big picture

Not the Center of the Universe

From "The Cosmos and You," Education Life, New York Times (10.30.08):

Yorke Brown designed the primary mirror support servos on the ARC and SDSS telescopes at Apache Point Observatory. For his lecture course at Dartmouth last summer, “Astronomy 3: Exploring the Universe,” Prof. Yorke Brown gave a quiz at week’s end. “Any questions?” he asked, just before one on the life cycle of stars. Just one. Johanna Evans, an English major, wanted to know: “How do you keep from despairing at the immensity of space and the smallness of us?” Professor Brown acknowledged that it was “a beautiful and important question,” but, he wondered, could it wait until after the quiz? Here are excerpts from the follow-up e-mail exchange. Subject line: Despair.

MS. EVANS: I guess the hugeness of what we are studying finally caught up with me once we broke out of the basic principles of physics. It was like opening up an unused compartment in my brain, as though one part were used to think about things that concerned my earthly sphere, and this other newly discovered part was meant to — but not ready to — grapple with HUGE realities. I felt as though the impact of my existence is small, compared to something like the impact of a supernova.

DR. BROWN: Johanna, you are most certainly an infinitesimal in the cold vastness of the cosmos, and yes, you are only one of billions of humans and other creatures who have come before and will come after, and your life is barely a mathematical instant in the span of time. But you are also, just as certainly, a miracle: you are a creature capable of thought, of wonder, of awe. You are a creature capable of recognizing that you are not the center of the Universe. And it is because of that very capacity that you can see in other people the same intrinsic value that you see in yourself. You are capable of love, and so need not despair of insignificance. See you Monday.

[Thanks Matt!]

Hints of the Big Picture

When someone asks if you believe in God, they want you to describe the specific concepts you use to approximate your current perception of the big picture. However, a gulf looms between language and the aggregate of our memories, plans, hopes, fears, comforts, challenges, and preferences. It is not unlike the contrast between the cheeseburger pictured on the menu board and the one served to you in wax paper or what separates the glowing movie review from the two hours squandered watching a stranger’s thinly realized dream. So much of the trouble in our lives (personal, social, local, national, global) falls apart in this apparently insignificant space.

The question, which actually reveals more about the person asking than it can possibly reveal about the person who is trying to answer, boils the ineffable down in order to separate us into our neat, familiar tribes. It reduces the conundrums of the ages down to the equivalent of asking which football team you think will win the championship, which operating software you are running, or which discount retail store brand you embrace.

The inquirer is usually fishing for a simple yes or no response. Based on your answer, you might find yourself being guided down a simple decision tree to drill down to one of the traditional belief systems and possibly down to specific subcategories to determine where you fit. But all these distinctions seem to be factors of our capacity for language specificity. Being creatures and therefore created in some mysterious manner (isn’t sexual reproduction mysterious enough), it seems there would exist serious limitations for our minds to ever comprehend the big picture fully – not that we are incapable of getting hints of it. Isn’t this why we have poetry, literature, music, science, and math? But attempting to communicate these hints – even trying to pass them on with noble intentions – generates sparks from the friction of words grinding against one another.

Does a leaf need to have clear concepts of twigs, branches, trunks, and roots in order to have a complete and satisfying experience of its brief life? Maybe it is enough to just enjoy the pull of the sun, the comfort of the breeze and the other leaves swaying with you, the unexpected drama of dusk, and perhaps even the lilting descent to the cold ground.