noble, as you are made of stars.”

“380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe became transparent. From the dark ages to an age of splendour. We can hear the hum of the light finally travelling out.”

“The universe bulges with stars.”

These are found poems.

I hadn’t been so excited about anything since I was a child, and I couldn’t even recall what had generated comparable exuberance in me, way back then. But it was like that. Some feeling of the ineffable. Some sense of wonder. But this wasn’t “is there a god?”; it wasn’t “why do we exist?”. It was the proven, scientific, beginning of the world, which we can still see 13.82 billion years later.

I had to know more.

But before that, I had to take in more of what I already had.

So I bought a projector and displayed these amazing images on the wall of my cottage, many of them from Hubble, or from the Cassini probe. When that didn’t quite satisfy, I bought a large screen. As guests came that summer, I subjected them to watching these DVDs outside on the terrace, under the wondrous stars, the moon, the things which illuminated our very footfall, here and now, no matter how long the light had taken to arrive. 

For a young friend, a thirteen year old boy, I skipped over the parts in the DVD about black holes because, after seeing some of the pictures on the first night, he was scared.

My friends were excited, amazed, annoyed, uncomprehending.

When I went back to the city after the summer, I wanted to find someone who could answer the questions I had about the beginning of the universe. I needed a teacher. In November, there was a presentation at the University of British Columbia called “What’s the matter with anti-matter?” After the lecture, I approached the professor and told him of my search: “I’m a writer, not a scientist, but I want to know more…” He suggested I send him an ad.

And then what happened?

More happened.

Stay tuned.