so, the other day when i was at nasa jpl in pasadena i was talking to their artist in residence.
he had taken a grain of sand and had drilled a tiny, tiny microscopic hole in it.
the grain of sand represents our galaxy.
and the tiny, tiny microscopic hole in the grain of sand represents the area of our galaxy that we've explored, telescopically, in our search for other solar systems within our galaxy.
then he said that to put our galaxy in perspective with the number of other galaxies in the universe you'd have to fill 10 good sized rooms from floor to ceiling with individual grains of sand (each representing a galaxy).
which, needless to say, made me feel like the smallest and least significant thing ever (i'm sure republicans would happily agree to this assessment of me).
astrophysicists have recently posited that there are 500 billion galaxies in the universe.
and here we are, in our little houses on our little planet in our little solar system in our little galaxy.
and our little solar system is actually so big that it's taken voyager almost 30 years just to reach it's edge.
and who knows how many decades it will take voyager to reach our closest neighboring solar system.
so we occupy this space of unimaginable smallness in an unimaginably vast universe (and yes, i know i'm stating the obvious, but the grain of sand visual really reinforced all of this for me).
and then we head in the other direction, going ever smaller.
meaning: we are comprised of roughly 50 trillion cells (only 10% are 'human' cells, of course).
and our cells are comprised of tiny composite elements which in turn are comprised of tiny composite elements which in turn are comprised of tiny composite elements.
so how to make sense of a universe that is both larger than we can comprehend and smaller than we can comprehend?
and then factor in age, in that the universe seems to be around 15,000,000,000 years old (sorry creationists, but i'm erring on the side of scientific empiricism and not the theories of snake handlers who dropped out of junior high school).
and then, the biggest and strangest variable, which is that every last part of us is 15,000,000,000 years old. there isn't a single iota of quanta in any of us, ontologically speaking, that is less than 15,000,000,000 years old.
leaving us with utterly baffling questions and utterly paradoxical answers.
like: we're new (a few decades old) but comprised of quanta that's 15 billion years old.
and: we're comprised of the fabric of the universe but define ourselves as new and autonomous individuals.
and: the universe as we perceive it is most likely completely unrelated to the universe as it actually is.
and: we're unspeakably small but comprised of things which are unspeakably smaller.
and yes, this is all pretty basic stuff (physics and philosophy 101). but seeing the tiny hole in the tiny grain of sand re-awakened my amazement and bafflement in the face of such incomprehensible information.
no wonder people try to take refuge in parochial and provincial world views. the universe outside of us and inside of us (and of which we're an integral part) is, comprehensively, baffling. at least as far as i can tell.
then i guess the question becomes: how do we respond to a universe that is at it's core baffling and unknowable (even though we're inextricably linked to it)?
truly i have no idea, but i think that the quotidian utility of despair is a waste of time. i mean, in the face of cosmological bafflement why not just play with dogs and run around with your friends and enjoy thinking about the baffling nature of the universe while understanding that there probably aren't any happy anthropocentric (or anthropophile) answers? sitting around in baffled despair or rage seems to be a waste of the fact that for this brief moment we seem to be inhabiting weird biological bodies on this weird biological planet.
all responses to our baffling place in a baffling universe seem to be elective, but some responses just seem to be more fun than others.
like some others have said:
“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”
- umberto eco
“We do not pray for immortality, but only not to see our acts and all things stripped suddenly of all their meaning; for then it is the utter emptiness of everything reveals itself.”
- antoine de saint exupery
“The world is, of course, nothing but our conception of it.”
“I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100.”
- woody allen