J. Peder Zane

March 25, 2014

Zane: Finding fellowship as flecks on the specks in the cosmos

Telescopes at the South Pole find imprints of gravitational waves that show our universe might be but a grain of sand in an infinite beach of time and space.

Let’s put aside our usual squabbles over policy and power, facts and emotion to note a truly epic discovery achieved last week. It could revolutionize how we understand reality itself but, even more interestingly, probably won’t change a thing.

Using telescopes at the South Pole, astronomers identified the imprint of gravitational waves created shortly after the big bang that provide empirical evidence of the concept of cosmic inflation. These waves support the idea that about 13.8 billion years ago our universe, which was immeasurably hot and dense, began to expand at an accelerating rate.

One startling implication of this discovery is that the known universe – about 90 billion light years across, containing billions of galaxies – might just be a grain of sand in an infinite beach of time and space. The New York Times reports that “beyond our own universe there might be an endless number of other universes bubbling into frothy eternity, like a pot of pasta water boiling over.” (To learn more, check out Brian Greene’s dazzling book, “The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.”)

My first response is to stand in awe at the immense majesty of nature. Slack-jawed, wide-eyed and dumbfounded are the best I can muster. As a human being who understands reality through stories I and others tell about the world that almost always have a beginning, middle and end, I find the idea of infinite time and space beyond my comprehension.

I am almost as impressed by the scientists – standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before – who figured this out. Consider that a mere 400 years ago, Galileo was put on trial for supporting the Copernican hypothesis that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the universe.

Now we know those towering geniuses gave our little star – a wisp of thread in the cosmic tapestry – too much credit.

This work makes me immensely proud to be a human being. As someone who can barely program his remote, I am amazed that creatures who are my equal in the eyes of the law have been able to lift this cosmic veil.

The larger question is, what difference will this make? I suspect their timeless discovery won’t amount to a hill of beans in the postage stamp of native soil we still call the world. Perhaps it will lead to new discoveries about equally arcane matters; it might help us make better watches or GPS systems.

But its truly paradigm-shifting implications – how it might lead us to think about who and what we are in the grand scheme of things – will be largely ignored. We are already seeing evidence of this inattention as news of this monumental discovery has received a tiny fraction of the coverage devoted to the missing Malaysian airliner or the NCAA basketball tournament.

This is not necessarily bad. The deeper reality scientists have uncovered – that we are a fleck of a speck of cosmic insignificance – is at odds with our fundamental efforts to create meaning during our brief lives. The idea that we shouldn’t want, strive, desire or care – because, really, what does it matter? – is at odds with the workings of the mind and culture. It is a useless, perhaps even dangerous, truth.

This response reminds us that one of the great strengths (and weaknesses) of the human mind is obliviousness: our ability to block out troubling information. It’s what allows us to pursue our interests, struggle and fight in a cosmos ruled by indifference. It’s what allows us to care about ourselves and our loved ones, to do and provide for them, even as others suffer. Good people can scrimp and save to buy a Porsche even when others halfway around the world are starving.

Nevertheless, this discovery can be useful in two ways. It suggests that the ancients were onto something when they believed that there are powerful forces beyond our world and beyond our understanding, that there is a transcendent reality we can feel but not truly comprehend. One needn’t be religious to accept this deeper message of humility.

It should also promote fellowship. As we clash and collide with one another over things we’ve chosen to care about – whether they be political issues, sports teams, our neighbor’s barking dog – let’s keep a little twinkle in our eye about the cosmic absurdity of it all. Somehow, we’re here, together, on this tiny ball of blue spinning through infinity. Whatever it is, we’re all in it together.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.

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